Change marked the CIM throughout the mid-1900s; although it drastically altered how the work looked, the mission never lost the traits inherited from Hudson Taylor. Indigeneity remained a focus, inclusiveness was paramount, and innovation was required to cope with immense challenges. Here’s a story of one such challenge.
October 1949: The People’s Republic of China was formed, and with it came a new obstacle to mission work. Chairman Mao Zedong and his Russian-supported Communism were particularly wary of foreign presence in the new Republic. To some Chinese at the time, white faces represented Western imperialism, the kind they had fought hard to discourage. Missionaries were often living deep in the heart of China, where suspicion of foreigners was most prevalent. Even though the CIM missionaries had no imperialist agenda (imperialism would hinder the growth of a uniquely Chinese Church) they were still seen to represent the West. Things were getting dangerous for many in inland China.
A decision had to made – would the CIM leave China or remain, not knowing how difficult it could get? But the question of whether to leave China was tied to another question – where would they go? The missionaries had spent years with a burden to spread the gospel in China. Was God calling them to stop that ministry?
Urgent action was needed. The General Director, Bishop Frank Houghton called a meeting in Kalorama, a retreat centre not far from Melbourne. All the CIM’s leaders were to attend. The decision had to be made – would the CIM leave China?
John Sinton, the CIM’s China Director, an unflappable, ‘hands-on’ leader, certainly wasn’t ready to head home yet. After much prayer, he was convinced that the way forward was to reach out to the many Chinese overseas from China. But that decision wasn’t his to make, and he would have to meet with the other leaders of the CIM and convince them this was God’s call for the Mission.
Sinton’s trip from Shanghai to Melbourne was not a straightforward one; the required overnight stop in Singapore was one Sinton could have done without as he made his way to the pivotal meeting; but it was this overnight stop that God would use to confirm his calling for the CIM.
As Sinton made himself comfortable at Raffles Hotel in Singapore, awaiting his next connection, a group of Singapore-Chinese churchmen heard of his arrival. They sought Sinton out and presented themselves to him at the hotel. Sinton did not know the men, nor how they came to find out about his presence in Singapore, let alone the specific hotel he was staying at. As of yet he knew no one in the city and had told few people of his stay. Nevertheless, God brought the men into Sinton’s path. They implored Sinton, ‘bring the CIM down here, to Singapore-Malaya’ and to the Chinese there. The churchmen were impressed by the work of the CIM in China and would value input in their own church planting. If the CIM were to expand, it must have been at the call of God and into areas where their work was welcomed. This unplanned meeting confirmed not just the call of God in Sinton’s eyes, but also verified that the work of the CIM would be valuable to the churches outside of China.
Sinton could not make an immediate promise to the churchmen, he was yet to meet with the remaining leaders of the CIM and the decision to leave China hadn’t yet been made. He thanked them and promised to extend their invitation.
When Sinton arrived in Kalorama it quickly became clear that the work of missionaries in China would have to come to an end. Bishop Houghton sent final instructions to all the CIM’s missionaries to leave China. The long task of withdrawal began; a ‘reluctant exodus’ as Phyllis Thompson dubbed it. In late autumn, the leaders of the CIM assembled to discuss its future ministry. Where would they go? If the CIM were to work outside of China would its name change? Did a change of name accompany a change in policies? It was a long agenda, but nothing could have given the members of that meeting more confidence than hearing of John Sinton’s experience with the Chinese churchmen in Singapore. God’s confirmation to Sinton helped the leaders decide that the CIM would continue to work; they would use cultural experiences gleaned from China to be witnesses to the Chinese diaspora.
The decision was taken to change the name, and ‘the China Inland Mission’ became ‘The Overseas Missionary Fellowship of the CIM’. All the historical policies of the CIM remained; finance, indigenous church planting and pioneering into new areas endured with utmost importance.
Many missionaries who were previously in China moved out to Singapore, Malaya, Japan, Thailand and other areas of South East Asia. Through a time of great uncertainty, God provided the mission with an answer and a new focus. As we look to the future, we know that we will continue to face uncertainty, but we can look to our past and see that God has always provided an answer.