Archive for March 2012

Roland Allen: Round Two: Spontaneous Expansion

March 9, 2012

Missionary Methods: St Paul’s Or Ours?, by Roland Allen, was written and published in 1912. In this book, a missions classic, Allen addresses missiological principles found in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul that are worthy of application in our 21st Century efforts to reach the “nations” of the world for Christ.

In 1927, Allen wrote and published The Spontaneous Expansion Of The Church And The Causes Which Hinder It. Spontaneous Expansion is essentially a follow-up to Missionary Methods in which the missiologist and practitioner further explores the subject of the planting and expansion of indigenous churches in cross-cultural contexts. As he does, Allen addresses issues that have the potential of greatly hindering the start and multiplication of churches, issues such as modern movements towards liberty, the fear for fidelity to doctrine, biblical standard of morals, and missionary and ecclesiastical organization.

As we seek to effectively minister and start churches and church planting movements cross-culturally today, we find that we are still dealing with the same kind of issues that Allen addressed in Spontaneous Expansion, albeit in their 21st Century contexts, shapes, and forms. That is why SP, 85 years after its publication, is such an important book for us to read and consider. It provides us with missionary principles and insights into missionary practice that, when contextualized and applied to our work today, will go a long way in helping us confront and remove, by God’s grace, the hindrances that so easily impede the start and multiplication of indigenous churches that reach people for Christ.

And so, I embark on another blog series on Roland Allen. Over the course of the next several weeks I will be writing and posting articles on The Spontaneous Expansion Of The Church And The Causes That Hinder It. These posts, like those of the series on Missionary Methods, will be composed of quotes, opinions, and commentary.

As I post and share my thoughts, I invite you to comment and share yours.


In the introduction to the 1927 edition of Spontaneous Expansion, Allen informs the reader of the “plan of this book.”

“I begin by trying to set forth the nature of the force which issues in spontaneous expansion and the dangers of checking it.”

One of the dangers that threatens spontaneous expansion of the church, according to Allen, is control. Allen is referring to control exercised by foreign missionary agencies, in and through their missiology, ecclesiology, and missionaries.

On this he writes …

“Spontaneous expansion must be free: it cannot be under our control; and consequently it is utterly vain to say, as I constantly hear men say, that we desire to see spontaneous expansion, and yet must maintain our control. If we want to see spontaneous expansion we must establish native churches free from our control.”

“I speak of churches … of local churches, like those founded by St. Paul, churches fully established ….”

The second chapter of the book, “The Nature and Character of Spontaneous Expansion,” has so many great quotes (some of them quite lengthy) on the spontaneous expansion of the church that you will have to bear with me as I include them all in this post. I share these with you not only because I think they are exciting, I believe they help us, in some way, better understand the definition and meaning of “church planting movements”.

“This then is what I mean by spontaneous expansion. I mean the expansion which follows the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new churches.”

I would note that today we would speak of “the expansion of the Church” by the multiplication of disciples and churches rather than addition. We also speak in terms of church planting movements.

Allen goes on to express himself when he says,

” … to me this unexhorted, unorganized, spontaneous expansion has a charm far beyond that of our modern highly organized missions.”

“I suspect, however, that I am not alone in this strange preference, and that many others read their Bibles and find there with relief a welcome escape from our material appeals for funds, and from our methods of moving heaven and earth to make a proselyte.”

Allen attributes the rapid expansion of the church to the “instinctive force” of a new faith (in Christ) that seizes and drives men to impart to others a new-found joy.

“The Spirit of Christ is a Spirit who longs for, and strives after, the salvation of the souls of men, and that Spirit dwells in them. The Spirit converts the natural instinct into a longing for the conversion of others which is indeed divine in its source and character.”

“Where this instinct for expression, this divine desire for the salvation of others has free course, there it exercises a most extraordinary power.”

” … many of our missionaries welcome spontaneous zeal, provided there is not much of it for their restrictions, just as an engineer laying out the course of a river is glad of some water to fill his channels, but does not want a flood which may sweep away his embankments. Such missionaries pray for the wind of the Spirit but not for a mighty rushing wind. I am writing because I believe in a rushing mighty wind, and desire its presence at all costs to our restrictions.”

“Spontaneous expansion could fill the continents with the knowledge of Christ: our control cannot reach as far as that. We constantly bewail our limitations: opened doors unentered; doors closed to us as missionaries: fields white to the harvest which we cannot rap. Spontaneous expansion could enter doors, forced closed ones, and reap those white fields. Our control cannot: it can only appeal pitifully for more men to maintain control.”

” … in relation to spontaneous expansion of the Church, we are seized with terror, terror lest spontaneous expansion should lead to disorder. We are quite ready to talk of self-supporting, self-extending, and self-governing churches in the abstract as ideals; but the moment that we think of ourselves as establishing self-supporting, self-governing churches in the Biblical sense we are met with this fear, a terrible, deadly fear. Suppose they really were self-supporting, and depended no longer on our support, where should we be? Suppose self-extension were really self-extension, and we could not control it, what would happen? Suppose they were really self-governing we accept the risks in giving free play, how wold they govern? We instinctively think of something which we cannot control as tending to disorder.”

And, finally,

“We are in far greater danger of serious disorder when, in fear of the expression of self-will, we restrain a God-given instinct, that when we give it free play.”


In the second chapter of Spontaneous Expansion, Roland Allen has given us a definition of “spontaneous expansion” as it pertains to the work of the Holy Spirit as it, the work, is manifested in evangelism and the starting of indigenous churches. Allen has written that it is vain of men and missions agencies to think that they/we can control the work of the Holy Spirit and that attempts to do so can hinder the work of the Holy Spirit.

May we never be accused or found guilty of hindering the work of the Holy Spirit or the work that He intends to accomplish in and through us, done His way, for His glory.