“Messing Up” Missionary Endeavors: Celebrating Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods

by J. D. Payne

Payne encourages everyone involved in missions to set a goal in 2012 to read Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?

2012 marks the centennial of the publication of Roland Allen’s book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? There are a number of significant events set to commemorate its publication. For instance, the 2012 theme of the Evangelical Missiological Society is “Mission Methods,” and numerous papers are scheduled to be presented at regional meetings across the country. Some will be published in a book to be released in the fall of 2013.

Although Allen died in 1947, his legacy lives on. I was recently talking with a friend who just returned from a short-term trip to the Middle East. Although he did not know of my penchant for Allen’s writings, he shared that while there, he read two of Allen’s writings, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Before I had a chance to inquire of his thoughts regarding the contents of the books, he exclaimed, “That man messed me up!”

I was delighted to hear this reaction—it is one I have heard from others over the years who have come face-to-face with Allen’s writings. My friend is a mega-church pastor who is on a path desiring to see the simple, reproducible, apostolic practices applied to church-planting endeavors across the world. Whenever someone is confronted with the pen of Allen, his or her missiology will never be the same—usually for the better.

Although some are starting to return to the writings of Allen, to many others both he and his books are largely unknown. Yet even missionaries unfamiliar with titles such as The Siege of the Peking Legations, Missionary Principles, The Case for Voluntary Clergy, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, and Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? are familiar with writings such as The Bridges of God, Understanding Church Growth, and the ubiquitous Church Planting Movements. While Allen was not alive when these latter three were published, his influence has saturated these—and many other—influential writings to date. 

While the bulk of his ministry was not as a field missionary (although he did serve a few years in China), he is well-known for devoting his attention and writings toward missionary practices in the Majority World. Over the past one hundred years, many mission agencies and missionaries laboring in Majority World nations have moved beyond the things that grieved Allen (e.g., paternalism, mission station methodology) and toward the matters he advocated (e.g., indigenous leaders, emphasis on the Holy Spirit, removal of subsidies that create dependency, church multiplication). 

Yes, even though many missionaries outside of the West have not even touched a copy of Missionary Methods, they have been influenced by this Anglican priest of yesteryear. 

But what about in North America and other Western contexts? What about the influence of Allen’s book on missionary labors and activities here? As usual, and unfortunately, most continue to remain in missiological darkness when it comes to learning from those who have gone before. We continue to create variations of problems that our brothers and sisters have already overcome in other parts of the world. 

When his grandson once asked Allen if he could read his writings, Allen responded, “Oh, yes, you can read them by all means—but you won’t understand them; I don’t think anyone is going to understand them until I’ve been dead ten years” (Allen 1995, vii). While it did not take that long for his writings to be recognized by leaders of his day, it did take time for his missiology to begin to influence missionary practices in a significant manner throughout the Majority World. Unfortunately, North American missionary practices still wait for Allen’s influence. 

Lesslie Newbigin offered the following disclaimer in the Foreword to the 1962 American edition of Missionary Methods:

I have thought it right to enter these two words of caution, because the reader should be warned that he is embarking on a serious undertaking. Once he has started reading Allen, he will be compelled to go on. He will find that this quiet voice has a strange relevance and immediacy to the problems of the Church in our day. And I shall be surprised if he does not find before long that many of his accustomed ideas are being questioned by a voice more searching than the word of man. (Allen 1962, iii)      

So, whether you serve in the Majority World or in the West, I want to encourage you to set a goal to read Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? in 2012. And while Newbigin’s poetically-articulated words of warning are true, I prefer to express my caution through the influence of my friend: “That man will mess you up.” For the better, I believe. 

Allen, Hubert J. B. 1995. Roland Allen: Pioneer, Priest, and Prophet. Cincinnati, Ohio: Forward Movement Publications.

Allen, Roland. 1962. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? American edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

J. D. Payne is a national missionary with the North American Mission Board and associate professor of church planting and evangelism at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of three books, including Discovering Church Planting: An Introduction to the Whats, Whys, and Hows of Global Church Planting.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 6-7. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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