It is rare to find a book recommended more highly a century after its initial publication than when it was released. Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? first appeared in 1912 and has remained in print for more than a hundred years.
By appealing to the ministry of the Apostle Paul, Allen provides a strong critique of the colonial and paternalistic implementation of mission work in his day. His confidence in the eventual vindication of his views comes from his trust in the Holy Spirit to use the inspired Word of God to refashion and refocus our missionary activities until they are more in line with the Scriptures.
Paul’s missionary example
Roland Allen believed the methods and strategies of the Apostle Paul were being neglected in contemporary mission efforts. To counter this problem, Allen expounds on the activities of Paul in his day. He notes that Paul focused on strategic centers from which the work of church planting could continue to spread into other areas. Paul preached to Greeks and Jews, demonstrating his belief that the gospel was for all people and not only one social class or racial identity.
In response to those who might attribute Paul’s unusual success to the favorable moral and social conditions of his day, Allen argues that times were not better or easier in the past. In fact, we could make the case that Paul’s obstacles were more difficult than our own. So why did Paul’s presentation of the gospel prove to be so persuasive to people?
- Was it the fact Paul performed miracles? Allen says they only served to corroborate the gospel similar to our acts of love and mercy that prepare for the reception of the gospel by embodying the compassion of Christ.
- What about the way Paul dealt with finances? Allen notes how the apostle chose not to seek financial help or administer local church funds, but instead trusted the churches to deal wisely in their finances.
- What about the content of Paul’s preaching? Allen surveys the sermons of Paul recorded in Acts as well as the emphases we find in Paul’s letters. He shows that Paul’s preaching focused on the history of the Jewish people, the saving events of Jesus Christ, and the extension of pardon to all who repent and believe.
Finally, Allen examines Paul’s method of training converts. The apostle did not have a set of special advantages unavailable to us. He trusted the Spirit enough to give the basic, foundational teaching of the gospel before moving on to other locations. “We look too much at our converts as they are by nature,” Allen writes. “St Paul looked at his converts as they were by grace.”
Allen’s literary explanation
One of the greatest strengths of Allen’s work is the way in which he popped the paternalistic bubble surrounding missions in his day. The missionary who understands the temporary nature of his task will be working with an eye to succession and replacement, effectively working himself out of a job.
Another great strength of Allen’s proposal is the consistent focus on the power inherent in the gospel itself. The hard edges of the gospel do not need to be softened in order to win a hearing; rather, the Word of God is powerful precisely because it offends and transcends the sensibilities of every culture with which it comes into contact.
One of the surprising aspects of Missionary Methods is Roland Allen’s strong affirmation of congregational polity. I confess I was taken aback as I read such a robust defense of local church autonomy from a committed Anglican.
A few caveats
No book is without its weaknesses, however, even when the book receives the well-deserved label of being a modern day “classic.” Allen’s work is no exception.
Despite his insistence on preaching the gospel in its splendor, there are times when Allen appears to separate missionary strategy from biblical doctrine. While it is certainly possible that people who agree on the basic doctrines of Christianity may come to different conclusions regarding ministry methodology, it is impossible to untether methodology from theology.
In fact, Allen’s book proves this to be so, as he regularly expounds Christian doctrine even as he focuses on missionary strategy. The history of the missions movement in the 20th century is a clear sign that downplaying doctrine leads to the fracturing of unity and the dissolution of evangelistic mission.
One other weakness in the book is the basic assumption that whatever we observe in Paul’s ministry should be normative for our own. It is generally true that the descriptions of Paul’s mission work are prescriptive for us today, not just descriptive. And yet, we should take care to appreciate the unique manner in which the Lord used the Apostle Paul, which means we are not required to see every element of his ministry as immediately applicable to us.
For example, Allen encourages missionaries to go wherever they are received, feeling no pressure to remain with those who have initially rejected the message. But we might wonder what would have happened to William Carey, for example, had he chosen not to labor among those who rejected his message for several years before they eventually turned to Christ.
Overall, Missionary Methods is a classic in the field of missiology that deserves its place of prominence on pastors’ shelves today. Roland Allen’s reminder to trust the Holy Spirit in the work of mission is an ever-helpful reminder of the source of power in Christian ministry.