Robert V. Finley, the Albemarle County man who led efforts to support native-led Christian missions in Asia, died March 22 at the age of 96, according to family members.
Finley was among the last of the colonial-area missionary evangelists to serve in Asia between 1948 and 1951 and led the movement toward indigenous missions and evangelism. His experience being expelled from China by the Communists in 1949 and again from South Korea in 1950 convinced him to focus on working with foreign students in the U.S. and support them in their native countries.
“For most of the last three weeks of his life, he was under hospice care but had a steady stream of visitors, staff and some of the thousands of missionaries he had challenged into Christian service,” said Bill Bray, president of the Albemarle County-based Overseas Student Mission.
Finley believed Christian missionaries native to a country who spoke the language and knew the culture would be more effective based on what he saw during his tenure as a missionary.
“Finley spoke in evangelistic crusades throughout Asia, preaching with World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse founder, Bob Pierce, in South Korea,” Christian Aid Mission officials wrote on the agency’s website. “While in Asia, Finley observed the effectiveness of indigenous Christians in reaching their own people with the gospel. He also discovered that many of the most capable indigenous leaders had studied abroad.”
Finley worked to build support for indigenous missionaries who returned to China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and India.
In 1953, he founded three new mission agencies, Christian Aid Mission, International Students and the Overseas Students Mission. He moved his headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville in the 1970s.
In 1988, reports of irregularities in distribution of funds and donations to Christian Aid Mission resulted in numerous staff resignations, the mission being dropped by Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an Internal Revenue Service probe and a Virginia State Police investigation.
The police investigation found no criminal actions in the mission’s work, and the mission rejoined the evangelical accountability organization that same year.
Finley resigned as president of the mission in 1988 but remained as chief executive officer and chairman of the mission board. He returned to the president’s chair a year later.
“I am humbled to see God’s hand leading me to be an advocate for native missionaries,” Finley wrote in his autobiography, Apostolic Adventures. “I’ve seen these brave men and women who have sacrificed so much, sometimes their own lives, because of the call of God to reach their own people for Jesus Christ.”
Christian Aid Mission officials said Finley’s efforts were not always well-received by some post-war missions and denominations who wanted the vast network of American and British missionary organizations to return to the former colonies at the end of World War II.
“The three agencies inspired the formation of hundreds of new native-led mission agencies and organizations in every country of the world,” agency officials wrote. That “helped radically change the course of all Christian mission boards — both traditional and indigenous.”
Finley was born in Albemarle County, graduated from Meriwether Lewis High School in 1939 and attended the University of Virginia, where he served as student body president in 1944 and as chairman of the Honor Committee.
The captain of the UVa boxing team, he won the NCAA intercollegiate boxing championship in the middleweight division in 1944. He organized the University Christian Fellowship as an association of evangelical students, as well as a gospel team that traveled to area colleges.
After graduation, Finley went on to become an evangelist for Youth for Christ and the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship between 1945 and 1948, working with famous missionary Billy Graham before going to Asia.
“His character, knowledge of the Bible, and focus on the Great Commission have shaped my life, the lives of those who have worked alongside him in ministry, as well as hundreds of missionary leaders from overseas,” his wife, Cynthia Finley, said in a prepared statement.
“Only eternity will reveal the full impact of the man called Bob Finley, who touched millions around the world through his unique vision,” John Thannickal, an indigenous Christian leader in India, said in a statement.
“One of the greatest aspects of Dr. Finley’s work is that he trusts us,” said Resham Raj Poudel, of Nepal. “Christian Aid Mission is the first ministry I know to support independent gospel ministries with prayer and finances to help them fulfill their work.”
Finley retired from Christian Aid Mission in 2011 at 89.
Along with his wife, Finley is survived by two sisters, two daughters — Deborah Finley Arcieri and Ruth Finley Cassidy — three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.