Crucial to the methodology of Dr. John L. Nevius are a number of factors: 1) There are to be as few paid native preachers (helpers) as possible. 2) The converts ought to build and maintain their own places of worship. 3) Leaders of individual mission stations ought to remain in their station and calling in life. 4) Ideally every convert ought to be the pupil of one more advanced in the faith than he and the teacher of one less advanced than he. By following these methods, Nevius argued, truly indigenous churches can be planted and developed. Nevius himself, mind you, after some twenty years of labor in China, had only two paid helpers to assist him in the care of some one hundred fifty mission stations and young churches. (Cf. Planting And Development of Missionary Churches.)
Nevius continues by facing the question: “How shall we most effectually carry out the command of our Savior, ‘Feed My sheep, “Feed My lambs’ ” (p. 35). Many, perhaps most missionaries and church leaders, would reply: “by training native preachers.” At the time; this work was being done by the leaders of each mission station. Nevius argues that “no other plan is possible” (p. 35). It would be impossible to obtain native preachers for teaching and preaching in the one hundred and fifty stations already established. At the time, according to Nevius, there were only less than a dozen candidates for the ministry in the entire field. All the while, Nevius reports, the number of stations is increasing. Still more, even if the ministerial candidates were available it would be impossible for the converts to support them. And, writes Nevius “. . .if the foreign Boards were able to assume this burden, their doing so would establish a precedent which would add very much to the difficulties of making native churches independent and self-supporting in the future” (p. 35).
Nevius continues: “In my opinion we may go a step further, and say that the introduction of paid teachers in each station, even if it were possible, would not at present be desirable. The leaders understand better than a person from a distance could, the individual peculiarities of the neighbors, and also the tones and inflections of the local dialect, local expressions, illustrations, and habits of thought. They are likely to be more interested in those about them, most of whom may be called their own converts, than any one else could be, and are more disposed to give them the care and attention necessary in instructing beginners. In teaching they set an example to others, a larger number of teachers is thus secured than could be obtained in any other way, and learning and teaching go on together, the one preparing for the other, and the teaching being an important part of the learning, perhaps quite as useful to the teacher as to the taught. Though the knowledge of the leaders may be elementary and incomplete, they are quite in advance of the other church members and inquirers, and what they do know is just what the others need first to learn. The leaders are especially fitted to communicate this knowledge, simply because they are not widely separated in intelligence and sympathy from those who are to be taught” (pp. 35, 36).
Nevius continues his argument against using paid, native preachers on practical grounds. Preaching, “in its specific sense of logical and more or less elaborate dissertation,” simply would not be effective in the China of his day (p. 36). In other words, preaching as we experience it in our churches, a forty-five to sixty minute exposition of a specific text or passage of Scripture, simply would not be an effective means of reaching the Chinese. Nevius writes: “We should remember that continuous discourse is something which is almost unknown in China. Even educated Chinamen follow it with difficulty. A carefully prepared sermon from a trained native preacher or a foreign missionary, such a sermon as would be admirably suited to an intelligent educated Christian congregation, is out of place in a new station. From the fact that it is adapted to another kind of congregation, it is by necessary consequence unsuitable here. An attempt at formal preaching by those who have neither the Scriptural knowledge nor the intellectual and practical training to fit them for it is still more to be deprecated. We who are accustomed from childhood to instruction by lectures and sermons, naturally and very properly introduce them in the mission centers where we (the missionaries, Dr. Nevius and his paid helpers) are located; and our personal teachers and pupils trained in our schools become accustomed to them and are profited by them. In the country stations a few of the more advanced Christians may be benefited by a sermon, but to the great body of hearers who most need instruction it would be like listening to utterances in an unknown tongue. This kind of preaching gives rise in the Church from its very infancy to a kind of formalism which is almost fatal to growth and progress. The congregation rises, or sits, or kneels as directed, and may maintain a reverent attitude and listen, or have the appearance of listening, to what is said: in a word they have a service and go home with their consciences satisfied, but their minds not enlightened. Even the Quaker method of sitting before God in silent meditation or mute reverence would be preferable to having the mind distracted by allusions to something they have not heard of, thoughts beyond their reach and processes of reasoning which they cannot follow. I am far from saying no good is accomplished. Those who engage in such a service, as many of them do, feeling that they are offering homage and worship to the true God their Heavenly Father, though they may only catch an occasional idea from a prayer, or an exhortation, or a sermon, will be benefited, and their worship will no doubt be accepted. Most of the persons in our congregations are, as regards their mental development, in the condition of children and have to be treated as such” (pp. 36,37).
This is the heart of Nevius’ argument for his plan or method of mission work. Much of what Nevius says about the Chinese not being able to benefit from a “formal, logical, and more or less elaborate dissertation” is true. Not only so, but this is true of any mission field including even domestic fields. The church in its mission work is reaching out to the unconverted elect, and is preaching to and teaching recently converted people of God. These people are “novices” to the faith. They are unfamiliar with the Bible, the Creeds of the church, the history of the church, Biblical concepts and doctrines. But this is certainly no reason to minimize or discard preaching! For all of the good in Nevius’ method this is the weakness of his plan. All agree that the goal must be self-supporting, self-governing, indigenous churches. All agree that the converts must be taught to be witnesses of the gospel and that they must teach others by word of mouth and by the example of their Christian lives. All agree that there should be no native preachers paid by the mission and no churches or schools built by the mission. But there must be the preaching of the gospel!
There must be preaching, for the simple reason that Scripture demands it. The clear testimony of the Word of God is: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). In order to call upon the name of the Lord one must believe in Christ. In order to believe in Christ one must hear Christ. The only way one is able to hear Christ is through a preacher who is sent (cf. Romans 10:14-15). The simple fact is, it pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save them who believe (I Corinthians 1:17-31). Whatever else the missionary does on the field he must preach Christ crucified. By this means the sheep of Christ hear His voice, are known by the Good Shepherd, and follow Him (cf. John 10).
We still face the practical problem which Dr. Nevius cites and which is faced by every missionary. How can the missionary preach to those who have never heard the gospel and to those who are novices to the faith? Nevius claimed that to the “great body of hearers who most need instruction it (preaching, R.D.D.) would be like listening to utterances in an unknown tongue” (p. 37). This would be true if one understands preaching to be a forty-five minute sermon as preached in the sending churches. It is the unanimous testimony, for example, of the ministers who have labored in the Protestant Reformed Mission in Jamaica that one cannot preach there as he preaches in the churcheshere. This is just the point, and this is what mission work is all about! If we understand preaching to be the exposition of the Word of God as it applies to the lives of those who hear it by one who is called by Christ through the church, there is no difficulty. The point is that the preaching must be adapted to the peculiar needs and situation of the people to whom it is addressed. The problem is not new, nor did it first surface in China in Nevius’ day. The Apostles, especially Paul, faced the same problem in their labors. This is what he wrote to the Corinthians: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (I Cor. 3:1, 2). One cannot feed an infant a piece of steak. Neither ought a missionary attempt to feed spiritual babes a diet of the solid meat of the gospel. They need the milk of the Word. When the spiritual babes have grown by means of the milk of the Word they may be nourished by the meat of that Word. This is the teaching of Hebrews 5:13, 14 as well: “For everyone that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
Mission preaching must be simplified. Great care must be taken in the exposition of the Word to explain every concept, every doctrine, in language the people can understand. This may take the form of several ten minute expositions, interspersed by questions and answers and/or singing. Whatever the particular format, the missionary must preach the gospel, for “it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). For this reason too the missionaries must look for and train those converts whom the Lord calls to the ministry. About this we shall have more in future articles.