2. Boniface and power encounters

Missionaries who shaped today's global outreach efforts

Evangelism efforts often center on imparting Bible content. That is done through such things as preaching, home Bible studies, one-on-one encounters, pamphlet dissemination, distribution of Scripture portions and entire Bibles, and JESUS film showings. In these "truth encounters," Gospel truths confront satanic lies in reasoned discourse.

From time to time, though, God also powerfully intervenes in this world in ways that demonstrate His ultimate sovereignty over all things. That's what He did on Mt. Carmel in the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Sometimes an event like that opens unbelievers' eyes as to who God Almighty is. It thus becomes an evangelistic event.

Those episodes in which unbelievers witness God's powerful hand at work are called "power encounters." Such power encounters happened periodically in Biblical times. Think, for instance, of Daniel in the lion's den or of Jesus casting out demons.

Divine power encounters did not fade away after the First Century. They have continued to happen throughout the history of world evangelism. They have included special protection from evil forces, survival of fierce persecution, healing, change of weather, and even nonbelievers having dreams and visions.

One evangelistic power encounter involved a missionary in the early 700s named Boniface. Boniface had entered the ministry in his native England and became a scholar and a teacher. It was a successful and safe life. Then, he felt a calling to cross-cultural evangelism. So, he was sent as a missionary to unevangelized central Germany.

Initially, Boniface did not have much success in turning people from their pagan religions to faith in Jesus. Even those who expressed some interest seemed reluctant to completely move away from their tribal religion. Finally, Boniface felt led to do something extraordinary.

One day Boniface announced he was going to cut down Donar's Oak (also known as Thor's Oak or Jove's Oak) near Geismar. That tree had been dedicated to Thor, the god of thunder and of war. Such sacred trees can be found even today where people follow ancient animistic religions. The audacious act of cutting down a tree consecrated to Thor might demonstrate his powerlessness and even people they had been worshiping a false god.

On the announced day, a crowd of pagans gathered at the tree, confident that Thor would show his power. Perhaps they thought that Thor would strike down this brash foreigner. At any rate, Boniface began chopping at the trunk of that tree with his ax. Wood chips began to fly. The pagans waited for Thor to do something, but nothing happened. Nothing. Then, they watched as the tree came crashing down.

Legend has it that Boniface used lumber from that tree to build a chapel. We don't know if that part of Boniface's story is true. We do know, however, that this power encounter marked a significant turning point in the evangelization of the Germanic peoples.

Many truth encounters would follow as the gospel spread across Germany. On that day, however, it was a power encounter that showed who was powerless and who was indeed, as Moses said, "the God of gods" (Deuteronomy 10:17).

Discussion questions

  1. In the context of world evangelism efforts, what is a power encounter? How does it differ from a truth encounter?
  2. What significance does the power encounter involving Boniface and an oak tree have in the evangelization of the Germanic peoples?
  3. What types of events might qualify as power encounters? Do you know of other power encounters that have happened in the history of world evangelism?
  4. What role might power encounters play in shaping people's understanding of God's sovereignty and power?
  5. What are some potential drawbacks or dangers of relying too much on power encounters in evangelism efforts?


Missionaries have played a pivotal role in global outreach efforts through both truth encounters and power encounters. While truth encounters involve reasoned discourse and the imparting of Gospel truths, power encounters demonstrate God's ultimate sovereignty over all things in extraordinary ways. One power encounter involved the missionary Boniface in the early 700s. His brace actd of cutting down a sacred oak tree dedicated to the pagan god Thor showcased God's power to the Germanic peoples. Power encounters have the potential to contribute significantly to evangelism efforts.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

More mini-essays in the "Doing missions well" series

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