Review: Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?

Roland Allen, Eerdmans, 1962, 130 pages

Missionary MethodsRoland Allen was a missionary in China for eight years at the turn of the 20th century. He was a minister in the Anglican Church and was nurtured in the Catholic understanding of churchmanship though—surprisingly—this background does not come out in his writings as one would expect.

Allen observes that St. Paul had immense church planting success in a relatively short time—about ten years. Though most missionaries today have not replicated this level of success, they argue it is because Paul had special advantages like background, calling, and gifts. Allen argues against this. After all, there were others in the NT besides Paul who were also successful. Modern man has several advantages that Paul did not. And even if Paul did have an advantage, it was not so great as to except the modern missionary’s lack of success.

Allen’s thesis could be syllogized as follows. Paul successfully planted many churches in a short amount of time. Missionaries today do not. Therefore, missionaries today must not be following Paul’s example. Or, in Allen’s words, “I propose in this book to attempt to set forth the methods which [St. Paul] used to produce this amazing result.” (7)

It will not be long until an angry choir rails with shouts of “yeah but”. In fact, the majority of Allen’s book is an answer to all of the “yeah buts”. He anticipates the arguments that point out certain advantages Paul had which missionaries today do not.

The format of Allen’s book is simple and I shall try to do the same. He rebuts 10 apparent advantages, offers three conclusions, and closes with several applications. Below I will summarize Allen’s perspective on five of the apparent advantages and applications and insert my thoughts below each one.

  1. Strategic Points: “Was Paul’s success due to the strategic places he went?”

No. Paul was not deliberate and didn’t even plan his journeys ahead of time. The Spirit led and forbid him. He went to provinces that were Roman (and thus had protection), Greek (and thus had no language barrier) and Jewish (and thus had a familiarity with their religion and culture). His strategy was to assail the centers of world commerce.

These are major advantages afforded to Paul that led to his immediate success. Unlike Paul, most missionaries go to places where they have to learn a new language from ground zero. Unlike Paul, John Paton and Jim Elliot and thousands of others do not have political protection by birth. Unlike Paul, modern missionaries enter a completely foreign culture and religious worldview. Thus, Paul had advantages in the four major obstacles missionaries face: language, culture, religion, and government.

  1. Audience: “Was Paul’s success due to a special kind of audience or class of people?”

No. It is true that Paul always started by preaching to the Jews in synagogues. But after he was rejected, he went to the Gentiles, most often of the lower class. Therefore, we can’t excuse our poor results because Paul had a synagogue or special group.

To minister in a culture where a location is set aside in every town for the public reading and discussion of the Law is a tremendous advantage. Paul shared the same background and esteem for the law. Hebrew and Greek had vocabulary that could carry the heaviest of theological terms. Jewish roots were in a book. I minister in Tsonga, a culture rooted in oral tradition. The language does not have words for adoption, redemption, and propitiation. There is no way to say “justifier”. There is one word for want and need; for leg and foot.

  1. Moral and Social Condition: “Was Paul’s success due to an audience that was different morally and socially?”

No. Paul’s day was wicked, full of idolatry, slavery, and demon worship.

I grant that Paul’s day had a greater level of depravity than some places in the world today. One’s eschatological position plays a large role in answering this question. If postmillennialists are correct, then Paul may not have had an advantage in this area. This view expects the proclaiming of the gospel to win the vast majority of human beings in this present age and righteousness will prevail in the affairs of people and nations. If premillennialists are correct, then he probably did have an advantage, since the world is getting worse (2 Tim. 3:13).

  1. Finance: “Was Paul’s success due to his financial arrangements?”

No: Paul exercised three rules involving money: he did not seek financial help, he did not give financial help to converts or ministries, and he did not administrate the money. There are at least six problems if we give financial help to converts. (1) Extra business adds anxiety to the missionary. (2) We misrepresent our purpose. (3) We “pauperize” the converts by making them passive recipients, not able to procure the same things themselves. (4) It deepens bondage to the foreigner. (5) Big structures (houses, churches) tie the missionaries to one place. (6) Lots of miscellaneous difficulties like who ultimately owns the property.

Allen makes excellent points here and I would like to address each one. (1) Proverbs 12:25 tells us that anxiety ways down the soul. Already the missionary has the burden of “caring for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28) and he watches for their souls (Heb. 13:17). Now add the loan for hospital fees, plumbing for the church guesthouse, and fund raisers for the local school and the missionary will fall beneath the weight.

(2) When Jesus said you cannot serve God and money (Matt. 6:24), He was not condemning wealth per se, but denouncing the equal love for both. Missionaries should plant churches in such a way that the entire community knows the mission for which it is there. The missionary may give financial help when it is wise, but never in such a way as to derail the people’s perception of his gospel goals. Children notice parental disunity, grammarians notice split infinitives, and nationals notice divided goals. No missionary can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one or love the other. You cannot give microloans and plant churches.

(3) God has designed people for a holy sense of pride and accomplishment when we work for our reward. Should we short-circuit the process, our reward becomes charity, and there is not pride in that. Parents let their children fail so that they will feel ownership. Why must we steal this from our poor flock? One of our church members looked back a dozen times to stare at our church building because he did the work himself. Only the foolish wife of Lot looks back with longing at Sodom and only a fool looks back with pride at a building bought and paid for by another. Proverbs 13:4 says that the soul—not the bank account—of the diligent will be made rich. What can that mean other than hard work brings internal satisfaction.

When the missionary does everything for the locals—construct their church, raise their support, support the pastor—he implies that they are spiritually weak. He implies that they are unable to do marvelously difficult things. But Paul told the believers that they were “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” (Rom. 15:14). They were indwelt with the same Spirit as Paul.

The poor already feel inferior. They lack a job, an education, a degree. They feel worthless. But in Christ, they have value. They are equals. They have a responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters in Christ. When the missionary removes this obligation, they are forbidding them from knowing God’s grace.

(4) In Acts 20 we find Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders. He says in v. 18, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia.” Paul was one of the boys. Yet at the end, when he departed, “there was much weeping…most of all because…they would not see his face again.” There had to be some fear that day. “What will we do without Paul? He’s an apostle, we’re just laymen.” So Paul cut the apron strings, and that too is what the missionary must do very early on with finances. “He’s a westerner with lots of education. I didn’t even graduate.” There is a sense of bondage to the missionary. Cut the root by giving them the checkbook. Ironically, theft or mismanagement may only make the church stronger.

(5) The more of our money the missionary pours into church buildings and houses and schools, the harder it is to move on, even when the work is established. Jesus said where your treasure is there will your heart be also (Matt. 6:21).

(6) If the missionary forked over all the cash for the chairs and piano and building, what are the church members supposed to say? The missionary may cover the church with a veneer of congregationalism, but everyone knows who is really in charge. As long as the missionary remains, the locals will always feel a sense of inferiority. If Bob is financially supporting Kojo in some way, the relationship will continue to have a feeling of an employer with the employee. How can Kojo confess his sin, or speak the truth about his shortcomings, or disagree with some of Bob’s tactics, or obey his conscience? Fear of losing support will not allow him to do any of these things.

  1. Teaching: “Was Paul’s success due to his method of teaching?”

No. The missionary must be preparing converts immediately not to depend on him. If he does not, they will think nothing can be done without him. Paul planted churches, not mission stations—organizations weighed down by parsonages, funds, and waves of westerners. Paul preached in Lystra for six months, planted the church with elders, left for 18 months and only returned briefly. Paul did not stay in Thessalonica for more than five months and didn’t return for over five years! The church in Corinth was established after 18 months and Paul didn’t return for 3-4 years. Missionaries need to train their people and then get out of the way as soon as possible. Do not exercise long, direct personal government. Send them letters and visit, but let them be.

Allen writes:

The secret of success in this work lies in beginning at the very beginning. It is the training of the first converts which sets the type for the future. If the first converts are taught to depend upon the missionary…the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they receive their first insight into the Gospel. A tradition very rapidly grows up that nothing can be done without the authority and guidance of the missionary, the people wait for him to move, and, the longer they so do, the more incapable they become of any independent action. (81)

Every church planting missionary should read Allen’s chapter on teaching.


  1. All teaching should be understandable and capable of being used and passed on.

The best kind of reproducible teaching is the faithful exposition of Scripture. Missionaries should be careful of what kinds of stateside curricula and Sunday school materials they use. If it can’t be passed on easily, don’t use it.

  1. All organization methods must be easy to pass on.

Not only organizational methods, but pastoral methods. A full-time pastor, fully funded, is not a method easily passed on. Many pastors around the world must work another job. Paul labored with his hands so as not to burden the poor churches (1 Thess. 2:9) and so as not to imply he was in the ministry for the money (1 Cor. 9:1-18). There is no command that a minister must act as a full-time pastor.

  1. All financial arrangements must be controlled and managed by the people.

A missionary will never know if the church is indigenous unless he can count on them to handle the money. Control of the money should be in the hands of the people. If it is lost or stolen, the church will learn a valuable lesson. Even if the people want the missionary to take care of the money, he should refuse this role. He of course should be teaching important common sense principles like multiple money counters, clear records, and consistent accountability, but must forgo taking the money in hand.

  1. Authority to exercise spiritual gifts should be given freely and at once.

Who says the man who preaches in the missionary’s stead must have theological training, or a preaching class, or a practice run with the children? In the West, the new MDiv is the PhD but how much training did the elders really have in Ephesus? There were no books on preaching, no Bible software, and no Sermon Audio. But the church flourished. Watching St. Paul preach was probably the only training many of the elders had. The goal should be to give pastors as much training, books, and practice as possible. But we mustn’t forget that of the sixteen qualifications of a pastor, only one spoke of education and gifting.

  1. The missionary should find ways to prolong his journeys and find excuses to be away more and more. Taking a furlough should not make the church suffer at all.

I admire John MacArthur because he has been at the same church for nearly 50 years and rarely misses a Sunday with his congregation. A missionary should not try to emulate this. What we applaud in MacArthur we rebuke in the church planter.

Allen writes:

Paradoxical as it may seem, I think that it is quite possible that the shortness of his stay may have conduced in no small measure to St. Paul’s success. There is something in the presence of a great teacher that sometimes tends to prevent smaller men from realizing themselves. They more readily feel their responsibility, they more easily and successfully exert their powers, when they see that, unless they come forward, nothing will be done. (93)

2 thoughts on “Review: Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?

  1. A serious call to return to Scriptural and logical methods for evangelism and churchplanting is refreshing to read. But it would seem that God was sending an awakening spirit in those early days of Acts. Like Narnia was bursting with life at its beginning so too the early church. I would rejoice if I saw that principle of life again, but leaving too early may be laziness or foolishness depending on the specific place God has put a man.

    And too cultures in deeper ruts may call for more exertion.

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