Going back to get to the future

 In Advocacy and Mobilization, China, Christian Literature, Featured Stories, God at Work, History, Mission, Uncategorized

A testimony by Sylvia Yuan

Sylvia is a new member with OMF, joining the NZ Homeside team as a missions researcher and mobiliser.



Recently I was asked about how I ended up with OMF. This question triggers the memory of a very long journey. In fact, when I wrote down my journey with OMF back in June 2012, it had 15,000 Chinese characters. I won’t go through it all, but scanning through that piece of writing reminds me how God had a plan for me from the start.

God links me with OMF through its people.

Back in 1995, when I migrated to New Zealand from mainland China, the first Kiwi household that I visited belonged to an OMF retiree couple. When the wife told me that she spoke Chinese and was born in China to missionary parents, it sounded like a fairy tale to me. This hostess led me to Christ and her husband baptised me in a spa pool. It was only years later that I learnt that he was the Home Director of OMF NZ and I was the first convert that he baptised after his retirement.

After my baptism, I moved to a different part of the city and started attending a different church. Our leader asked me to translate a Bible study for our home group. The Bible teacher introduced himself on the first evening like this: “My children were born in France because we were missionaries in France; I was born in India because my parents were missionaries in India; my father was born in China because my grandparents were missionaries in China”. As I was translating it, it sounded like another fairy tale. Years later, I saw the names of his grandparents among the first Australasian party which sailed with the CIM in 1890s. As you know, CIM was the old name of OMF.

One day I had a call from a lady who was looking for the birthplace of her mother, since her grandparents had served in China as missionaries. But she was reluctant to tell me the name of the place because it’s so small that no one has heard of it. When she finally told me, I couldn’t believe my ears; it was my father’s hometown! I ended up accompanying this family to revisit their hometown, which is, theoretically also, my hometown. Shortly after, I discovered that the church that I’ve been attending was founded by a CIM missionary couple.

God links me with OMF through its history.

Through these connections, it felt natural for me to look up mission history in China. It doesn’t take very long for anyone who studies mission history in China to notice the CIM legacy. There are also burning questions regarding missionary activities in China which made me curious. Did the missionaries smuggle opium? Were they intelligence officers using secret code to send messages? The history textbook that I grow up with has one answer while the church has another answer. I was convinced by neither. I wanted to work out my own answers. Every time I look back, I see myself like the doubting Thomas who would only believe if he saw the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put his hand in Jesus’ side. God in His mercy and wisdom appeared to me in the archives, as He appeared to Thomas in the flesh.

Sometimes you don’t even know what you don’t know. Someone told me that CIM had a magazine called “China’s Millions”. It is full of stories about mission work in China. I was astonished and ashamed that, being a Chinese, I never knew such a thing existed. I could not access a full collection of the magazine in New Zealand, so made my way to OMF Australia. However, their collection also had gaps.  Finally I made my way to OMF’s International Headquarters in Singapore, which has an archive with everything I needed for historical inquiry. While I was there, there was also an Orientation Course preparing people for service overseas. Someone invited me to join the morning prayer, so I was able to hear the testimonies of the new missionaries.

It may sound that it all happened in a year, but the whole process unfolded over a decade. During this time, I started two doctoral researches into the CIM-OMF history, where I began to interview and contact many OMF-ers and their families. The more I found out, the more I was drawn to the OMF history and ethos. Although 90% of the materials that I collected couldn’t be used in my thesis, the trust I was shown during the interview process really touched me.

God links me with OMF through its literature.

If you ever come to visit Auckland, may I suggest you visit the Kelly Tarlton Aquarium. Kelly Tarlton is the founder of the aquarium. The documentary of his life concludes with “the underwater world is a private world; Kelly Tarlton’s vision is to make it available for public view”. That really struck me. For people like me who cannot swim, the only way for me to see the underwater world is for someone like Kelly Tarlton to present it on land. In the same way, mission history is like a private world buried under dust, only accessible to specialists. It needs to be presented for public appreciation.

In Chinese tradition, literature and history go hand in hand. This seems also to be the CIM tradition. When you think about it, it is also the Biblical tradition. CIM has been blessed by many gifted missionary writers over the last 150 years. Some of their writings have become mission classics. Ask any missionary; has anyone not been inspired by a missionary biography?

My mum once made a comment that still makes me laugh: “Sylvia enjoys work that other people find boring”.

This is very characteristic of me. But history can be exciting just as theology can be exciting. My calling is to discover and present mission history so everyone can make sense of it. There is so much we can learn from history, but often what we learn is that we’ve actually learnt nothing at all. I hope I can do what someone once summarised beautifully: “Sylvia is going back to the past in order to bring us to the future”.

Writing is a lonely journey. So is research. I’ve been working around CIM history for the last ten years as a freelancer. From time to time, I wonder whether this is worth my while. But then I will receive inquiries from Chinese pastors and Christians about: Who brought the gospel to our town? Who was the first convert? Who was the first Chinese pastor? How did the church grow? These early records were always recorded in English by the missionaries and kept in the West. Often, my piece of work is the only Chinese resource that they can find online.

OMF becomes a reality

In the very beginning, OMF sounded like a fairy-tale. Through my research, I can finally admit that it is true history. Along the way, God challenged me to make OMF my reality by joining it as a member. When I interviewed Dr. Patrick Fung (Director of OMF International) for my thesis, he pointed me to a book – Dead Women Walking – and told me that the author joined OMF after she did her research and published the book. I took it as a hint. Oh, well, maybe I could finish writing my thesis as an independent researcher, say what I need to say about OMF, and then join OMF and say nothing. My overall impression of OMF is that it specialises in grass-roots church-planting mission. What use could I serve as a researcher? I met with David Lin, the field leader back then. He told me, “to prepare the Chinese church for cross-cultural mission, we need someone like you who can reflect on the mission history in their own land to teach them lessons for cross-cultural ministry in a foreign land. The CIM is a perfect case study for them because every Chinese can relate to it.” The NZ National Director also feels that “We need someone like you to regenerate the Kiwi church with their own history.”

God has a good sense of humour. He turned a sceptic like me into an advocate. He is using a Chinese woman to remind the English-speaking church how their ancestors brought the gospel to my ancestors. It is a testimony of its own for someone who has researched into the past and present of an organisation and seen the best and worst of it, and still decide to join its ranks.

God turned a fairy-tale to history and then turned history to reality. Today I am part of the 150 years of intergenerational legend. I encourage you to record your own story as part of the mission history, so that in 100 years’ time, people will not dismiss it as a fairy-tale.



This article originally appeared in our June/July 2017 edition of Serving Asia magazine. If you would like to sign up for more great articles and testimonies, enter your details below:

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