John L. Nevius: Missionary Voice From The Past – On Mission Funding

Many people who are involved in missions and church planting have heard the name of Roland Allen. Allen was an Anglican missionary to China in the late 1800’s and early 19oo’s. He is best known for the writing of two books that deal with missions principles as found in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. The books are Missionary Methods: St Paul’s Or Ours? (1912) and Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and The Causes That Hinder It (1927). Both are considered to be missions classics. (If you scroll through my blog you will find several articles that I have recently posted on Missionary Methods.)

I have recently learned about another missionary from the past whose name is not as well-known as Allen’s, but whose influence was perhaps as great with respect to missionary principles and practice. The missionary is John Livingston Nevius (1829-1893). Nevius was an American Presbyterian who served in China for forty years in the 1800’s. His book, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (1886), greatly influenced Presbyterian missionaries who were ministering, evangelizing, and planting churches in Korea in the late 1800’s.

I have just completed the reading of Nevius’ book. As I read through it, it was interesting to note that much of what Nevius and Allen wrote, though several years apart from one another, addressed many of the same issues that they and other missionaries were struggling with as they sought to reach their respective fields for Christ through the planting of indigenous churches.

Missionaries serving in cross-cultural settings today deal with the same issues of how best to serve as catalysts and facilitators for the planting of indigenous churches that will be self-governing, self-teaching, self-financing, and self-propagating.

Though missions philosophy, strategies, and practice has advanced since the writings of Nevius and Allen, it would do contemporary missionaries and mission strategists well if we listened to these missionary voices from the past.

Therefore, I am going to do with The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches what I did with Missionary Methods and am going to do with Spontaneous Expansion. I am going to write and post a number of articles on the book that will be composed of quotes that stood out to me as I was reading through it. Posts will also contain personal reflections and comments.

The purpose of the article series is to introduce and acquaint you with John L. Nevius and his writings and to stimulate, in some way, our thinking about the start and development of churches that are truly indigenous and relevant to the people being sought for Christ.

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Nevius’ book is essentially a comparison and contrast between two missionary “systems” that were being implemented during the time and ministry of Nevius and others. One “system” was in place and dominated missions strategy; this “system” Nevius refers to as the “Old System”. The second “system” was emerging and referred to as the “New System”.

In the first chapter, “The Old System Criticised”, Nevius says …

“… 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.”

One aspect of the “Old System” that Nevius was especially concerned about was paying new converts to serve as itinerant preachers and station workers, or what he called the “paid-agent scheme”.

  “… so long as a free use is made of new converts as paid preachers, we deprive ourselves of one of the most effective means of separating the chaff from the wheat, and assuring ourselves that the men we are employing are what we hope they are, and that we are not building, or vainly attempting to build, on a bad foundation.”

Continuing to address the subject of paying new converts to do ministry, Nevius writes in the chapter, “How To Deal With New Convert” …

“Take a man laboring on the plane of his ordinary life as an earnest Christian and make him a paid laborer, and you deprive him of half his influence.”

“Still it is a fair question … whether a man will accomplish more for good in the end by preaching, or by simply living Christianity…. Such men and women present Christianity in the concrete.”

“Even voluntary and unpaid preaching is not to be compared for wholesome influence to earnest, consistent, Christian lives. The secret of the world’s evangelization is to be found in the words of our Savior, ‘So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in Heaven.’.”

“Perhaps the want of it (‘that zeal and effort in the Church at home’) is due in a great measure to a growing habit of leaving work for Christ to be done by those who are paid for it. Where such an idea prevails, whether at home or on missionary ground, it tends to paralyze the power of the Church for good.”

And, finally, to conclude this first post on John Nevius’ The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches and his thoughts and perspective on indigenous church planting and finances,

“Paul on his departure from places where he had made converts often left Timothy or Silas or others to spend days or weeks in instructing, exhorting,  and comforting them, and also sent special messengers to individual churches to correct abuses and furnish help as occasion required; but we read in the Acts of the Apostles of no case in which he left any to stay with them as their resident minister. I believe that in failing to follow this Apostolic example we have often checked the development of individual gifts, and self-reliance, and aggressive power in our Churches, making them weak, inefficient and dependent on from the first.”

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Most of what John Nevius has written in the first and second chapters of The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches has pertained to the financial funding, by outside sources, of missionary churches and the financial compensation of native converts employed to do ministry. Nevius is generally opposed to pouring outside, on-going, funding into the start and maintenance of indigenous missions and the financial support of native workers. He believes that such an “Old System” practice hinders the development and growth of individual believers and churches.

Most of us in the Christian West are in complete agreement with Nevius on this subject. We believe that outside funding from foreign sources creates a sense of dependency on the part of the “native” churches and workers. The possibility of that is all too real.

But, I have a thought and question about this: If fully funding and resourcing “native” churches and ministry personnel creates a financial dependency that is unhealthy, hinders the growth and development of the work and workers, and retards expansion of the church, could not the same be said about new and established ministries on the “home” field?

If our conviction about funding new works and ministry personnel on foreign fields is such that we would reduce financial support to churches and encourage “lay” ministers as opposed to paid professionals – for the sake of promoting healthy and independent churches, the validating and empowering of an army of evangelists and church planters, and the start and multiplication of churches – are we ready and willing to apply the same financial principles and guidelines to our new and established church work and personnel at ”home”?

If we did, perhaps we would see and experience the kind of church planting movements and expansion of the church that in occurring in China, India, and Africa today.

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You can read two short biographies of John L. Nevius here and here.

You can read an electronic version of The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches here.

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