A Season of Commitment: Together It Is Possible
Part 2: We Commit to Intercultural Ministry
1 Samuel 2:1-10; November 18, 2018
Three weeks ago, we welcomed Fiona and Alice to our faith community. Baptised into the China Christian Council which embraces the Three-Self Church movement, they practised their Christian faith there and now here at West Point Grey United. We are blessed to have them in our faith community. You may wonder what the Three-Self Church movement is. I have not experienced it personally although I understand it also influenced the early church in Korea. I don’t know its current influence in China; never having been there, it is one of my hopes to visit the churches in the areas where the United Church used to work and learn about the China Christian Council communities both there and throughout the country. But what I know from my research is that the Three-Self Church movement originated there and has made an important contribution to the understanding and practice of Christian mission there and around the world. It helped the United Church of Canada to become aware of and address the wrongs of a colonial approach to mission and ministry.
The United Church’s relationship with China goes back to the late 19thcentury. It was then, of course, with the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches until the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 when the United Church inherited the well-established overseas mission work from those three uniting denominations. The result was a tremendous mutual widening of horizons as each of the denominational mission societies brought precious links with a rich variety of Christian communities abroad; the Presbyterians brought the missions in Trinidad (South America), India-China-Korea (Asia) and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu the south Pacific), the Methodists in China and Japan (Asia), and the Congregationalists in Angola (Africa). Of course, we do not think in terms of mission fields now; that language is dated. We don’t think of having missions abroad; we work in partnership with churches in other countries as they ask us – and only as they ask us – and under their direction, just as they may work with us in Canada under our direction.
Among these mission fields, the United Church’s main effort was in China, since it had four mission fields there. At that time two-thirds of the United Church’s overseas mission funds went to Asia; we can easily see that about half of the fund supported mission work in China such as education, health care and the well-being of women and children.
The principles of the Three-Self Church movement – self-governance (independent from foreign leadership), self-support (financial independence from foreigners), and self-propagation (indigenous missionary work) – were first articulated by Henry Venn, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society of England in the mid-late 19thcentury. The principles were drafted formally during an 1892 conference in Shanghai of Christian missions, reflecting an almost unilateral agreement that the future of the Chinese church depended on the indigenization of the leadership, and the creation of sufficiently Chinese modes of worship.
From the 1920s many independent churches emerged in China, advocating Chinese leadership and Chinese financial support. It was in the spirit of the time that in the early 1920s, nationalism was promoted as a form of anti-Western ideals and action; communism in China and Gandhi’s swaraj(self-government) movements in India were ways of resisting the economic and political domination of Western nations.
In Canada many people suffered under the Great Depression from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s. The church too dealt with financial challenges on account of the Depression. As a result, the church’s Missionary and Maintenance Fund (formerly the Mission and Service Fund) declined steeply each year, so that, by 1935, the fund was reduced to less than half. It was necessary for the church to make a painful reduction of expenditures and withdraw missionaries from the fields.
In this context the churches in China showed the United Church a way to develop mission policy. Struggling from a lack of finances to support world mission, the goals of the Three-Self Church movement, particularly the establishment of a self-supporting church must have been a welcome task for the Western churches including the United Church. Money had been a great source of power for the Western churches but now that power was decreasing as the money decreased.
As a result, the United Church’s first mission policy in 1936 stated that the central task of mission was “to establish a … truly indigenous, self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating [church].” In line with that central task, one of the most important principles governing missionary expenditure was “to give first place to the support of those phases of missionary effort which contribute directly to the development of a self-propagating and self-supporting Church on the field.”
The 1936 document clearly states that the United Church’s mission policy was influenced by the Three-Self Church movement in China and it would spread to the partner churches overseas to support them to become truly indigenous. At this point we may wonder why the United Church’s overseas mission policy was more progressive and forward thinking than its domestic mission policy in Canada. At that time the United Church’s domestic mission was heavily involved in indigenous mission through the residential school system.
Such forward thinking was brought to Canada by global partner churches, agencies and overseas personnel and the United Church responded faithfully to meet those challenges. Many missionaries, far from rejecting the cultures of overseas partners as superstition, tried to interpret the values of the indigenous churches understanding of mission to the Canadian Christians. I see the vision of an intercultural church from this perspective. Through the interaction of different cultures, we learn from each other. We will be changed by the other’s presence. By the other’s presence I will become a different person. We commit to intercultural ministry because this is a way of doing mission while keeping our own uniqueness and yet working for the common good beyond our differences.
So, what can we learn from the Three-Self Church movement? Well, I have heard that some people think that West Point Grey United is funded by the government – that we run our programmes through government funding. Is this true? Ours too is a three-self church; We are independent in our leadership and finance and we have our own mission and ministry. This is our church and we seek to do God’s mission together. We are a self-sufficient church, meaning that without our support we may not be able to continue our understanding of God’s mission and ministry here in Vancouver west. In this season of commitment, let us contemplate where God’s heart is and where our hearts are. Where God’s heart and ours meet together there is God’s mission. We do this mission together: Together It Is Possible.
West Point Grey United Church, Vancouver