J.O Fraser was one of the best-known pioneer missionaries among the Lisu people in China the early 20th century. His story of tireless prayer and loving service has been told in several books, including Behind the Ranges and Mountain Rain. What is less well known is how the effect of that pioneering work continues among the Lisu and other people groups across Southeast Asia today through the work of the J.O Fraser Centre, a residential Bible training centre for Lisu Christians.
To recap a little of Fraser’s story, he was born in London, England in 1886. He grew up to become an engineer. But after coming across a tract urging Christians to give their lives to reach the lost in China. His heart was touched and in 1908 he dedicated his life to sharing the gospel and joined the China Inland Mission, now known as OMF International. He was just 22 when he arrived in China.
One day in the village market, Fraser met a man from the Lisu tribe that inhabited the mountainous regions of southwest China. From that moment, he felt God’s call to the Lisu people: ‘I was very much led out in prayer for these people. Right from the beginning’, he said, ‘something seemed to draw me to them. And the desire in my heart grew till it became a burden that God will give us hundreds of converts among the Lisu.’
For the rest of his life, Fraser travelled through these mountainous regions on horseback, labouring to bring them the good news of Jesus Christ. When Fraser started his share the good news, there was initial success. But this was followed by many years of difficulty. In response to this difficulty, Fraser started to raise prayer support back in England, asking his mum to organize a prayer group that would intercede on behalf of the Lisu people.
Then, in 1916, Fraser started to see dozens of Lisu families place their faith in Christ. By 1918 600 Christians had been baptized, churches were established, and the Lisu believers were reaching out to other Lisu people, as well as other tribes. Today, 80 per cent of the Lisu people are Christian, and are reaching out to people groups around them with the gospel.
As the good news of Jesus has taken root among the Lisu people, the role of cross-cultural workers has shifted from the evangelism and discipleship Fraser worked toward, to one seeking increasingly seeking to strengthen, support and equip local Christians. In the mid-twentieth century, many of the missionaries working with the Lisu in China came to live in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. They set out among the hills and mountains seeking to share the gospel with tribal groups, including the Lisu. Lisu churches were planted and grew throughout Southeast Asia.
Australian OMF workers Jim & Linda serve at the J.O Fraser Centre and take up the story:
A Bible training centre driven by local Christians with global partners
‘Ted and Nell Hope saw the very beginnings of the Lisu coming to faith and the first baptisms in Thailand in the early seventies. At the turn of the millennium, Ted translated and taught a Bible study into Lisu. Lisu leaders then requested biblical training and equipping for evangelism and discipleship. From this, the J.O. Fraser Centre (JOFC) was born 14 years ago. This residential Bible training centre is a partnership between OMF International and the Centre for Global Missions at Moore College in Sydney with the Lisu and other churches around the world.
Eleven years ago, the Lord called us from Australia to serve at JOFC. We teach the Bible, as well as English, to enable Lisu and tribal students to engage with global mission and churches. JOFC is also involved in ministries at local village churches and Thai schools.
Today, JOFC graduates serve throughout Southeast Asia, leading and teaching new generations of Lisu and tribal students the gospel and the way of Christ. We continue to pray for Lisu Christians to reach and teach Lisu who have not yet heard, and to cross cultures into other people groups who need to hear the gospel.
Mission in practice – challenges and growth
About 10 years ago, the Lord opened the door for Jim to visit the Lisu, teaching at an annual conference Lisu church leaders who came to study God’s Word.
In the first conference, Lisu leaders could not report of any mission activity in their churches. Many Christians lived in fear in a tough political climate. Jim encouraged them with God’s plan and purpose for this part of the world – that through the Lisu, the gospel would go out.
The following year, when Jim returned to the conference, we found that Lisu leaders and young evangelists were growing and going to unreached villages, sharing the gospel and starting churches. Every year as we went back to the conference, the reports grew and the number sent out and prayed for increased. Today, there is a chat group with around 30 members involved in this ministry. Photos and prayer points are shared as people come to faith and are baptized and prayed for, and as churches are built.
What has been happening among the Lisu is a testimony to God’s faithfulness. The same Holy Spirit that was in J.O. Fraser and the young Lisu church is still living and active. The Lisu are still on mission, the gospel is spreading, and nearly all the Lisu Bibles printed and stored at JOFC have been shipped and distributed far and wide.
An ongoing legacy – a call to respond to John 12:24
Living in community at JOFC provides the opportunity for life to life discipleship. As the early missionary pioneers from J.O. Fraser onwards lived among the people, at JOFC as we live together, we are being refined and shaped by God’s Word.
We want to see students who will follow Fraser’s life verse, John 12:24. Written in his memorial in Baisha in China, the verse reads, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’
This is the Lord’s way. It was the way Fraser walked in faith, as did many Lisu evangelists who took the gospel to their own people and beyond. It is the way we teach at JOFC. Our life is not our own. We must be ready to give our lives and die. If not, there is no genuine fruit and harvest. This is our prayer for all students and staff.
This is a slow work, it takes time. People need to grow and mature in the Word, in character.
We continue to pray for faithful Bible teachers who are faithful to God’s Word and faithful in their personal lives. May the Lord raise a new generation of Lisu faithful to him.’