Doing mission well: Boniface and the power encounter

Howard Culbertson
Monday, September 16, 2013

Evangelism efforts often center on imparting Bible content. That is done through such things as preaching, one-on-one encounters, pamphlet distribution, 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 Jehovah God 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 non believers having dreams and visions.

ImageOne 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 a sacred oak tree 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 the god’s powerlessness.

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 tree with his ax and 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 wood from the 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 across Germany.  That day, however, a power encounter showed who was powerless and who was indeed, as Moses said, “the God of gods” (Deuteronomy 10:17).

-- Howard Culbertson served as a missionary in Haiti and Italy for 15 years, and spent the past 25 years as a professor of mission at Southern Nazarene University.

Talk about it

  • How does Culbertson define a "power encounter"?
  • He gives some biblical examples. What are some other examples in the Bible that fit this definition?
  • What do you think of Boniface's strategy?
  • Why do you think God sometimes uses power encounters to demonstrate His reality to nonbelievers?
  • Have you ever seen or experienced a power encounter? If so, what happened and what was the outcome?
  • Pray that God will reveal opportunities for power encounters with the nonbelievers in your life.