Missionary Methods (8)

As we continue our studies of the Scriptural method or methods of performing mission work we will devote our attention to what has been and still is a very significant little book on Missions. The book is entitled:Planting And Development of Missionary Churches. Dr. John L. Nevius, a Presbyterian missionary to China in the late 1800s, authored the book. Dissatisfaction with the old methods of doing mission work led Dr. Nevius and his colleagues. In China to re-think missionary methods in the light of Scripture. The result is what has come to be called the “Nevius method or plan.” This plan first appeared in a series of articles in the Chinese Recorder in 1885. Later this material was published in book form. In 1958 the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. published this book in paperback. (It is available at the Seminary Bookstore.) In the preface to the fourth edition of this book Bruce F. Hunt, an Orthodox Presbyterian missionary in Korea, has this to say: “In 1890 Dr. John L. Nevius, a Presbyterian missionary working in China, received an invitation to Korea from a group of seven young missionaries who were just beginning their work in that little peninsula off the east coast of Asia, which until then had been closed to missionaries. They asked him to give them two weeks of instruction in the missionary methods which he had first set forth in a series of articles in the Chinese Recorder in 1885.

“To these two weeks of meetings and to the application of those principles set forth in that series of articles, later collected in this little booklet of ninety pages, many missionaries in Korea attribute much of the rapid growth of mission work in that country. There were only 100 communicants at the time these principles were adopted, but today (1958) there is a full grown, self-propagating, self-supporting and self-governing church of 800,000 members. However, these same missionaries, as well as Dr. Nevius himself, would be the first to insist that to God and to God alone belongs the glory for all that has been wrought in Korea. As both believed the methods were God’s, so they also believed that the results were God’s. Dr. Nevius, a seasoned missionary, always criticized existing methods of mission work in the light of God’s Word, and at the same time sought to find in God’s Word the principles which should direct all missionary activity….” 

What is the “Nevius method”? Nevius gave this answer: “These two systems may be distinguished in general by the former (the old method, R.D.D.) depending largely on paid native agency, while the latter deprecates and seeks to minimize such agency. Perhaps an equally correct and more generally acceptable statement of the difference would be, that, while both alike seek ultimately the establishment of independent, self-reliant, and aggressive native churches, the Old System strives by the use of foreign funds to foster and stimulate the growth of native churches in the first stage of their development, and then gradually to discontinue the use of such funds; while those who adopt the New System think that the desired object may be best attained by applying principles of independence and self-reliance from the beginning. The difference between these two theories may be more clearly seen in their outward practical working. The Old uses freely, and as far as practicable, the more advanced and intelligent of the native church members in the capacity of paidcolporteur’s (distributors of religious tracts and books, R.D.D.), Bible agents, evangelists, or heads of stations; while the New proceeds on the assumption that the persons employed in these various capacities would be more useful in the end by being left in their original homes and employments” (p. 8). The rest of the book is really an expansion of this general distinction. As we continue our study we shall have to answer the question: “Does the Nevius method meet the test of Scripture?” Nevius himself insisted that it did. It was for this reason that, according to Nevius, there was such abundant fruit on the work in both China and Korea. 

According to Nevius the old method involved extensive use of paid workers. The missionaries would look for and train young men from among the natives for the gospel ministry or to work as assistants to the missionaries. These native evangelists and ministers would preach and teach at the various mission stations. It was the contention of Nevius that this old method seemed the natural way to do mission work. The slogan in those days was: “China must be evangelized by the Chinese.” It was only natural to seek as many native preachers as possible too because the missionary was eager for fruit upon his work. Not only that but the sending church was also as anxious to hear of fruit as the missionary was to report on the fruit of his work! This method found ready acceptance among the Chinese as well. Because of the dense population and the sharp struggle for existence which it necessitates, the Chinese found it difficult to find ways of earning a living and providing for their families. Those converts gifted with the necessary qualifications for the ministry saw it as a way out of poverty. In fact they saw the ministry as the way at least to approximate the higher standard of living enjoyed by the foreign missionary. 

It was especially at this point that Dr. Nevius found the old wrong and even detrimental to the cause of the gospel in China. It was common, and to a certain degree it is common today, for the American or European church to send missionaries to a foreign field. They would construct a mission headquarters in some strategically located place. Native converts would be hired and trained and paid to go out and preach the gospel. The money would flow like water to help the poor, build chapels, support preachers and evangelists, and for many other causes. The natives are left with the impression that the missionaries and the church which has sent them (a foreign institution, remember) have money in abundance and are ready to give that money liberally. The very real danger is that the well-intentioned sending church and its missionaries not only leave the wrong impression but actually create a situation in which people are tempted to follow Christ merely for bread rather than food for their souls. This, in fact, has happened frequently. Men sought the ministry and later proved unfaithful to the gospel. They were interested only in the money. This method also creates a-native church which stands in an unhealthy dependent relationship with the mission and sending church. About this we shall have more to say later. 

Nevius lists six specific objections to the old method. These may be found on pages 12-18. These are: 1) “Making paid agents of new converts affects injuriously the stations with which they are connected.” A man, knowledgeable in the gospel and influential in the community, “is one who can be ill-spared.” Removing him from his occupation and home and putting him to work as a minister of the gospel can have serious, harmful effects. The author cites the example of four promising young men who while “working with their hands in their several callings” bore testimony to the truth wherever they went. They were instrumental in provoking great interest in the gospel and church in their own neighborhoods. One by one they were hired by the mission and sent to various stations, with the result that the interest in the gospel in their own neighborhood waned. Nevius claims that many other similar examples could be cited. But this is only one aspect of the problem. By making use of paid native preachers, evil is introduced. Envy, jealousy, and dissatisfaction with one’s lot come into play. Those who are not hired by the mission resent those who are. Others who do not qualify for the ministry think they should be hired in some other capacity. The interest that once was in the gospel now shifts and the topics of conversation are “place and pay.” The native preachers are no longer regarded as spiritual leaders interested in the spiritual good of their flocks, but as those who are after money. 

2) “Making a paid agent of a new convert often proves an injury to him personally.” Some of these men who were formerly shopkeepers, farmers, or laborers find themselves unsuited for the ministry. Others become puffed up with pride. For these and other reasons they lose the respect of their neighbors. About this Nevius remarks: “Here again I am not theorizing, but speaking from, experience, and could multiply cases—as I presume most missionaries could—of deterioration of character in both directions above indicated.” (p. 13) 

3) “The Old System makes it difficult to judge between the true and false, whether as preachers or as church members.” Not a few fall away after they have become preachers. Many more fall away when they learn they are not going to be employed as preachers. Better it is, claims Nevius, to leave the people in their own occupations. 

4) “The Employment System tends to excite a mercenary spirit, and to increase the number of mercenary Christians.” The danger under the Old Method is simply this that men will come to the church, be baptized, confess their faith, and seek the ministry simply for the money. When that influence enters the church, Nevius contends, it spreads with destructive, divisive results. 

5) “The Employment System tends to stop the voluntary work of unpaid agents.” The convert reasons: “If others are getting paid to preach, why not I?” 

6) “The Old System tends to lower the character and lessen the influence of the missionary enterprise, both in the eyes of foreigners and natives.” In Nevius’ day new ‘converts, in China were almost universally branded, “Rice Christians,” by their unconverted neighbors. Training and hiring and paying converts to preach only fosters this attitude rather than denying it. The church is seen as a foreign institution and is viewed with suspicion. This obviously makes the work just that much more difficult.