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Big Name Leaders and Nameless Heroes

From the series Research and the Indigenous Chinese Church

Most studies and text books start the era of Christian missions with William Carey. He was named “the Father of Modern Missions.”

But Christian missions did not start in 1792 with the British Missionary Society. More properly, it started when the Apostle Thomas took the gospel to India. Never mind that it was never recorded by the Western standard of Graeco-Roman written tradition. Talk to any Indian Christian and they will proudly point you to the oral tradition and the undeniable evidence of Thomas’ presence in India.

For China, the gospel did not enter through Morrison. The gospel first entered during the 7th century through the Nestorians. However, they only left behind the famous stone stele that is displayed in Xian today. There was no other written history.

They had their high points. At the peak of Nestorian influence, the tablet described 21 clergy serving the church in the capital city alone. They were not common believers but full-time clergy. The stele spoke of many indigenous leaders, not foreign missionaries. And there were countless places of worship approved and provided by the Emperor (“every city full of churches”). Also evident is the indigenization of a very sound, evangelical systemic theology, including that of the Holy Spirit, Christology, and the trinity. Where were the Nestorians sent from? Not the Western branch of the church led by the Pope in Rome, but by Persians of the Eastern branch of the church.

This story highlights the importance of missiologists in shaping the movement of missions throughout history. Without the nameless Nestorian priests who labored to plant the churches and brought up indigenous leaders, they could not have had such influence in China, influence that extended all the way to the Imperial Court. Indeed, the only names we have of the priests were transliterations of their Christian and Persian names into Chinese.

Did they have a strategy? They certainly must had very careful planning before their work mushroomed into such influence. It was people with strategy (we call them missiologists in more modern terms) who shaped the history of missions. Without these nameless missiologists and the likes of more recent big-name heroes such as William Carey, James Hudson Taylor, Eugene Nida, George McGovern, Ralph Winter, missions would not be as we know it today. For China today, the mission movement also needs big-name and nameless missiologists as well.

On the surface, when you consider the love Chinese have for study in accordance with their Confucius tradition, it sounds like a hand-in-glove perfect fit with the need for missiologists who can strategize. But in reality, what is happening is far from that.

Chinese are also very pragmatic. When faced with the hard pressure of vigorous academic study, many choose the easier way of earning a different doctoral degree, that of a Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in missions. The DMin program is good in certain circumstances, but it is mainly for practitioners, not strategists. Furthermore, while many schools offer DMin studies, some of the programs do not have as high a standard as they should. Some DMin dissertations are the level of a ThM thesis. From my perspective, I foresee that within five years, there will be a proliferation of DMins in China. And yet there will still be a shortage of real researchers, especially those properly trained in the tradition of missiologists and who can strategize for the good of the missionary sending movement in China.

There is an even more important need that will emerge as a major bottleneck for the mission movement in China—the need for field directors. Field directors are those who can hold the hand of a new missionary in the field from arrival until he/she is ready to function independently. Field directors are the ones who can supervise a missionary team on the field and make appropriate assignments for each member of the team. Often their names are only recorded in the Book of Life but not well-known publically.

A good example is Alice Cable, the China Inland Mission worker whose pioneering travel in present day Xinjiang ignited many hearts concerning the need of China’s northwest frontier. Few have heard of the person who mentored her upon her arrival in China—Evangeline French. Miss French played that role based on her six years of experience in Shanxi province. Likewise, today it will take at least four years to prepare a fresh missionary to serve as a field director.

China needs international agencies with enough foresight to invest sufficient time and resources in the best candidates among the fresh missionaries from China so the growing missionary movement can be sustained. The sending bodies in China also need to have the vision to not demand immediate results from new missionaries but to allow them to mature into field directors after learning to speak, think, and live like the locals.

If these two urgent needs can be addressed, the aspiring mission-sending movement in China will have a better chance to sustain long-term growth and effectiveness. Otherwise, it will become increasingly stagnant year after year.

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WU Xi (pseudonym) began serving China during the mid-70s, just before China’s Open Door policy was implemented. He served in many different capacities including working with Chinese scholars studying in the West, front-line evangelistic work, and church mobilization for China. He now focuses on developing China’s mission ecosystem.View Full Bio

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