This article recounts the “reluctant exodus” of the China Inland Mission from China and its re-formation into the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. The world was changing and the Mission was forced to change right along with it. Decisions were made that would shape the organization and its ministry as it began to work in new lands among people of different cultures and languages. The question is, would they be the right decisions? Would they enhance the spreading of the gospel and development of the church in the post-war world or not?
Rose Dowsett joined OMF in 1969, serving in the Philippines until 1977. Since then she has taught missiology and global church history in Glasgow, and exercised leadership and advisory roles in the WEA Missions Commission, Lausanne, Interserve, UCCF, and other mission agencies. Retired since 2008, she continues to research and write books and articles for OMF.
‘Making all things new’—or Did We?
Mission Round Table Vol 14. No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2019): 10-15
There is an old Irish joke that goes like this:
A traveller who has ended up in a remote village: “I seem to have got lost. Please could you tell me how to get to Dublin?”
Local villager: “Well, if I was going to Dublin, sure, I wouldn’t start from here.”
Of course, the truth is that we have to start where we are, not where we might wish we were. “If only” is usually an unhelpful wistfulness, a wishing that things had been different, often a way of excusing ourselves when things don’t turn out quite as we hoped, even sometimes expressing a defensive grievance to God. Realism is not romanticism. Most China Inland Mission members (and the wide circle of supporters) were grieved at the circumstances in which they had to leave China, and many felt they left their hearts behind as they left. It was not the situation they had expected to be in, or wished to be in, when they had followed God’s call to China, and many were confused about “what next”. What was God doing?
The one thing they could cling on to was their deep belief in the sovereignty of God. Even if they found it hard to make sense of why they were where they were, they could trust the Lord of history and of the present and of the future to bring good out of evil, light out of darkness, guidance out of confusion. To that end they would pray, trust, and obey. OMF was birthed, not out of what, humanly speaking, we might have considered a good starting point, but with the knowledge that God’s people could trust him to lead them to his chosen destination.
Few current members of OMF International, and few of today’s believers, Asian or otherwise, have a grasp of history that helps them understand what happened 70 years ago as the CIM painfully withdrew from China after 85 years of serving its people and began to relocate in other Southeast Asian countries. But understanding what happened and the reasons why are important if we are to grasp how we got to where we are today and why OMF-related churches (and others) developed the way they did. Many of the decisions made then still shape the present.
China wasn’t the only place in turmoil
China had been in uproar for decades, more recently with the Japanese occupation followed by civil war, and then the triumph of Communism. Before and during World War II, Japan had invaded numerous countries, leaving a trail of destruction and bitterness behind. The Western Powers fought back, both to try to dislodge the Japanese and to protect their own colonial and economic interests. The whole of Asia was a battlefield.
When the atom bomb eventually brought the conflict to a devastating end, almost every Asian country had suffered extensive loss of life, the destruction of much infrastructure and property, and trauma. There was now a widespread, restless clamor for political independence as each country was in need of extensive rebuilding. The desire for independence was to lead to even more conflict in the late 1940s and through the 1950s. At the same time, Communism seemed to many to offer the possibility of a new kind of future—fairer, free, and empowering—a future they were prepared to fight for. Asia was still a battlefield.
The term “World War” was entirely accurate. While North America, Australia, and New Zealand were not invaded, they suffered heavy economic and personnel losses through military participation. Europe was in turmoil. Many countries suffered incredibly due to bombing, which devastated the civilian population, and were economically near destitution. In Asia, and indeed in Africa and Latin America, Communism—supported by both China and Russia—was making headway by leaps and bounds. Many countries were already in the control of these two great powers, and many people believed that it would not be long before most of Asia, most of Europe, and many African and Latin American territories would succumb to them—the two great atheistic global empires.
The CIM dilemma
The CIM had been birthed in 1865 out of a vision to reach into inland China with the gospel. This was its charter, its reason for existing. Those who served with CIM had a strong sense of call to reach the people of China, and the logic was that that would mean the vast country of China. There had been times when civil war and other issues made it prudent for many members to be withdrawn from their places of ministry to the safety of the coast, but in the past they had always been able to return to their posts after an interval.
This time things were different. During the early 1950s, it became absolutely clear that the new regime would not permit any foreign Christian missionary activity, and the Chinese churches themselves were asking the Mission to leave. The lives of Chinese believers were endangered if they were seen to have any connection with foreigners. With deep reluctance, leaders realized that total withdrawal was the only option. The question was, should the Mission “fold”, or did God have some further purpose for it?
It was a comfort that by now the CIM-related churches were self-governing and self-financing, a process that had been wisely speeded up ever since the uproar of 1927, so that in that sense CIM’s exodus would have less of an impact than if the churches were still dependent on foreign funding and direction. In addition, with the exception of the Anglican “field” in Szechuan, there were no links to any denominational structure outside China. Arnold Lea, a senior Director, could write that “we believe, too, He is leading us out in order that His Church in China may enter into new depths of trust in Him which perhaps could never be attained while the missionary remained in the background.”
Directors’ Conference, Kalorama, Melbourne, 10–17 February 1951. Front from left: H. M. Griffin, J. R. Sinton, F. Houghton, F. Mitchell, Back: J. H. M. Robinson, H. W. Funnell, J. O. Sanders. China’s Millions, North American edition (April 1951): 51.
As a small group of seven leaders met in February 1951 at Kalorama, near Melbourne, Australia, where the General Director, Bishop Frank Houghton, was slowly recuperating from an extended period of ill health, it was agreed that God was leading the Mission to redeploy into other Asian countries. Initially, it was assumed this would focus on the many millions of Chinese who had migrated. For instance, there were estimated to be ca. 3 million Chinese in Thailand (Siam until 1948–49), ca. 2 million in Indonesia, and ca. 750,000 in the Philippines. In addition, Singapore was home to another ca. 750,000, and perhaps more than a further 2.5 million were distributed between Burma (now Myanmar), Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia), and Indo-China (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos).
Surely it made sense to deploy experienced CIM workers—most of them proficient in Mandarin and a few in other mainland languages and already committed to reaching unreached communities—to take the gospel to these millions of Chinese. There were already Christian churches among the Chinese in several countries, but there were also large numbers of the Chinese of the Asian diaspora who were still unevangelized. There were also a number of minority tribal groups, such as the Lisu, the Lahu, the Kachin, and the Miao, among whom CIM personnel had been working in west China, who had spilled across the bordering mountains and valleys into north Thailand and Burma in particular. It would be possible to continue work among them in Thailand as they had in China. In March 1951, Allan Crane wrote: “The present condition of unrest has set on foot a number of migrations. Christian Kachin families have moved over into Burma, taking the gospel with them.”
The question remained, exactly how should the fledgling OMF—with its first word, Overseas, meaning initially overseas Chinese—relate to already established Chinese churches? Many of these were Presbyterian, Methodist, or Brethren, with a handful of Anglican, each reflecting their own history. Most CIM churches had been planted as non-denominational gatherings of believers, encouraged to make their own alignment as they reached independence. How would an interdenominational OMF membership adjust to already existing denominations? And how would Chinese church leaders relate to CIM patterns of church planting if they were carried over into the new situations? Would they welcome OMF church plants, or feel threatened by them?
There were some warm (as in the case of Singapore) and some cautious expressions of welcome, but for the most part the assumption from those churches seems to have been that any OMF church plant would be directed by the leaders of the existing church structures and that OMF missionaries would come under the authority, not primarily of their own mission Directors as had been the case in the past, but under leadership beyond and outside the Mission. The CIM, however, had had a strongly self-contained ethos, did not loan workers to third parties, and had a structure that was heavily shaped by “Director rule”. These approaches are clearly not compatible. It seems that the leaders meeting at Kalorama, and a few months later with a much larger group at Bournemouth, England, did not envisage any radical departure from that Director rule. Even the Anglican work in China had had its own CIM bishops in charge of the Diocese, starting with William Cassels (one of the famous Cambridge Seven) from 1895 through to Bishop Frank Houghton until he became General Director in 1940. Only then was a Chinese appointed.
CIM leaders at the Conference in Bournemouth, England, England, 17 November–1 December 1951. China’s Millions, North American edition (January 1952): 3
Continuity and discontinuity
In his report on Kalorama, Houghton wrote that survey teams were being dispatched immediately to Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and that, “Further, while giving priority to work among Chinese, we agreed that a few of our workers with special linguistic training might respond to the inarticulate appeal of Bible-less tribes in the Philippines and elsewhere.”
In addition, two financial gifts had spontaneously been sent with the proviso that they be used for CIM work in Japan, conditional upon the mission actually sending someone there. Thus, it was agreed to send a survey team to Japan as well. The significance of this was that it was not for work among Chinese but among Japanese, whose final defeat in the War had left them humiliated and confused. The prayerful hope was that the gospel would bring reconciliation and healing as no other “rebuilding” could do. This was the first real indication—apart from earlier work among the tribal groups—that OMF in its new life might work among other Asian nationals, although there were already some suggesting this could be how the Lord would re-shape the Mission.
The survey teams—apart from Orville Carlson, John Kuhn, and others exploring the tribal scene in northern Thailand—started by contacting established Chinese church leaders, because that was the assumed focus of future work. They felt comfortable with them as those whose culture they thought they understood. They also consulted other mission agencies, some of whom were wary of another group coming, and all of whom expected OMF workers would be seconded to work under their leaders should they work with a ministry of their denomination or in the areas where they worked, or else observe strict geographical comity arrangements (i.e. OMF would only go where there was a “blank canvas”). Most agencies had established work in major cities and larger towns, but were rarely bothered with more rural areas where populations were often poor and illiterate.
This priority given to Chinese church leaders by the various survey teams in the different countries, and to mission agency leaders, meant in and of itself that rather less attention—at least initially—was given to sounding out non-Chinese church leaders, whose perspectives may have been rather different. It also almost certainly made it harder to build warm and mutually respectful relationships later on with non-Chinese leaders who saw themselves as having been treated with less courtesy—not a good thing in any Asian culture. All the same, most of the surveys made it clear that there were huge needs among the non-Chinese populations, and in central Thailand and some Philippines provinces in particular, geographical areas were identified that seemed as empty of gospel work as had been inland China in 1865.
It quickly became apparent that one size does not fit all. For instance, in Indonesia, it was clear that ministry needed to be within Presbyterian boundaries (a heritage of former Dutch colonialism), and that any incoming missionaries must be sponsored (and usually designated) by existing churches if they were to obtain visas. In the Philippines, some Chinese churches and institutions were willing to welcome former CIM and new OMF personnel, but because of the American influence there since 1898, missions already working among Filipinos were strongly pre-millennial, often dispensational, and suspicious or even hostile in relation to any new workers who did not share those emphases, or of anyone coming from a denomination which had connections with the World Council of Churches (which many evangelical Europeans did, even if they roundly condemned the WCC’s increasingly liberal theology).
In Malaya, the British colonial authorities were actively looking for missionaries to come to serve in the New Villages, which were almost entirely populated by relocated Chinese. This was part of their strategy to choke off food supplies for the Communist insurgency, which was largely supported by Chinese from within Malaya and guerillas from mainland China. There were many Chinese who did not align with the insurgents, but whose remote and scattered farms were being raided to provide food for them. But the endorsement of the colonial power did not endear missionaries, or their work, to those who longed for political independence. And as several OMF members who worked in the New Villages testified, many believed that the Christian faith was a tool of western imperialism.
Hong Kong was not seen as a pioneer priority, since many well-established Chinese churches were already there, although later OMF personnel were asked to help pioneer in the growing forest of high-rise apartment blocks and in the New Territories. Similarly, Singapore already had strong Chinese churches and some Tamil churches. It was recognized to be a promising location for a biblically faithful training college, as the existing theological college was perceived as being too liberal. The British authorities insisted the Muslim Malay population was “off limits” in order to prevent religious unrest, a policy that was followed throughout the various parts of Malaya. Thailand, however, seemed open to missionaries locating in the southern part of its country.
Japan’s churches were few, mostly very small, and scattered, and the scars of war made it hard for Japanese, in general, to relate positively to westerners (as all CIM/OMF personnel were to be until 1965). However, some Japanese Christian leaders were more open to foreign help and it seemed that, especially in the north, there might be much scope for the pioneer evangelism and church planting that had been CIM’s main ministry. It was to prove a very difficult field that yielded little fruit.
The initial surveys in the new Asian fields laid some clear direction of travel and established priorities of location. However, it remained the case that the self-contained pattern of CIM life in China would, too often, be replicated in the new situations, with Director rule/control assumed and few attempts made in many places to find ways of working in partnership with Christian networks that were already in place. For missionaries who came from highly entrepreneurial cultures where the existence of many denominations was normal, this did not produce many problems. CIM had had a strong identity, and surely OMF would be the same. Wouldn’t it?
It is difficult to know how many members at the time questioned this approach or whether any were uncomfortable with it. The irony was that “old China hands” knew that back in their beloved China the unrelenting pressure was to herd every Christian group into one to accomplish the political purposes of an atheistic policy. Similarly, in some countries, such as India, and especially wherever the WCC was influential, national churches were often moving to submerge different denominations in one united body. The scandal of church disunity, and the desire to achieve visible unity, would also impact some of the churches in Asia for both good and bad reasons. Going it alone, as OMF expected to do, was definitely counter to the prevailing wind (and surely on the right tack where the prevailing wind was to work for visible unity at the expense of gospel truth). Further, with no long history of Christendom behind them, and professing Christians being a tiny minority in the face of some other dominant religion, the need to stick together was understandable, even though that did not always help them retain biblical faithfulness.
Evangelicals might be distressed by visible disunity, but mostly believed unity was to be spiritual rather than structural, and dependent on unanimity of heart and mind around core biblical truth, which liberalism was perceived to betray. Evangelical Alliances, and the fledgling World Evangelical Fellowship, modeled growing partnership across denominations and the desire to work together rather than in competition. Most Asian countries had at least some groups that were committed to the biblical gospel and that shared (and acted on) the need to reach the lost through committed evangelism. Sadly, again largely because of pressure from America, OMF chose not to align even with these, but followed its own independent course.
The question was, which pattern was better, if either? And which most fitted in Asian cultures, where harmony was of very great importance and the pressing need was for a wider community than can be found in one small local congregation? And which paradigm was most helpful to gospel credibility in the countries to which OMF was now planning to go? Evangelicals have rightly emphasized the importance of personal conversion and faith, but in so doing have often lost sight of the strongly communal nature of authentic faith. Would the story have developed differently had we honored other believers better and found ways of working together?
The early OMF workforce
The leadership communicated their plans, at least in outline terms, which most continuing members accepted, believing them to have been the result of prayerful dependence on God’s guidance. The senior leaders were indeed godly men, steeped in God’s Word; but were they mostly too set in their ways to cope well with such radical changes or to be open to working in very different patterns? And then the new workforce was to be more variegated than the old and additionally would be spread over a number of very different countries.
The “old China hands” were accustomed to the CIM way of doing things through their experience in China. They were Mandarin speakers and their missionary call was bound up with the Chinese. When assigned to work among Chinese of the dispersion, they rapidly found that other Chinese dialects were the norm—some very far removed from what they had so diligently studied—and that Chinese culture was not so monochrome as they might have expected. Many of them were wounded from their recent experiences, physically and emotionally weary, and some had been separated from their children, often for years. Though some had spent time recuperating at home before setting off to their new designations, the question remained whether these folk were able to make big cultural adjustments or would they transplant to their new contexts the methods and assumptions of the old?
Some new workers, who had not yet studied language or had China experience, had felt called to China. These needed to recalibrate their expectations and overcome the confusion as to whether they would now work with Chinese or Thai or Japanese or whoever. There were, among them, a number of men (and women, too) who had seen military service, were older than recruits had often been in the past, and whose experience had aged, matured, and maybe scarred them. Many of them had their faith tested in fire long before they arrived in Asia. Some had held ranks of considerable responsibility and were accustomed to being in charge as well as to taking orders from seniors, to thinking strategically as well as devotionally. Some had received more theological training than was common twenty or so years earlier and had been trained to ask questions and not to accept ideas and practices without careful examination. Many had significant professional experience: nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, as well as a sprinkling of ordained men. These new workers stood in sharp contrast to the raw, young, inexperienced men and women who had joined the CIM before the war.
They were still all from the UK and Europe, the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, or South Africa: white and western, every last one of them. Most had no experience of working with or getting to know Asians, other than possibly a handful of Chinese. Asian migration to the west had scarcely begun. Some had served in Southeast Asia during the war, and the Lord had implanted in their hearts the desire to return as missionaries of peace. Few had any experience of actually planting a church, though almost all would be committed to evangelism and gospel sharing. And none, not even the continuing members, had the languages of the countries they were scattering to. Few knew much about, much less understood, the very different nature of the cultures.
Lessons to be learned?
This was not a good context within which to reboot CIM’s sufficient-to-itself stance. Would a more co-operative mindset, more openness to real partnerships and to secondments, have made progress—especially in the early years—more straightforward? Might there have been a healthier relationship with national church leaders? Was it really adequate to justify a separatist policy by saying that if OMF linked with one denomination or group of churches and not another, too many other relationships would be jeopardized? Was there an element of “keeping control” through the separatism? Would North Americans have resigned en bloc because some of the denominations had (often distant and tenuous) links to the WCC? Was there a rather arrogant assumption that Asian Christian leaders were too immature for OMF members to work under them?
It is impossible to answer these questions definitively, of course, but in Indonesia, where the only way to gain entry was through sponsorship by existing churches, the genuine problems did not deter people entering into service there. In fact, in later years, a number of OMF people, including a number of women members, were ordained by the local denominations, and their contribution hugely appreciated. It is interesting that those serving there have often had a high regard for many of the national leaders with whom they worked. There were, of course, some difficult problems with nominal Christians, especially among second and third generation church members. But that proved to be a problem in entirely CIM/OMF planted churches too, as well as among evangelical and Pentecostal churches in many countries today.
The separatist policy worked in some measure where there were significant geographical areas that were unevangelized, such as most of rural central Thailand and the tribal areas of the Mindoro mountains in the Philippines. But people moved around, and as infrastructure improved and mobility increased, there were diminishing “blank canvas areas.” Bit by bit comity arrangements broke down, so that OMF (along with others) went wherever they thought would be strategic. In practice, many denominational choices are about preference rather than absolute theological/biblical differences, and as people moved about they preferred the group they were accustomed to.
Contrary to some assumptions, the New Testament simply does not give us a detailed blueprint as to how a church should be organized and exactly what it should look like. The Epistles, read without prior assumptions, show the Apostolic authors relating to different communities in different contexts, and not always emphasizing the same things, or apparently setting about church planting in one way only. Acts 2:42 is a good starting point, but it is in very broad brushstrokes, and the way in which believers lived out these elements in different settings seems to have varied quite a bit.
Many early churches were household-based, and CIM and OMF have often sought to replicate that in its adoption of a baptistic, individualist understanding of conversion and baptism. Might the household pattern of baptism, such as in Acts 16:15 and 32–4 have been helpful in Asia’s strong family and communal cultures? It seems that these mini-churches also got together in larger groups—and had to navigate the challenge to loving relationships that entailed. Today’s emphasis on discrete people groups, segmenting the Lord’s people, may be pragmatically useful, especially in initial evangelism, but is a denial of the hard work of abolishing barriers and prejudices in lived-out practice, according to God’s declared Word and the example of the early churches (e.g. Col 3:11, Gal 3:28, or the multinational list of people in Rom 16:1–16).
Perhaps the last two paragraphs seem something of a by-path. But what is missing in much of the Council minutes and articles in CIM/OMF journals around this key transitional period for the Mission is any attention to thinking freshly and theologically about the nature of the church and to addressing whether evangelism of individuals, or the planting of churches unrelated to anything already in place, was indeed the only way in which to understand and obey Scripture. The Overseas Council of 1953 did give attention to relating to existing churches, but largely committed to working independently, and with a strong separate OMF identity. That may have been congenial to many supporters, but was it in the best interests of the gospel?
Clearly, the leaders wanted to guard the importance not only of gospel faithfulness but the principle of planting churches that were indigenous. Actually achieving that is, in fact, very complex and difficult. Working as “OMF solo” has sometimes resulted in genuinely indigenous churches but sometimes has not. In the initial years after China, OMF missionaries—who were all from western countries—inevitably brought some of their own cultural as well as theological assumptions with them and, consciously or otherwise, this shaped in some measure the churches they planted. And whatever reservations may have existed about the rightness of denominations, it was equally inevitable that as those young churches developed their own networks, the result, in a number of countries, was the formation of new denominations that were OMF ones. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of these policy decisions, it was also a struggle to get to the point where fledgling churches passed from missionary hands to national leadership. This reality is easy to understand when most members of these OMF churches had only recently been converted from another faith and were ignorant of just about every aspect in biblical truth. The journey to full indigenization may take quite a while and there may often be different ideas about where the road leads and what the destination looks like.
Further, in a generation when the Billy Graham template for evangelism was increasingly the background from which western evangelical missionaries came, it seems that the wholeness of the gospel was often overlooked. The CIM had arisen in a climate where gospel proclamation was rounded out and made visible with care for the poor and initiatives for social justice and so on, and so CIM instinctively set up refuges for opium addicts and small clinics to offer simple medical care, developed literacy programs and produced literature, organized famine relief, resisted the abuse of women and the abandoning of babies, and much more. This was not an “add on”, nor primarily a means to achieve a narrower agenda of “getting people to accept Christ,” but because these things were seen as integral to the gospel itself.
But in 1951, apart from plans for some medical work in Thailand and Indonesia and some ongoing literature production, that fuller understanding of authentic mission seems to have been largely lost in the policy discussions. Given the post-War situation throughout Asia and the clear need for widespread compassionate service alongside proclamation, it would seem that this loss made church planting progress harder. In practice, and sometimes defying the wishes of some leaders, many members found that they simply had to engage with whole-life, concrete issues, whether it be, for example, through helping the Mangyan in Mindoro to learn better farming practices, or helping leprosy sufferers not only medically but by training them in work skills that could make them self-supporting. Most Asian cultures are “whole person” cultures and also communal—as indeed were Old and New Testament cultures—so that a verbal message that can too easily appear to be only propositions to believe is (understandably) not engaging.
This paper has explored some of the contexts that shaped early OMF policy and, therefore, practice. Was it a new beginning? Yes, and no. Those early decisions set directions, both good and not so good, for the Mission’s work in many countries and in so doing, impacted the growth and shape of some of the churches in those countries. Is that still the case seventy years on? Well, that’s the subject of another study. And maybe the analysis would best be given by Asian brothers and sisters.
Are we ready and humble enough to listen?
 The story is well documented in numerous biographies of James Hudson Taylor, including the seven-volume set by A. J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century (Sevenoaks: Hodder & Stoughton and Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1981–89).
 Arnold Lea, “Why this Sudden Change?” China’s Millions, British ed. (February 1951): 21.
 David Bentley-Taylor, “The Chinese in Southeast Asia,” China’s Millions, British ed. (May 1951): 54–5.
 Allan Crane, “A Branch over the Wall,” China’s Millions, British ed. (March 1951): 26–7.
 Confirmed in personal conversations by Chinese leaders in the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia, and by Arnold Lea, Jim Broomhall, and other “old China hands” in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
 In China, there had been no need to work with others, although there were some territorial comity agreements. Some CIM/OMF leaders and members saw the mission’s independence as much-needed protection against liberalizing tendencies in some established denominations, and that it preserved their focus on reaching the unreached.
 Frank Houghton, “‘If it be Thou …’,” China’s Millions, British ed. (April 1951): 40.
 This was expressed to me by thoroughly evangelical Asian national church leaders between 1980 and 2000.
 CIM had had a sensitive policy of trying to place workers with similar theological positions together, so the various field distinctives could be accommodated fairly straightforwardly. In time, some places (including the Philippines) became more diverse in the background of members, with mutual respect.
 See Elizabeth Goldsmith, Against all Odds: God at Work in an Impossible Situation (London: Authentic and Borough Green: OMF, 2007), 12.
 This is neither a racist comment not a slur on my American brothers and sisters, but reflects the testimony of Leslie Lyall, Arnold Lea, Jim Broomhall, Art Glasser, and others who were leaders through the momentous changes of the 1950s and early 1960s. There are clear historical reasons why Europeans and Americans saw some of these things differently.