In 1934 my father, Samuel Austin Moffett, in whose territory the first quickening of Protestant church growth had broken out 40 years earlier, looked back over 50 years of Protestant missions in Korea and summed it all up in one memorable sentence. “For 50 years,” my father said, “we have held up before these people the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit has done the rest.”
Theologically speaking, Father’s statement was right. But other peripheral factors were divinely used of God to bring about Korea’s church explosion, beginning with a creative approach to missions.
In 1890 the Northern Presbyterian Mission (U.S.A.) adopted what was called “the Nevius method,” named for a Princeton seminary graduate (and later missionary to China) who refined the famous “three-self principles” of mission strategy. It stressed a quick transition from mission leadership to self-government in the national churches, as well as self-support and self-propagation.
To these original emphases on ecclesiastical independence, lay evangelism, and self-reliant financial responsibility, the missionaries to Korea added a strong foundational program of Bible study through systematic winter and summer Bible classes—and not just for the leaders, but for all believers. This, in turn, led to a widespread literacy campaign in the churches to ensure that all Christians could read the Bible.
Out of these Bible classes came the primary agents of the advance of the faith in Korea: not the foreign missionaries (though they did the early planting), and not even the national church leaders (though they were faithful evangelists and pastors)—but the laymen and lay-women of the Korean church.
The Nevius Plan, however, is not without its critics. Indeed, some of its severest critics have been Korean Christians themselves. The method has been accused, for example, of overemphasizing lay leadership and popular Bible study classes, thereby undercutting the development of mature critical judgment and broader theological perspectives in the professional leadership of the churches.
Whatever defects the method may have had, however, the one denomination that officially adopted the plan is the one that claims as adherents two-thirds of all the Protestants in Korea.
By Samuel Hugh Moffett, professor emeritus of missions and ecumenics at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.
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