Doing Mission Well: Humility

Howard Culbertson
Monday, March 10, 2014

ImageQuestion: What one factor should be common to effective missionaries? I vote for “humility.” That may seem obvious, but sadly, because of cultural maladjustment or other issues, missionaries sometimes project aloofness, or they come off as self-centered and even demanding. Fortunately, in missionaries like Gladys Aylward we can see excellent examples of humility.  

In 1957, Alan Burgess wrote a book titled The Small Woman. That book recounted the life of Gladys Aylward, who had just retired from missionary service in China. At only 4 feet, 10 inches tall (1.4 meters), Gladys was indeed small, but she did become one of the 20th century’s most well-known female missionaries.

After becoming a Christian in her 20s, Gladys felt called to China.  She had little education and, at that point, the only apparent skill she had was being a household servant. She went through one mission board’s training for prospective missionaries, but was then rejected for overseas service.

Gladys felt so strongly called to China that she decided to go on her own.  She began saving money from her job as a maid, and by age 30 had enough to book passage to China.

Through one extreme circumstance after another, Gladys’ missionary service was characterized by humble dependence on God. For instance, on her trip to China she was almost abducted and sent to a Siberian labor camp.  Then, the veteran missionary lady she had gone to China to assist died within a year after Gladys arrived.  On one occasion Gladys was asked to go into a prison to put down a riot (which she did). She survived bombing and strafing attacks by Japanese war planes.  She battled the cruel practice of crippling baby girls by tightly binding their feet.

In her humility Gladys often said:  "I wasn't God's first choice for what I've done for China.  I don't know who it was. It must have been a man, a well-educated man. I don't know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn't willing.”

By the time the Japanese military invaded China in the late 1930s, Gladys was running an orphanage for 100 orphans. With the battlefront approaching, Gladys single-handedly walked those orphans, many of them toddlers, across nearly 100 miles of mountainous terrain.  

Though a very extraordinary woman, Gladys referred to herself as “insignificant, uneducated, and ordinary in every way.” Indeed, when she returned home to Britain, the attention she received embarrased her. It further upset her that a movie inspired by her life story portrayed a female missionary in ways Gladys felt were far larger-than-life.  

"I doubt people would think I've done anything interesting," she exclaimed to a BBC journalist.

Gladys Aylward’s humility endeared her to the Chinese and enabled the Lord to use her to transform the lives of slaves, murderers, children, Mandarins, bandit generals, lepers, students and ordinary villagers. Initially called a “foreign devil,” Gladys’ humble demeanor won over the Chinese people, and rather than stumbling over her British name, they began calling her “Virtuous One.”

-- Howard Culbertson served as a missionary in Haiti and Italy for 15 years, and spent the past 25 years as a professor of mission at Southern Nazarene University.

Talk about it

  • How would you describe the virtue of humility?
  • How did Jesus embody humility?
  • Why does humility attract and disarm people?
  • Why is humility a critical character trait for a missionary? For any Christ-follower?
  • How does someone become more humble?
  • How can we pray for God to grow the virtue of humility in us?