I was a MK (Missionary Kid). My parents were missionaries, serving with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). OMF started out as the China Inland Mission, founded by James Hudson Taylor almost 150 years ago, in 1865. Hudson Taylor was not the first western missionary in China by any means, but his missionary society were pioneers in many ways.
They famously adopted Chinese dress, fully committing themselves to China, insisting that they must embrace Chinese culture wherever it was not incompatible with the gospel, and challenge it in those places where it was as those who spoke from within the community and not colonialists (though bringing to bear international relations, as campaigners do today). Today this principle is described as incarnational living.
Several members of Hudson Taylor’s family and extended family by marriage would hold key roles within the organisation. Viewed negatively, this might be considered controlling, or empire-building; but viewed more generously, it illustrates the principle of family on mission, a shared sense of purpose, and core values that were (for good or ill) lived out together.
In the early 1950s CIM missionaries made a “reluctant exodus” from China, going to the Chinese diaspora and other people groups across South East Asia; the name changing to OMF in 1964. My parents would go out to the Philippines, where they worked under and alongside Filipino church planters, and discipled university students.
The local church is a particular specialism. Local churches ought to know their locality, its particular needs, challenges and opportunities better than anyone else – with people in that place to love and serve those people. But the local church is not, and never has been, the only expression of the Church, the only specialism. CIM/OMF would be a good example of a different kind of specialism:
in this case, 150 years of experience of supporting those who have a particular sense of call to the people of Asia, and the diverse challenges of living in the world’s great mega-cities or remote jungle tribes.
I was born in the Philippines, but later my parents returned to the UK for health reasons, continuing to work with OMF but in a different capacity. I watched my mum train people for global mission. I watched my dad inspire others to become missionaries - and not necessarily with OMF.
But perhaps most of all I had a deep sense of growing up within a big family. Not simply the great big family that is the Church, most of whom I will never meet; but a shared identity within the OMF family. Whenever we met up with other OMF families, even if they had served on a different mission field, even if the parents knew each other but the kids had never met, there was a connection, a common MK bond. And then there were the stories: of Hudson Taylor and J.O. Fraser and others who had accrued legendary status, but also the exciting and faith-building adventures of people we had actually met.
Today OMF is a multi-national and cross-denominational family. As such, there are inevitable tensions. As a network of national organisations and as a global family its members are held together by common values, aims, and a particular statement of faith. I share some but not all of those. But I will be eternally grateful that this was my starting point.
I am still a son, but now I am also a husband and a father. We are a family on mission, and our call is to work with local churches here in England. But as a family we are part of a big family on mission, called The Order of Mission (TOM).
TOM grew out of the church we were part of in Sheffield (not so very far from Barnsley, where Hudson Taylor was from). Whereas CIM was part of a wave of evangelical missionary societies which were founded around the same time, TOM is an example of a contemporary movement of ‘new-monastic Orders,’ which draw on the patterns of the old religious Orders, both Celtic and Roman.
From its founding in 2003 TOM has been cross-denominational and multi-national. It is the big family that has supported us when everything else has been transitional, when my being ordained within the Church of England has meant that our family have moved from Sheffield to Nottingham to Liverpool to Southport and now to Sunderland (where we hope that we will be for many years).
We have shared values – expressed as a life of simplicity, purity and accountability – and a shared Rule of Life (missionary Societies tend to have doctrinal statements of faith, setting out what members believe; missionary Orders tend to have a Rule of Life, setting out how we live: it is not that Societies are only concerned with orthodoxy and Orders with orthopraxy, but it does reflect a different emphasis).
But most of all these things describe a family, called to help the Church fulfil the call to make disciples of all nations and in all generations, in a rapidly-changing Western context.
Like any family, it has grown and changed; new members have joined, and others have moved on, sometimes having fallen out with one another – this, too, is part of the imperfection of family, church, mission, mess that God still works through. For all its joys and sorrows, this is the big family my children are part of, growing up in; these are their non-biological cousins, their stories and heroes of faith.
Being part of TOM supports us as we work alongside the local church. There, we want to help people to make disciples who make disciples. OMF supported my dad to inspire people for mission, not simply recruit them for OMF; and TOM supports us in the same way.
We meet up with other members of TOM in the north east, to share and to pray for one another. Locally, we draw on that long-standing support. But just as there is not one way of being a missionary in Asia across 150 years and more than 10 nations, so we need to work out in our local context what it will look like to live a life of simplicity, purity and accountability;
to work under and alongside others in the local church (the staff team and wider congregation at Sunderland Minster is diverse in our theology and tradition, and finds support from different quarters);
and to see something flourish that is authentic to the north east and not imposed from a very different culture.
TOM is just over 10 years old. That is no time at all, in the history of mission, of Societies and Orders, of the Church. Ten years after founding the CIM, Hudson Taylor was a man in broken health, having lost children and his first wife to disease. And yet, and yet. I do not know how God will use TOM in the years ahead, but I do know that he will. And I am deeply thankful to have been part of these two adventures.