Saturday, November 12, 2016

On the Nevius method

According to [John L.] Nevius' method, foreign missionaries should devote themselves to just a few activities, focusing on itinerant evangelism, biblical literacy, and leadership training. Foreig missionaries were to leave most of the other tasks of ministry to local converts and train new believers to take over even these few missionary tasks as quickly practical. [Bruce P. Bagus and Sung -Il Steve Park, "A Brief History of the Korean Presbyterian Mission to China," in Bruce P. Bagus, ed., China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2014]

The spread of the Christian faith demands indigenization. The kind of ingenization Ahava Theology advocates does not resort to ethnic and political markers to set is boundaries or employ slogans such as "self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting," which are used to isolate Chinese churches from European and American churches. (Paul Wang, "The Indigenization and Contextualization of the Reformed Faith in China," in Ibid., 289)

The Nevius' method, coined after the American Presyterian missionary John L. Nevius, seems to be held up as a great method by certain Western and Presbyterian missionaries. John Nevius was a missionary from the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church USA), back when the PCUSA was actually in some sense biblical, before the Modernist controversy and the disgraceful defrocking of J. Gresham Machen. The method named after him is adopted in a modified form by what became the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state controlled church of China. The method aims to create an indigenous church in a mission context that would be able to grow independent of foreign missionaries by being "self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting." This is in contrast with the real situation in many mission churches in the late 19th/ early 20th century that have congregations perpetually dependent on the foreign mission agencies for ministers and leadership.

The perpetual dependency of the mission churches in the late 19th/ early 20th century is most definitely a problem. But is Nevius' method the solution? Coming from a country that was the beneficiary of foreign missions in the late 19th/ early 20th century, I would suggest not. Even in the book itself, Chinese-American pastor Paul Wang does not sound too happy about that idea. While the goals of being self-governing, self-propagating and self-supporting sounds nice in theory, what is seen in practice doesn't look that great. Let us look at the best examples of the Nevius' method in action, in the Prebyterian churches in Korea. How many of them are sound, orthodox and truly Reformed? I have no idea, but with so many Presbyterian denominations, one wonders what kind of Presbyterianism is being taught and passed on there. Also, one wonders why Korean Presbyterianism tolerates and does not denounce heretics like David (Paul) Yonggi Cho, a Word-faith heretic of the "largest church in the world." My suspicions are that Korean Presbyterianism has not been pure Presbyterianism since its inception, and that is partly because of Nevius' methods.

Nevius' method for sure helps churches to be started fast in the mission field. But the goal should not be just to start churches but to start biblical churches. Telling the Gospel to non-Christians, seeing them repent and believe in Jesus Christ, training them in basic Bible doctrine and then sending them out to do church is not the biblical method. In the biblical method, proper training of ministers is necessary. The opposite of keeping foreigners dependent on Western missions is not to give them the minimal training required and then take a hands-off approach to the mission churches! Untrained Christians are sheep wondering around awaiting the arrival of the wolves for their daily lamb chops! The disaster of the perpetual dependency model is that of baby Christians suddenly forced to do ministry and thus inventing theology and practice on the fly. The disaster of the Nevius model is that of baby Christians already doing ministry and already inventing theology and practice on the fly. In my opinion, neither is better than the other. Just look at the fruits of these models in the mission field. Why is it that after so many years, decades, centuries even, of missions, the solid Reformed and Presbyterian churches are still situated in America? Where are the great Reformed ministers from Asia, the great theologians, the great exegetes? They are nowhere to be found!

While Western missionaries might think highly of the Nevius method, I do not. It is in my opinion reactionary to the perpetual dependency model of 19th century Christian missionaries. Paul Wang charged the method of isolating "Chinese churches from European and American churches." I would say that it partakes of the same mentality that treats "the heathen" as a special class different from Westerners, and thus it partakes of latent racism. I am not RAAN calling for white to "check their privilege," and I am not asking for superior rights over whites. But we wish to be treated equally, not as inferiors or as superiors (pace RAAN). Stop patronizing us! Let us join you as equals. We do not want to be treated under the Nevius method, but similar to home missions with the exception of culture.

The goal of true biblical missions is the formation of biblical churches. The modern (19th/ 20th) mission movement has in general failed at that task. Let us reject both the perpetual dependency model and the Nevius model, and strive towards a new model for producing true biblical Reformed churches, that God may be glorified.

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