In his book, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Dr. John L. Nevius makes a strong plea for the planting and development of indigenous churches. By this Nevius meant that converts should be gathered into congregations which are native to their land and independent of the domination or control and support of the sending, “foreign” church. To achieve this goal Nevius argued vigorously and convincingly that the converts and newly organized churches must be allowed to develop naturally and with as little interference on the part of the foreign missionary and the church which sent him as possible. In this connection Nevius strongly contended that the missionary ought to use as little paid help as possible. Leaders, from the new converts, should remain in their daily occupations. With the thrust of this we agree. Allowances would, however, have to be made for some modifications caused by the varying circumstances in different countries. For example, among the educated and civilized Chinese of his day Nevius had little difficulty finding capable and reliable leaders for the mission stations. That would no doubt be quite different for the missionary working among some primitive Indian tribe in South America. But up to this point Nevius is correct. His methods not only make good sense but are in harmony with Scripture.
Nevius continues by giving a brief summary of the work of the Baptist and the Presbyterian Missions in China. Preaching tours were organized by Protestant missionaries in the year 1860. Though difficult to determine with certainty, it appears that Dr. Nevius began his work in China in the early 1870s under the auspices of the American Presbyterian Mission. China was struck by a severe famine in the spring of 1877. For three months the missionaries devoted almost all of their time to famine relief. They distributed aid to some thirty thousand people from more than three hundred villages. This represented a turning point in the work. “The famine relief presented us (the missionaries) to the people in a new and favorable light, and gave fresh impetus to our work of evangelization. The establishment of stations may be said to have fairly begun after the famine, though a spirit of inquiry had been awakened before” (p. 31).
On matters of mission policy or missionary methods all of the missionaries, both Baptist and Presbyterian, were essentially agreed. All of the stations (potential churches, not yet organized) provided their own houses of worship. This meant that neither the Baptist Board nor the Presbyterian financed the construction of church buildings for the Chinese fields! The converts built their own churches. This is a fact well worth our attention. For the sending church to build churches on the foreign field is a serious error. This fosters a spirit of dependence on the part of the mission church. The missionary and his sending church impose themselves upon the native Christians. The latter soon come to believe that they cannot stand by themselves. This makes it extremely difficult for the native church to be truly indigenous. This also makes it extremely difficult for the newly organized church to do its own work of missions and evangelism. Remember, an American missionary in China is a foreigner to the Chinese. An American-built church in China is conceived of as an American and, therefore, foreign institution. Our churches ought to learn from this! This is not to say that we may not contribute toward the building of churches on mission fields or toward other mission causes. But we must not build churches for the converts. We must not do for them what they can and ought to do for themselves. If we wish to be instrumental in gathering churches by the preaching of the Word, churches which are indigenous to their own land and culture, churches which will by the grace of God become centers of missions and evangelism, then we must emulate these missionaries to China of a century ago.
None of these mission stations was staffed by a resident, paid preacher. One or more of the members of each station voluntarily conducted the worship services on the Lord’s Day and attended to the general spiritual needs of the company of converts to which he belonged. All of this was done under the supervision of the foreign missionary who visited the stations periodically. In all of these stations much emphasis was placed on catechetical instruction. The converts were systematically taught the truths of Scripture. Special instruction was given to the voluntary leaders so as to enable them to teach others. The statistics at this point are interesting. By the 1890s the Baptist Mission consisted of approximately one hundred or more stations and the Presbyterian Board supervised some one hundred fifty stations. The Baptist stations according to Nevius multiplied largely through the voluntary labors of unpaid Christians. Their staff of Chinese workers consisted of one native pastor who had been converted and baptized some twenty years previous to this, four evangelists who were paid by the mission, and two elders who were paid by the native Christians. To care for his one hundred fifty stations Nevius had a staff of only two paid, Chinese helpers. These two were paid in part by the mission and in part by the converts. For the rest the work was done by volunteer Chinese leaders. Mind you, this was not in the early stages of the work. These fields were established mission fields. If it be true that Nevius began his labors in China in the early 1870s then the work had been going on for some twenty years.
The chief characteristic of the “Nevius method or plan” is that the care of the various mission stations is entrusted not to paid preachers set over them and resident among them, but to leaders belonging to the stations. Nevius gives the following summary of his method: “These leaders are simply church members among church members, pursuing their daily calling as before conversion. They form a very important link in the chain of influences starting from the foreign missionary. Next to the missionary is the native helper, who is generally a well-instructed Christian of some years’ experience. He is under the control and direction of the missionary, and acts for him in supplementing his labors and carrying out his instructions. Next to the helper is the leader, through whom principally the helper brings his influence to bear on the Christians and inquirers generally” (p. 32).
In the next section of his book Nevius explains how his method was actually put into practice in the mission in China. It is our intention to present this material and then offer some evaluation of it. His goal in all of this Nevius states in these terms: “It is our aim that each man, woman, and child shall be both a learner from some one more advanced, and a teacher of some one less advanced” (p. 32). To achieve this goal, “the missionary does nothing which the helper can do for him, the helper does nothing which the leader can do, and the leader does nothing which he can devolve upon those under him. In this way much time is saved, the gifts of all are utilized and developed, and the station as an organized whole grows in knowledge, strength, and efficiency. The leader constantly superintends, directs, and examines those under him; the helper directs and examines leaders and their stations; and the missionary in charge has a general supervision and control of the whole” (p. 32, 33).
In practice this was implemented as follows. Dr. Nevius himself visited each local station twice per year. If this seems insufficient it must be remembered there were approximately one hundred fifty stations under the Presbyterian Board! Nevius claims he was able “to examine carefully into the circumstances of each one of them and the progress in knowledge and performance of Christian duties of each Christian and inquirer” (p. 33). One of his helpers had charge of forty stations, each of which he visited regularly every two months. The other helper had charge of ten stations and devoted part of his time to evangelistic work outside of them. The remaining stations were without the care of a native helper. These were visited only by the missionary. The forty stations under the one helper were divided into seven geographical groups of from four to seven stations. The helper visited these groups once every two months, spending about a week in each. On Sundays the helper led a combined worship service for the group. One object of the combined service led by the helper was that the leaders of the individual stations were thus taught how to conduct the services of their stations during the seven or eight weeks when they were without the helper. Two services were held each Lord’s Day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The same order of worship was followed for both services. The morning worship was preceded by an informal Sunday School in which the emphasis was on Bible knowledge, memorization of the Scriptures, Bible stories for the children, etc. The worship services consisted of singing, reading of the Scriptures, exposition of the Scriptures, and prayer: “the whole occupying not more than three quarters of an hour” (p. 33). This is followed by the “Scripture story hour.” A member of the station previously appointed tells the story. The leader than quizzes the group on the facts, and practical applications are drawn. A more advanced catechism class on doctrinal subjects followed this.
Leaders were sometimes formally chosen by their stations. “More generally, however, they find themselves in this position as a natural result of providential circumstances” (p. 34). Sometimes the leader was the originator of the group. It happened too that leaders were replaced by later, more gifted converts. In any event, Nevius claims, “Christian sympathy, and responsibility grew up spontaneously” (p. 34). The chapels of worship were built and owned by the natives. Often these were not even separate buildings but added to the houses of the leaders.
We shall continue this in future issues. Some comments by way of evaluation are in order as well.