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The Spirituality of Mission Work

Gregory E. Reynolds

In 2002 I reread the classic work on missions from the nineteenth century, John Nevius's The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches. Since my first church planting experience in New York in the 1980s, I had employed the "three self" principles articulated by Nevius. Now, as the chairman of the Committee on Home Missions in the OPC's Presbytery of New York and New England, I wanted to introduce this outstanding work to our committee and home missionaries under our care. I was shocked to discover that it was out of print. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company had first republished it in 1958. They kindly gave me permission to republish the work, with Bruce Hunt's splendid preface, under the imprint of a new publishing endeavor founded with the kind partnership of my friend Tom Villeneuve.

Generations of missionaries, both home and foreign, have found biblical guidance and encouragement in Nevius's little book. Its principles are as timely today as they were when first published by Presbyterian Press in Shanghai in 1886. Already in Nevius's day, technique was eclipsing the spirituality of the missionary enterprise. By returning to the wisdom of the book of Acts, Nevius sought to correct this dangerous tendency.

An Introduction to John Nevius[1]

John Livingston Nevius (1829-1893) was an American Presbyterian missionary to China. Born near Ovid, New York, Nevius received the BD from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1853. He was sent by the Presbyterian Mission Board to Ning Pong, China (1854-1859); Japan (1859-1861); Shantung Province at Tungchow, China (1861-1864); and Chefoo (1871-1893). In the early 1880s, after a trip to Korea, he formulated his principles of church planting, known as the "Nevius Method," later published in China in 1885. In 1890 he was invited by the Korean Presbyterian Church to review their mission work. After his principles were implemented, the Korean church experienced extraordinary growth. Besides The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, he also published Compendium of Theology; China and the Chinese; and Demon Possession and Allied Themes.[2]

One of the hallmarks of the missions endeavors of consciously reformed churches has been their insistence that missions at home and abroad are the work of God. Building the church is an entirely supernatural business from beginning to end. He is the one who guides the circumstance and opportunities for missions. He is the one who gifts and empowers his messengers to go. He is the one who makes their labors fruitful. Paul plants and Apollos waters, but God gives the increase.

Another hallmark is the determination to assist converts to establish their own native churches. It is not democracy or American prosperity that we bring to the mission field, but the good news that God is graciously reconciling sinners to himself. The OPC was born out of the conviction that it is this saving message, and nothing else, that we are commissioned by the Risen Lord to bring to the nations. After the apostolic pattern of Acts, men are trained to lead and propagate their own churches as part of the "nation among the nations" which is the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Nevius saw the importance of this pattern in his own work as he reflected on the biblical mandate for missions. What may be good foreign policy for an empire or a great nation makes terrible policy for missions. Our citizenship, as Christians, is in heaven. Our country transcends national boundaries. The Lord of our embassies reigns victorious over sin and death in heaven. This perspective alone fosters the humility of servanthood required by our Savior for missions.

It has been one of my greatest delights, during three decades as a minister in the OPC, to see these principles put into practice. Each missionary who has presented the work of a particular mission in one of the churches I have served has done so with the attitude of a servant of Jesus Christ. The focus is on what the living Lord is doing in various indigenous churches. Because our missionaries are not required to raise their own support, they do not feel pressured into painting unrealistically positive pictures of their work. They share their struggles in the great battle in which they are engaged on the front lines. Spiritual realism, in turn, encourages the genuine participation of the congregations in the labor of prayer and service.

In my own labor in home missions in New England, I have found Nevius an indispensable mentor in planting churches. At the outset I have set the goal for each mission group to be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. While Nevius worked in a unique situation, the principles he gleaned from God's Word are applicable everywhere and in every age. The methodology of the Apostles prevents us from falling prey to the latest fads in missions and church growth. Nevius corrected many fads and false notions of his own day. He believed that God's way builds churches most pleasing to him and best calculated to endure the storms of life. Nevius breathes the spirit of the Apostolic mission. That is our mission.

As I re-read Bruce Hunt's preface to The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, I was reminded of the often extreme self-sacrifice required of many missionaries. Hunt's brief memoir For a Testimony[3] movingly chronicles his own suffering. It takes men who believe that they are ambassadors to a world which is at enmity with God; who recognize that sinners need to be delivered "from this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4); who are willing to give their lives because they seek a heavenly country and confess that they are "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13); and who count the "reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt" (Hebrews 11:26).

Nineteenth-century Scottish missionary John Paton displayed just such an attitude. When he had determined to bring the Gospel to the New Hebrides, he was reminded by a colleague, Mr. Dickson, that his predecessors, John Williams and James Harris, were clubbed to death and eaten minutes after landing in those islands in 1839. "The Cannibals! You will be eaten by Cannibals!" Paton responded, "If I can live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms."[4]

An Excerpt

How Best Expend One's Time?

  1. The dominant idea of a missionary should be duty, and not immediate individual success as judged by human standards. If the desire for tangible results should take the form of a wish to gather into the church as soon as possible the greatest number of professed converts, it may become a dangerous temptation and snare.
  2. It will be early fifty years hence to determine with positive certainty what any individual life has or has not accomplished. Only in eternity will every man's work be fully made manifest of what sort it is. Results of apparently great importance may attract attention and secure general commendation, and yet prove only temporary and illusory. On the other hand, a good book or a word spoken in season may produce important results, though the world may never be able to trace them to their true source.

Missionaries but Instruments in Spiritual Work

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

  1. This is a fact so familiarly known and universally acknowledged that it may well be regarded as a simple truism. Theoretically, we learned this lesson almost in infancy; practically, it is difficult for some of us fully to learn it in a lifetime. It is so natural for us to feel that with a good knowledge of the language, sincere earnestness and sympathy with the people, together with prudence, common sense, zeal, hard work, and perseverance, sooner or later great spiritual results must certainly be accomplished. This is by no means the case. Our labors may combine all the above conditions and yet be fruitless in the conversion of souls. If we depend upon our gifts or acquisitions, our zeal in the use even of God's appointed means, with an underlying and insidious desire for a result which may be regarded as something which we ourselves have accomplished, we shall probably be disappointed. If we are cherishing a feeling of self-dependence in any form, God will probably humble us before he will use us. We must feel that, if anything is accomplished, it will be by the presence and power of God's Holy Spirit, and be ready to ascribe all the glory to him. Otherwise he will probably leave us to ourselves to learn the lesson of our own weakness. The natural tendency to depend on self, or on anything else rather than God, has been a prominent sin of God's people from the earliest times. I am disposed to think that this tendency now prevails to a great extent among Christians at home and that missionaries commence work in foreign lands too much under the influence of it.
  2. In this commercial age a commercial spirit has crept into the Church. As in business matters generally, so in religious enterprises, it is supposed that a certain amount of capital, judiciously expended, will naturally work out a certain result. The success of a mission society is gauged by the amount of money in its treasury. In order to secure more liberal contributions, only the more favorable and encouraging facts are welcomed and laid before the churches, so that they may feel that they are contributing not to a failing but to a prospering cause. Let me not be understood as implying that money is not important and that the duty of giving to missions should not be pressed home upon the hearts and consciences of all, whether native converts or home Christians. The danger I would guard against is of giving such disproportionate prominence to money as to divert the mind from what is of much greater importance. In a word, it is making money or what money can command, rather than the Holy Spirit, our main dependence. I am quite aware that all Christians would earnestly disavow any such intention. It is not an uncommon thing, however, to find ourselves doing indirectly, or unconsciously, what we could never be induced to do deliberately and knowingly. The work we are prosecuting is distinctly and emphatically a work of God's Spirit. If we fail to recognize and act upon this fact, the mission work will decline even with a full treasury; while with the Spirit's presence it will prosper even with a depleted one.[5]

Endnotes

[1] Gregory E. Reynolds, "Introduction," John L. Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (Hancock, NH: Monadnock Press, 2003), 9-11.

[2] John L. Nevius, China and the Chinese: A General Description of the Country and Its Inhabitants; Its Civilization and Form Of Government; Its Religious and Social Institutions; Its Intercourse with Other Nations, and Its Present Condition and Prospects (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1869); Demon Possession and Allied Themes; Being an Inductive Study of Phenomena of Our Own Times, Intro. F. F. Ellinwood (Chicago: F. H. Revell, 1895).

[3] Bruce Hunt, For A Testimony (Willow Grove: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2000).

[4] John G. Paton, D.D., Missionary to the New Hebrides: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891) 56.

[5] Nevius, Chapter 5, "Beginning Work," The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, 95-98.

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