John L. Nevius: Missionary Voice From The Past – Indigenous Church Planting Principles And Lessons

If you have been following my blog, you know that I have been writing articles on John L. Nevius, an American Presbyterian missionary who served the LORD in China for forty years in the 180o’s. His ministry and writings on indigenous church planting greatly influenced Presbyterian missionary work in Korea during his lifetime and after. The primary writing that influenced missionaries in Korea was The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (1886). It is this booklet that my articles have been written about.

The Nevius articles have essentially been composed of quotes from the book that have I have been struck by or that I thought have, in some way, related or been similar to statements or writings of contemporary missiologists who are Church Planting Movement practitioners.

With this post I conclude my Nevius series. I trust that these posts have, or will, acquaint you with John L. Nevius as well as provoke your thinking about Church Planting Movements and how we might more effectively reach our networks and communities for Christ through the start and multiplication of simple churches.

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In the chapter, “Organization Of Stations, Present And Prospective,” Nevius writes …

“… present forms of church in the West are not to be, at least without some modification, our guides to the founding of infant churches in a heathen land? If it be asked, ‘What then shall be our guide?’ I answer, ‘The teachings of the New Testament.'”

Nevius is quick to say that he is not inferring that “all forms of church organization in the West are at variance with Scripture teaching.” He is simply saying that it is not a Church Planting Movement “best practice” to expect new churches in cross-cultural settings to be structured and organized as they are in Western contexts.

“… while the doctrines of Christianity, which are obviously and by common consent regarded as fundamental and essential, are taught in the Scriptures specifically, elaborately, and repeatedly, there is no portion of Scripture where a complete and detailed system of church government is presented or referred to.”

With respect to appointing and paying a single person to serve as the pastor of a church and a church member’s “obligation” to a ministry, Nevius writes …

“A church member has a quieting sense of having discharged his duty if he has contributed generously towards building a suitable church edifice and the support of a preacher, is always found in his place as a worshipper, and attends to the  prescribed rites and observances of the Church. This spirit, wherever it is found, tends to formalism both in the clergy and the laity.”

He continues,

“Let us not, by allowing our church members to think that their chief duty is to contribute money to the support of their pastor and attend religious services, reproduce here in China one of the most reprehensible features of the Church at home.”

Nevius is not necessarily opposed to compensating pastors and ministry workers for their ministry. His caution is that “paid or salaried agents  should only be added as the people want them and can support them.” With respect to the support itself, Nevius presents several compelling reasons as to why the support of the pastor should come from those he has spiritual charge over rather than from foreign missions boards and agencies. This has to do with the indigenous church planting principle that new churches should be self-supporting.

“We affirm, without fear of contradiction, that no one thing has more effectively hindered the development of independent, self-sustaining churches in many foreign fields, than the high salaries which, with mistaken wisdom, are paid to many of the native pastors and helpers from the treasuries of the home churches.”

When writing about the call of a man to missionary work, Nevius says,

“The most important work for each man is undoubtedly that for which he is best fitted and to which he is specially called.”

On “itinerating” …

“When the time comes for practically answering the question, ‘How shall I make a beginning?’ I should say, ‘Do as the Apostle did. Go everywhere preaching the Gospel. You cannot know where there may be one waiting for you and some one to whom you have been sent. Ask for direction. Christ’s sheep will hear His voice. How shall we find them? Go everywhere, and wherever Christ’s sheep are, they will respond to His call. Then you will have a beginning from which to work and one of God’s own choosing.'”

In the quote below Nevius writes about finding a Person of Peace in a community as the beginning point for ministry in a particular city or region and oikos evangelism.

“… go, make inquiries after religiously disposed persons or seekers after the truth … endeavor to influence them and through them the circle of friends or adherents always found connected to them. This plan is obviously reasonable and practical and has the special sanction of our Saviour’s teaching, Matthew x.ii.”

As the author nears the end of his book, he makes a number of statements about ministry and missionary service that it would be wise for us, who are involved in ministry and desire to be used of the LORD for His glory, to listen to. John L Nevius, “a missionary voice from the past,” that the LORD used mightily in East Asia over a century ago.

“In the spiritual work of the conversion of souls and building up of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, we of ourselves can do nothing except as instruments.”

“For myself, I have learned that God’s ways are very different and infinitely wiser than mine; that it is better to follow than to take the lead; and that there is need to pray, not only that we may be used as instruments in God’s work, but that we may be kept from marring or obstructing it.”

“… I believe we have not accomplished what we might have if we had followed more closely the teachings and examples given to us for our guidance in the Scriptures. I believe that the injudicious use of money and agencies depending on money have returned and crippled our work and produced a less self-reliant and stalwart type of Christian than we otherwise should have had.”

And, finally,

“Let us, then, with unwavering faith in God’s revealed Word and an implicit trust in the efficacy of the Divine Spirit, address ourselves  to our labors with renewed zeal and earnestness; praying the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest and for the abundant outpouring of the Spirit upon us and those to whom we are sent; hoping and believing … the Church may record such signal triumphs of grace and power as have not been witnessed in any previous period of her history.”

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I pray that this three-post series of articles on John L. Nevius has been an interesting, informative, and encouraging read for you. My purpose has been to introduce and acquaint you with this “missionary voice from the past” who ministered in China over one century ago and his book, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches.

Nevius was a pioneer missionary when it came to the start and multiplication of indigenous churches. He understood that it was critical for the start, ministry, and continuance of an indigenous church planting movement that it be built on sound biblical missiological principles. Those principles – found in his own ministry and that of the Apostle Paul as recorded in the New Testament – are that the churches of the movement must be self-governing, self-financing, and self-propagating.

May we apply these principles, as well as those found in the Church Planting Movements that are occurring in the world today, if we are serious about the start and multiplication of churches that will penetrate and saturate our communities for Christ.

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2 Comments on “John L. Nevius: Missionary Voice From The Past – Indigenous Church Planting Principles And Lessons”


  1. Nevius is a great resource – thanks for summarizing some of his teaching

    • tangiblethoughts Says:

      Dawn and Dave,

      Thank you for visiting me at my blog and for your comments. I appreciate you and look forward to following you and your ministry by way of your blog. God bless you and your family in your ministry.


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