Mission agencies should be church conscious—that means getting in and letting go.
After five years of study at Trinity College, Cambridge. Stephen Neill went to South India in 1924 as a missionary with the Church of England, serving mostly in remote villages as an evangelist and Bible teacher, but emerging from time to time to give theological lectures. In 1938 he was elected bishop of Tennevelly by an electoral body that was 96 percent Indian. For 10 years he was a member of the Joint Committee on Church Union that prepared the way for promotion of the Church of South India in 1947. In 1944 Bishop Neill returned to Cambridge as chaplain of Trinity College and lecturer in theology. Plagued by ill health since 1947. he nonetheless devoted himself largely to travel in East Asia. Africa, Canada, and the United States on special projects for the World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Council. In 1956 he went to the University of Hamburg as visiting professor, and later served as full professor of missions and ecumenical theology from 1962 to 1968. The university conferred on him the first honorary doctorate of theology ever accorded a foreigner. In 1969 he went to Kenya and served until 1973 as professor of philosophy and religious studies in University College of Nairobi. In addition to his lecturing, preaching, and pastoral work, he has written more than 40 books and is now writing a three-volume history of Christianity in India. Born December 31, 1900, Bishop Neill now lives in retirement at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. The following interview was conducted by CHRISTIANITY TODAY in May while he was lecturing at the Overseas Ministries Study Center. Ventnor, New Jersey.
When did you first go to India? How did you become a missionary?
In 1901 at the age of about six weeks, because my parents were missionaries in India. But they never pressed this on us. Having become a believing Christian as a schoolboy and having read the New Testament, I thought, if the Lord wants me to be a missionary, I’d better be a missionary—but I won’t go to India, which nearly killed my parents: I’ll go to some real pioneer place. So, of course, the Lord sent me to India, one of the most ancient mission fields.
What do you feel was your most significant contribution to the church in India?
I think I did more to Indianize that church than anyone else. I tried very hard to make sure the Indian church came into its own. I was always trying to help the Indians be responsible, to think of things their own way.
Church historians sometimes point to the Church of South India as an ideal toward which Third World churches should strive. As you look back, do you think that was a wise move? Did it accomplish what you hoped it would?
Unquestionably. You never hear such old words as Presbyterian and Methodist. What you hear now is CSI—Church of South India. They feel it’s their own church. Very successfully the different traditions have been amalgamated so it really is a church. It is a fairly large church of more than a million people, but a minority in India. It’s not growing as fast as we hoped; the leadership is not quite as powerful as we hoped. But it is a real church with a life of its own and unmistakably Indian.
Why are relations between Western churches and missionary societies and Third World churches often so rocky?
Third World churches have come to detest the words mission and missionary. It is our fault; we’ve held on too long. To them, “mission” and “missionary” implies Western aggression, Western authoritarianism, the stifling of local independence. To some extent control, especially financial control, is still in the hands of groups in the West. This leads to immense tension.
What is vitally important is that mission agencies should become church conscious. Some evangelical groups tend to regard the church almost as an excrescence on the gospel. That’s not the case: the church is part of the gospel. Why is Christianity growing so rapidly in Africa? Because the church is providing a home for homeless people. The old African structure is disintegrating, whether we like it or not, and to many Africans the church is the home in which they can live. That means the church must be a church: it must be rooted there; it must be the body of Christ. That means a certain measure of organization, and it means recognizable forms of worship.
Whereas the big evangelical organizations are quite right in not wanting to impose their church structures on these Third World bodies, in many cases at the start they haven’t really thought out the church problem at all. They are set on winning souls for Jesus Christ—quite right, too; that’s the very heart of missionary work. But what happens to them then? Much less thought was given to that at the start.
What are the differences between the outreach of the Church of South India and the churches in Africa?
There are very deep differences. In India the majority of our Christians came from groups that really had no roots in classical Indian culture. The Hinduism you learn in books and theological seminaries has very little to do with Hinduism as you meet it at the Indian village, which is on a very, very different level. Caste is a system of infinite intricacy. That is the major difficulty and always has been in missions in India, whereas in Africa the problem is in tribe. In a single Indian village there may be 8, 10, 12 different castes. In Africa, as it was, each tribe was geographically separate. Now, with urbanization, you get a lot of different tribes drifting into the same city. The danger is in getting tribal churches. It means that in one area you get almost exclusively a denominational church very much identified with the tribe. Overcoming tribalism is not easy by any means.
What do you think about applying the tools of social research to look for responsive peoples?
There is a great deal in that. I see again and again the history of lost opportunities in Protestant missions. In Roman Catholic missions I see again and again the story of opportunities seized. Protestant missions have been so immobile. If they’ve once settled in an area, they’ll stick to that area, while perhaps a wide door is opening just over the hedge and they haven’t seen it.
On the other hand, some almost go as far as saying, as Churchill said to Roosevelt, “Give us the guns and we’ll finish the job.” They mean, “Give us the dollars and we’ll finish the job.” That is quite disastrous and is resented beyond belief by the Christians in the Third World.
A little more scientific study would be no bad thing. I’ve been pleading for many, many years for some simpler point of reference in the non-Roman Catholic world, where data would be collected and made available, where people could inquire. There are perhaps a hundred areas in Africa where no missionary has ever yet been. There is one tribe of a million people, I think in the Upper Volta, which has had practically no contact at all with the gospel.
Someone has calculated that it would take 120,000 Western missionaries to “finish the task.” How do you react to the appeal that we need continually to send more and more Western missionaries into all of these unreached areas?
That again is very dangerous. If you put too many foreigners in, you stifle the church at birth. If you are going to open up an entirely new area with indigenous leadership, but not much indigenous personnel, you probably should start with a fairly strong Western contingent, or as it might be, Indonesian or Japanese contingents. They’re not all going to be white Westerners. The aim from the very start should be to root the church in the soil; not to put up big buildings, but to make things as flexible as possible. If you’re taking a parish of a million, let’s say, a team of 20 at the start wouldn’t be excessive, provided they were varied—agriculturalists, linguists, a couple of doctors, and so on. But the aim all the time should be to lay the basis for an African church from the very start, and not to build up an enormous Western system.
From the start the plan there would be to make a really indigenous church, where the Western personnel would gradually fade out. That might take two or three generations. If you start with no knowledge of the language—not a single word of Scripture in their language—it’s going to take time before you get there. I reckon 20 years before you’ve really got even the outline of a church, and probably 50 before you’ve got a church that can stand on its own feet. The aim from the start is the really important thing. The mistake missionaries made in the second half of the nineteenth century was thinking they were permanent. As the church grew, and the burden of work increased with so many things to be done, the missionaries more or less thought they would be there forever, just as the British officials did.
How can we avoid falling into institutionalism and building Western missionary empires?
The people who really have to be challenged are the doctors. My parents were missionary doctors, but they believed in people and not in buildings. My father, who was a very brilliant surgeon, said himself that the major surgery ought to be done in the big government hospitals. To the horror of some of their hygienically minded colleagues, they let the families of patients come in, and the families would live all around them. You must keep as near as possible to the conditions of the people themselves—which tends to horrify the modern, trained doctor. If you’re going to be a pioneer missionary, you’ve got to be prepared to let go of a whole lot of things. Not just things like buildings, but much more sensitive things like first-rate medical instruments and a good theological library. The sacrifices demanded of a missionary are not those which people imagine. There are great sacrifices involved, and without them you cannot do the work in the way in which it ought to be done.
How do you appraise Theological Education by Extension (TEE) as a means of training national pastors?
I’m sure it’s got to be done, but I think people are a little naive about it. It’s going to be enormously expensive. You’ve got to produce an immense amount of material. Your missionary must be mobile; he must be able to go around, and that’s not so easy for a married missionary—although it is quite easy for old-fashioned bachelors like myself.
A large part of theological training is in the common life. We Anglicans believe very much in the common round of liturgical worship, day by day, and the fellowship of a committed community training for the same thing. Of course, if that’s impossible you do without it; but if it is possible, it’s a very important part of theological education. Then the problem arises, how far is it possible for wives to get any training? Quite an important part of life in the place is precisely that training of wives to be useful and effective witnesses with their husbands.
What do you think of the criticism of the resident institution, that pastors who are pulled out of their culture for three or four years of theological education are not able to go back to their tribes, or their people won’t have them. Is that a problem?
Yes, but the real problem is pulling people out of their own culture and sending them to the United States, which is far more harmful. I’m very much troubled about the number who go over there for no particular reason. Quite good training is available in their own country, but they want the prestige; and they can get very seriously denationalized.
There is a problem where you have a large number of languages. I put theological teaching back into the language of my students—Tamil—over the dead body of the Indian church, which thought English education would be good and Tamil education would be bad. I was determined that they should be bilingual in theology, because I had seen the harm done when men had learned all their theology in English and they could not reproduce it in their own language. The basic trouble is that theological education has been based throughout on Western ideas and not on the situation of the people.
We hear much about an Asian theology, an African theology, a Latin American theology, and this makes evangelicals nervous. How do we define these terms? What are the Third World people trying to say?
It’s mostly kind missionaries who’ve said that, really, but nationals are beginning to pick it up. There are real differences of approach and understanding. Even in Lutheranism, German Lutheranism is different from Scandinavian, and American Lutheranism is different again. There is a background; there are approaches; there are differences in the questions people ask. What we’ve got to do—and we’ve done it very badly so far—is to get our friends in the Third World to come to the Scriptures with their own questions and not with ours. Unfortunately, we have Westernized them so much that they find this very difficult to do. It was obvious to me that sometimes the village catechist was a much better preacher than the American-trained theologian. He’s nearer his people and thinks their way.
An African thinks in pictures, but we think abstractly. We’ve taught our African friends to think abstractly, to speak abstractly, and this is not their natural way at all. If you see two Africans talking, they talk with their hands. When an African tells a story he acts the whole thing in front of you. This would be the natural way of preaching, nearer to the Bible than to our Greek abstraction. This is the sort of problem that, on the whole, I don’t find theological teachers facing in the Third World. Unfortunately, the Third World teachers themselves are mostly so much Westernized that they have lost their psychological contact with their own people.
Are you saying that this issue is too far gone to do anything about? Must we just resign ourselves to the fact that African theology is basically going to be a Western import?
Just how we do it, I’m not sure. Unfortunately, the prestige of the West is so extraordinarily high that that’s what the students want. One very earnest and devoted theological teacher in Africa, known to me, got into great trouble because he was trying to draw out real biblical content and meaning. But his students weren’t content with that because he wasn’t introducing them to the big Western commentaries and the Western approach. It was the students who demanded the Western knowledge; it was not that the teacher wanted to deny them anything that would be really useful to them. Blame must not be put all on the “wicked” missionaries. They were bad enough, but they had problems also from the other side—the expectations and desires of their pupils.
When I went to Nairobi, I pictured myself teaching the New Testament, with a smallish class and the Greek text which I would use and gradually introduce the students to, and a couple of English versions. I hoped the students would bring half a dozen African translations, and we would do our exegesis. But they would not bring their African translations. So I was completely frustrated. The problems are much more complex than we realize. Any simplification is automatically a falsification.
Is explosive church growth a fact in Africa—and if so, is there any way of conserving it and training it?
It’s certainly a fact; I’ve seen it. It’s growing and the tremendous problem is precisely educating and training all these new Christians. The Third World leaders are to some extent unaware of what’s happening. A bishop goes around and he has tremendous crowds to preach to, endless confirmation candidates; and unless he gets very close to the people he won’t realize how little they know, how much of the old still remains under the surface of the new, and what the problems are we are piling up for ourselves. Good work is being done in certain areas, but we can’t just barge in and say we are going to educate all these people. It’s got to be by invitation of the Third World people. I hope they’re going to realize the extent and the magnitude of the problem, and realize we do really want to help without bossing. They simply haven’t got the resources at present to deal with this issue; the numbers are gigantic.
The impression the layman gets is that basically in the last 30 or 40 years the missionary outreach in the mainline churches—for example, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Methodists—has been static or declining and the real thrust, enthusiasm, and growth have come from the smaller evangelical denominations and agencies. Do you agree with that?
It depends on how you define it. The number of Anglican missionaries in Kenya is comparatively small, but the idea that the African independent churches are carrying all before them, and the other churches are not growing, is just rubbish. The main growth in Africa is in the mainline churches. But as we have so far indigenized—with 200 African priests we may have 20 English priests at most—that may give the impression of declining support, but it may equally mean great success in doing what we set out to do: to produce those churches that really stand on their own feet.
The reason for the decline in missionary interest is very largely because of our Third World friends. The countless Third World people who have come to this country again and again have drawn the very darkest possible picture of the missionary. The missionaries have never done anything right; they all did everything wrong. We’re thankful to be rid of them. You started it, now you stay home and we’ll carry on. This has had a profound influence on the minds of a great many students.
Another point of theological tension that affects missions is dialogue with those of other religions. How do we avoid being imperialistic? How do we maintain the distinctives of the Christian revelation—the either/or claims of Jesus Christ?
I draw a very sharp distinction between friendly discussion and dialogue. Friendly discussion is extremely valuable even among Christians, and still more among Christians and non-Christians. If you can get Marxists to sit down, it’s very valuable indeed. But I draw a sharp distinction between that and dialogue.
I was brought up a Platonist and a Platonic dialogue is a very serious business. Socrates is intensely concerned that the truth should emerge, and he never says I know the truth: he says let truth be seen. This is the basis for our dialogue.
I don’t want to impose my Jesus on these people, because I know my vision is imperfect. I want Jesus to emerge because I believe him to be the truth. I take the risk of genuinely entering in with these other people. My concern is that they should see Jesus with their own eyes and not through mine. What they see might be very different from what I see, but it should be the Lord himself. We’re not trying to impose ourselves; we don’t conceal anything of what we believe. We listen with the utmost respect to what they have to say about what they believe.
This leads us to the question of universalism and the lostness of man. How do you wrestle with that yourself as a missionary and a theologian?
I suppose I’m to be considered rather old-fashioned, but I do see that Jesus is a destroyer as well as a savior. I often say we Christians can read the Bible because we’re not Jews. Jesus destroyed about two-thirds of the Old Testament. Not as history and not as revelation of certain principles of God’s approach to his people. We very often overlook this. I believe everything that is good and true in Hinduism and Islam can be saved, just as everything good in Judaism is saved into the Christian revelation. But I do believe Jesus Christ will destroy an awful lot. This is bound to happen. Jesus Christ can’t just be added to Hinduism or Islam.
I was very moved once. One of the greatest missionaries in South India in my time was thought to be so liberal that his missionary society wouldn’t support him. He worked among young, intellectual Hindus. On one occasion he was sitting among a group of these young fellows and one of them said, “Doctor Larsen, come clean. Do you really want us to become Christians?” He thought and he said, “Oh, I do, indeed I do.” When he was thus challenged, he came clean. He did not want them to become his kind of Christian, or simply to accept his version, but rather to come to know Christ.
Having spent your life in the ecumenical camp, how do you relate personally to evangelicals?
My definition of evangelicalism is that an evangelical is one who accepts the supreme lordship of Jesus Christ: who accepts the Holy Scriptures as the final guide to the faith and life of the church; who believes in the necessity of personal conversion; who believes in the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit; who believes in the obligation resting on every believer to be a witness for Jesus Christ in life and in death. If we agree on those, we’ve got a position. Everything else to me is subsidiary. If only we could agree on those six central points of evangelicalism and accept the fact that on matters like the Second Coming we shall disagree. On the precise definition of inspiration we may disagree. These are disagreements within the fundamental agreements. If evangelicals could give up their scrapping and come together they would have an immense witness to the church and to the world; but it is weakened by the inevitable concentration on subsidiary matters that always arises out of controversy.
Do you see the charismatic renewal as a hopeful sign, as a sort of bridging of some of these controversies and drawing together of people of various traditions?
I’m a critical friend of it. I visited one of the most famous Episcopal churches in this country, the Church of the Redeemer in Houston, and I found three very valuable safeguards. They have a high church liturgical tradition; they have regular Bible teaching; and they have excellent social outlets. With those things the charismatic movement is pretty safe. Lacking any or all of those three, it would become dangerously introverted, emotional, lacking in intellectual content. It’s vitally important not to try to suppress the charismatic movement. The apostle Paul said, if I may paraphrase him, “Don’t suppress it, guide it.”
What can be done about the advances of the Mormons and other cults around the world?
Our people on the whole are so badly educated in the faith that even if we sent them out to bear witness they just wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t want them indoctrinated like the Mormons, who are ready to answer every question, unless it is one they’ve never heard before. And if you do that, they’re completely floored. Zeal for witnessing comes out of a deep understanding of the faith. That means a deep understanding of the Scriptures.
But then people don’t always understand what they read and biblical preaching is practically unknown these days. I find a very remarkable response to serious biblical preaching. There’s not nearly enough of it in any of the churches in America. Presbyterians are probably the best. Until you are rooted and grounded in the faith there is no particular impulse to pass it on.
How do changes in the world political scene affect the mission of the church?
Making evangelism the primary concern of the church is a permanent obligation unaffected by any political change. The way you do it will be affected. That’s what the church is for. It’s got to be that. As I pointed out long ago in my book, The Unfinished Task, the church has always got an evangelistic responsibility to the younger generation. Nobody is born a Christian. Even though I believe in infant baptism, I don’t think that eliminates the necessity for conversion. We find in all baptized people the continued existence of the rebel will, which is the real problem—faith and unbelief. The assumption that children born within the Christian fellowship will be good Christians is what has largely undercut the whole of our Christian witness. It seems to me to overlook obvious realities and certain clear factors in psychological situations. There can never be a hold back on evangelization.
Christian missions and the revived interest in Muslim evangelism seem to be on a collision course with revived, nationalistic Islam. How do you analyze this situation?
That has always been the case. There is a certain triumphalism in Christianity; there’s a triumphalism in Islam. We’ve occasionally managed peaceful coexistence, but not often. What we’re reaping is the fruit of the period in which Islam was absolutely prostrate at the feet of Christian society. Now Muslims feel they are on top. They say it’s religious, but in Islam you cannot separate the religious and the secular. For them the Quran is the complete revelation of God’s will for every aspect of human life. Religious revival and political revival to them are the same thing. Khomeini is very typical in this.
Is there any hope of planting indigenous churches in a Muslim culture?
It’s very difficult. Our church in Iran was indigenous, but it was extremely small. The number of converts was few, but the bishop himself is a convert from Islam. One of our few Persian priests was assassinated, so it’s a very difficult situation. There was a real attempt to make it definitely Persian and the bishop refuses to be downhearted. He thinks this may be a call to make it more genuinely indigenous than it ever was.
Is Europe a mission field?
Yes—but it must be the people of Europe who do the missioning. There’s a great deal of residual Christianity in Europe. In England, church attendance is very poor, but the fact still remains that the majority of babies in England are baptized. That may not mean much—but it does mean something. I’m astonished at the extraordinary niceness of people, their generosity and kindness. You don’t find this in non-Christian countries in the same way. It can only come from the Lord. To some extent people acknowledge him without knowing it, and the problem is how to get them into the church.
The Roman Catholic church in France is becoming so evangelical. A friend of mind regularly takes his holiday in France, where he goes to the Roman Catholic church. He reports that the sermons are entirely Christocentric. Sometimes I’ve noticed the same thing in my fellowship with Roman Catholic friends. Of course, there’s a reaction under the present Pope, and we’ll watch this with anxiety. The Roman Catholic church is changing; possibly not very much in this country.
To bring into focus another issue related to missions, how should Christians relate evangelistically to the Jews?
We’ve got to be very careful and very gentle. I had an intimate Jewish friend years ago whom I still see from time to time. As we were talking once, he said, “You can’t imagine what the name Christ means to us. It means the Holocaust.” I said to him, “Think of him as the Son of Man.” I don’t know if that was a good answer or not, but it seemed to be right at the moment. To me, the most exciting thing in the twentieth century has been the rediscovery of Jesus by the Jews. Astonishing! If you read my chapter in Christian Faith and Other Faiths, I quote there from American Jews: “Jesus in the nineteenth century in Jewish families was a guilty secret. Jesus was just never named.” Now look what they write about him. In the new Jewish encyclopedia the articles on Christianity are fair, learned, sympathetic. They don’t like Paul very much, but the article on Jesus is good, from a Jewish point of view. This is extraordinarily exciting. Our main ministry is to pray that the veil may be taken away. Jews must discover Jesus for themselves. If they came back to the one they rejected, it would be, as Paul said, life from the dead. Their understanding of Scripture is so profound, when Jews do come in, they often have so very much to give.
We must avoid the aggressiveness which they do find very offensive. You know how the Church of England prayed for the Jews: they only prayed for them once a year on Good Friday, praying for “Jews, Turks, infidels, and heretics.” The Jews were not very happy about the companionship we gave them. That’s now been changed. Of course, we still do pray for them on that one day of the year.
If you had control of the Western missionary enterprise for the next two decades, in what directions would you like to see it go?
I want to see missionary work become the enterprise of the whole church. We can’t do it unless we’ve got the whole church behind us. Not financially—I don’t care much about that—but in prayer and in vision and understanding of what missionary work is. That is by far the most important thing. I do want sensible cooperation. There’s a great danger in Urbana—these thousands of young people wanting to do missionary work. If we flood the Third World with rather ill-trained missionaries, we’re going to do an enormous amount of harm. We could fit them all in, if we know where the open doors are and what can be done. This should be done cooperatively and with careful study.
Our great work in the next 30 years should be undergirding the Third World churches. We’ve got to pray they may be willing to have us. We are very much needed, though not very much wanted. It’s a three-pronged enterprise. On the whole the churches are very unmissionary, with small exceptions. This means the missionary is an isolated figure, unsupported by the weight of the church behind him. We ought to capitalize on this enormous enthusiasm of youth, but it needs to be directed much more than it is, and into places where the work can be really profitable.
Is Urbana a kind of danger you’re happy to live with?
Not one to be avoided?
Not one to be avoided. But then, as I say, I hope the younger churches are going to be much more willing than they have been of late to find out where we can help and to trust us: to make use of all the immense resources we have and can put at their disposal—if they’re willing to have us and to trust us.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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