A Bit of Rehearsal
I have been a visitor to Myanmar eight times since November 2000. One of the visits was for a period of eight weeks when I went there in the Rainy Season of 2003 with my wife and son. Most of the visits, however, have been for periods ranging from one week "on the ground" to four weeks "on the ground."
My first visit to Myanmar was on a sort of "fact-finding" mission. Would there be significant interest in the gospel in this country to justify further time and monetary resources being allocated to the project? We determined at that time that we would stay in contact with the people we met, but would not expend great amounts of money by sending it to the nationals with whom we were in contact at that time.
Our greatest concern at the time was over a phenomenon known variously as "rice Christianity" or "the old system." John L. Nevius wrote works variously known as Methods of Mission Work or available in print form as The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches from Monadnock Press.
Nevius stated (this is an 1895 work) the old system and the new, "may be distinguished in general by the former depending largely on paid native agency, while the latter deprecates and seeks to minimize such agency. Perhaps an equally correct and more generally acceptable statement of the difference would be, that while both alike seek ultimately the establishment of independent, self-reliant, and aggressive native churches, the Old System strives by the use of foreign funds to foster and stimulate the growth of native churches in the first stage of their development, and then gradually to discontinue the use of such funds; while those who adopt the New System think that the desired object may be best obtained by applying principles of independence and self-reliance from the beginning." [p. 18]
How This Applies To Us
When the derisive term "rice Christianity" is used, it may raise the specter of people becoming Christians simply because they are paid to become Christians. Thus they would become Buddhists if the Buddhists were proselytizing with funds; or Muslims or Hindus, or any other religion. While there is some of that going on, just as there is in this country (think "Word of Faith"), that is not precisely the difficulty of the mission field that Nevius was trying to address.
Nevius himself acknowledged that the "Old System" or "Old Method" was a natural one that would occur to most people. He stated, "It is only natural that missionaries should at first seek and employ many native agents. They are anxious for immediate results, and home societies and the home churches are as impatient to hear of results as missionaries are to report them" [p. 21]. Not impatience alone, however, but practical considerations as well, may contribute to this approach. After all, it takes many years to become proficient in a new language, even when living among the native speakers of that language. And the plain fact is that most missionaries isolate themselves from the native speakers for the first part of their term on the field.
There is another motive that conspires with the first to bring about the method about which Nevius complained. China, which was Nevius' field, and Burma (Myanmar) both suffer from extreme poverty. Further, it is no secret that it is generally amongst the poorest of a region that the gospel finds its quickest acceptance. The native population is generally willing to work for far less money and will require far fewer resources than would a western missionary. Thus it is that the desire for rapid results and the fact that native agents will work for far less money than the foreign missionary work together to bring about a system in which foreign funds become the determiner of where and how the gospel will be preached. This is not to say that native workers should never be employed. Nevius went on to say, "I fully recognize the fact that the employment and pay of native laborers is under suitable circumstances, legitimate and desirable, as much so as the employment and pay of foreigners. Here, however, the important questions arise, who shall be employed, and when and how shall they be employed" [p. 22].
What We Found
Much of the difficulty in the Myanmar churches -- at least in the Evangelical and Reformed denominations -- was a problem of western missionary zeal. Ministers in the churches regarded manual labor and even intellectual labor to be unbecoming of a minister of the gospel. Working a "day job" was regarded as somehow beneath someone who was called to be a minister. They let their wives and children support them financially; but supporting themselves by becoming or remaining bivocational was considered as spiritually unfitting. This had a number of harmful effects on the churches in Myanmar.
First, it confirmed a tribal system of church polity. The founder and president of a denomination could control the funds coming to his denomination from a foreign church. This led in the space of just a few years of the churches becoming tribes under the benevolent care of their chiefs (presidents and founders). Church boards, sessions, classes, and so forth were made mere "yes-men" because the founder and president was the controller of the funds, the salaries, stipends, and eventually even of ordination.
Second, there is a harm to the paid agent himself. He is placed in a position of tremendous temptation. This is a temptation that few mature Christians could consistently withstand; much less a Christian of only a few years. These men may originally have been farmers, shopkeepers, laborers, or even professionals; but they now find themselves in a calling for which they are ill suited and poorly prepared. Those who were quite capable in their original callings become little more than toadies to the foreign missionaries in order to secure foreign funding for their projects.
Third, the system makes it difficult or impossible to distinguish the true from the false. Money tends to turn people generally into dissemblers, and this is no less true of the Myanmar than it is of Americans or any other nationality. It is not surprising to those who believe in total depravity the extent to which not only allegiances, but even theology, becomes flexible when in search of funds. Arminians become Calvinists and then Arminians again as first one denomination and then another bids for their faith. This is not to say that every person who participates in the system is a hypocrite; but a good tribal chief does what he can to provide funding for his tribe. This again, is as true in the USA as it is in Myanmar. We have simply exported our version of church membership to the highest bidding church to the mission field.
Fourth, by distinguishing native agents with pay, we lessen the number of volunteer evangelists. Again, this is often as true in the USA as it is elsewhere. "It is the preacher's job" is as much a problem here as it is elsewhere. We exasperate the problem, however, when it is not the local group that is making the minister's stipend, but a foreign mission board or church that is guaranteeing it. The work is then seen not so much as the work of the local church or national denomination, but the work of the foreign missionary who has hired the locals to help.
Finally, the testimony to the surrounding unbelievers is that Christianity is a religion in which the native population is "undermined" by foreign monies. It is little wonder that the native population cannot see missions as a spiritual enterprise, when the local Christians and foreign missionaries do not treat it as a spiritual enterprise, but as a commercial one.
What We Were Looking For
The Scripture speaks regarding one who would enter office in the church. Among other qualifications, we read that he is to be "not a novice, lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the devil" [1 Timothy 3:6]. The first thing we were looking for, then, was someone who had been a Christian for a number of years and who had some experience, education, and could present a convincing testimony of a calling to the minstry of the gospel.
Another important thing we were looking for was someone who had a spiritual understanding of the mission of the church. No doubt, diaconal enterprises are important. But they should flow from the spiritual understanding and not from a physical understanding. The diaconal enterprise can very quickly become a bribe in the hands of the inexperienced or unscrupulous.
The third thing we were looking for was a reformed understanding of church polity. This does not mean that we believe that polity is at the center of the gospel message (though it is far more important than many realize). Rather, the importance of this item lay in the fact that it is necessary to renounce the tribal chieftain form of church polity (the "founder and president") in order to overcome the harmful effects of the paid agency form of foreign missions. This is an application of the gospel principle of 1 Corinthians 9:14, that the gospel preacher should ordinarily make his living by the preaching of the gospel.
We Found Such A One On The Fourth Trip
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that someone found him for us. During the rainy season visit of 2002, I made arrangements to spend a few days with a Korean pastor named Rev. Changwon Shu (pronounced "Saw"). Before arriving in country, I had opportunity to correspond with Rev. Shu a number of times by email. We made arrangements to meet one another in Yangon and there he introduced me to Rev. Thang Bwee.
Rev. Thang Bwee was a man in his 40s who was altogether intent upon developing a "three-self" church in Myanmar. Thang Bwee became familiar with the three self concept while studying in Korea. The three self church refers to an indigenous church that is "self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating."
More on this in the next Blog entry.