Learning from John Nevius

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

I love reading stories of people and events in church history because many times the past gives me a different perspective on the present.  History helps me to peel back my contemporary blinders a bit and see things in a new way.  I recently finished reading a little book called, “The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches” by John Nevius, first published in 1886.  Nevius was an American Presbyterian missionary working in 19th century rural China.  Although relatively unknown outside of mission circles, Nevius is well known for developing the three self principles of planting churches on the mission field, namely that churches must be self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.  These principles were applied to great effect in the evangelization of Korea and are well-known in the mission world.  As far as Nevius though, I had heard of him but never read the man himself.  I wish that I had run into his writing sooner.  

What I found most fascinating about Nevius’ writings is how Biblical and how practical his advice is.  I find that too much modern missiology is not very well anchored in Scripture, and as a result there is a lot of sociology, anthropology, and psychology but not much Bible.  Nevius speaks from years of experience as a missionary in China and, as most missionaries, is concerned about what are the most effective ways of doing ministry.  However, unlike too many modern pastors and missionaries, his advice about about what should be done about various challenges and obstacles to church growth is informed by the pages of Scripture rather than sociological studies, surveys of the unchurched, or over reliance upon methodology.  He gives practical advice, to be sure, but his advice is hemmed in ahead and behind by Scriptural principles, not the latest business management book or some radical new sociological strategy to overcome cultural barriers to people accepting Christ.  I am not saying that we have nothing to learn from the business world or from sociology but rather that all of our thinking about missions and church growth must be framed by Scripture.  We must come back to Scripture and apply it to our present ministry situation.  We must compare every new missiological theory and strategy to Scripture.  Even if some new strategy promises (or even seemingly produces) amazing results, it should be quickly discarded if it is in conflict with Scripture.

In the next couple weeks, I will be posting some choice excerpts on various topics from Nevius’ book on “The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches”.  Although written over an hundred years ago, many of his observations and recommendations are just as timely and applicable now as they were then.
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