Book Review: Missionary Methods, by Roland Allen
Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s and Ours. Eerdmans, 1961.
My 3-year-old daughter loves ‘helping.’ She wants to help with the cooking, putting away clean dishes, even assembling IKEA furniture. But at this point in her life, her help is counter-productive. She spills batter. She drops dishes. She can’t get enough torque to actually tighten the screws she diligently “checks”—or when she actually does get them to turn, more often she’s loosening, not tightening the screws.
In almost every way she helps, I can do faster and better myself. But I still let her “help.” I’m training her and helping her grow into maturity—allowing her to try so she can learn to one day do those things herself. If I always do it myself, I may accomplish chores more quickly, but she will never learn how to do them without constant supervision. The challenge as a parent is determining when and how much help to give a child—determining the balance between getting things done and equipping the next generation to carry out the tasks.
We face that same challenge as we disciple new believers. How firm of guidance do you give? When a young believer is wrestling with an issue of conscience, and you can clearly see what the most faithful course is, when do you step in? There are times when you must ‘break the glass.’ But there are also times where the young believer should be allowed to develop wisdom on their own. The challenge is determining when to let them struggle, and when to step in.
That same challenge multiplies when we step into a cross-cultural context, where not only the individual believer, but entire churches are young and immature in the faith. Historically, Western churches have erred towards a helicopter-parenting style in their missions work. Roland Allen describes it this way: “We can more easily believe in His work in us and through us, than we can believe in His work in and through our converts: we cannot trust our converts to Him” (4).
Into that context, Roland Allen’s missions classic, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours brings careful and enlightening counsel.
LEARNING MISSIONS FROM PAUL
Allen’s subtitle presents the premise and argument of the book. Too often, missionaries and church planters rely solely on their own devices of strategy and planning. Missionaries often feel that their circumstances are extraordinary, so they conclude strategies applied in other contexts won’t work in theirs.
Against such thinking, Allen argues: “In no other work do we set the great masters wholly on one side, and teach the students of today that whatever they may copy, they may not copy them, because they lived in a different age under exceptional circumstances.” (7).
Allen examines the method of the apostle Paul in his church planting efforts, and contrasts them with the typical methods of his own day. Allen spent his life ministering in India, China, and Kenya, and so brings the wisdom of personal experience as well as the sure hand of a careful exegete. While you won’t agree with every argument he makes, you must engage with them.
There are many strengths to this slender volume. Allen makes strong, textual arguments for the primacy of preaching the necessity of faith and repentance (57), the crucial need for belief in the doctrine of hell (60), and the centrality of the local church for the success of the mission (64, 65). He opposes temptations to dilute the gospel or the great commission with the clarity that comes from having personally wrestled with such temptations, as well as a clear view of the consequences of disobedience.
The greatest strength of Allen’s work is his sensitivity to issues of money and authority in the local church. Many people shy away from the impact financial support can have on relationships as a dirty, taboo topic. But follow the money, and you will find who actually holds power in and responsibility for a church. You can tell who feels invested in a church by seeing who has literally invested in it. And people throughout the world know that Western money behind a church means Westerners are the ones behind the curtain. If a church depends on money from Western churches, the leaders must answer to the West, not their congregants. As Allen notes:
Is it possible for human ingenuity to devise a scheme better calculated to check the free flow of native liberality, to create misunderstandings, to undermine the independence of the church, and to accentuate racial distinctions? (51)
More significantly, Allen argues, it will also hobble the maturation of local believers when they are not invested in sustaining the ministry of the church.
If money is the most practical way missionaries are in danger of undermining the maturity and health of an indigenous church, the closely-tied issue of decision making also impacts it. Allen advises missionaries to work to ‘retire,’ to remove themselves from church leadership before they are forcibly removed by emergency or death (117–18).
It warms the cockles of my congregationalist heart to hear an Anglican missionary so strongly argue for congregational ownership of a church’s finances, membership, and doctrine. Allen argues from experience what Jonathan Leeman has more recently contended: congregationalism is Jesus’ discipleship program. Allen argues that a high level of formal connectionalism, combined with Westerners at the top and indigenous leaders always subordinate, looks more like cultural paternalism rather than ecclesial fraternity.
UNDERSTANDING MISSIONARY METHODS
For all the good in this book (you really should read it), let me offer some critique. First of all, it’s important to remember the context in which Allen wrote. Missionary Methods was first published in 1912. Allen ministered through the heyday of modernism and all the cultural imperialism that came with it. The assumption in those days was that Western civilization was superior in every way, and part of the work of missionaries was to advance the cause of Western cultural norms.
Correction to error often leads to overcorrection. Allen’s corrections against the hubris of modernism could be easily misunderstood and over-applied in the atmosphere of post-modern suspicion we live in today. While modern Westerners may still wrongly assume the church in Ouagadougou or Almaty should look like First Baptist Jackson, most missionaries I know are highly sensitive to the charge they might be importing their own cultural values and norms. Allen warns “There is a very grave danger in importing complete systems of worship and theology [emphasis mine]” (73). We should be careful to remember what he was fighting against, before affirming some sort of theological reductionism that deprives brothers and sisters of the full counsel of God simply because of their nationality. Missionaries must learn to distinguish between their cultural assumptions and what is biblical. The best way to do that is to rely on input and counsel from brothers and sisters from a different culture, not by spiraling into doctrinal minimalism, which is the norm of today.
Similarly, Allen’s argument for missionaries to move on quickly to new cities (like Paul did) should be heard as a critique of a strong cultural paternalism that coddled local believers, not an argument to leave young Christians undiscipled.
A METHODOLOGICAL CONCERN
More significantly, while Allen provides a holistic analysis of Paul’s missionary methods, his fundamental method is problematic. Allen simply contrasts Paul’s methods to contemporary trends. He does not set out to answer questions of what is prescriptive in Acts versus situational and descriptive. He does not understand Paul’s ecclesiology to be representative of a coherent New Testament theology.
Allen holds up Paul’s methods as exemplary because of his wisdom as an apostle, and the success of his strategy. His arguments for local church autonomy are pragmatically informed, not biblically mandated. While he provides persuasive and accurate observations, they don’t ultimately provide sufficient grounds for faithful adherence.
These points were sadly portrayed in Allen’s own ministry, where he essentially gave up on established local churches, and argued that the family—not the church—needed to become the center of Christian life, even redefining the Lord’s Supper to be a family rite.
AIMING AT ENDURING FAITHFULNESS
Allen’s philosophy of missions in Missionary Methods is full of tempered wisdom and careful consideration of how the goal of missions should shape its practice. Though I wish more missionaries and pastors operated with his categories and cautions in mind, they are insufficient. A certainty that we must obey the precepts of Scripture, even when we cannot see the results is crucial for faithfulness that will endure. Otherwise, I fear we will follow Rolland Allen, not only in his wise exegesis and desire for mature congregations, but also in his frustration over poor results.
 This point is apparent in his comments on the Council of Jerusalem (104). He concedes the council to be representative of a more episcopal governance, but argues that it was a council by a church founded by someone other than Paul (i.e., it is not a proof against Paul’s ecclesiology, since Paul participated, but didn’t create it). This presumes that there were multiple polities in play, a common Anglican interpretation of the NT.