Missionary Methods (13)

To accomplish the work of the ministry of the Word in China Dr. John L. Nevius made extensive use of native leaders. These men were unordained and unpaid by the mission. They remained in their station and calling in life while leading the worship and teaching classes in their mission stations. For various reasons, some of them practical, Nevius used as few paid native preachers as possible. (Cf. The Planting And Development of Missionary Churches, pp. 35 ff.). In our previous article [Missionary Methods (12)] we criticized Nevius at this point. It is our contention that there must be preaching on the mission field. If one is to call upon the Name of the Lord and be saved he needs to hear Christ through a preacher who is sent (Romans 10:14, 15). The preaching, we emphasized, must be adapted to the needs and situation of those to whom it is addressed. In missions the preacher must feed the people with the milk of the Word until they have reached a level of spiritual growth which will enable them to digest the meat of the Word. This preaching must be done publicly and from house to house after the manner of the apostle Paul. (Cf. Acts 20:20ff.). This modification brings the “Nevius Plan” in harmony with the missionary methods taught by Scripture and followed by the apostles. Preaching must be at the very heart of all missionary work. 

There is, however, much which we can learn from the methods of teaching advocated by Nevius and employed by him and his colleagues in China a century ago. Initially, new converts received oral instruction from the missionary or from the native helpers (an assistant to the missionary, paid by the mission) or from the leader through whom they were brought into the church. A catechism was composed which contained a compendium, a brief and simple summary of Christian doctrine. All new converts were required to memorize and learn the meaning of this catechism. They were also required to commit to memory various forms of prayers and passages of Scripture. All this time these new converts were in a period of probation which lasted from six months to one or two years. The Baptist mission in China at the time set the minimum probation period at eighteen months. During this probationary period the converts were expected to attend worship services faithfully and to perform the duties of professing Christians. In addition to the catechism, the converts were given a “Manual for Inquirers” which contained various rules and regulations which the missionaries found necessary to unify and systematize the work. A copy of the four Gospel accounts was also given to each. These “. . .I place in the hands of every inquirer, and little more is needed for years in the way of textbooks for those who have not previously learned to read” (p. 38). 

“The Manual,” Nevius writes, “contains,—General Directions for Prosecuting Scripture Studies; Forms of Prayer; the Apostles’ Creed; and Select Passages of Scripture—to be committed to memory. Then follows a large selection of Scripture stories and parables, with directions as to how they should be recited and explained; only the titles of these are given with references to the place in the Bible where they are to be found. Next follow: Rules for the Organization and Direction of Stations; Duties of Leaders and Rules for their Guidance; a system of forms for keeping Station Records of attendance, and studies, etc.; Form of Church Covenant; Scripture Lessons for Preparing for Baptism; the same for preparing for the Lord’s Supper; Order of Exercises for Church Service and Directions for Spending Sunday; a short Scripture Catechism—enforcing the duty of giving of our substance for benevolent purposes; and a short essay of the Duty of Every Christian to make known the Gospel to others. To the whole is appended questions on the various parts, specially prepared to facilitate the teaching and examination of learners. A selection of our most common hymns is also sometimes bound up with the volume” (p. 38). 

The “Scripture Studies” mentioned above were divided into six kinds. These were: learning to read, memorizing Scripture, reading Scripture in course, telling Scripture stories, learning the meaning of Scripture, and reviews of former exercises. The tremendous amount of work which must have gone into the preparation of this Manual will be appreciated when we realize that “The books used are almost exclusively in Mandarin (the chief dialect of China, R.D.D.), in the Chinese character” (p. 39). 

The Catechisms and Scripture question books the missionaries found to be extremely valuable not only for “inquirers” and new converts but also for more advanced Christians. Nevius informs us: “I give great prominence to learning and reciting Scripture stories and parables, and nothing has been found to produce more satisfactory results. It excites interest, develops thought, and furnishes in a simple form a compendium of Bible history and Christian duty; while a careful training in relating Bible Stories and drawing practical lessons from them is one of the best ways of developing preaching talent where it is found” (p. 39). Both those able to read and the illiterate were required to learn the Manual. The purpose of this was twofold: for their own edification and knowledge of the Bible and so that they might be able to teach others. Nevius tells us that they soon mastered the material of the Manual and were able to move on to more intensive study of the Scriptures with the help of Commentaries.

Provided one remembers our position on the necessity of the preaching of the Word, there is much which we can learn from all of this. Much of this ought in the opinion of this writer be implemented in our own mission work both in foreign fields and domestic. The probationary period for new converts is somewhat akin to the classes conducted by Pastor den Hartog in Singapore to prepare candidates for the sacrament of Baptism and membership in the church. The idea is sound. Not only is it true that prospective members of the church need to be instructed in the truth of Scripture, but they must be “proved” before they are admitted into the Christian church. Becoming a Christian is not a matter of a quick, easy decision to “accept Christ.” It has happened altogether too frequently both at home and on the foreign field that people are accepted into the church with little or no instruction and after a while they fall away. 

The idea of a Manual of Instruction is also sound. This would have to be adapted to the particular field of labor. What might be suitable for the work of Singapore, for example, probably would not fit the needs of Jamaica or some domestic field. Whatever modifications might be necessary, certainly the main thrust of the Nevius plan with its emphasis on equipping converts to read and study the Bible ought to be emulated. The emphasis on instruction in the simple stories, the parables, and truths and proceeding to more intensive Bible study and study of the creeds is correct. This enabled converts to become more and more “at home” in the Scriptures. The practice of requiring converts to memorize passages of Scripture and catechism lessons is extremely important. Especially is this true in our times when there is so much ignorance of even the most basic truths and doctrines of the Word of God. The inspired Scripture which alone is able to make us wise unto salvation is profitable “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:15). 

Training people in the practice of relating the narratives and truths of the Bible is necessary. Not only does this afford the missionary opportunity to discover gifts for preaching as Nevius pointed out, but this is something every Christian is called to do. God’s people must be shining lights, living witnesses of the Gospel. They must follow the example of the persecuted saints who were forced to flee Jerusalem and who went everywhere “evangelizing” (cf. Acts 8:4). This point is closely related to the next. The whole concept of learning in order to be able to teach others certainly ought to be encouraged both at home and in foreign fields. This kindles a healthy and keen interest in the things of the gospel and the church. It gives each new convert a continuing sense of being a real part of the church. He has a vital function within the community of believers. He is needed. 

At the heart of all this must be the preaching of the Word. This we must never forget, for, after all, “It pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21). Preaching is the divine power which makes effective the witness and mutual edification of believers. Without pastors and teachers believers are tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine; they are not able to speak the truth in love so as to grow up into Christ; they are not able to edify one another in love; they are not able to come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:11 ff.).