December 21, 2019

Church Planting or Colonialism?

As we plant churches in hard places, are those churches becoming self-governing communities of faith? Or do we believe these congregations cannot be trusted and need our patriarchal oversight?

Over a century ago, Roland Allen served as an English missionary to China. Events from his early days caused Allen to rethink the status quo. His denomination had developed unhealthy patterns of paternalistic authoritarianism among the Chinese churches. In 1912, he wrote a book addressing these issues entitled Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, A Study of the Church in the Four Provinces. While the book is nearly 108 years old, it is a timeless analysis of the methods employed by Paul on his missionary journeys and also a critique of modern missions. The book confronts and challenges the 21st century church.


Missionary Methods is written from an Anglican perspective, confronting general assumptions held by the Church of England when it came to their missionary work abroad. Allen’s approach is simple: he compares and contrasts the missionary methods of Paul with the methods of the early 20th century church. Divided into five parts, Allen approches the book topically and overviews the apostle’s work from a variety of angles. Each topic relates and applies to modern-day missionary work.

Part one hones in on foundational issues, such as whether or not Paul’s success came as a result of reaching the upper class (chapter 3). Allen’s primary point is that Paul’s success was not due to specific worldly and strategic tactics (such as a focus on reaching the influential). “The majority of Paul’s converts,” he writes, “were of the lower commercial and working classes, laborers, freed-men, and slaves; but that he himself did not deliberately aim at any class” (24).

Part two focuses on Paul’s evangelistic methods and message. While a performer of miracles, his success was not due to his miracle-working (chapter 5). Additionally, success was not due to abundant finances (chapter 6). On this point, Allen notes that modern missionary structures which require large salaries and budgets “make it very difficult for any native to succeed to the place of a European missionary” (57).

Chapters 7–9 give attention to Paul’s preaching and teaching. Paul taught in such a way to pass on the work to natives.  In contrast, “our converts often display great virtues, but they remain . . . too often dependent upon us” (82). Chapters 10–11 constitute part four, as Allen highlights the use of the congregation in Paul’s understanding of church authority. Additionally, unity (chapter 11) comes not out of institutional authority, but shared congregational commitments. Part five is a series of concluding chapters summarizing Paul’s methods and calling the church to change on matters of finance, congregational authority, ministerial appointments, and finishing well.

Why You Should Read It

Missionary Methods is a Bible-saturated book. This is not a book on best practices or efficient models of ministry. It’s a book on the Bible. In particular, it focuses the Pauline epistles. For that reason, there remains a timeless element to Allen’s work. As a committed congregationalist, I cannot help but appreciate Allen’s lament of the loss of congregationalism within these churches (even though he’s Anglican). He laments the belief that new congregations cannot exist without the “paternal care of an English overseer” (60).

Allen also argues no one should be baptized without the agreement of the congregation (156). He makes the case that the apostle Paul developed unity among churches through “taking it for granted,” and then putting the burden on the congregation itself. Allen is right to believe that congregationalism is not only the best missionary model, but a Biblical one.

Additionally, the book addresses theological and ecclesiological imperialism. Allen is concerned that modern missions takes the focus off of the native and places it upon cultural expectations. In this sense, converts must assimilate into majority culture in order to enjoy table fellowship. In part, he argues that this may happen through giving the ministers a “theological education” which then distances them from the indigenous context (106). Assimilation can also happen through top-down rules set to address issues in one culture which are then awkwardly forced upon another culture. Allen calls this “judaizing” (137).

Enduring Relevance

If you’re seeking to plant or revitalize a church in a poor community, then you should read this book. Missionary Methods challenges popular methods which I see today, and simultaneously encourages single-site, congregational, indigenous-led ministries for which many of us long. Here are several specific reasons to read Allen’s book.

First, Allen helps us think about finances. There’s a tendency to assume most of our church plants will remain financially dependent on a mother church. Allen challenges us on this point. New congregations must be given oversight of their own finances. That is to say, they at least should be aware of their specific needs for external help. I’m not saying that church planters in certain contexts won’t fundraise for a lifetime—they may, and that is okay. However, it is to say that partner churches should not develop a ‘handout culture’ among their missionaries. Rather, indigenous leaders must take responsibility for their own ministry.

Second, Allen addresses the important issue of congregational authority. Some planters must slow down with baptisms and focus on addressing unregenerate members in their midst. Allen urges the missionaries to receive congregational approval prior to baptizing a convert. Is it wise for church planters to baptize an individual prior to the congregational affirmation of their membership? Allen says no, and I agree. The church must approve of any and all baptisms. Not only is this wise and can be argued biblically, it places responsibility in the hands of the people.

Thirdly, Allen urges us to develop indigenous leaders. Missionary Methods encourages us to continue training people from the context, for the context. Training centers are a must on the mission field. If one’s only route toward the pastorate is being sent off to seminary, too many ministers will lose touch with the context they are from. While some should move and attend seminary, this education must be coupled with some form of continued work in the context.

Fourth, Allen highlights multi-site problems. In America, a popular approach has become the multi-site model. I have seen churches in middle-class communities plant a “site” among the poor. What happens is that the middle-class church, led by those outside the poor community, essentially own and operate this congregation. Not only is it an unbiblical approach to congregational authority, it smacks of the kind of patriarchy and colonialism that Allen argued against in 1912. Poor communities don’t need a “site” or a “missions center”—they need autonomous local churches.

Fifth, Allen deals with reaching the influential. I was doing a little dance (you don’t want to see me dance) as Allen explained that Paul’s success was not due to a strategy of reaching the wealthy and influential. Rather, Paul reached anyone who would respond—which were people who came mostly from the lower-classes. Certainly, there is a place for city center churches who want to reach the culture-shapers of the day. But let us never believe doing so is superior, or even more ‘effective,’ than reaching the world’s poor. Let us go the young professionals indeed. But let us not just go to the young professionals and ignore planting in vulnerable communities.

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