Planting an Indigenous Church: The Case of the Borneo Evangelical Mission
Regnum Studies in Mission
By Jin Huat Tan
Oxford: Regnum, 2011. ISBN 978-1-870345-99-6. 336pp.
Book review by Ka-Neng Au
Librarian, OMF International
Mission Round Table Vol 14 no. 1 (Jan-Apr 2019): 35
The Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) was founded in Australia in 1928 on principles and values that were inspired by those of the China Inland Mission. This included trusting that God would provide their material needs and that leadership should be based in the field. The BEM committed itself to the speedy evangelization of the inland peoples of the island of Borneo and to establish an indigenous church that was self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.
To tell this story, Tan conducted extensive research on the historical background of evangelical Christianity in Australia, the changing political environment in northern Borneo, and the spiritual needs of some of the peoples who lived in remote parts of what is the present-day state of Sarawak in East Malaysia. He also gained access to selected BEM archival material, including field and home council minutes, prayer newsletters, and correspondence between BEM members and their leaders.
The first half of the book focuses on BEM’s evangelization and church planting efforts, the development of Bible translation and literacy programs, the initial steps in the provision of theological training, and transitions in mission leadership. To complete this picture, Tan conducted interviews with former members of the mission and local church leaders. The church founded by BEM—the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) or Borneo Evangelical Church— grew out of the individual fellowships of local believers and became independent of the BEM in structure and governance in 1959.
The second half of the book traces the development of the SIB from being a widespread collection of rural faith communities planted by pioneer missionaries (both foreign and national) to a missions-minded urban church with active lay leaders found throughout the major cities of Sarawak. Today, the SIB is one of the largest Protestant denominations in Malaysia, with congregations in both East and West Malaysia.
Through its process of evangelization, the BEM worked itself out of existence. There are few parallels with other organizations which intentionally operated with such a “sunset clause.” For practical reasons, including compliance with new Malaysian regulations governing missionary visas, the BEM merged with OMF in 1975 so that there would be continuity of the work for a few more years in partnership with OMF personnel. By 1979 the last of the BEM members had left Sarawak but several others were offered new fields of service within OMF.
Tan intentionally limited his study to the years 1928–79, and points out that his book is complemented by Brian Michell’s D.Miss. thesis from 2004, The Role of Missionary Partnership and Closure in Indigenous Church Development: A Malaysian Case Study. Michell, who served as OMF Area Director during the organizational transition, picks up several of the themes from
Tan’s book and describes the relationship between OMF and the SIB. Tan’s book is academic in nature, with extensive footnotes and a long bibliography. However, he has leavened the facts from official minutes and reports with personal recollections from SIB leaders and BEM members. The narrative is both informative and instructive, especially for students of church history, missions agencies, and Christianity in Asia.
For further reading
Roland A. Bewsher, How Hardly…! A Decade of Missionary Effort among the Dayaks (Lawas, Sarawak: Borneo Evangelical Mission, 1939).
Jennie Bray, Longhouse of Faith (Lawas, Sarawak: Borneo Evangelical Mission, 1971).
Ray Cunningham, Longhouses, Open Doors: God’s Glory in Borneo (n.p.: Hudson, 2002).
Bill and Shirley Lees, Is it Sacrifice? Experiencing Mission and Revival in Borneo (Downers Grove: IVP, 1987).
Shirley Lees, Drunk Before Dawn (Sevenoaks: OMF, 1979).
Shirley Lees, Jungle Fire (Lawas, Sarawak: Borneo Evangelical Mission, 1967).
Ken Nightingale, One Way Through the Jungle in Borneo (London: OMF for the Borneo Evangelical Mission, 1975).
C. Hudson Southwell, Uncharted Waters (Calgary, Canada: Astana, 1999).