Still Learning from Roland Allen 100 Years Later: Key Principle

At the SEND Family Conference in July, I led a workshop on what we can still learn from Roland Allen’s book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? a hundred years after it was first published. I’m going to highlight our discussion in two blog posts for the whole SEND family.

Why bother with a hundred-year-old book?   J.D. Payne wrote in 2012, Roland Allen was “One of the most controversial, yet most influential, missionary thinkers of all time… it was Allen’s insights into the expansion of the church that sometimes equated him as being a prophet, a revolutionary, a radical, or a troublemaker.(J.D. Payne, Roland Allen: Pioneer of Spontaneous Expansion, Kindle Edition, location 126.)

In the last two years two collections of Articles on Allen have been published: 
  • Robert L. Plummer and John Mark Terry, eds. Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours, Downers Grove: IVP, 2012. 
  • Craig Ott and J.D. Payne, eds. Missionary Methods: Research, Reflections and Realities, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2013. I recommend reading both collections.

Key Principle:  In this blog post I will focus on the key principle that permeates all of Allen’s writings and in the next post I will look at some specific contemporary applications of Allen’s writings.


Allen’s key principle is submission and dependence on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It is the Holy Spirit and the Word of God that captures our heart and mind to get our hands and feet engaged in cross-cultural church planting. Allen is emphatic that we must have faith that the Holy Spirit and the Word of God are at work in our converts just as in us.

 “Now if we are to practice any methods approaching to the Pauline methods in power and directness, it is absolutely necessary that we should first have this faith, this Spirit. Without faith – faith in the Holy Ghost, faith in the Holy Ghost in our converts – we can do nothing. …Without it we shall be unable to recognize the grace of the Holy Spirit in our converts, we shall never trust them, we shall never inspire in them confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit in themselves. If we have no faith in the power of the Holy Spirit in them, they will not learn to have faith in the power of the Holy Spirit in themselves.” (Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, p 152) 

In Allen’s later work, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, he wrote, “What is needed is the kind of faith which, uniting a man to Christ, sets him on fire. Such a man can believe that others finding Christ will be set on fire also. Such a man can see that there is no need of money to fill a continent with the knowledge of Christ.” (Quoted in J.D Payne, Roland Allen: Pioneer of Spontaneous Expansion, Kindle Edition, location 1145).

This faith in the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in the lives of our converts enables us to trust them with ministry. Allen advocated that converts be encouraged to exercise their spiritual gifts ‘freely and at once.’ It is not the presence of the missionary but the presence of the Holy Spirit that is the key to the expansion of the church. We must not allow dependence on us to develop but rather cultivate a dependency on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

Isn’t there a danger of error creeping in when we allow new converts to exercise their gifts ‘freely and at once?’ Of course there is. Even after nearly three years of the Apostle Paul teaching in Ephesus he had to send Timothy back to correct false teaching. In an article titled “Spontaneous Expansion: The Terror of Missionaries” Allen wrote:

We are concentrating our attention upon the weakness of man, we are thinking wholly of the weakness of our converts. Is that quite right? I turn to the New Testament and I read of the terrible failings of those little groups of Christians living in heathen cities surrounded by every insidious form of heathen immorality and heathen thought, and I find the Apostle writing to them, not as if he had any faith in them, or in their strength or character, or in their natural virtue, but in quite other terms, of his faith that Christ will work in them, that Christ has called them, that Christ will enlighten them, that Christ will save them…. Again I turn to the New Testament, and I find the Apostle of the Gentiles relying not upon his authority, his government, his control but upon something very different. He trusts in God in Christ to meet the obvious and very present dangers. He does not shut his eyes to the dangers, the falls, the ignorance, the weakness of his converts, but that does not prevent him from establishing his Churches in this freedom, or from looking upon spontaneous expansion as something present and admirable. (Quoted in J.D. Payne, Roland Allen: Pioneer of Spontaneous Expansion, Kindle Edition, location 1136)

There will always be the danger of errors creeping in this side of our Lord’s return. Church planting will always have failings because in the words of Puritan Richard Sibbes, “The church of Christ is a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness. (Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998 (1630), p. 34). In the face of dangers we need to encourage our converts to trust in the grace of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God as we do when the world tries to squeeze us into its mold. We need to model faith in the Holy Spirit and the Word of God so that our converts develop this sure defense against error.

Allen’s key principle may indeed take us out of our comfort zone but it brings us to the sure foundation of establishing reproducing churches among the unreached.

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