Learning from the Pioneers

A response to Training Laborers for His Harvest: A Historical Study of William Milne’s Mentorship of Liang Fa, by Andrew Baiyu Song.

Robert Morrison and William Milne, the first Protestant missionaries to China, laid a solid foundation for future church growth. They learned the language and culture; translated the Bible and other fundamental Christian literature; preached the full gospel widely; and poured their lives into a few people.

Andrew Song has written an excellent introduction to this crucial phase of missionary work in China. He has also shown us how the pioneers set a pattern we would do well to follow. See my review of Song's book on the Global China Center website.

Everyone agrees that the greatest need in the Protestant Chinese church today is for mature Christian leaders – evangelists, pastors, elders, and deacons – to shepherd and grow the huge numbers of people who have indicated interest in Christianity. Sadly, too many ministry workers to China have instead pursued shallow and ineffective routes to church growth, with disastrous results.

Rather than proclaiming a full-orbed gospel, we present a Jesus who can meet people’s needs and invite them to say a prayer to receive Christ, with little teaching about who God is, why Jesus had to come and die and rise for us, how to rely on the ongoing supply of the Holy Spirit for growth in Christ, the vital role of Christian fellowship, or how to apply biblical teaching to all of life. No wonder that the “back door” of the church is as wide as the front door, or that so many professing believers live like their pagan neighbors! Should we be surprised that so many church leaders lack knowledge of the Bible, retain many characteristics of their former life, or struggle in their marriages?

A Better Way

William Milne, having been well-instructed in his youth and while preparing to become a missionary, followed a better path. This short book gives us both his example and a practical way out of our current situation of being “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

First, Milne received thorough teaching in the Bible and in theology before going to China. He also studied missionary theology and methods, so that he left England with a clear idea of what to do. Once in China, he set himself to the arduous task of learning Chinese, an endeavor which he said was “a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of spring-steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah!” As an older missionary told me during my first month in language school in 1976, “the first twenty years are the hardest.” I thought he was joking. Little did I realize that he only meant that the first twenty years were harder than the many years of continued study afterwards!

“Still,” Milne added, “I make a little progress.” Yes, he progressed enough to preach, teach, read, and write Chinese, to the extent that he translated parts of the Bible and other Christian literature and published a novelistic dialogue between a Christian and a seeker that became very popular. Milne also exerted great effort to learn about Chinese religions and culture. He wanted to understand those to whom he intended to communicate the gospel.

As he continued his studies, he also spent countless hours with Liang Fa, the printer who was putting his translated materials into circulation. Through preaching in worship services, frequent reading of Scripture together, private conversations, patient answers to Liang’s questions, and a life lived transparently before his Chinese friend, he exerted abiding influence. Liang saw Milne’s heart for evangelism, watched him as he went about his duties, prayed with him, and felt Milne’s sincere love. All this was carried on in the context of Christian community.

Milne did not trust in his own efforts to persuade Liang, nor did he press for an early “decision for Christ.” Instead, he waited until God had done his divine work in Liang’s soul and followed up with discipleship until he was assured that Liang had been truly converted. Sincere repentance, clear faith, and a transformed life were evidence that Liang was ready for baptism.

Following his baptism, Liang received the same sort of attention that had been used to bring him to Christ, as Milne shared everything he could with the new convert, hoping and praying that Liang would become an effective minister of the gospel – and he did.

Liang Fa went on to become China’s first Protestant evangelist, starting by sharing his newfound faith with his family, for which he suffered terribly. Over the years, he would compose tracts (including a five-hundred-page book) that God greatly used to open the hearts and minds of his fellow Chinese. Fearless and faithful, he endured hardship for the sake of the gospel. The explosive growth of Protestant Christianity in China over the past few decades owes much to people like Liang Fa and the missionaries who eschewed quick but ineffective methods and made the sacrifices necessary for long-term growth.

In the past few years, China ministry workers have expressed a renewed appreciation for the vital role of mentoring in today’s climate of worldliness and increased government restrictions. A careful reading of Training Laborers for His Harvest will help to fuel and undergird that welcome movement.

G. Wright Doyle