< St. Francis' incarnational ministry style

Francis' Incarnational Ministry

Missionaries who shaped today's global outreach efforts

One way of thinking about missionary service is to measure it against Christ's incarnation style. That does not mean that missionaries are supposed to become God like Jesus was. It does mean that missionaries allow Jesus to shine through their actions and attitudes in a way similar to how the Father shone through Jesus' actions and attitudes. Incarnational living means saying with Paul: "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).

What was Francis of Assisi?

A lay missionary in the 1200s named Francis portrays what it means for a missionary to be incarnational. Francis (whose name in Italian is "Francesco") came from an Italian city named Assisi. Thus, he's called Francis of Assisi (sometimes misspelled by non-Italians as "Assissi"). One thing a lot of people remember about him is the sermon he supposedly preached to the birds. If we can work our way past the multitude of legends about Francis, we can glimpse a missionary through whom Christ shone.

Francis grew up in a wealthy family but walked away from that wealth to become a lay evangelist. He worked at reviving dead and dying churches in central Italy. Then, he realized that his call was more global, so he expanded his vision and founded a missionary-sending group. He personally went on mission trips to Jerusalem and to Spain. One was cut short by a shipwreck and the other by illness.

One very significant incarnational episode in Francis' life came during one of the medieval-period Crusades. While the Pope's "Christian" army battled the "heathen" Muslim army of Egypt, Francis made his way to Egypt where he managed to arrange a meeting with the Sultan (the country's religious and political leader).

At the end of their time together, the Sultan reportedly said to Francis, "If I would meet more Christians like you, I would be tempted to become one."

Something about Francis communicated the presence of Christ to that Muslim leader far better than the actions of the soldiers of the "Christian" army who were laying siege to his city while looting the countryside.

Francis' missionary-sending group became a significant "missionary order" of the Western Church. We know that group today as the "Franciscans." Francis wouldn't be happy with that name or the wealth accumulated by that organization. Abhorring power and prestige, Francis called his group Ordo Fratrum Minorum, a Latin phrase that can be translated simply as "little brothers."

What is Francis' legacy for us today?

Francis is credited with writing a poetic prayer which has been set to music:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
    where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    when there is injury, pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    and where there is sadness, joy.
  Grant that I may not so much seek
    to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood, as to understand,
    to be loved as to love;
    for it is in giving that we receive,
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Scholars tell us they are not certain that Francis actually wrote those exact words. However, the incarnational life expressed in it dramatizes the powerful image of Christ shining forth through missionaries who allow Christ to live in them in ways that make them seem like "Jesus with skin on."

"Francis greeted the sultan with peace in a way that was similar to that of a Muslim greeting. The sultan was enraptured by Francis' boldness and loving timbre. They talked of spiritual matters and reflected together on each other's religious traditions." -- Megan Pittman, Northwest Nazarene University graduate student

Discussion questions

  1. What does it mean for a global missionary to be incarnational? How does Francis of Assisi exemplify this concept?
  2. How did Francis of Assisi's encounter with the Sultan demonstrate the power of incarnational ministry? What impact did it have on the Sultan?
  3. How does the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi in the essay reflect his philosophy of missionary work? In what ways do its sentiments continue to resonate with Christians today?
  4. What is the legacy of Francis of Assisi for modern-day missionary work? How can his example be applied to global outreach efforts today?
  5. What might be some challenges that missionaries face in embodying the ideals of incarnational living? What can they do to meet and overcome these challenges?

    -- Howard Culbertson,


Cross-cultural missionaries today can learn several valuable lessons from the life and teachings of Francis of Assisi, a medieval Italian friar known for his radical commitment to Christ and his pioneering approach to cross-cultural ministry. Here are some key insights:

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

More for you on world missions history