LONDON – James Outram Fraser had an engineering degree and was a talented concert pianist. He was also a faithful follower of Christ who was obedient to God’s calling on his life. He ministered among the Lisu people in China’s Yunnan province from 1908 until his death in 1938.
Neither his name nor his story are well-known to Christians in America. Nonetheless, his approach to missionary ministry was far ahead of his time. So much so that many of his compatriots at China Inland Mission were typically unlikely to espouse Fraser’s style.
James Fraser was quick to realize that the best way to share and spread the Gospel among the Lisu in the remote mountains of southwestern China was to not only engage and evangelize the native people but also to empower them to do the same.
He did everything within his ability to become like the Lisu in customs, culture, communication, and community. If he wasn’t sleeping at night on the floor of a mud hut, he would do so under the stars. Like the Apostle Paul, Fraser became like the Lisu – not superior to them in any way – so that he might win some.
It would be more than 40 years after his demise before modern missions began to grasp the effectiveness and, increasingly, the necessity of establishing indigenous outreach mechanisms.
Fathers, then Families
Missionary agencies often use the humanist approach of secular NGOs to attract funds to the field by focusing their marketing on children. Fraser recognized the scriptural pattern that when a father comes to Christ, the family usually follows. So, he focused on evangelizing the men in the villages.
Just as it was with the Philippian jailor, entire households were accepting the Gospel message. What Fraser witnessed was stunning! When the entire household, beginning with the father, comes to Christ, no one in the family gets ostracized!
Fraser reckoned that communities work the same way, so he also focused on reaching community leaders first. Once they believe, they are not going to run Christians out of town. They are going to share the Good News with the lost.
While others talked about depending entirely upon the Lord, Fraser did so himself. And he taught new believers to do the same. Fraser would not accept outside funding for building churches and expanding local ministries. Fraser and the Lisu “established churches that were self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating . . . with their own elders, deacons, pastors, evangelists, and Bible conferences, entirely independent of foreign control.”
Blessed with engineering and practical skills, Fraser shared those abilities with the Lisu as well. He taught them that they could prosper as Christian communities and churches. He believed that
“Foreign money and foreign control would build a foreign church, and a weak one.”
Fraser studied tirelessly. He listened continually. He took copious notes. He prayed until the Lord answered. He created a written Lisu alphabet, taught the people how to read, and began the translation of scripture into their language.
Oddly enough, Fraser learned the language quickly by listening to the children. Inclined as they were to say the same things repeatedly, he came to understand common phrases, idioms, and colloquialisms.
This foundation allowed him the ability to write a book on the history and culture of the Lisu people, a dictionary, a grammar textbook, and a vocabulary book.
Making the Main Thing the Main Thing
It is said that “His capacity for work was astonishing but with it all he always seemed fresh and full of life, always of an even temper, always considerate of others, and a perfect gentleman. He not only wanted to live a self-denying life, enduring hardness for Christ’s sake, but he could also do so.”
James O. Fraser went to China for the purpose of teaching the Gospel and winning souls for Jesus. That remained his laser-sharp focus during the rest of his life. He considered none of the other things he did nearly as important as introducing the Lisu to Jesus so that they, too, could have eternal life.
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