But the courses of their [missionaries'] missions changed as they were changed. They began to cast doubts on their Christian missions as they developed appreciative understanding of Chinese religions and of the culture they has set out to displace. Traditional missionary mentality had relied on a hemispheric division of the world into light and darkness, the Kingdom of God and the territory of Satan, civilization and barbarism. Yet for these individuals, the growing belief in the worth and self-sufficient of China's own cultural tradition threatened those distinctions that were required for their dedication. [Lian Xi, The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 11]
The early 20th century was a catastrophe for the Protestant cause, where Liberalism eviscerated the churches and great apostasy abounded. Liberalism had even infected the mission field, and this book by LIAN Xi is an interesting look at the collapse of the missionary enterprise in China from an American missionary perspective.
The missionary enterprise in China combined Western culture and Christianity. While missionaries do not necessarily equate the two early on (which they did later when the Social Gospel infected the missionary enterprise), there was an uncritical acceptance of the superiority of Western culture in the more learned missionaries, which probably stems from the Enlightenment. The notion of progress, linked with scientific advancement, infected much of Western society. While not necessarily coming with a domination complex, the overarching worldview in Western society was one of the supremacy of the Western world with its scientific advances which was linked to the superiority of the Christian faith.
This marriage of Christ and Culture became the curse of the missionary enterprise, because it confused special and common grace. It assumes that a renewed mind and a Christian worldview would necessarily result in a superior culture, which God has nowhere indicated in His Word. It is of course true that a renewed mind and society and a Christian worldview would have some benefits in this life, but nowhere are we promised that such benefits would grant an advantage over all other cultures. Thus confused, missionaries to China are disoriented by the advanced Chinese culture, as they ought to be if they thought they were superior. I am an ethnic Chinese, and I am proud to be part of a culture that has lasted for millennia. The cultural accomplishments of the Chinese people stand as magnificent monuments to the power of the human intellect under the common grace of God, and thus the Enlightenment mentality of the missionaries should be seen as misguided and an insult.
The message that the missionaries ought to have come with (which some do) is the Gospel, which is to say the saving work of Christ for sinners. It is not the "social gospel" or anything of that sort that is of any help. The problem for China, and the problem anywhere for that matter, is not that they are "uncivilized," but that the most magnificent artifices of human intellect and will is totally unable to expiate the sins of men. History is filled with the monuments of what humans can accomplish, and all of that apart from God's saving grace. No matter the greatness of Chinese culture, all of that is dung and worthless before the eyes of a holy God. It is God who gives greatness to cultures and nations, and it is His pleasure to remove and humiliate as He wishes to do so. Babylon in its heyday was the greatest empire in the world, yet God brought her down when He saw fit.
The deconversion of confused missionaries is understandable, for they have lost their way prior to their actual apostasy. The sad thing is that the rest of us have to deal with the consequences of their errors in the mission field, and with the hardened hearts and the syncretism in the many false churches there.