Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. As I read the biography of John Livingstone Nevius, I stumbled across a letter he wrote to his mission from Tungzhou, China, on October 2, 1862. The analysis that Nevius shared in this letter revolutionized his own work and later the missions philosophy of his day. Today, we sometimes discuss these same ideas, but often they do not reach the daily reality of our ministries.
“There is a natural tendency to go on in old tracks marked out years ago, forgetting that circumstances have changed and that new methods are required to suit them,” observes Nevius as he begins. Then, he presses for a greater emphasis and more effective strategy for training local believers for the work of the ministry. Nevius argued that “the raising up, training, and superintending of native laborers, is, I think, the place where, as a general rule, the time and energy of the foreigner may be expended to most advantage and with the hope of the greatest ultimate results.” After a decade in missionary church planting, I could not agree more.
Yet, 160 years after Nevius’ letter, many missionaries are mired in old ministry patterns without allotting adequate time for training leaders for these works. Missionaries often spend decades planting and shepherding one church that becomes dependent on the foreigner. Should we not, instead, prioritize the equipping of local believers who can plant and pastor multiple churches in their own country?
Why is training local believers the “most advantageous method” for missions? Nevius listed his reasons in that same letter to his mission board…
1. Multiplication Potential
“The main work of preaching the gospel in China must eventually be performed by natives,” writes Nevius. Why not start training and sending locals for the work of the ministry as soon as possible? There will never be enough foreign missionaries to reach any country, especially today as missionary numbers decrease dramatically. While a foreign missionary can and should model healthy ministry, he must not stop there. He must recruit and train local believers to replace him and multiply the work.
2. Language and Culture Effectiveness
Nevius continues, “The first difficulty which a foreigner meets is that of acquiring the language. This is by no means insurmountable; but it requires years to learn it thoroughly [which Nevius did]. A still greater hindrance exists in the foreigner’s comparative ignorance of native ideas, customs, and habits of thought, to become acquainted with which requires long years of familiar intercourse with the people. A native, knowing these things intuitively, is on this account better fitted to approach his own people, combat their errors, detect the undercurrent of their thoughts, understand and sympathize with them in their trials, and solve their doubts. . . . . It is only from the Chinese that this large demand for laborers can be supplied; and they, in many respects, are best fitted to speak to their own countrymen, in their own language, of the wonderful works of God.” Nevius’ observation is just as true today.
3. Stewardship of God’s Money
“Taking into account the years of preparation necessary before a foreigner leaves home, and the years on the field . . . and the respective salaries of the [missionary and the local], the cost to the church for foreign laborers as compared to native is more than ten to one; or, in other words, ten or more native helpers could be placed in as many outstations with as little outlay of funds as is necessary to send into the field one foreigner.”
“This is not said to the disparagement of foreign laborers—by no means,” cautions Nevius. “Without the foreigner’s influence the natives could not be obtained [speaking of initial evangelism and discipleship in unreached areas], nor without his superintendence could they be profitably employed [referring to training and oversight since the local believers were first generation Christians who were young in the faith]. These two agencies [foreign missionary and local coworker] are mutually dependent upon each other. We do not want fewer of the one, but more of both.” Once again, Nevius could be speaking at a missions conference in the 2020s.
4. Trusting Faithful, Trained Believers
Anticipating that missionaries of his day would hesitate to trust the local believers, Nevius argues that the same God who grows the foreigner in his faith also grows the local believers (Philippians 1:6). Speaking of local coworkers in Shandong where he served, Nevius notes that “they have generally far exceeded our expectations, and responsibilities laid upon them have, in most cases, strengthened and developed their Christian character and fitted them for occupying still more important positions in the future. As far as experience and the leadings of Providence go, we have been pointed most clearly to the employment of a native agency as a safe means, and one approved of God, for the successful carrying on of his work.”
“The great essential qualification and ground of confidence is real piety [genuine godliness]. Where this is possessed, with suitable talents, the pushing men forward, after as good a training as we can give them, to battle with the world, and look to God for grace and strength, is the best way to make them strong and efficient.” We must trust God to finish the work he has begun in the hearts of believers of every nationality, and then trust them to further God’s work beyond anything a foreign missionary could do.
Should We Rethink Our Priorities?
Nevius’ observations echo the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:11–16. How does the work of God grow in local churches? Through the equipping of believers for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Who should be trained for ministry? Faithful people from the local context who will teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2). Whether a missionary or a pastor, the church leader cannot do this work alone. He cannot wait for more staff or foreign reinforcements. He cannot just rely on distant seminaries, hoping to hire or attract an already equipped believer. Training local church members in the Lord’s work while modeling Christlikeness should always be at the top of our priorities in ministry.
As Nevius observed 160 years ago, “The work of missionaries is fast becoming one of training and superintending native preachers, and visiting outstations, and it will become so more and more.” Is that where our work is headed today?
M. R. Conrad