Missions, Are We Misguided? How Bad?

The following quote is the sort of thing that has been rattling through my head for the last year, and I really don’t know what to do with it. It is discouraging at times, as well as challenging. So any thoughts on it are welcome. Here goes:

Roland Allen (1868 – 1947) served as a missionary in China until 1903. Thereafter … he wrote a succession of books and articles arguing with great persistence that the methods of contemporary mission were not those of Paul. He contrasted what Paul achieved in ten years of work with what modern missions had failed to achieve in a century. Paul could say that in four great provinces he had completed his work. By contrast, missions in Asia were still only at the beginning and no end was in sight. What was the reason for the difference?

As Allen looked at Paul’s missionary methods he saw four decisive points of difference from modern methods.

(a) When, as the result of the preaching of the gospel, a Christian community has come into being, Paul entrusts the whole responsibility to the local leadership and moves on. He does not do what modern missionaries have done; he does not build a bungalow! The new converts are simply “committed to the lord in whom they believed” (Acts 14:23), and the missionary moves on. His work is done.

(b) Paul does not establish financial relations with the new church. There are no subsidies or grants-in-aid. By becoming Christians the new converts do not lose their independence.

(c) Nor do they lose their status as adults. They are not treated as children. At no point does Paul lay down laws in the manner of the ten commandments. When he is consulted he adivses, but his advice is largely based on the ethical teaching generally acknowledged in surrounding society. Even on the question of contact with idolatry he does not lay down authoritative rules, but appeals to their own best judgment (I Cor. 10:14-22). In spite of the decrees of Acts 15:29, paul refrains from legislating in any binding manner on the subject of food offerred to idols (I Cor. 8). Even when, as in his dealings with the Galatians, he has to charge them with what could amount to apostasy, his language shows that he sees them as adults who must be resoned with, not as subordiantes who can be commanded. The fact that he speaks of them as children with whom he is again travail is vivid testimony to his own spiritual anguish, but the argument that immediately follows is addressed to mature men and women capable of following a subtle and passionate argument (Gal. 3 and 4). All of this is very far from the style in which missionaries have often claimed to direct the development of “their” own converts.

(d) Finally – and perhaps most important – Paul does not impose on them a ministry chosen and trained by himself. He has colleagues and helpers – Timothy, Titus, Tychius, and the rest – but they are available to be sent from church to church on special missions. The local ministry of each church is formed from its own membership. In contrast to this, modern missions have insisted on the necessity for training a new kind of leadership in schools and seminaries directed by the foreign missionary on the basis of the missionary’s perception of ethical and intellectual priorities. Consequently, whereas the churches formed by the work of modern missions have been able to develop a fully native ministerial leadership only after decades and even centuries of training, Paul could address the church in Philippi “with the bishops and deacons” within a very few years of the first conversions.

The central thrust of all Roland Allen’s writing is expressed in the title of a posthumoulsy published work, The Ministry of the Spirit. Allen’s charge against modern missions was that they had been tempted by their alliance with colonial powers to act as though the mission of the church could be pursued in the style of a cultural and educational campaign, as though the object was to multiply replicas of the sending churches. In contrast to this Allen rightly saw that in the New Testament portrayal of mission the central reality is the active work of the living Holy Spirit himself. It is the Spirit who brings about conversion, the Spirit who equips those who are called with the gifts needed for all the varied forms of ministry, and the Spirit who guides the church into all truth. The Spirit is not the property of the sending church or missionary who is sent. It is not part of the missionary’s duty to mold the new church into the style of the old. The Spirit is sovereign and free, and the missionary must trustthe Spirit to do his own work. Where Christ is confessed, where the word of the gospel is preached and the sacraments of the gospel are administered, and where there is a ministry that links the new community to the wider fellowship of the catholic church, there, Allen believed, the Holy Spirit must be trusted to provide all that is needed, and the missionary has done his or her work and can move on.

(pg 129-130)

We have been having a great time with the Mortons (David and Rebecca) while they have been in town. I lent David my copy of Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret: An introduction to the Theology of Mission. Of course, he devoured it in the space of two weeks (just as he did with N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God over the space of two months.) I am still about halfway through the book, and am slowly making way. When I asked him how he liked it, he read me the quote above. So basically I am not sure what kind of positive argument Newbigin has built up around it.

So this sort of thing makes me ask about our ministry here at ABC, or even the possible venues for theological education in Africa; Are we misguided and how bad is it?

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2 thoughts on “Missions, Are We Misguided? How Bad?

  1. David Adamson says:

    I think ABC is capable of Newbigin’s point of trusting the Spirit to complete His work as He sees fit. And a very interesting point by Allen over the relationship of the church in colonialism. I think even in this day there is lots of work in tearing the church out of colonialism.

    But I’m not sure I totally agree with (or maybe don’t understand) Allen’s bullet points. They are a comparison of method. I’m reminded of an RUF-ism: “Fixed Theology. Flexible Methodology.” The Bible addresses some methodologies for the church (offices, regular meetings, singing, etc.), but it doesn’t make Paul’s method THE method. Allen mentions the follow-on, sustaining work of Timothy and others. Their work was just as valid as Paul’s and I think ABC’s is more in that vein.

  2. Tom Robbins says:

    One thing worthy of note is how powerfully the spirit moved in China, in spite of official discouragement, if not persecution. If Allen could only have lived to hear about the persistence of the church in China.

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