Borneo Evangelical Mission – Aims, Motivations and Outcomes
Part 4

Parts 1 and 2. A brief history of the Mission
Part 3. Aims, motives, principles and methods of the BEM


Part 4. Features in the emergence of the indigenous church


4.1 The political climate

The political climate in Borneo over the life of the BEM made a significant contribution to the rise of the indigenous church. Under the White Rajahs, Sarawak had been protected from European commercial exploitation and left in the hands of smallholders with virtually no large European owned estates. This would seem to have largely removed any potential for the alignment of the missionaries or the Christian faith with colonialist ambitions as has happened elsewhere. Moreover, the BEM missionaries never felt they had the security of tenure in Borneo and knew that their opportunity could be ended at any time. Political factors such as the Japanese occupation, the 1962 Brunei Rebellion followed by confrontation with Indonesia, and later the restrictions placed on foreign sojourn by the Malaysian government added great urgency to their plans for the establishment of the indigenous church.

4.2 Dynamics of tribal conversion

For the inland peoples of Borneo, conversion to Christianity could not be anything less than a far-reaching corporate affair which affected the totality of life. Many stories (see some of the books listed here) illustrate the importance of group conversion and the role of tribal chiefs in the decision to abandon old customs and to adopt new ways. Often it was the conversion of the Penghulu (head man) which resulted in a mass movement of the whole people to Christianity.

Acceptance of a new way of life was not based on abstract truth claims but on demonstrated ability to provide viability and spiritual power. (This is borne out, for example, in the stories relating to the journey to faith of a Kayan longhouse told by Bray, Longhouse of fear and Longhouse of faith.) The missionaries needed to show how Christ related to the peoples’ struggle for food, shelter, and protection from the evil spirits which were seen as threats to their very existence. Every detail of life was dominated by the superstitions and taboos of animism. Birds, animals, and dreams were taken as omens which regulated all of life’s activities, and ceremonies were undertaken for the propitiation and solicitation of the spirits. This often created a vicious cycle of poverty, disease, poor health, and social breakdown.

“(The enemy) not only holds men and women in spiritual darkness, he is determined to ruin their bodies as well.” (Bill and Shirley Lees, Is it sacrifice?, 75-76.) So, for instance, the rice crop would not be planted or even harvested because of an omen. (Nightingale, One way, 90.)

The circuit breaker for change therefore was being persuaded that “the Lord Jesus is mightier than all the powers of darkness” (BEM, Elusive Borneo, 14), and therefore breaking with the complicated systems of taboos and fetishes which had governed their lives. Often this spiritual confrontation was demonstrated with powerful signs such as protection from evil spirits, healings, and even some reported raisings of the dead. In consequence of this, some features of Bornean faith have been a simple trust in God for daily protection and provision of needs through direct intervention, and expectation of the Holy Spirit being manifested in powerful signs. The coming of the gospel was seen to have brought social and economic benefits which contributed to further change in lifestyle.


4.3 Indigenous people movements and revivals

In many cases the initial movements of various people groups to Christ and subsequent revivals took place quite independently of the missionaries. The Lun Bawang became the paradigm of the “spontaneous” people movement and also a powerhouse for propagation of the gospel among other people groups. The strength of their church is ascribed to the fact that “the ‘fire’ began its phenomenal spread among this tribe, motivated, not by Western funds and prestige, but by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Ken Nightingale, Headhunter’s daughter, 7). Part of these indigenous people movements was the call of Bornean Christians to participate in leadership and mission to other tribes. Again the Lun Bawang were a model of taking initiative in leadership of the church and in going as missionaries to neighbouring peoples. (Even for the Lun Bawang this work was not without its cross-cultural stresses!) Having seen their own tribe safely turn from all the paraphernalia of animism, they were able to give testimony to the keeping and transforming power of Christ and reassure converts in these new tribes as they destroyed their charms and fetishes. It is also significant that the established Church was periodically renewed and reinvigorated by revivals such as those of the early 1970s which began in the interior and spread to the coastal towns.

The spontaneous decision in 1948 of the Lun Bawang Christian leaders to accept the principle of tithing and to change the marriage dowry system was regarded as an important step in the emergence of an indigenous church.

4.4 The shape of indigenous Christianity and the indigenous Church

Many traditional ways of life such as rice growing, hunting, music, dancing and longhouses continued with little modification after conversion to Christianity. From the missionary’s point of view, positive natural traits were to be sanctified in a new Christian way of living. A “primitive” lifestyle and non-Western mindset were not to be regarded as prejudicial to the gift of pastoring. At the same time there was an expectation that the action of the Holy Spirit would rapidly transform tribespeople into “literate and responsible Christians”. The civilising effects implicit in conversion are evident in the suggestion that the Penans, nomadic and retiring jungle dwellers, were to “accept the responsibilities of settled, community life.” (Nightingale, Tribe in transit, 37-38).

One of the disciplines of the Christian life being encouraged was that of the personal “Quiet Time”.

The writings of BEM missionaries espouse a theology of the Christian life which was strong on personal conviction of sin, public confession, renewal, joyful and victorious living, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, progress in the Christian life of Bornean people tended to be measured by such things as the change in prayer focus from temporal needs to requests for a deeper Christian walk, victory over sin, and power for witness to others.


From a contemporary missiological perspective, such issues lead naturally to a discussion of the concepts of indigenisation and contextualisation with respect to the work of the BEM. To what, if any, extent did their indigenisation programme also take on elements of contextualisation, even if such a concept had yet to be fully articulated? The answer to such a question is beyond the scope of this article.


5. Conclusion

The story of the Borneo Evangelical Mission provides a case study in the life cycle of a mission organisation from the first vision of its founders through to the presence of a strong indigenous church and the euthanasia of the mission. It shows how missionary aims, principles and methods largely typical of interdenominational evangelical missions of the time were worked out within the unique context of Borneo. A key feature of the BEM’s work seems to be the combination of spontaneous people movements to Christianity, and the strategic positioning of missionaries who were willing to live and journey amongst the Bornean peoples so that they were ready to co-operate with what they saw as God’s sovereign work of raising and building his Bornean church.


Postscript – The indigenous church at the turn of the millenium

As at the late 1990s SIB (Borneo Evangelical Church) Sarawak is now headquartered in the coastal oil town of Miri and has its second generation of leadership. The president, Gerawat Maran, is a Kelabit and a graduate of the Bible College of Victoria. The Church has five training colleges and an interest in people of twenty-two different ethnic groups, at least nine of which are predominantly Christian. SIB remains strongly mission minded, with involvement in a number of international evangelistic projects as well as its own local projects. People groups in Sarawak still needing evangelising have been identified and strategies for reaching them have been put into place. As a church of minority groups within an Islamic nation, SIB faces some challenges in maintaining its life and witness in an increasingly restrictive political and social environment. Pressure has been brought to bear on the use of certain religious Arabic loan words which are used by both Christians and Muslims – “Allah” being the most obvious of these. Challenges which largely arise from the nature of the Church itself are nominalism, legalism, latent paganism, and discernment of counterfeit revivals and miraculous signs.


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