Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours?

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Great Commission refers to the final passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus Christ urges the apostles to make “disciples of all the nations” and “baptise” them. 

The word “disciple,” which is “mathetes” in Greek, literally means “pupil” but also “follower,” as in “follower of Jesus.”  I prefer the term apprentice. 

The Great Commission, therefore, is usually interpreted to mean spreading the Christian message and converting others to Christianity.

The phrase “Great Commission” does not appear until late in Christian history. Some scholars argue that it was coined by Baron Justinian von Welz, a 17th century Lutheran nobleman, who argued that the words in Matthew 28 meant that all Christians were required to spread the faith, not just Jesus’ closest disciples. 

Two centuries later, the Englishman Hudson Taylor is believed to have used the idea of the Great Commission to justify Christian missionary efforts, particularly in China through the China Inland Mission that he founded in 1866. 

A controversial idea

Christian missionary activities predate the use of the term “Great Commission.” The Apostle Paul was influential in establishing Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean after the death of Jesus. 

Throughout history, Catholic religious orders, such as the Society of Jesus, were successful in spreading Christianity throughout the world, usually with the help of the powerful economic interests of colonial nations such as Portugal and Spain.

The “Great Commission” certainly motivated Protestant efforts to convert nations and peoples in Africa, Asia and the Pacific in the 19th century. The results are there for history to discover.

When I was a theological student at Trinity Theological College in Auckland in 1968 the General Secretary for what was then known as Overseas Missions came and gave a talk about the need for Clergy to go and serve in the overseas Churches.  I did not feel any special call to this work but what was presented as the practical skills needed was a challenge that I thought I could do.  I indicated my interest and, with my then wife Helen, we were allowed to go to the Solomon Islands to fill in for three months in Honiara.  I had to return to New Zealand to serve my three probationary years and be ordained before I could return in 1971.  I then served in the United Church of PNG & SI for six years.  When I returned from this overseas experience I did not want to go into back into a parish but wanted a way to use the cross-cultural skills that I had acquired overseas in future ministry.  From there I was appointed in late 1978 to the Uniting Church Synod of WA   as the Consultant for World   Mission and Social Justice for 8 years. 

As preparation for going to the Solomon Islands I was one of a new breed of mission workers who were given 6 weeks orientation in missiology run by the Melanesian Institute at the Roman Catholic Mission Station at Alexishaffen near Madang in Papua New Guinea.  Missiology is made up of many inter-disciplinary areas of study of theology, the social sciences, and mission strategy. Theology explains the foundations of mission, social sciences (culture) elaborates on the knowledge needed to understand people and their context, and strategy explicitly points to the ways in which mission work is implemented hopefully leading to the establishment of independent churches.  

The greatest learning that I received while serving the church in the Solomon Islands was to understand what culture is.  I realised that I had a culture and I lived among a people who had a very different culture and that my job as a Minister was to help people understand the Scriptures through the lens of culture.  I have since gone on to study for a degree majoring in anthropology, sociology, and politics. 

Part of understanding missiology is to reflect on what we meant by overseas missions.  For example, the Catholic Church like the Protestant churches set up elaborate mission stations which serviced all the missionaries in the area.  This included ports and shipping, airfields for flying in of personnel and supplies, workshops and stores, schools and teacher training colleges, hospitals and medical training for doctors and nurses, theological training for pastors and ministers, administrative centres for accounts and communications, and translation centres for training in linguistics.   Some of these tasks were done by specialist organisations, such as Wycliffe Bible translators, Missionary Aviation Fellowship, Missionary Societies, and other support organisations such as Mission Liaison Group here in Australia.  Some of these were sophisticated, technical and administratively not always appropriate for emerging churches because they are expensive and required technical expertise that is not available in third world countries.   This Industrial Mission approach was strongly criticised from the beginning by those who were sensitive to the issues involved and was summarised in 1912 by the missionary Roland Allen in his book “Missionary Methods St Paul's or Ours.”  He was a missionary in China.

What Roland Allen did was to contrast this industrial approach to mission with the approach of St Paul who was influential in establishing Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean after the death of Jesus. 

He believed that the establishment of local indigenous churches was to trust in the Holy Spirit's indwelling within the converts. In contrast Allen's observation was that the people of his day were unable to entrust their converts to the Holy Spirit and instead relied on the continuing presence of expatriate Europeans to support them.  His main thesis was twofold:

  1. Indigenisation: Foreign missionaries create well-organised churches and then hand them over to local converts. The foreign mission is generally seen as a scaffolding which must be removed once the fellowship of believers is functioning properly. Missionaries provide teaching, pastoral care, sacraments, buildings, finance and authority, and train local converts to take over these responsibilities. Thus, the church becomes indigenous by becoming self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing. 
  2. Indigeneity: Foreign missionaries should not be creating churches, but simply helping local converts to develop their own spiritual gifts and leadership abilities and gradually develop their own churches. Missionaries provide training, teaching and pastoral care alone. The church is thus indigenous from the start. It has always been self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing. 

Roland Allen believed in the recognition of the indigenous church as the local entity through which the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the converts was the mark of Paul's success.

The greatest strength of Allen’s work is his sensitivity to issues of money and authority in the local church. By following the money trail, you will find who actually holds power in and responsibility for a church. If a church depends on money from overseas sending churches, the leaders end up answering to those churches, not their congregants. 

Missionary Methods St Paul’s or Ours was first published in 1912. Allen was a missionary during the heyday of colonialism. The assumption was that Western civilisation was superior in every way, and that the work of missionaries was too often associated with Western cultural norms.  This resulted in a very strong overbearing sense of the paternalism of the sending churches and their missionaries. Paternalism being the attitude “I know what is best for them.”

For example, much of the protestant missionary work in Asia and the Pacific that we relate to was started from the mid 1860s on, and yet the churches in those countries did not become independent until well after WW II.  In the Solomon Islands where I served, the work of the Methodist Missions started in 1902 but the United Church of PNG & SI didn’t became independent until 1967. Here in Australia the Missionary work of the Uniting Church amongst our Aboriginal and Islander people did not become independent until the formation of the Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress at Crystal Creek near Townsville in 1982.  I was at that meeting because at the time I was responsible for overseeing the work among Aboriginal people in the Synod Western Australia.

Briefly what I have tried to show is that we have learnt a lot in the past 50 years where even our own Uniting Church has realised that what we considered as overseas missions and our work among our own Indigenous people had to change from the paternalism of the past to the recognition of the importance of supporting Indigenous leadership in the Churches so that they become self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing. 


What have been some of the results of this kind of missionary work in the past? 

What does this say about how we go about mission today?

How does this affect what we mean by evangelism and how we encourage people to be followers of Jesus today? 


Habitat Uniting Church Office
2 Minona Street, Hawthorn VIC
phone 9819 2844

St David's Centre
2 Mont Albert Rd (cnr Burke Rd)
Canterbury VIC

Habitat Spirituality Centre
SWell Centre (Ex Augustine)

2 Minona St, Hawthorn VIC

Kew Uniting Church
23 Highbury Grove