Over 100 years ago, God began a work along the steep inclines above the Nujiang River in Yunnan that greatly impacted the Lisu people and many others along with and through them. The beginnings of this work are famously recorded in the biographies of J. O. Fraser, and books by Leila Cooke and Isobel Kuhn. The work continues so that in February 2019 a major celebration was held in northern Thailand attended by close to 1000 Lisu and other Christians to remember the time “Elder Brother Number Three”—Fraser—met his first Lisu. And though God has done great things among them, aspects of the work remain unfamiliar to many—including Lisu Christians, as became clear during the celebration.
Though Fraser, the Cookes, the Kuhns, and a couple of other missionaries to the Lisu were remembered, most attending the celebration were surprised to find that around thirty CIM missionaries had worked with them for longer or shorter periods of time in China and that others joined the work in northern Thailand. Perhaps of greater importance than the identities of the missionaries is the way that they taught the Christian faith to the Lisu and encouraged them to take it to others. Their stress on prayer, itinerant evangelism, learning the Bible in their mother-tongue, hymnody, and three-self principles all played a major part in the spectacular expansion of Christianity within this tribe.
From his early days in Yunnan, Fraser stressed the need for prayer in the spiritual life of the believer and for the spread of the church. He encouraged people at home to pray for the Lisu, and provided them with requests that were so specific that prayer partners felt the Lisu lived “just next door.” He also taught new Lisu believers to memorize prayers and hymns. One of his early prayers taught believers to think on God as Father and Creator and the one who could protect them from evil spirits.
God, our Father,
Creator of heaven and earth,
Creator of mankind,
We are Your children,
We are followers of Jesus.
Watch over us this day;
Don’t let the evil spirits see us.
Trusting in Jesus, Amen.
A major goal in teaching prayers for protection and healing was to let the new believers experience that God would listen to them and not just a foreign missionary.
The growth of the church is also connected to itinerant evangelism by the Lisu themselves. While the work began with Western missionaries sharing the gospel from village to village, it was not long before local evangelists accompanied them or were sent to preach Jesus in places foreigners could not go. Some visits were arranged after distant Lisu who had heard of Jesus’ power over evil spirits came looking for someone to tell them how to be free. Other treks were planned to give remote villages an opportunity to hear about Jesus.
The translation of the Bible into Lisu and study of it was another factor in the growth of the church. Prior to becoming Christians, few Lisu had received any education. As the missionaries translated the Bible and taught them to read, they heard God speak. And while Lisu believers only needed to understand the plan of salvation to evangelize others, evangelists were required to develop a deeper understanding of the Bible so that they could become teachers of God’s word who could help the church grow. For this reason, the missionaries developed what were called the short-term and Rainy Season Bible Schools.
First held in 1938, the Rainy Season Bible School was attended by full-time teachers, voluntary workers, church leaders, and promising young people. All students were required to display a personal relationship with the Lord. In addition to training teachers, the school made the needs of the growing church more widely known, provided it with faithful pastors, and maintained church growth along New Testament principles. From the beginning, local churches were responsible to select students to attend and provide for their needs. The missionaries were responsible for spiritual nurture, though it did not take long before Lisu evangelists joined them in teaching others.
Before the Lisu New Testament was in print, much time was given at the Bible School for students to copy Scripture portions for personal and church use. They similarly copied hymns translated into Lisu or new Lisu hymns in order to help their mountain congregations. The passages copied by students were studied at a deeper level and became the main teaching passages for the next the year.
From as early as 1917, hymnody became a potent stimulus for spiritual and numerical growth in the church as it condenses scriptural truth, provides words for prayer, and motivates people to read God’s word. To the Western hymns that were translated into their language, Lisu Christians added original songs using their own poetic forms. The message of all these songs moved many to listen to the gospel and respond with faith. While the Lisu were not the only tribal group that engaged in singing hymns, it became such a central part of their church culture that Lisu Christians today are renown for their singing in harmony. During the celebrations in February 2019, the Lisu sang congregational hymns and listened to the singing of many choirs. Their rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in Lisu brought new meaning to the words proclaiming that “the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ has come and he shall reign forever and ever.”
One more factor that may have prompted the growth of the church is the adoption of the three-self principles—self-support, self-propagation, and self-government—developed by Roland Allen. Fraser had discovered Allen’s principles and was teaching them by 1917. As noted above, Lisu Christians were encouraged to share the gospel from the start. While Lisu sometimes traveled without missionaries because some people found white men so strange that they couldn’t remember their message, it was understood that they were saved in order to share the gospel with their own people and with others.
If self-propagation was essential, so was self-support. Lisu Christians were expected to provide for their own material needs without outside support. They thus built their own chapels using local materials and skills, supplied everything needed for services, and supported their own evangelists and teachers. By the time the first CIM mission station for the Lisu opened in Muchengpo in 1922, thirty chapels had been built without recourse to Western funds. These had expanded to forty-four in 1926 and to fifty-three by 1928.
The third “self”—self-government—was practiced from the beginning as Lisu built new chapels when, where, and how they wanted them. They were taught to lead their own services, so they could worship God without a missionary present. They selected their own leaders, as long as the person was called of God. By 1927, the 2036 communicant members in the Muchengpo district were served by fifty-nine elders and seventy-eight deacons—all unpaid. In January 1930, the first pastor—Paul Tiger-Fish—was ordained after serving as an evangelist and head of all the evangelists in the Muchengpo district. Ordination came after an individual served faithfully for five years.
While churches would do well to emulate the principles discussed here, there is no formula guaranteeing that the same results will follow. Many groups of people have been prayed for, evangelized by outsiders and insiders, had the Bible, hymns, and other teaching materials prepared for their languages, and had a local church established following three-self standards and yet seen little growth. However, concluding that there was a lack of faith on behalf of some or that the soil where the seed was sown was too rocky may not be necessary. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus about being born again, he speaks of the mysterious nature of salvation. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 ESV). And though neither Nicodemus nor we can fully understand what happens when the gospel is shared with others, the Holy Spirit blows where he will and sweeps the people he desires into his kingdom. Whether he does that in a big way, as with the Lisu, or in a smaller way, as with many other groups, he is the one who leads people into his kingdom.
For more details about God’s work among the Lisu including pictures to illustrate the story, read “God’s Mission to the Lisu,” by Walter McConnell.
Header image credit: Claire McConnell.
Walter McConnell directs OMF International’s Mission Research Department. An American, he has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and theological educator, taught Old Testament at Singapore Bible College where he also directed the Ichthus Centre for Biblical and Theological Research, and served as pastor at the Belfast Chinese... View Full Bio
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