24 October 2014
Celebrating 150 years of mission in Asia
In 2015, OMF International celebrates the 150-year anniversary of Hudson Taylor founding the mission in Asia. Evolving from the China Inland Mission, OMF continues to work throughout East Asia, supported by its 1,400 members from 40 nations. The charity are set to spend the new year remembering the past and thanking God for his faithfulness, while also thinking about what God has in store for the future. Amaris Cole catches up with Rose Dowsett, who has worked with both OMF and Evangelical Alliance, to discuss the history of OMF and the strands that hold its past, present and future together.
Hudson Taylor's story is a rich and inspiring one. From childhood, he was fascinated by China. At 21 he travelled to China with the Chinese Evangelisation Society (CES) to correct the fact that few Chinese people had heard the gospel. At that time, foreigners were only allowed in the treaty ports, but Taylor was hugely concerned with inland China where, as far as anybody knew, there were millions of people who hadn't heard the good news.
Back in England a few years later, Taylor became convinced that it was not simply a question of whether we have faith in God, but that we trust God who is faithful. "God wanted China to hear the gospel. Taylor became so burned about this that he and his wife Maria decided to trust God for a new enterprise that would focus on inland China," Rose said, explaining the start of the China Inland Mission (CIM).
This new charity was unique, Rose says. Firstly, it was interdenominational. Taylor cared more that people were passionate for the Lord and for the gospel than their churchmanship. Similarly, he was not concerned with advanced academic qualifications, despite the existing mission societies almost exclusively using ordained missionaries. Taylor was happy to include people from all walks of life. "He cared much more about the spiritual calibre of men and women. He insisted that women were to be missionaries in their own right. That was revolutionary."
Cultural sensitivity was also key: all workers learnt and used Chinese, were respectful of Chinese customs – where they did not conflict with Christian principles – and were even asked to wear Chinese costume. The men grew pigtails. Rose said: "He wanted to reduce any unnecessary barriers between the missionaries and locals. He was culturally sensitive both in terms of cultural adaptation by missionaries, and also the desire that indigenous groups of believers should, as soon as possible, be responsible for themselves and take responsibility for reaching their own communities."
Chinese Christians being independent of foreign missionaries was central to the Church surviving when CIM were forced to leave after the Communists came to power, Rose believes. Indigenous leaders were built up. The famous Chinese church leaders Watchman Nee and Wang Ming-Dao were inspired by CIM missionaries, but CIM did not want to control them. This is why they went on to develop their very own ministries, Rose explained.
But what about the mission today? "Our primary concern is still the character, faith and commitment of candidates. It's about what God can do, we can't bring anybody to new life – God alone can do that –but at the same time, God expects his people to be the mouthpiece of the gospel and to demonstrate the gospel in the way we live."
"We try to live close to the levels of those we work amongst. For example, those who work in slums of Manila spend much of their time living in slums rather than moving in and out," Rose commented on the continuing need for cultural sensitivity.
One of the things that was interesting about CIM and is still true of OMF today is that crucial decisions are made in Asia. The headquarters are close to the place of action. "We are not controlled by people thousands of miles away who may not know what's best for those on the ground."
Today, there are millions of indigenous Christians. Does this mean OMF's task is finished? "We hear about the huge numberof Christians in China, but when you set that against the numbers of the population, there is still a long way to go. There are still many communities without access to the gospel." In areas with a strong Muslim majority, or very strong Buddhist control, there are millions of people who have never heard the name of Christ. So OMF is still pioneering, working with the national Church. In Japan, often the national leaders will tell the charity when and where they need missionary input. Interestingly enough ,they sometimes say that it is easier for foreigners to pioneer in new areas than for Japanese Christians."
So how should the UK Church react to the changing scene in Asia? Rose said: "I would love to see many more people here in the UK concerned for Asia, certainly at the level of prayer. We have a huge Asian diaspora in the UK and many people need to be involved in befriending and discipling East Asians here. If you want help with how to do that effectively, groups like Friends International and OMF can help train you in a way that is most effective."
There are still invitations coming from East Asia, in consultation with national churches, and OMF are answering them. The charity say the UK needs to ask: "How can we best serve you?"
"It means those who go must be those who are prepared to work with and under national leadership," Rose reflects. "It is: 'How, together, can we build the Kingdom of God and further the gospel of God?'"