Self-Reliance in Parenting and Missions: Reflections from Nevius

The miraculous cannot be brought about through human striving or effort. The sacredness of preaching the Gospel both within the context of missions and of parenting is nothing short of asking God to take a pile of dry bones and make them into an army of committed soldiers.

The Teachings of Missionary to China, John Nevius
John Nevius, born in New York in 1829, was a missionary to China who spoke out against the missions methodologies of his day. At that time, missionaries were employing national Chinese helpers to go out and preach the Gospel in order to reach as many people as possible for Christ.

Nevius objected to this practice because he saw that many of the employed preachers were expressing interest in the ministry position mainly for the consistent income and not as much for the salvation of their fellow man. Further, Nevius was concerned that these paid evangelists were being sent out before they had developed the Christian character that was necessary to go along with the message. This approach produced numbers to be sent back home (X number of people heard the Gospel, X number of people prayed to receive Christ, etc) but, he argued, this approach would not lead to an independent, healthy church.

He therefore encouraged his fellow missionaries to avoid appointing new converts to the positions of leadership and to let all initiative in evangelism be incited by the Spirit in the hearts of the believers. He also exhorted them to faithfully teach “the whole counsel of God” in order to raise up qualified elders (even if it took decades…). He implored them to consider that:

Labor will not guarantee results

A desire to “frantically evangelize” the world and see hard numbers come out of this initiative should not be the goal. Nevius says that the seeds that we sow in this life may not yield results for another 50 years or more: 

It will be nearly fifty years hence to determine with positive certainty what an individual life has or has not accomplished. Only in eternity will every man’s work be fully made manifest of what sort it is. Results of apparently great importance may attract attention and secure general commendation, and yet prove only temporary and illusory. On the other hand, a good book or a word spoken in season, may produce important results, though the world may never be able to trace them to their true source (Nevius, 79).

If there are two missionaries laboring and one is yielding a harvest, and the other is not, that does not necessarily mean that the first missionary is more faithful than the second; nor does it mean that the second missionary’s ministry should be suspect. The Spirit blows where he wishes, and we do not know from where he is coming or to where he is going. He may choose to wait 50 years or more to bring life to the seeds of the Gospel that were sown into hearts.

And if the missionary is tempted to think that the fruit comes from his labors, God may very well humble him.

If we are self-reliant, God may delay the results

Nevius says:

It is so natural for us to feel that with a good knowledge of the language, sincere earnestness and sympathy with the people, together with prudence, common sense, zeal, hard work and perseverance, sooner or later great spiritual results must certainly be accomplished. This is by no means the case. Our labors may combine all the above conditions and yet be fruitless in the conversion of souls.

If we are cherishing a feeling of self-dependence in any form, God will probably humble us before He will use us. We must feel that if anything is accomplished it will be by the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit, and be ready to ascribe all the glory to Him. Otherwise He will probably leave us to ourselves to learn the lesson of our own weakness (Nevius, 81).

With a lack of fruit, the missionary can easily turn inward and wonder what he is doing wrong. With an abundance of fruit, the missionary may be tempted to attribute his success to his fluency in the language and apparent love for the people. And yet, the first missionary may be the one who is most sincere, most pure of heart, most faithful in the eyes of God. It is easy to think that God’s work is like an equation: If I do A,B,C, then E is a certain outcome. Although the Lord uses means, he cannot be bullied into doing what we think he ought just because we’ve been laboring.

The Right Response: Humility
In Missions
Sometimes a decade of labors in support raising, language acquisition, cultural understanding goes before the first time a missionary is able to share the Gospel with someone who has never heard of Christ. Through those years of striving, the hope of people hearing, believing and being saved is what motivates the missionary to keep pressing on.

Then, when the message is finally preached, oftentimes the person’s response is “Naw.”

The missionary thinks to himself, “What!? I have done all this to get you this message and your response is ‘Naw’?!”

It is at this point that the Lord reminds the missionary that even if the message is preached well in an understandable way, it is still HIM who has mercy on whom he has mercy and hardens whom he hardens. Planting and watering the seeds of the Gospel does not guarantee that the Lord will give growth to what is planted. This reality ought to humble us as missionaries to our knees to ask God to do what only he can do: Send his Spirit to make dead men alive.

This call to humility can also be applied in parenting.

In Parenting
John 1:12-13 says,

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Just as a missionary cannot rely on his own efforts to cause someone to be born again, neither can the Christian parent rely on his own efforts to ensure his child will be saved. The long hours of language learning do not make worshippers and the long hours of conversation, correction, and warnings do not make children love Jesus. It is the Spirit of God who makes children love Jesus.

The other day one of our children was tormenting another child at school and the teacher pulled him aside and said, “You can’t spit in people’s faces and hit them with your lunch box. Why are you doing that?” He looked right at her and said, “Because it is fun.”

It’s hard to admit, but the heart of the unsaved think sin is fun. My son thinks seeing other people angry is enjoyable. Now, I may be able to get him to do his chores, but that deep evil desire in his heart can only be changed by a miracle of God. My will does not change his heart, but instead it is the will of God that can overcome a heart that is dead to him.

A Question
A question for missionaries and a question for parents alike is: In what are we hoping? Are we hoping in our missions methodologies to change a culture? Are we hoping in our nice parenting charts to make our children love what is good? Are we hoping in our polished Gospel presentations in the language to cut people to the heart? Are we trusting in our persuasive arguments to win our children over to our side?

It is true that parenting charts and Gospel presentations (with all the tones exactly right) may be the tool in the hand of God to reach the heart, but ultimately it is not the tool that is doing the work – it is the skillful hand of the surgeon that makes a surgery a success.

God breaks us. He humbles us. He teaches us to not rely on ourselves. And then when he chooses to work through our feeble efforts in parenting and in missions we cannot but ascribe all glory to him. And until that day, we work, we labor, we pray and we say, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Psalm 62:1).

Nevius, John. The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches
Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.