When Roland Allen wrote his two missions classics – Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s Or Ours (1912) and The Spontaneous Expansion Of the Church And The Causes That Hinder It (1927), missionary work was characterized by centralized foreign sending agencies, foreign missionary leadership, foreign funding, missions stations, and paid native workers. Allen would have said that such an approach to world evangelization was “foreign” to the teaching of the New Testament and that it, in fact, hindered the evangelization of national populations and the spontaneous expansion of the church.
In the third chapter of The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, Modern Movements Towards Liberty, Roland Allen effectively argued that the “size of the work” of propagating the Gospel among the “vast populations” of the world that confronted the Church then demanded a greater “method,” or approach to the task, if it was going to accomplish its objectives. The same argument can be made to the Church today as well.
The missionary approach that Allen promoted for the evangelization of the “nations” was the indigenous, self-supporting ministry concept. The concept of indigenous missions did not originate with Allen. The concept, if it can be attributed to anyone, can most legitimately be attributed to Henry Venn, an English Anglican missionary (1796-1873) and Rufus Anderson, an American Congregationalist (1796-1880). John L. Nevius, the American Presbyterian missionary to China in the mid-to-late 1800’s implemented, wrote about, and promoted “self-supporting” indigenous missions. In the 1950’s, the concept was introduced to a new audience and popularized by Donald McGavran in his book, The Brides of God. I do believe that all of us would acknowledge that the approach was first used and modeled by the New Testament missionary, the Apostle Paul.
Allen wrote at length about indigenous missions in the chapter, Modern Movements Towards Liberty. Below are quotes and comments that I would share with you.
“… is it not apparent that the size of the work and the method do not agree? Yet in practice we are still acting as if we could go on multiplying mission stations indefinitely.”
“… we are quite familiar with the unhappy fact that it is possible for Christian churches to be highly organized and equipped and yet to fail utterly to understand the necessity for carrying the Gospel to the people around them.”
With respect to the quote immediately above, Allen goes on to speak about church organizations, i.e., churches, that make missions a “department” of the church. When missions is one department “among many others designed for the equipment of a well constituted church,” he says “they are the one department which could be weakened, or neglected, or abolished without any immediate and uncomfortable consequences for those who neglected them.” This occurs when churches “concentrate upon their own advancement,” not understanding that Christ sends them on “mission” and all that it does – Bible study, worship, service, etc. – should be to promote, support and further the missionary enterprise.
Allen continues …
“… there are those who think that as a work should end so it should begin. If the propagation of the Gospel is to be at any time the spontaneous work of native Christians, it should be so from the very beginning. Every moment of delay is a moment of loss, loss for them, loss for their country.”
Allen “summed up the object of our missions, as the foundation of self-extending,self-supporting, and self-governing churches … the establishment of indigenous churches.”
Speaking of an indigenous church “formula,” Allen wrote:
“If the churches of our foundation are to be self-extending in the sense of self-propagating, they must necessarily possess the power to create their like, and unless they are self-governing and self-supporting, they cannot possibly propagate themselves.
“The formula demands that we should establish self-supporting, self-governing, and self-extending churches, and obviously, if it applies at all to us, it applies likewise to the churches which we establish. If we are establish self-supporting, self-governing, and self-extending churches, so certainly must they. If the rule applies to the parents of the first generation of churches, it applies to the parents of the second generation, and the third, and so on. Thus self-extension is bound up with self-support and self-government; the three are ultimately united.”
“… St Paul established new self-supporting, self-governing, self-extending churches like themselves in the nearest town or villages, not by fissure but by spiritual procreation.”
“I believe that we ought to return to the apostolic practice and found churches every place we make converts, churches equipped with all the divine grace and authority of Christian churches.”
“We ought never to send a mission agent to do what men on the spot are already doing spontaneously.”
“If the moment that we find anyone doing anything spontaneously we send a paid man to do it for him, we stop his work and we check others from following his example.”
“If the growth of the church depends upon the supervision of foreigners and of natives trained by them, the extent to which it can grow if severely limited.”
“Could we once persuade ourselves that self-extension, self-support, and self- government go hand-in-hand, and are all equally the rights of converts from the very beginning, we might see such an expansion of Christianity throughout the world as now we little dream of.”
“It is high time that we should definitely face the question whether we will not in the future return to the biblical apostolic practice and by establishing apostolic churches open the doors for that expansion and make it the foundation of the missionary policy; for we are at a turning point in our missionary history, and what is to be the future course of that history will depend upon the attitude which we take pu on the question.”
When Roland Allen wrote Missionary Methods and Spontaneous Expansion, the concept of indigenous, three-self missions was a radical missionary concept to most missions agencies and their personnel. What Allen was saying was outside the box and thinking of most of the churchmen of his day.
Allen was practicing, writing about, and advocating a return to a New Testament-grounded, Pauline-modeled approach to reaching the world for Christ through an indigenous movement of evangelism, leadership development, and church planting.
Today, most involved in ministry recognize that the indigenous, three-self approach to missions ministry is the right and most effective means to evangelizing and making disciples of the “nations” and the start and multiplication of New Testament churches. We see this proven in the movement of God in the world today in and through what we refer to as Church Planting Movements.
If we are serious about the fulfillment of the Great Commission in our life time, we must get serious about evangelizing, discipling, and “churching,” not only the “nations” of the third-world developing nations, but our Western neighbors and neighborhoods. Business as usual in America is not getting it done. One aspect of this “get serious” is to re-think the definition of “church,” what the task of the church is, and what a local church can “look like.” We must think “outside of the traditional Western church box” and the way that we typically start churches and open ourselves up to the implementation of an indigenous, three-self strategy for church planting. This will, by God’s grace and in His strength, result in the start and multiplication of churches that penetrate and saturate our communities for Christ, reaching people that the traditional, established church in our cities may never reach.