Borneo Evangelical Mission – Aims, Motivations and Outcomes
Part 3

Parts 1 and 2. A brief history of the Mission


Part 3. Aims, motives, principles and methods of the BEM

3.1       Aims and motives

From its foundation, the most fundamental aim of the BEM was to evangelise the unreached tribes of Borneo and to assist in the establishment of a truly indigenous church of these peoples. An indigenous church was regarded to be one which had its own administration and infrastructure, and was self-supporting. self-propagating and self-governing. At an individual level indigenisation meant making of the Bornean people “men and women who can receive things direct from God whilst sharing fully in the life of their land” (Nightingale, Tribe in transit, 38.) The Mission was therefore to be a servant of the church – mere scaffolding which would be removed when God had finished the building. Evident in this primary aim is the influence of the indigenisation models of mission first proposed by nineteenth century missiologists Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson.

The chief motive for the BEM missionaries seems to have been the desire to save people who were lost in degrading heathenism and to liberate them from captivity to evil spirits. This does not mean that the missionaries considered every aspect of tribal life and culture to be evil, but they did believe that every aspect was despoiled by immorality, disease and the devil. Consequently they expected conversion to Christ to bring radical changes in tribal life including a complete break with animistic customs.

Nightingale (Tribe in transit, 39) says of one tribe that they lived “in darkness and hard pressed by the haunting spirits of neutral jungles that speak of a kindly Creator, yet hide many a demonic foe.” Even the non-missionary Western traveller who regarded the Borneo interior as an “earthly paradise” and lamented the Christianisation of its tribes had to acknowledge that “the spectre of the spirit world haunted every aspect of tribal existence.” (Jørgen Bisch, Ulu: the world’s end.)

Other motives were the sense of undertaking “a glorious venture for Christ” and playing a part in hastening the return of Christ, obedience to Christ’s commandments, a sense of God’s call to the privilege of service, giving people the Bible in their own language, and the belief that the people of Borneo must have the true light of Christ himself rather than mere “civilisation.”

The basic principles of interest here are those which relate to the financial support of the missionaries and their standard of living, and the governance of the Mission. In matters financial the Mission’s policy was to look to God for provision of funds as he moved people to give rather than to make direct appeals. It followed from this that the Mission would not spend any more than was received for the work, and that the missionaries would commit themselves to simple living. The 1928 provisional constitution of the BEM established governance by the Home Council, but control was transferred to the Field Conference in 1936.

3.3 Methods

While allowing some flexibility for the different tribal contexts, the basic method of operation was to have missionaries set up home in small native style houses located as near as possible to a longhouse community, and then commence local language learning and evangelism. From their mission stations they could also work itinerantly by making visits to other communities further inland or upriver. As each local Christian gathering emerged, the missionaries would immediately begin training local leadership, and would encourage the group to build a village church and a pastor’s house, and support their own pastor as soon as possible.

Such a vision of indigenous church planting meant that, after evangelism, the most important tasks were Bible translation, and discipling and training of local Christians. This in turn involved establishing mission schools and engaging in literacy and education work. Eventually the BEM established three tiers of Bible training: pastor training at the Central Bible School, regional annual short term schools for deacons, and short term Bible Schools for church people. Along the way, BEM missionaries also made contributions in the areas of agriculture, medicine and community health. The fifteen year policy referred to earlier helped the Mission to be intentional about the overall direction of their various areas of work.

“As each successive tribe was entered, the team should pray for, plan for and work for the completion of the task in the next fifteen years.” Lees, Is it sacrifice?, 93.

In summary, the BEM may be termed a post-classical inter-denominational evangelical faith mission founded on the same principles and practices as the China Inland Mission (CIM). This reflects the formative influence of the CIM on Southwell, who was himself named after Hudson Taylor. Paproth (Failure is not final, 137) comments that one of the earliest statements about the Mission “reflects the ethos of MBI behind which stood the influence of Keswick spirituality, voluntarism, an Intervarsity Fellowship concern for doctrine, and the CIM faith missions model.”

Part 4. Features in the emergence of the indigenous church


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