Book Review – Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? By Roland Allen

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Roland Allen’s classic book on missions strategy—Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours—remains relevant and helpful even 100 years after its original publication.

Allen argues that Paul was able to do what many missionaries in his day could not do: establish healthy churches. The reason? While some missionaries claimed to be imitating Paul’s ministry, in reality, they were “guided in their movements by straws and shadows” (7). What’s worse, “almost every intolerable abuse that has ever been known in the mission field has claimed some sentence or act of St. Paul as its original” (7). In other words, many have gone out pretending to base their strategy on Paul’s even as they remained actually unaware of “the profound teaching and practical wisdom of the Pauline method” (7)

Allen uses the rest of the book to evaluate Paul’s missionary career to determine what can be learned and applied today. If we want to see healthy churches established, argues Allen, then we would do well to learn from Paul.

Before considering the many valuable contributions of this book, it is worth pointing out a few things that might confuse or turn off the modern reader, especially one committed to doing missions in a biblical way.

First, it is important to recognize Allen’s context. He’s writing in the early 20th century and is responding to the deficiencies of Anglican missionary efforts in places like India and China. As a result, many of his illustrations come from unfamiliar Eastern contexts.

Second, on numerous occasions, Allen states that he is not writing a book on Paul’s doctrine and seems to downplay its importance in Paul’s missionary strategy (9). Readers committed to sound doctrine and biblical missions might find these statements off-putting. But again, it’s best to understand Allen’s context. These statements likely respond to issues of his day that aren’t apparent to us. After all, a careful reader will note that in many cases Allen stresses the importance of teaching and doctrine in the missionary enterprise (10).

There are other aspects of the book that readers might quibble with or wish that Allen had said differently. Those of us outside of the Anglican tradition might find some of his vocabulary unfamiliar. Nevertheless, getting to the heart of the book is worth the effort.

So, what is at the heart of the book?

Paul’s Unfair Advantages

Some people object that modern missionaries ought to study and emulate Paul’s method. After all, they say, Paul had several unique advantages that made him successful.

For example, Paul had a strategy to reach certain kinds of cities that do not exist today. To that, Allen responds that Paul both had a plan and, at times, seemed not to have a plan. He seemed to target provinces over cities and chose locations for their ability to encourage gospel spread in broader areas. And yet, at other times, Paul’s plan was more or less to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.

Allen writes, “He was led of the Spirit, and when we speak of his strategic centres, we must recognize that they were natural centres; but we must also recognize that for missionary work they were strategic centres because he made them such” (17). This approach, Allen argues, still applies today.

Others have a different argument. They say Paul succeeded because he could perform miracles. Allen rejects this argument as well by demonstrating that miracles were not an essential part of his preaching, nor did Paul use them so that people would listen to his preaching. In a section that could serve as a critique of some social gospel efforts today, Allen writes, “[Paul] did not attract people to listen to him with a view to being healed of disease, or by the promise of healing. It seems as if St. Luke was careful to avoid producing the impression that miraculous powers might be used to attract people to accept Christianity because of the benefits which they might receive from it” (36). Put simply, our inability to establish churches in the way that Paul did is not due to our inability to perform miracles the way Paul did.

Others argue that Paul’s success was based on the superior moral and social condition of his hearers. Allen rejects this position with one powerful sentence: “We are sometimes apt to think that the social condition of those to whom St. Paul preached may account for his success in establishing the Church, and the answer comes with irresistible force that the majority of St. Paul’s converts were born and bred in an atmosphere certainly not better, and in some respects even worse, than that with which we have to deal today in India or China” (25).

While we can admit that Paul’s ministry as an Apostle was unique, our context is more like than dislike his and thus our strategy should be more like than dislike his.

Paul’s Strategy: Establish Healthy Churches

The heart of Paul’s method, according to Allen, was establishing healthy churches. It is not as if the missionaries of his day were not winning converts or gathering those converts together. Indeed, Allen notes, many have gathered thousands more converts than Paul ever did. But what Paul did that many today do not do is actually establish local churches.

Allen devotes considerable time critiquing missionary methods of his own day. Many of these methods still exist, even 100 years later. He writes, “They have gathered congregations and have left them to fend for themselves, with the result that the congregations have fallen back into heathenism. But St. Paul did not gather congregations, he planted churches, and he did not leave a church until it was fully equipped with orders of ministry, sacraments and tradition” (8).

In a day when many missionary strategies seem to deemphasize the patient work of planting healthy churches, Allen’s call is refreshing.

But what did Allen see as essential to a healthy church? He offers three traits: a healthy church is self-governed, self-supporting, and self-propagating.

Allen describes an obstacle to healthy churches. Too many congregations are dependent on outside missionaries to make decisions, provide funds, and encourage more mission work. At the outset, such dependence is natural. But when that relationship persists indefinitely, healthy churches are hard to come by. If missionaries want to fulfill the Great Commission, then they need to aim at planting independent churches that can—over time—make their own decisions, provide for their own needs, and even fulfill the Great Commission themselves.

What’s the solution to this never-ending cycle of over-dependence? Allen’s answer is unsurprising: we should look to the Apostle Paul. “The facts are these,” Allen writes, “St. Paul preached in a place for five or six months and then left behind him a church, not indeed free from the need of guidance, but capable of growth and expansion” (68). Allen recognizes the need for continued encouragement and instruction from the missionary for the new church and its leaders but ultimately rejects the idea of “exercising direct personal government” over the church (70).

Bottom Line

Missionaries on the field and missionary strategists will be challenged by Allen’s book. Of course, we all realize we are not the Apostle Paul; at the same time, we must also recognize there is much we must learn from him. As Allen reminds us, like Paul, we are called to make disciples and invest in local leaders so that healthy, independent churches can be established.

Jason Wright

Jason Wright is a missionary in Córdoba, Argentina, with Reaching & Teaching. Jason formerly served as a pastor of Redeemer Church in Abilene, TX, and as Director of Ministry Operations at Reaching & Teaching. He and his wife, Kami, have three children.

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