Thursday, July 18, 2013

Learning from Roland Allen (and Paul) Today

It is over a century now since Roland Allen, a British former missionary to China published Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours? (Download a free pdf of the book here: Not many books are still in print so long after their initial publication. So what makes it so significant? In this book, Allen compares Paul’s approach with those that were common at the turn of the 20th century. Contemporary methods were heavily influenced by colonial attitudes oftentimes manifesting a superior spirit towards native believers. There was a reluctance to give authority to local believers. Often it was felt that converts needed long periods of instruction before they were baptized and given membership of a church. Mission control over native churches was a given.

Although Allen was a High Churchman this does not seriously affect the expression of his missionary principles (‘Methods’ is actually a misleading title) except in perhaps one respect which we will note later. He was hot on the work of the Spirit in mission and the centrality of the Word and so his principles fit easily with a Reformed approach. He abhorred the pragmatic approach that focussed on the overwhelming difficulties in the way of establishing churches and believed that missions had failed because of obstacles that they had introduced.

Allen’s Argument


The chapters of Missionary Methods are logically arranged and seek one by one to answer the question, What was the reason for Paul’s success?
1.      Introduction.
2.      Strategic Points. Paul deliberately made the most of the administrative, linguistic, and cultural advantages available in the Roman system.
3.      Class. Paul did not have a strategy of approaching the elite of the societies he was reaching out to.
4.      Moral and Social Condition. The spiritual, moral and social condition of the first century Mediterranean world was just as corrupt as any society you will find on earth in the contemporary context. Paul had no advantage over the contemporary scene.
5.      Miracles. Paul’s miracles were significant but their significance must not be exaggerated.
6.      Finance. Allen makes three assertions concerning Paul’s use of money: (1) he did not seek financial help for himself; (2) he took no financial help to those to whom he preached; (3) he did not administer local church funds.
7.      The Substance of Paul’s Preaching. Allen draws out a number of lessons from Paul’s preaching: he was sensitive to his hearers; he didn’t blast them; he was no inclusivist; he preached the wrath of God; he did demand of them a moral and spiritual change and was not content to merely sow the seed; and finally he preached for individual change but also for social communion.
8.      The Teaching. Allen asserts that much contemporary mission work of his time teaches new believers to rely not on the Spirit but on the missionary.
9.      The Training of Candidates for Baptism and Ordination. Teaching followed baptism. This does not mean that the rite was carelessly administered. Allen concludes that Paul admitted only a few people of known reputation who showed real faith then handed over the admission procedure to those men. Likewise in the appointment of elders.
10.  Authority and Discipline. The churches were not dependent on the apostle but neither were they independent of him.
11.  Unity. The churches that Paul founded were one in spirit. Paul refused to make them one in form or structure. Allen also points out that nowhere does Paul “establish a priori tests of orthodoxy”.

In the last 3 chapters Allen seeks to apply the principles he has expounded to the contemporary situation. 



It is impossible in a blog post to do justice to Allen’s thought. However, it is important to see how Allen both built on previous work and paved the way for later thinking on contextualization. Clearly Allen was drawing on the work of a half-century previous by Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson with their call for churches in mission situations to become indigenous. Allen’s emphasis on the work of the Spirit is refreshing and shows up the lack of theological grounds for the overbearing nature of much missionary control, at least in the past—but one wonders about situations today too.

Allen asserts that the modern missionary, like Paul, should move on from planting a church much earlier than has traditionally been the case. He must leave the new church to the care of the Spirit. Here I think Allen takes a big risk. One can certainly sympathize with this approach. The security of the new church certainly does not depend on the presence of the missionary. Still today, so many years after Allen’s thinking was published missionaries are often found to be in a situation for decades, eventually leaving a stunted and impoverished church.

But should a missionary up and leave after just a few weeks or months? Here Allen surely overstates his case. Paul, after all, often had to leave a new church not by his own choice but because he was drummed out of town, such as at Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17). Furthermore, sometimes he did in fact choose to stay for a considerable time, as at Ephesus (Acts 19). Allen clearly has, here, misrepresented Paul. Allen’s theological contentment with leaving the new church so quickly must be found in his High Churchmanship. For Allen leaving a new church with the Sacraments for their nurture was enough. No evangelical will surely be content with that. The Lord’ commission included the injunction to teach the disciples to obey all that he had commanded them (Matt 28:20). That implies ongoing ministry, whether by the church planter or by those he has trained and equipped.

Nevertheless, Allen’s insistence that new believers have the Spirit and can therefore be confidently commended to the Lord and left without missionary control is a principle that is still as needed today as it was when he stated it.

The work of Roland Allen stands squarely in the stream of precursors to the contemporary missiological debates about contextualization. His work came out of reflection on his contemporary situation and almost a century later still deserves a careful reading.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

An Encounter with Alan Tippett (Part 2)

In my last post I addressed Tippett’s first of six problems that the evangelist of ‘animistic’ peoples needs to deal with. He has five more and taken together I think his case for treating primal peoples in a category of their own is seriously problematic.

Tippett’s second problem is the issue of motivation: “Animists may be interested in Christianity for many and varied reasons – some good, others bad”. However, this problem is universal wherever commitment to Christ is seen as a path to material gain, so it does not apply as a peculiar issue for the evangelization of primalists.

Tippett’s third problem is the issue of meaning: the message being proclaimed may be misunderstood by the hearers because of the worldview through which it is heard and received leading to all sorts of problems as Paul and Barnabas had (Acts 14:8-18). This, surely, is also universal – misunderstandings happen wherever the gospel is preached and no matter how sophisticated the community being evangelized.

Tippett’s fourth problem, social structure, likewise, is an issue in many types of society, not just those typically identified as animistic. In fact, even in complex urban societies social structure is an issue. At its most basic level family relations, marriage etc can be either an obstacle or a bridge to the spread of the message.

The issue of incorporation into the church (Tippett’s fifth problem) is linked with the issue of social structure and is certainly shared with other societies. Tippett is concerned that the proclamation of the gospel to animists is not carried on individualistically. Churches must be formed, not just isolated disciples, a given in the New Testament and one that Tippett rightly addresses, but not one that is unique to primal contexts.

Tippett’s sixth problem is the issue of cultural void. If churches are to thrive in animistic contexts they must be taught to value features of their culture that are positive rather than rejecting them all as necessarily evil. This, too, is clearly an issue in any situation where the gospel call is misunderstood as a call to abandon valid cultural activity.

So, of Tippett’s six problems I can’t recognize any that are peculiar to the evangelization of primal peoples. All this goes to demonstrate the difficulty of trying to isolate tribal peoples, or animists, or whatever we may call them as a distinct type of religion. When we look around at the peoples of the world and their religious experiences we have to recognize that we are all subject to one degree or another to primal tendencies – even missiologists! Nor are they all negative. Tippett’s six problems, then, apply to the evangelization of people of all kinds. Yet again the comparative religion project is found to be wanting.

Monday, July 8, 2013

An Encounter with Alan Tippett (Part 1)

Alan Tippett was an Australian who worked in Fiji for twenty years before joining Donald McGavran at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. 

In the third edition of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, A Reader a chapter of Tippett’s is included on “The Evangelization of Animists”.[1] That chapter is not included in the latest edition but I want to interact with it because I think many of the sentiments that are expressed are still common currency in missions. Much of what Tippett writes is good and helpful. He tries to resist the comparative religionists’ insistence of categorizing animists alongside other traditions such as Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. 

Nevertheless, and while acknowledging the great variety of expressions of animism, for the sake of simplicity he deals with animists together, as a category in contrast to other categories – “a discrete enough philosophical ‘system’ among the religious,” as he calls it – and for this reason the chapter comes significantly unstuck. Put crudely animists, according to Tippett, are considered those that would not consider themselves to belong to one of the so-called Great Traditions. 

But animism, or primalism as it is better called, deeply affects the religion of vast numbers of people globally, not just those belonging to tribal communities (with which the phenomenon is usually associated). There are many people that would identify themselves as Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim (or Sikh, Jain or Parsee for that matter) that exhibit primal tendencies in belief and practice, and plenty of people who identify themselves as Christians! Tippett himself is not unaware of this but seems not able to draw the logical conclusion that his categories need a shake up. Andrew Walls writes that “the word [primal] helpfully underlines two features of the religions of the people indicated: their historical anteriority and their basic, elemental status in human experience.”[2] All other faiths, Walls adds, are secondary to that basic primal experience. A key aspect of the culture and religion of primal peoples is a shared belief in a multitude of spirits or other non-material phenomena that interact freely with the material world.

Now Tippett outlines six problems with which the evangelist to animistic peoples must come to terms. The first of these is that in the evangelization of animists we must expect a particular sort of encounter on the part of those who come to Christ. Citing the example of Joshua (24:15) and the Ephesian converts (Acts 19:18-19) Tippett asserts that “animists cannot drift into the Christian faith”. They need, he says, a visible demonstration that the old way is finished with, a rite of separation, to use Van Gennep’s phrase. It may involve the burning of fetishes or amulets or other such event.

Missionary stories often describe just such an encounter in the conversion of primal peoples. But I want to question the biblical basis for expecting or requiring such an event. To come back to Joshua’s story, the people of Israel had left Egypt several decades before. They had now come to occupy the vast majority of the Promised Land. But clearly all was not well with the people. The fact that they possessed ‘foreign gods’ to throw away suggests that there were some deep-seated issues of allegiance that had not been resolved. Perhaps they had carried these with them all the way from Egypt (as Josh 24:14 suggests). But this story is not that of the conversion of a tribe of primal people. This was the people of God, the people to whom the Lord had said, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exod 19:4). Judging by the cycles of infidelity over the following generations, neither did this incident prove so much of a turning point for the people. So I do not find it a helpful analogy to Tippett’s description of the kind of encounter he expects among primal peoples.

The incident in Ephesus is equally difficult. The description is not detailed enough to conclude much about the order of events but we are told that “Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds” (Acts 19:18). The Greek perfect participle suggests that these were already believers. This was no conversion event. So the biblical basis for expecting an “ocular demonstration” (Tippett’s phrase) at the animist’s conversion is simply non-existent.

This being so, perhaps those who work with tribal groups and others exhibiting primal tendencies need to re-examine this concept and seek a more robustly biblical and theological rationale for their expectations when they see people turn to Christ.

I will address the other five issues in the next post.

[1] Alan R. Tippett, “The Evangelization of Animists” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, A Reader (edited by R. D. Winter & S. C. Hawthorne; 3d ed. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999), 629-40.
[2] Andrew F. Walls, “Primal Religious Traditions in Today’s World,” in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of the Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996, 121.