When Hudson Taylor sought to share Jesus’ message of hope in inland China in the early 1850’s, he chose to go local. He cut his hair in the local style, even dying it black, and adopted local Chinese clothing. He was largely misunderstood for doing this, but it had a significant impact on the founding of the church that developed in China. And there are lessons that we ought to learn from his example.
Hudson Taylor set sail for China in 1853, with civil war raging and British trade in full swing. At the time, most missionaries lived in European settlements in coastal cities. They maintained European customs and often aided in business and diplomatic affairs. Taylor was convinced that the “foreign air” communicated by the missionaries was an obstacle in the spread of the gospel. His passion was to take the gospel inland and live among the Chinese. When he shaved his head according to local custom, dyed his hair black and started to wear Chinese clothing, he was criticized by fellow missionaries for doing so. But he took his cues from the response of the Chinese. He was no longer viewed with suspicion by those whom he sought to reach. He would even be invited into private homes. By making some simple adjustments in respect of local culture, he made it easier for Chinese to hear the good news.
In his biography, he explains what motivated him.
And why should such a foreign aspect be given to Christianity? The Word of God does not require it; nor, I conceive, could sound reason justify it. It is not the denationalization but the Christianization of this people that we seek. We wish to see Chinese Christians raised up men and women truly Christian, but withal truly Chinese in every sense of the word. We wish to see churches of such believers presided over by pastors and officers of their own country men, worshipping God in the land of their fathers, in their own tongue, and in edifices of a thoroughly native style of architecture. ... Let us in everything not sinful become Chinese, that we may by all means 'save some.'
It’s clear that he’s seeking to apply Paul’s principle of becoming “all things to all people” in order to “save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He also likely learned from Jesus’ example of not only becoming a man in the incarnation but becoming a thoroughly first century Jewish man. But it’s not just about sharing the gospel. He believed that converts, churches, and even church architecture should be “truly Christian” but also “truly Chinese.”
It has taken a long time, but more and more North American churches have realized that the lessons that Hudson Taylor learned are not just for the mission field. Missional churches realize that they need to think like missionaries in the communities where they are located. Missional churches are firmly committed to everything that the Bible prescribes. But where the Bible is silent, local culture is respected and given a voice. Instead of the cultural preferences of the most vocal or influential church members dictating how things are done, missional churches ask questions with their community in mind. What would be the most natural expression of church and biblical discipleship in this community? How can we make it clear that the invitation is to become a follower of Jesus and not a follower of our church sub-culture? New churches often start with a consciousness of this mindset, but because the culture and make-up of the community is constantly changing, the church needs to keep listening to its community and continue to be willing to change or else face irrelevance.
The call to be missional in the church today meets with the same resistance and misunderstanding that it did in Hudson Taylor’s day. It can be confused with compromise or worldliness. And nobody likes to change. Sacrificing for the sake of people who aren’t in the room is hard to do, but the commission of Jesus and the call of Scripture demands it.
Let’s ask missional questions. Let’s take the local culture seriously. Let’s give our loyalty to Jesus and the gospel rather than our favourite (extrabiblical) traditions and church subculture. Let’s ask how church should be done in THIS community at THIS point in history. And not let the way things were get in the way of what God might lead us to become.
In awe of Him,