I have been working on a project for training missionaries who are planting churches. This has led me to consider the history of missionary strategy. I am concluding that we constantly repeat the same mistakes, over and over.
In 1899, John Livingston Nevius was asked to speak on missions to the forming Korean church. Nevius himself was a missionary to China and he wrote his thesis in a 1899 book called, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches. His basic principles (which I am copying from the Wikipedia page about him) are:
- Christians should continue to live in their neighborhoods and pursue their occupations, being self-supporting and witnessing to their co-workers and neighbors.
- Missions should only develop programs and institutions that the national church desired and could support.
- The national churches should call out and support their own pastors.
- Churches should be built in the native style with money and materials given by the church members.
- Intensive biblical and doctrinal instruction should be provided for church leaders every year.
It is amazing that we are still trying to get missionaries to adopt these principles, over 110 years later. You may have heard of the "three self" church strategy that states a church should be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-replicating. These ideas infused Nevius' thinking (they originally were called the Venn–Anderson principles).
Nevius never got the Chinese church to adopt these principles. The Korean church did, and it took off like lightning. Ironically, the national church of China today is called the "Three Self Church," and, while growing, is being outpaced by the underground house church movement which actually practices the three-self principles. This underground movement wasn't born until after the purging of missionaries from China in the early 1950's. In the wake of this wave of persecution, the church was forced to into a mold of indigenous, organic growth.
What Nevius/Venn/Anderson taught would collide with many contemporary missions strategies. The hiring of national workers, holistic approaches dependent on funding from outside (such as orphanages and other humanitarian programs), and even business as mission are possible examples. Yet, Nevius still has much to say to our current generation of workers. We are still teaching missionaries to avoid institutionalizing the church.
Why is this so hard? One reason may be our insistence on institutional models of church practice, most recently exemplified by the mega-church movement. Another may be a view of church leadership which is hierarchical, insists on seminary degrees, and relies on European models of the church.
You can read the source material on Nevius yourself: