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Book Review: Missionary Methods: St Paul's or Ours?

By Roland Allen
Reviewed by Scott

Missionary Methods: St Paul's or Ours?
Eerdmans, 1962. 188 pages. $15.00

BookRoland Allen served as a missionary to North China with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel one hundred years ago. He had a passion to see healthy, lasting, indigenous churches established, which he thought would occur when two things happened: his contemporaries gave up their paternalistic ways and instead trusted the Holy Spirit to guide new churches, and their methods began to correspond with the Apostle Paul's. His observations and conclusions were published in 1912 as Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours?


Why Paul's churches lasted

Allen believed there were two main reasons that the indigenous churches started by Paul were lasting: (1) he believed that the churches he planted really were local churches and (2) he trusted the Holy Spirit within these congregations. In other words, Allen believed that Western church planters needed to learn to rely less "upon our own exertions" and more on the Spirit of Christ (6).

Paul had no special advantages that are inaccessible to us; therefore we should emulate his methods

While we might be tempted to claim that such success was due to advantages we no longer possess, Allen argues just the opposite. Allen is convinced that Paul did not benefit from any advantage we lack, whether from the geography of the region he was preaching in, the class of his hearers, or the moral conditions of his target people. Therefore, Allen argues, we should make Paul's methods our own.

Big-picture view of Paul's methods

Paul would target a broad region and establish a center for the gospel with two goals in mind. First, the centers had to be outward focused. They were not to be places where people should come to hear the gospel, but places from which the gospel could spread out (16). Second, they were to be firmly rooted: Paul taught the gospel with the goal of establishing a strong local church that could reach the surrounding country with the gospel. Paul knew that he could not personally preach in every city and that there was nothing particularly virtuous about establishing a church in an important place unless that church was "possessed of sufficient life to be a source of light to the whole country round" (12).

How Paul differed from us: he didn't ask for or give money

In addition to pointing out the general principles of Paul's methods, Allen draws attention to certain Pauline practices that run deeply counter to modern missionary customs. For example, Paul never sought financial help for himself from those who listened to him, he never gave financial help to those who listened to him, and he never administered local church funds himself. In light of this, Allen wonders if the common practice of missionaries providing financial help to nationals has its roots in the wrong idea that "the stability of the church in some way depends upon the permanence of its buildings" or that "reverence and devotion depend upon expensive religious furniture to which our luxury has accustomed us" (52).

Paul's method of preaching

According to Allen, Paul's preaching principles are also worth emulating. Paul avoided the extremes of violently attacking the religious beliefs of his hearers on the one hand, and weakening his own message on the other (70). In doing so, he preached a gospel that was not an intellectual novelty, but that called for a changed life. Contrary to this principle, some church planters today have begun to think that their work is no longer "to call men from the heathen temple into the Church of God but to trim the dimly glowing lamp of God in the heathen temple, and to pour into it a few drops of the oil of Christian doctrine till it shines with a new radiance" (71). This kind of preaching does great damage to the church's mission and is never found in the New Testament.


Even though Allen wrote this book almost a hundred years ago, we still need to read his work because missionaries still struggle with the same issues. First, church planters still need to resist their own racial and religious pride. Second, church planters still need to trust the Spirit of God within national believers. While we are usually willing to do just about everything for young believers, we sometimes have a difficult time acknowledging their equality. We should trust the Spirit-equipped national converts as much as we would believers in our home country. After all, it would be much better "that our converts should make many mistakes, and fall into many errors, and commit many offences, than that their sense of responsibility should be undermined" (145). When we find ourselves trusting the Spirit of God only in ourselves, we are likely only trusting ourselves.


While Allen expressed pleasure that his work would be read by those outside his own ecclesiastical tradition, his Anglican training is evident at times, most notably when he refers to baptism and the Lord's Supper. But this should not deter the non-Anglican reader from benefiting from Allen's insights into Scripture. Plus, at other times in the book Allen's Anglicanism largely disappears: speaking of authority and unity in the church, he might even be mistaken for a congregationalist!


Another issue that requires caution is Allen's treatment of appointing leaders in chapter 9. While his argument for not delaying in establishing indigenous church leaders is a much-needed message (see pp. 100-107), the reader should be careful not to let Allen lead him too far in the other direction. If Allen saw missionaries waiting too long to hand the reins over to local leaders, today we often see just the opposite problem. If we uncritically apply Allen's arguments to current missionary practice, they could have the unintended effect of encouraging us to move faster in appointing new leaders when some of us are already prone to move too quickly.


Allen's book leaves us with a question: will we obey the apostle Paul's own command to follow him as he follows Christ? Paul carried "the daily pressure…of concern for all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:28). It was this concern for their well-being that led to him to exhort the believers in Corinth to "strive to excel in building up the church" (1 Cor. 14:12). It is my hope that Roland Allen's classic work will help today's missionaries and church planters do just that.

Scott lives in Asia and is a Ph.D. student at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


July/August 2009
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