I have had an ongoing interest with Vikings for a while now. And this interest only grew when we moved from the US to the UK. Through my amateurish search for knowledge on the history of Vikings, I’ve come to believe that church planters can learn much from them.
“Disruptive” is a buzzword often used (aka over used) in talking about new startups, new churches included. The Vikings epitomised what disruptive meant. They leveraged their uniqueness in a way that has shaped many countries to this day, not just those that would become their own.
The first image “Vikings” often represent is one of battles and pillaging and gruesome violence. It is true they were violent (though maybe not as violence obsessed as some TV shows and films depict), but they weren’t merely violent. We can learn a lot from them and apply it to the world of church planting.
Caveat: I have a rudimentary and very basic knowledge of Viking history. Apologies if I misrepresent some historical facts. For most of these points, I’m focussing on early Vikings, ca. 800s and 900s.
Caveat 2: I am aware that some material out there on church planting can be a bit hyper-masculine. Talking about Vikings could add to that fire except that Vikings themselves were quite egalitarian. Women would fight and rule as well. Also my selectivity on what we can learn from them doesn’t really focus on that anyway.
Caveat 3: Killing people is bad, let’s not do that, ok?
Vikings weren’t content to stay where they were. They often left the areas that would eventually be Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and were fearless explorers. They would set out towards continental Europe (did you know they controlled Paris for a short while?!), Scotland, England, Ireland, farther out to the Faroe Islands, farther still to Iceland, then at extraordinary distances like Greenland and other parts of North America.
They forsook their comfort and safety for bigger dreams and these voyages themselves were often deadly. The ships weren’t large and navigation wasn’t precise. The journey itself was not enjoyable. Once reaching land they would often raid other towns and villages (again, deadly), or try and set up settlements (without enough resources, yep, deadly).
Like Vikings, church planters ought to lead the charge to new worlds, to places people haven’t been before and wouldn’t normally go, despite the real possibility of failure and danger.
2. Connections with others.
The villages that Vikings came from were often small, somewhat far apart, and had geographical boundaries to traverse between them. Cities were not popular in Scandinavia at this time. Though small, these villages had firmly established trade routes with each other. This meant if one village needed something it was easy enough to get it, and if one village had something to offer there was a structure in place to sell it. This was all the more important as these villages didn’t have massive stores of resources by themselves; they depended on trade.
Like Vikings, church planters (especially in post-Christian environments) will find themselves with scarce resources. Making good connections with other churches, pastors, and planters in the area is a necessity for small communities to have space to thrive.
3. Sharing stories together.
During the winter time, it gets very cold. Every village had a Great Hall as a gathering place. It was warm and everyone would be there together. During these times, they would share stories of the gods, or of past journeys and conquests (they were a majority oral, non-literate society at this point). Every Viking would know these stories as they would be told or sang of often. This led to a shared common history. It was in their bones. And these stories of the past gave them dreams of the future.
Like Vikings, church planters must make space for sharing stories with each other: the story of Scripture, our individual stories, and also the shared story of the church we are planting. Sharing these often, we soak them up, and they become a part of us. We hear how God has changed us and others, and that inspires us to continue in the mission.
4. Limited resources leads to toughness.
Speaking of the winters, an ongoing problem was limited resources, especially food and warmth (their closest conception to hell was one of perpetual coldness, not fire). This gave the Vikings a kind of toughness that others, especially on the European continent, didn’t have. They were masters of figuring out logistics of food during their longer campaigns. And when many armies would take a break during the winters, that was when Vikings love to strike. Compared to their homeland, campaigning in England or France was not at all difficult. The tough environment made them tougher fighters.
Like Vikings, church planters are forged in tough situations. Often our first response is to undo the scarcity and move towards comfort, but there is something to be said about embracing the hardship, knowing that God is doing something within us that is unique in a challenging situation.
5. The mission shaped the people.
One advantage Vikings had early on was their boats. They chose to focus on speed instead of strength, and their boats were fast and agile. They used oars and that kept them in very good shape. So not only were the boats an advantage, the product of using those boats, the way they chose to carry out their missions, gave the individuals a distinct advantage.
Like Vikings, church planters can use the “how” of mission for the good of the people. This is where incarnational ministry comes in: how we participate in mission is just as important as the mission itself. The mission is not just a goal, it’s the context for discipleship.
6. They knew when to adapt.
The first ruler of Normandy was a Viking (the word “Norman” was a French word for north men, or Vikings). Rollo came to the area of France, raided a bit, and eventually was given land. The king of West Francia at the time couldn’t afford to make them leave by paying them off (a common practice), so he gave them land and it was their job to protect against future Viking raids.
The adaptation from raider to landlord was massive. Rollo marries a French woman, the Vikings take on French names and the French lineages they marry into. They make important alliances with the community. They change their fighting styles to mounted knights, and lead the way for the feudal system to develop. In all of this, Rollo set the tone and kept his fellow Viking vassals in line when necessary.
This is a bit selective as there are other instances where Vikings didn’t take to change very well. But nonetheless, a good example!
Like Vikings, church planters need to know when and how to adapt. And when that adaption takes place, the church planter needs to lead in what that looks like. This is especially true in incarnational ministry. What do we take on, what do we confront, what do we accept? These are hard questions that demand good and thoughtful answers.
7. The afterlife informed the here and now.
For a Viking, the best outcome one could have would be to die as a strong warrior, and in death to eventually be chosen by Odin to join his Great Hall, called Valhalla. This led to a fearlessness in life, especially in battle. There was honour in dying bravely and an expectation that the best was yet to come. Their common battle cry was, “Odin owns you all!” This belief transformed their passion and their motivation. They knew how to die well, and therefore how to live. This passion was known and feared by many.
Like Vikings, church planters need to live out of our belief of a new heavens and earth. Our future determines our present, and if that’s true we are freed from anxieties, fears, and failures. We are also given new motivation, freeing us from using others and enabling us to truly selflessly love others. If God is bringing this world to come, we don’t need to rely on ourselves to see it through, and we will strive to join God with all our might to become a part of it. We don’t want people to fear us, but we do want others to know about our passion for life, our motivations for living in the ways we do. And we want our battle cry to be, “Jesus owns it all!”