While there are many commendable features of the missionary methods proposed by Nevius which can and ought to be implemented by our own missionaries both at home and abroad there is one very serious weakness, namely, the lack of preachers and preaching. Whatever the details of methodology employed by the missionary, preaching must be at the heart of it. This will become even more apparent as we continue our study of the book, Planting And Development of Missionary Churches, by John L. Nevius.
The stations (groups of converts, potential churches) of the Presbyterian mission were approximately two hundred miles from the homes of Dr. Nevius and his fellow missionaries. Why the missionaries lived so far from the field Nevius does not say. It would seem that this would rather seriously affect the work. Much better it would be if the missionaries lived among the people so as to have direct, daily contact with them. Perhaps there was good reason for this, but, as was said, Nevius does not say. The fact that they were so far from the field made thorough instruction by the missionaries impossible. On their periodic visits in the spring and fall they were able to give only general instructions and direction. Hence, writes Nevius: “To secure thorough and methodical teaching, no plan has been found practicable but that of a select number of learners coming to us in Chefoo. These have been organized into classes which have formed a kind of Normal School” (p. 39).
The missionaries selected the “more advanced church members” for these classes. These were neither employed nor paid by the mission. They remained in their regular occupations. Students came with the understanding that what they learned in these classes they were to teach others upon their return to their homes. The classes ran from six to eight weeks. Travel and living expenses were supplied by the mission for those who were unable to meet these expenses. Food and lodging were also provided. The studies were mainly in the Scriptures. In addition there was some elementary and basic instruction given in astronomy, geography, history, and “general knowledge.” Concerning the method of instruction, Nevius writes: “Here, as in the stations, lessons are carried on catechetically, and what is taught one day is the subject of examination the next. Much attention is also given to rehearsing Scripture stories” (p. 40). One hour per day was devoted to instruction in vocal music by Mrs. Nevius. As much as possible the same students came year after year. Large sections of both the Old and New Testaments were covered. Many of the students studied the material several times. Nevius estimated that the knowledge of his pupils would compare favorably with that of intelligent adult classes in Sunday Schools in the churches in America. The hymns which they sang were translations of familiar English hymns, in the same meters as the originals, and sung to the same tunes. They were taught to sing by note, and some, Nevius reports, read music very well.
The fruit of all this was considerable. Illiteracy in the rural districts where Nevius worked was high, somewhat greater than in China as a whole. “Not more than one out of twenty of the men can read, and not one of a thousand of the women” (p. 41). By way of contrast, according to Nevius: “Among our Christians, nearly all the children and most of the adults of both sexes under fifty years of age learn to read. Some have made remarkable progress in the study of the Scriptures. A large proportion of them have committed to memory the Sermon on the Mount and many other select passages of the Bible. Scripture ideas and phrases have entered into the language of every-day life. Persons of advanced age, though themselves unable to read, take great pleasure in relating Scripture stories and parables, and in teaching others less instructed what they have learned” (p. 42).
Turning to the subject of the “Manner in which Stations are Propagated,” Nevius informs us that the original stations were formed as the fruit of the preaching of paid evangelists. These continued under the guidance of an unpaid “leader” (p. 42). New stations of the Presbyterian mission were for the most part established without the help of paid evangelists. The way in which this happened is interesting. Nevius writes: “When a man becomes a Christian the fact is known through the whole circle of his acquaintances, male and female, far and wide. It is generally believed that his mind has lost its balance. He is shunned for a time, but before long his friends visit him either from sympathy or curiosity. They find him in apparently a normal condition and working quietly in his shop or on his farm, and are curious to know what this new departure means. An opportunity is thus afforded of presenting the claims of Christianity as not the religion of the foreigner but the true religion for all mankind. The visitor goes home and thinks about the matter and comes again, attends service on Sunday, is interested in the truth, makes a profession of Christianity, and in process of time his home becomes a new propagating centre. Stations started in this manner have the advantage of a natural connection with the parent station, and they are nourished and supported by it until they are strong enough to have the connection severed and live and grow independently” (pp. 42, 43). Nevius reports that the Baptist mission tried both methods (paid agents and the self-propagating). As a rule the stations which began under the labors of a paid agent were comparatively weak and unreliable and some even fell away. Those begun under the self-propagating method “have generally maintained a healthy, vigorous growth” (p. 43). Consequently the Baptists, instead of increasing the number of paid agents as the number of church members increased, reduced the number by nearly one half.
The Nevius plan was and to a certain extent still is almost revolutionary. Common practice was, and for the most part still is, that missionaries in addition to preaching the gospel train converts for the ministry. These are then at least in part supported by the sending church. As was pointed out in previous articles Nevius had only two such “paid agents” among the one hundred fifty stations which must have had several thousands of members. It comes as no surprise to find him writing: “I have often been asked, ‘why do you not employ and pay more native agents?’ I reply by another question, Why should I? The only men I could employ are exerting what influence they have for good where they now are. My paying them money and transferring them from one place to another would not make them better men nor increase their influence. It might have the opposite effect. During the past few years I have in fact frequently been inclined to attempt to enlarge and hasten the work by selecting and employing native agents from my stations, and have requested money appropriations from our society to enable me to do so. When the time has come for carrying out this plan, however, I have refrained from taking the proposed step, fearing that it would do more harm than good. I am asked again, ‘Do you intend never to employ native paid agents?’ My reply is, I leave this question to be determined by the circumstances and in the light of the future. If suitable men are found and it is clear that employing them as paid agents would do good, I should be glad to see them employed, and the more of them the better” (pp. 43, 44).
That the missionary should strive to establish an indigenous church which is self-supporting, self-governing (in the Biblical sense), and self-propagating is certainly correct, Biblical methodology. With this no one ought have any quarrel. The problem with the Nevius plan is that it nearly totally ignores the chief means of grace, the preaching of the Word. Not only is preaching the chief means of grace, but because it is that, it is also the chief mark of the church of Jesus Christ! In the light of passages such as Romans 10:14 ff. and Ephesians 4, it is certainly legitimate to ask: how can the church be gathered apart from the preaching of the Word?
There is more. The apostles, especially Paul, did not proceed through Asia Minor and the rest of the Mediterranean world establishing “stations” which remained “stations” for a number of years. They instituted the church in each place. They ordained elders. These congregations had preachers, Timothy for example. That these churches were indigenous, self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating is abundantly evident from the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts.
The Bible Classes or “Normal School,” it would seem, would be the best means of finding those whom the Lord calls to the ministry. Certainly there must have been in those classes young men whom Dr. Nevius and his fellow missionaries could have trained for the ministry. These could then have labored in the field preaching and teaching others. How could this possibly harm the work? How could this in any way at all detract from the indigenous character of the church in China or in any other place? How could it diminish the zeal of the converts or stifle their desire to witness to and teach others?
We quite agree with Dr. Nevius, however, that these native preachers ought not be in the employ of and paid by the sending church and its missionaries. That is harmful indeed for all the reasons cited by Nevius. The people among whom Nevius worked were for the most part farmers, shopkeepers, craftsmen, etc. These could have supported preachers. So it should be also today.