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:
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.
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.
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.