John L. Nevius: Missionary Voice From The Past – On Self-Propagating Missions

Many books have been written over the past several years that address the subject of Church Planting Movements, or CPMs. CPMs are defined as “a rapid and multiplicative increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment”.  (David Garrison, Church Planting Movements – How God Is Redeeming A Lost World).

In books such as Garrison’s, T4T – A Re-Revolution in Discipleship by Steve Smith and Ying Kai, and Movements That Change The World by Steve Addison, Church Planting Movements that are occurring around the world, characteristics found in each, and CPM principles for application in the starting of new and established works are described.

I have read each of these books; two of them, twice. I have benefitted from and been greatly encouraged by each of them. But one thing that I have discovered lately is that the subject of church planting and Church Planting Movements is not a new subject among missions practitioners and missiologists. Men such as Roland Allen and John L. Nevius, who lived and ministered in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, were missionary and church planting movement pioneers. They wrote about their experiences and the CPM characteristics and principles they discovered that contribute to the rapid spread of the Gospel among a people through the start and multiplication of indigenous churches.

I have read and posted articles on this blog on Allen’s Missionary Methods: St Paul’s Or Ours? (1912) and will soon begin posting on his Spontaneous Expansion of the Church And The Causes That Hinder It (1927). In between the two series of posts on Allen, I am writing a few short posts on John L. Nevius’ The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches.

Below is my second Nevius installment. It consists of a number of quotes that stood out to me as I read his short booklet. (See the immediately preceding post for the first article.)


The following quotes are from the second chapter of The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, “Origin And Growth Of Stations In Central Shan-Tung”.

“It is our aim that each man, woman, and child shall be both a learner from some one more advanced, and a teacher of some one less advanced.”

The quote suggests Nevius’ emphasis on the mentoring and reproduction of disciples.

In his ministry in China, Nevius and his missionary associates …

“… emphasize(d) teaching rather than preaching. I here use the word ‘preaching’ in its specific sense of logical and more or less elaborate dissertation … carefully prepared sermon(s) … instruction by lectures and sermons …. This kind of preaching gives rise in the Church from its very infancy to a kind of formalism, which is almost always fatal to growth and progress.”

The teaching that Nevius and his associates conducted included oral instruction in doctrine, prayer, and Scripture, the reading and memorization of Scripture, the telling of Scripture stories, and review of former exercises. I interpret this to mean that much of the teaching and training in the new churches was more interactive and participatory than formal and rigid.

“We find Catechisms and Scripture question books of great use, not only for inquirers, but for the more advanced Christians. I give great prominence to learning and reciting Scripture stories and parables, and nothing has been found to produce more satisfactory results. It excites interest, develops thought, and furnishes in a simple form a compendium of Bible history and Christian duty; while a careful training in relating Bible Stories and drawing practical lessons from them is one of the best ways of developing preaching talent wherever it is found.”

Under the heading of “Bible or Training Classes”, Nevius writes of believers who were “selected and invited” to attend Bible or training classes:

“They come with the understanding that in going back to their homes they are to communicate what they have learned to others.”

Believers were expected to obey and share with others what they learned rather than simply accumulate and store the knowledge.

A common characteristic found in CPMs taking place in the world today is obedience-based discipleship.  In these CPMs, the “S.O.S.” approach to the study of God’s Word is employed. In this method three questions are asked: What does the passage of Scripture Say? What in It am I to Obey? What is the truth in this passage that I am to Share and with whom am I to Share it? Of course, we are to share the truth of God with everyone, but we must be purposeful and intentional in the sharing of that truth. Identifying friends and family members to share with will keep us accountable before God and others regarding evangelism and follow-up.

When writing about the “manner in which Stations are Propagated”, Nevius writes that “new ones” – evangelism, teaching, preaching points – were established without the assistance of paid evangelists. Common, everyday believers were the ones the Lord was using to do the work of the ministry.

Regarding the new stations …

“They radiate from self-propagating centres, reminding one of the sarmentaceous plants which propagate themselves by runners striking root and producing new plants in the vicinity of the parent stock, the new plants in their turn repeating the process.”

“When a man becomes a Christian … his home becomes a new propagating centre.”

“… those (new stations) which have been commenced on the self-propagating principle have generally maintained a healthy, vigorous growth. Instead of increasing their paid agents as the number of church members has increased, that mission has diminished them nearly one half. This self-propagating principle often results in the establishment of stations one or two days’ journey from the propagating centre.”

Another characteristic found in today’s Church Planting Movements is that churches are small, usually meet in homes or rented facilities, and reproduce rapidly.


As we read John L. Nevius’s The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (1886) we find that he addressed many of the same issues that contemporary missions practitioners are addressing and writing about today.  Those issues have to do with how to start and facilitate Church Planting Movements, the start and rapid multiplication of indigenous churches that reach people and affinity groups for the Lord Jesus Christ, around the world.

The principles that John Nevius, Garrison, Smith and Kai, and Addison, the authors mentioned above, write about are essentially the same. While they strike us as being new and innovative, they are actually as old as the Apostle Paul.

While the application of Church Planting Movement principles to any ministry – new or established – does not automatically mean that a CPM will result, I do believe that we need to give these principles great consideration for application in our ministries today, especially in the West. When we do, and they are, I am confident that we will find ourselves in the midst of a disciple-making, church planting ministry that we would not believe, even if we were told (Habakkuk 1:5 )


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