Rethinking Church Planting

Pimería Alta

Pimería Alta

The story of Father Kino was and is intriguing on many fronts. From his impact in what was then called Pimería Alta (northern Mexico and southern Arizona) among the Pima to his introductions of different farming techniques, his presence has cast a long shadow over history. But what struck me was his missionary training and how he was equipped to be a pioneer church planter. After reading scant accounts in books and online I picked up Bolton’s groundbreaking work on Kino, The Padre on Horseback.

Born in 1645 in Segno, a tiny village in northern Italy, Eusebio Kino grew up working on his parent’s farm. He left for college moving to Innsbruck, Austria where he studied rhetoric and logic. Early on we read that, “In college he showed a propensity for mathematics, but it would be his skills with language and even farming that would be most helpful to him, for it seemed that God had placed a calling upon his life––Kino only needed to realize it” (Lamberton, Dry River, 52). From these accounts it would appear that God was preparing him for something that would not only define his life, but impact generations across the ocean in North America.

A life-altering event took place during college that changed the trajectory of Kino’s life.

While in college in Innsbruck, he fell ill and came close to death. He prayed to Saint Francis Xavier for his recovery, vowing that he would dedicate himself to God and become a Jesuit if he lived. He kept the promise. In 1667 at the age of twenty-two, Kino pronounced his first vows. For another decade he studied mathematics, philosophy, geography, cartography, and astronomy at the Jesuit college in Ingolstadt, Bavaria (Dry River, 54).

So far Kino’s storyline sounds very similar to many of our own stories for those of us in full-time vocational / occupational ministry. Usually there was a moment, whether a sense that God was speaking to us or a near-tragic event, that jarred us where God used it to move us in the direction that we’re on right now. Many of us can relate to Kino. I know I can.

Fourteen years after his calling Kino arrived in New Spain in Vera Cruz, Mexico. He arrived in the same way and manner that many other Jesuit missionaries came. For these Jesuits it was a calling that cost them much and even their lives as martyrs. This was not some strategic career move, but a sacrifice as Bolton notes, “These men came inspired by zeal for the saving of souls. Many of them were sons of distinguished families, who might have occupied positions of honor and distinction in Europe; most of them were men of liberal education; nearly all of them were zealous for the Faith, and wholly uninterested in private gain” (Bolton, The Padre on Horseback, 12).

Kino was more than a mission-establishing (or church planting) Jesuit missionary, but a true scholar and entrepreneur. He brought over farming techniques and seeds that greatly aided the people. He also authored books on religion, astronomy, and cartography.

What drew me to Kino’s story was his training and approach to establishing missions. In light of today’s training and emphasis for how we train church planters, there seems to be something that we have lost. With our inordinate amount of emphasis on preaching, creating and curating Sunday gatherings, leadership development, and so on I wonder out loud if we’re short-changing the communities and people that we seek to impact with the Gospel. Could or should we be doing more than starting worship gatherings and evangelism?

But Kino was more than a Jesuit missionary. He impacted the region in significant ways including economically.

Once Father Kino arrived in the Pimería Alta, at the request of the natives, he quickly established the first mission in a river valley in the mountains of Sonora. Subsequently Kino traveled across northern Mexico, and to present day California and Arizona. He followed ancient trading routes established millennia prior by the natives. These trails were later expanded into roads. His many expeditions on horseback covered over 50,000 square miles (130,000 km2), during which he mapped an area 200 miles (320 km) long and 250 miles (400 km) wide. Kino was important in the economic growth of the area, working with the already agricultural indigenous native peoples and introducing them to European seed, fruits, herbs and grains. He also taught them to raise cattle, sheep and goats. Kino’s initial mission herd of twenty cattle imported to Pimería Alta grew during this period to 70,000 (The Padre on Horseback).

For the sake of brevity I only recounted a few key points from the exemplary life of Father of Kino. There is so much more to tell that space does not allow for. But I believe I’ve given you enough to make my point. Let’s say we were to reverse-engineer how we do church planting today in North America and apply it to Kino’s life, methods, and strategies. Would we even have remembered him? Would there be anything of note worth documenting at all?

That does not minimize his passion for lost souls. “Nothing gave Father Kino such true pleasure as some sign that an Indian was becoming interested in the Faith” (Ibid., 34). But what if? What if Kino never introduced new crops and farming techniques? What if he never expanded his herds of cattle that allowed the villages to prosper economically? He was a true cattle king. “And it must not be supposed that he did this for private gain, for he did not own a single animal. It was to furnish a food supply for the Indians of the missions established and to be established, and to give these missions a basis of economic prosperity and independence” (Ibid., 59)

We could say that Kino extended both “arms of grace” to the Pimas. Saving grace and common grace. He not only sought to evangelize the Pimas (saving grace) but he demonstrated the Gospel that led to their flourishing socially and economically (common grace). Therein lies the rub in church planting today on our home soil here in North America. Are we thinking and acting like missionaries or clergy leading religious services?

ReflectionsSean Benesh