Still Learning from Roland Allen 100 years later: Contemporary applications

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. Allen’s key principle of submission and dependence on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God was the focus of the first blog post. In this blog post contemporary application of Allen’s principles will be the subject.

John Mark Terry identifies 10 contemporary applications of Allen’s principles:

  1. Missionaries should plant churches with their desired goal in mind.
  2. There will always be a dynamic tension between supracultural doctrines and variable cultural traits.
  3. Church planters should expect the churches to support themselves from the beginning.
  4. Bible study groups should be encouraged to make decisions even before they organize as churches.
  5. Missionaries should encourage new congregations to evangelize their communities and seek opportunities to begin new churches.
  6. Missionaries should always use reproducible methods of evangelism, teaching, preaching and leadership.
  7. Missionaries should give priority to developing nationals to serve as church leaders.
  8. Missionaries should view themselves as temporary church planters rather than permanent pastors.
  9. Missionaries should resist the temptation to establish institutions and wait for the national church to take the initiative.
  10. Missionaries must allow the national churches to develop theologies and practices that are biblical yet appropriate in their cultural settings. 

(from John Mark Terry, “Paul and Indigenous Missions”, Paul’s Missionary Methods in His Time and Ours, ed. By Robert L. Plummer and John Mark Terry, Downers Grove: IVP, 2012, pp 160-174)

I will not be addressing all of these in this post. Our discussion will focus on #1, #7 & #8 together, and #10. I encourage you to discuss the others that relate to your situation with your local team members.

Application #1 — have a clear goal at the start:

We’ve probably all heard the story of an archer who shot an arrow at the side of the barn and then painted a bull’s eye around it. That probably never actually happened but it illustrates the folly of not having a clear goal at the beginning of any project.

We need to understand the essentials of a New Testament Church and the social/cultural dynamics of the local people. Questions such as the following need to be studied: Are buildings a NT necessity? Are paid leadership required by the NT? The local context as well needs to be examined. Does the local community have the economic base to support a paid pastor? These and many other questions need to be explored in order to define the goal of church planting in any community. A good resource for this process is Tom A. Steffen, Passing the Baton: Church Planting that Empowers, La Habra, CA: Center for Organizational and Ministry Development, 1993.


Applications #7 & #8 — develop nationals to serve as church leaders, and view yourself as a temporary church planter rather than as a permanent pastors:

These two applications are tightly connected, almost two sides to the same coin. Allen wrote that these issues needed to be addressed early in church planting:

The secret of success in this work lies in beginning at the very beginning. It is the training of the first converts which sets the type for the future. If the first converts are taught to depend upon the missionary, if all work, evangelistic, educational, social is concentrated in his hands, the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they received their first insight into the Gospel. … The fatal mistake has been made of teaching the converts to rely upon the wrong source of strength. Instead of seeking it in the working of the Holy Spirit in themselves, they seek it in the missionary. They put him in the place of Christ, they depend upon him. (Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, p 81)

New converts should be encouraged to share what they have learned with others right away. Sharing with others reinforces the learning and also helps the convert to discover spiritual gifts. Leaders can be in the process of development from conversion. Certainly we must heed Paul’s concern about putting a novice in an elder role but leadership can be developed incrementally. 

Missionaries need to see that their ministry is equipping the national to do the ministry. Paul wrote to Timothy, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:1, 2 ESV) The missionary ought to prayerfully identify those faithful men who will be fellow workers in the proclamation and teaching of the Gospel. In Paul’s case, this happened in a mentoring situation that continued by writing after he left a city.

Paul is concerned that the teachers of the churches teach correctly and that believers in the churches behave correctly – this is why he writes his letters and why he discusses one-sided or misleading beliefs that some Christians propagate. He is not simply concerned about an authentic Christian “experience’ but also about the truth of the gospel and about behaving in a manner that was consistent with the gospel (Gal. 2:5, 14) (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, Downers Grove: IVP, 2008, p 207)

Development of leaders needs to take place informally at the local level as well in formal settings that are culturally appropriate. Too often we have imposed a schooling model when the local culture practices a mentoring model for its leadership development. The church planter needs to be equipped to develop others in ministry. Being equipped to do ministry is not enough.

The new church will be more culturally authentic with locally trained leaders. The foreign missionary can focus on discipling and mentoring the church leaders behind the scenes so that the public service is led by local leaders.

Application #10 – allow national churches to develop theologies and practices that are biblical yet appropriate to their cultural setting:

This is a natural extension of developing local leaders. Local church leaders who have been trained to study the Bible need to be granted the same privilege and responsibility as the missionary to interpret the Word. Interpretation is best done in community rather than individually and cross-cultural interpretation can benefit from both the emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspective. I refer you to Paul Hiebert’s critical contextualization model, most recently explained in Paul G. Hiebert, The Gospel in Human Contexts: Anthropological Explorations for Contemporary Missions, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

Discuss these applications of Allen’s principles with your team. I welcome your comments and insights. Let’s keep on learning from Roland Allen and others who have crossed cultures before us for the sake of the Gospel.

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