Book Review: The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It, by Roland Allen

The spontaneous Rise

Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1997. 158 pages.

Roland Allen served as an Anglican missionary to China and Kenya in the first half of the 20th century. A prolific writer on missions, he’s best known for Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Although his writings didn’t exert significant influence during his own time, they’ve profoundly influenced subsequent generations. Allen’s missions philosophy is particularly evident in popular contemporary strategies such Donald McGavran’s church growth movement as well as Church Planting Movements (CPMs) and Disciple Making Movements (DMMs).

CONTEXT

As his title suggests, Allen wanted to know what stood behind the “spontaneous expansion” of the church. By spontaneous expansion, Allen wasn’t suggesting some kind of miraculous mass conversion without missionaries and church planters. Instead, the phrase refers to national churches that are empowered to grow and multiply on their own without ongoing control by outside missionaries and mission agencies.

Allen ministered in the 19th and 20th century as a colonial Anglican missionary. He saw many mission strategies that failed to promote natural, organic growth and, in the process, actually stymied the kind of spontaneity we see in the New Testament. (Thus, the book’s subtitle: And the Causes Which Hinder It.) To summarize his objection, Allen believed missionaries’ continued presence created a crippling dependency that denied infant churches the freedom they needed to immediately flourish by themselves in the power of the Spirit. 

Obviously, this objection carries with it a few vital, yet unstated assumptions that run through this book and Allen’s other works. I’ll discuss a few of these concepts below, and we’ll see how they buttress Allen’s vision for spontaneous church growth.

THREE IMPORTANT CONCEPTS

First and foremost, Allen warns against the Western influence of outside missionaries even as he highlights the importance of the indigenous church.

In Allen’s mind, every local church—no matter its location, no matter its age—is fully supplied by Christ, the Word, and the Spirit to carry out its mission of making disciples. Following 19th-century missions leaders Alfred Tucker and Henry Venn, he believed that native churches should be “self-extending, self-supporting, and self-governing” (26). 

Unfortunately, few missionaries—even among those who use the terms—consistently practiced these “3-selfs.” From the beginning of the book, Allen sets up a clear plan for national churches to change this:

The very first groups of converts must be so fully equipped with all spiritual authority that they could multiply themselves without any necessary reference to us: that, though, while we were there, they might regard us as helpful advisers, yet our removal should not at all mutilate the completeness of the Church or deprive it of anything necessary for its unlimited expansion. (1) 

In Allen’s estimation, churches on the field tended to be overly Western. They weren’t indigneous to the culture but rather reflected the missionaries who came from the outside. As a result, missionaries imported foreign elements that made spontaneous, natural multiplication unlikely.  

Secondly, Allen argued for the necessity of a native episcopate—or, a “voluntary clergy,” as he sometimes called it. 

For a church to truly be “self-governing,” this can’t be overlooked. According to Allen, mission agencies too easily delayed the process of turning over the work to national leaders. “We are constantly being told,” Allen observes, “that the very object and meaning of the training of leaders for the Church is that they may lead the Church and carry on all those works which the foreigners inaugurated, so that the foreigners may be able to retire and enter upon fields as yet untouched” (23). And yet, he complains, years and even generations pass without that promised hand-off taking place.

What’s lost due to this failure is significant. He writes, “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” (25). 

How might an indigenous church accomplish this? Obviously, it would be nearly impossible for a brand-new church made up of brand-new believers to resemble the highly organized and highly trained Anglican Church of his day. In its place, Allen encouraged new churches to avoid developing a professional, paid clergy and instead give themselves to raising up lay leaders from within the church. By quickly investing lay leaders with authority and training them to carry out the work immediately, they could avoid unnecessary delay and loss of momentum.

AN ANALYSIS OF ALLEN’S CONCEPTS

As a missionary, I find many details of Allen’s missiology compelling. Here are a few:

  • His emphasis on the primacy of the Holy Spirit in the work of missions.
  • His emphasis on deriving church planting strategies from Acts and the apostles.
  • His desire to guard against unhelpful spiritual and financial dependency created by overly paternalistic missionaries.
  • His emphasis on the primacy of preaching of the gospel over social programs (i.e., schools, hospitals, etc.).
  • His desire to avoid the introduction of overtly Western elements that make church reproduction more difficult.

And yet, despite these areas of appreciation, Allen’s solutions too often go too far and create other problems. For example, his emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s role in raising up new leaders and churches led him to advocate a model in which missionaries prematurely abandon brand-new churches. Similarly, his emphasis on finding our missions strategies in the book of Acts led him to expect and even prescribe exponential growth as a marker for success. Many CPM and DMM advocates flatly point to the results in Acts as an example of what we should look for today.

Put simply, Allen’s strengths often become his weaknesses. 

His ecclesiology is famously difficult to identify. It’s simply not clear what he believes the Bible teaches about the church. His desire is clear: he wants missionaries to plant simple, easily reproducible indigenous churches. That’s attractive and commendable. But again, it’s not clear what he believes a church is. 

As a result, the model Allen put forward is reductionistic. He argues against over-complexifying the church, but posits nothing clear in its place. Pointing to the New Testament, Allen argues that “the Church expanded simply by organizing . . . little groups as they were converted, [and then] handing on to them the organization which she had received from her first founders” (143). This raises a vital question: What should be given to these small groups of new believers so that they can reproduce spontaneously as in the first century? Here’s Allen’s answer: “The Bishop ought to deliver to them the Creed, the Gospel, the Sacraments and the Ministry by solemn and deliberate act. It is to do that work that we have missionary bishops” (147). By handing over these four elements to the infant church, the missionary work is done. The missionary must then simply allow the Word, the Spirit, and the gospel to do their work in this young congregation (147–150).

Let’s see how this philosophy plays out with its boots on the ground. At one point in the book, Allen says missionaries shouldn’t slow the expansion of the church by introducing non-essential moral teaching. What’s non-essential moral teaching, you ask? Think of something like monogamy and polygamy. Allen spends several pages arguing that monogamy shouldn’t be forced on a polygamist culture (65–67). Allen argues that “the only Christian standard is ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and, with all thy strength, and thy neighbour as thyself.’ . . . That and none other is the Christian standard of morals” (68). Once we’ve communicated this simple ethic, he says, “we must trust in the Spirit given to lead them towards that divine standard of morality [rather than] in our powers of control and direction” (60). 

Allen recommends an identical approach to theological issues as well. Rather than allowing the church’s growth to be slowed by being overly careful to protect sound doctrine, he says that missionaries should be satisfied to give new believers minimal doctrinal instruction (43-59). You might be wondering: Is the standard different for the new church leaders? Unfortunately, no. The same standard applies (149–50). After minimal instruction, national leaders should be set free to do the work with the four elements mentioned above: the creed, the gospel, the sacraments, and the ministry. 

But what about Paul’s admonition not to “be hasty in the laying on of hands”—a reference to not prematurely ordaining new leaders (1 Tim. 5:22)? Or what about his command to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2)? Or his call to train faithful men who are capable of reproducing leaders who themselves can teach others (2 Tim. 2:2)?

None of these exhortations align with Allen’s call to rapidly hand off the church to young believers. Nor do they fit his minimalistic approach to pastoral training and church planting. 

While I appreciate Allen’s resistance to the practice of requiring years of formal education for national pastors, he seems to be overcorrecting this unhelpful tradition by jettisoning even a basic level of theological discernment.

CONCLUSION

It’s not hard to discern the influence that Allen’s work has wielded in modern missions—especially among those who are enamored with the church growth theory and its accompanying strategies. While I agreed with many of his principles, I also found myself disagreeing with his suggested implementation of those supposedly shared principles. While Allen’s works (especially Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?) are helpful additions to a missiological library, they should be supplemented with others, especially books that promote a more robust ecclesiology.

AJ Gibson

AJ Gibson has served as a missionary to Mexico since 2004. AJ and Ruth joined Reaching & Teaching early in 2015 and are focusing their ministry on training indigenous church leadership in southern Mexico.

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