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Christian History Home > 2008 > Issue 98 > From Foreign Mission to Chinese Church

From Foreign Mission to Chinese Church
Missionaries in China were hampered by pressures from home, mistakes in leadership, and identification with the West, but they planted the seeds that would someday yield an astonishing harvest.
Daniel H. Bays | posted 8/08/2008 07:42AM

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In the first half of the 20th century, the foreign missionary movement in China matured, flourished, and then died. In these same decades, a Chinese church was born—a church that is today growing incredibly rapidly. From 1900 to 1950, Christianity in China forsook its foreign origins and put on Chinese dress. The turbulent forces of history, which shaped all aspects of China's politics, economy, and culture, also burst upon foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians.

If we take a historical telescope and focus just on two years, 1932-1934, we can see the transformation of Christianity in China in mid-stream. And it began with a transformation of the missionary endeavor itself.

On an autumn day in 1932, Pearl Buck, born in China of missionary parents and herself a famous missionary there, strode to the podium in the ballroom of New York City's Hotel Astor to address 2,000 Presbyterian women. Buck had just received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth. Now she addressed the topic "Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?" Her answer was technically "yes," but it was so qualified and unenthusiastic, and her criticisms of missionaries for being arrogant, ignorant, and narrow-minded were so trenchant, that she left her audience stunned. This event ignited a firestorm of agitated comment by both critics and defenders of foreign missions in almost all quarters of American Protestantism. It was a sign of the times.

Another sign of the times was the publication of Rethinking Missions: A Laymen's Inquiry After One Hundred Years, commissioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the foremost individual financial supporter of missions in the U.S. Widely circulated and read, the Laymen's Report advocated an overhaul of missionary thinking, especially on such questions as the exclusivity of Christianity.

Also in 1932-33, Robert Service, the former UC-Berkeley track star who had pioneered the establishment of YMCAs in western China, was unexpectedly sacked. In the midst of the Great Depression and dwindling contributions, the YMCA and other well-established missions in China had a massive financial crunch in the early 1930s. Their expensive institution-heavy facilities, especially hospitals, schools, and colleges, swamped the mission budgets. Many missionaries headed home.

The missions movement was clearly on the defensive.

Hopeful Signs

Despite these negative portents, however, there were still enthusiastic young people answering the "call" to China. The China Inland Mission (CIM), that remarkable multinational creation of J. Hudson Taylor's, continued the dramatic growth it had enjoyed since the late 1800s. Its "faith mission" principles (no denominational or other regular financial support) managed to adapt to the new climate of scarcity.

Even as other missions were shrinking because of discouragement or shrinking budgets, the CIM launched a successful campaign to add 200 missionaries. David Adeney, a young Cambridge University student, learned of this campaign for "the 200" and felt a strong call to China. He came to north central China in 1934 and found his niche working with students, which he did until he left in 1950. He established ties which remained intact though dormant for more than 30 years, and which were renewed in heartwarming fashion when Adeney returned to China in the 1980s.

In addition to signs of life in theologically conservative missions like CIM, a wave of Pentecostal revivalism was sweeping through some parts of China. A traveling Norwegian evangelist, Marie Monsen, was the catalyst for the famous "Shantung Revival." Participants saw tongues of fire and heard roaring winds, and some even fell to the ground half-conscious. Pentecostalism, with its stress on the "gifts of the spirit," including prophecy, divine healing, and speaking in tongues, also fed the growth of most of the independent churches that had begun organizing by the 1920s.

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