IVP - Addenda & Errata - When the Missionary Gets Out of the Way

May 14, 2009

When the Missionary Gets Out of the Way

Seventy-two years ago, on May 12, 1937, James R. Graham Sr., a Southern Presbyterian missionary in Tsingkiangpu, China, wrote home to supporting churches. This was in the forty-seventh year of Sophie and James Graham’s missionary service in Tsingkiangpu:

We have a very large country work, extending over all of three counties and over parts of two other counties. The country work from this station was, for years, exceedingly slow. The prejudice against us was great and it took many years to live it down. This has always been a great official center and wherever the official influence predominated in the old days, their influence was always thrown against allowing the foreigners to get any foothold anywhere. They didn’t love us and felt that we would be a source of trouble to them, I suppose. It is quite different now. The Church, which grew up here in the city, has long ago become self-supporting and self-governing. We have no hand in it at all, except to lend it every help and support that we can in the way of advice and moral assistance.

He continues:

I mention these items to show that we work with the native church as much as we can. As soon as a church, with pastor and session, etc., can support itself, of course, we leave them to entire control . . . . the minute they can carry the whole support, we are hands-off and they have full self-government.

The [Chinese] itinerant members of the Station are in the country most of the time from the middle of February to the middle or end of June, and from the middle of September to Christmas time. They are fine workers and, no longer being among the number of itinerators, I may be allowed to say that I have a very great admiration for them and the Church may feel sure that its work is being done thoroughly and well and in the power of the Spirit.

The membership in the whole work under the North Kiangsu Mission is only a few hundred less than 12,000 and the Christian constituency is over 26,000.

Reading letters like these from my great-grandparents takes me into a different time and world. “They didn’t love us . . . I suppose”? No? Your old Virginian modesty is endearing. Over the years you speak of being beaten, stoned (to unconsciousness) and slandered, you endured the Boxer Rebellion, threats of banditry and invading armies, twice the loss of household goods, the death of a child and numerous other afflictions. But you and Sophie loved the Chinese, and in the end they loved you.

I deeply admire them, even when sometimes they say things that run against my own cherished 21st-century cultural or theological sensibilities. And I’m particularly happy to read a letter like this, which demonstrates (was it in response to contemporary insinuations of missionary cultural imperialism?) that they eagerly worked toward the self-support and self-governance of the Chinese churches.

This is a long historical and personal preface to Mark Noll’s fascinating new book, The New Shape of World Christianity. What happens when a leading historian of American Christianity lifts his gaze from North America to consider the emerging shape of global Christianity? He sees things most of us have hitherto missed: patterns of emerging Christianity that show remarkable resemblances to the template that was formative for the development of American Christianity.

The main point of this book is that American Christianity is important for the world primarily because the world is coming more and more to look like America. Therefore, the way that Christianity developed in the American environment helps to explain the way Christianity is developing in many parts of the world. But correlation is not causation: the fact that globalization and other factors have created societies that resemble in many ways what Americans experienced in the frontier period of their history does not mean that Americans are dictating to the world. It means, instead, that understanding American patterns provides insight for what has been happening elsewhere in the world. (Noll, 189)

In Noll’s assessment, the true growth of Christianity in various parts of the world occurs when, after missionaries establish a beachhead, they get out of the way and allow the work of local Christians to grow into a functioning community.

In this picture, missionary service remains of critical importance, but not because missionaries are intended to exercise a God-like authority in shaping responses to gospel proclamation. Rather, they remain critical to the world Christian picture because they are the ones called to begin a process that succeeds fully—that succeeds in accord with properly Christian understandings of the God-given diversity of cultures—only when the missionaries get out of the way. (Noll, 196)

There is much more to this book than I can represent here, both in its describing the template that obtained on North American soil and how those features may be observed in Africa or Asia (with Uganda and Korea coming under closest observation). This is a book that should set off a new conversation about the relationship between American and global Christianity. Read it and join in that conversation.

About two years after the above letter was written, Sophie Graham would die and be buried in Shanghai after a prolonged illness, and James would retire to a now foreign land of America. War would descend on the Pacific, and in China the missionaries were forced to physically “get out of the way.” But at least at Tsingkiangpu, it seems that the field had been well sown and enduring roots sent down into the soil. When the bamboo curtain was lifted in the late twentieth century, the number of Christians in the region was variously estimated at 100,000 to 200,000. And until ten or more years ago, when they moved into a new church building, a thriving Chinese church continued to meet in the old vacated Graham house.

Posted by Dan Reid at May 14, 2009 12:21 PM Bookmark and Share

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