The Stones Will Cry Out

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The Stones Will Cry Out

By John (appointee with OMF NZ)

A Reflection on the Museum Ministry of Rev. Hunter Corbett in Chefoo

If we could travel back into time and get to Chefoo (Yantai) in the 1870s, we would surely marvel at the natural museum ministry of the American Presbyterian missionary Rev. Hunter Corbett (1835-1920). Let me first invite you to a typical tour session at Corbett’s museum, before we have some reflections on the effectiveness of this unique ministry.

Our tour will normally start with a speech by Corbett himself. We would have been ushered into the first section of the museum, which had a spacious hall furnished with benches and a stage. Speaking in Chinese, Corbett would begin his speech with a common greeting, “ni chi fan le ma (have you had your meal)?” His audience would be startled by the fluent Chinese of this tall, bearded foreigner. Corbett would then elaborate that if they wanted to eat well, they would have to depend on Heaven, that provided rain and sunlight to ensure a good harvest. This Heaven, said Corbett, was not Yu Di, the Jade Emperor, but Shang Di, the Supreme God and our Heavenly Father, who loved us so much that he sent his one and only Son Jesus to redeem our sins by his death on the Cross, so that through him we were able to know the Heavenly Father. Didn’t Confucius teach you to honor your parents? If we have learnt to honor our Heavenly Father, then we will be able to honor our parents on the earth. So, honor your parents, but also honor the Heavenly Father, then you will receive rich blessings. When you live in this world, you will have plenty of food to eat and never go starving, and when you die, you will be in heaven with the Heavenly Father, and you will never be short of food again!

The audience was amazed at the foreigner’s teaching in their own tongue. Corbett would then invite them to move forward into the next compound, which was a marine museum. This room was furnished with various specimens of coral and minerals. The third compound contained a display of the terrestrial organisms, including specimens of exotic birds, animals and plants.

The museum was a feature of the town and drew people from as far as Heilongjiang, Fujian and Guangdong provinces to Chefoo, just to have a look at the “exotic objects of the Westerners.” The automatic counting device attached to the exit turnstile recorded that the museum admitted about seventy-five to one hundred thousand visitors each year, and by 1921, more than three million people had visited the museum – and heard the gospel in full!

The tremendous success of Corbett’s museum ministry makes a good case study for modern cross-cultural missionaries. Museum is a typical example of the “non-aggressive” approach when reaching a hostile people group. The 1870s Chinese society was anything but friendly to western missionaries. A natural museum was a neutral and friendly method to introduce the western culture and western world to Chinese, and the gospel became an integrated part in this introduction. Establishing museums was a way to attract people to come into contact with missionaries, so “new ground” could be broken and preaching would be facilitated. Obviously, the objectives of the museums were to undermine the social sentiments of anti-foreignism and anti-Christianity and to convert local people to Christianity. But interestingly, Chinese people, from the working class to the literati and mandarins, seemed much less hostile to this evangelistic approach. Generally, they not only welcomed it, but also showed exceptional patience and interest in listening to the gospel when the preaching either preceded or followed a museum tour.

The success of museum evangelism also shows that the effectiveness of cross-cultural mission is not necessarily in proportion to the amount of investment in the target culture, either in terms of human resources or financial expenditure. This is particularly true in the early stage of cross-cultural evangelism. Corbett’s exhibits played an important role to draw people near to the gospel with a comparatively low cost. Indeed, “the stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40) to proclaim to salvation of the Lord! Dear friends, would you be able to find your “stones” to share the Good News to a not-so-friendly people in a friendly way?

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