Roland Allen advocated the “Spontaneous Expansion of the Church,” the Spirit-directed growth of the Christian faith beyond the control of expatriate missionaries. A century later “Diaspora Missiology” has emerged as a way of promoting God’s work among people living in settings new to them. This study examines continuities and discontinuities between Allen’s vision and what contemporary missiology is noting regarding diaspora peoples. The study also discerns how Allen’s emphases might be instructive for contemporary missiology and mission methods, with respect both to diaspora peoples as well as to related broader areas.
We will look first at diaspora missiology, then move back to Allen before drawing some comparisons and a few lessons.

The Lausanne Cape Town Commitment – Part 2, Section IIC, 5, entitled “Diaspora: Love reaches out to scattered peoples,” lays out an evangelical understanding of ministry among scattered peoples as follows:

People are on the move as never before. Migration is one of the great global realities of our era. It is estimated that 200 million people are living outside their countries of origin, voluntarily or involuntarily. The term ‘diaspora’ is used here to mean people who have relocated from their lands of birth for whatever reason. Some relocate permanently, and others, like three million international students and scholars, temporarily. Vast numbers of people from many religious backgrounds, including Christians, live in diaspora conditions: economic migrants seeking work; internally-displaced peoples because of war or natural disaster; refugees and asylum seekers; victims of ethnic cleansing; people fleeing religious violence and persecution; famine sufferers – whether caused by drought, floods, or war; victims of rural poverty moving to cities. We are convinced that contemporary migrations are within the sovereign missional purpose of God, without ignoring the evil and suffering that can be involved.
A) We encourage Church and mission leaders to recognize and respond to the missional opportunities presented by global migration and diaspora communities, in strategic planning, and in focused training and resourcing of those called to work among them.
B) We encourage Christians in host nations which have immigrant communities and international students and scholars of other religious backgrounds to bear counter-cultural witness to the love of Christ in deed and word, by obeying the extensive biblical commands to love the stranger, defend the cause of the foreigner, visit the prisoner, practise hospitality, build friendships, invite into our homes, and provide help and services.
C) We encourage Christians who are themselves part of diaspora communities to discern the hand of God, even in circumstances they may not have chosen, and to seek whatever opportunities God provides for bearing witness to Christ in their host community and seeking its welfare. Where that host country includes Christian churches, we urge immigrant and indigenous churches together to listen and learn from one another, and to initiate co-operative efforts to reach all sections of their nation with the gospel.

In other words, Christians should recognize the accelerated migration of peoples in our day and reach out to immigrants; and, Christian immigrants should serve others within and contiguous to their own immigrant communities.
Enoch Wan, coming out of his own migratory experience and a leading evangelical proponent of diaspora missiology, offers the following description:

Diaspora missiology is a different way of conceptualizing Christian mission of the global demographic trend of ‘diaspora’ as part of God’s sovereign design to accomplish His mission. It is
…taking advantage of the current situation of the mass relocation of peoples throughout the world due to war, famine and economic issues. This new missiological approach is a strategic way of ministering to peoples who are providentially relocated to new places and taking advantage of increased receptivity to the Gospel.
Diaspora missiology is … supplementary to traditional missiology….
…. Opportunities to minister to the diaspora bring forth three closely related aspects: missions to the diaspora, missions through the diaspora, and missions by and beyond the diaspora….
First, the church must motivate God’s people to have compassion on the diaspora and minister to their needs, both spiritual and physical…. Then, the church must mobilize diaspora congregations to realize their potential in carrying out the Great Commission to their diaspora kinsmen in host countries and in their motherlands. Finally, the church must equip and empower mature diaspora Christians to take the Gospel across cultures to other ethnic groups in the host society and elsewhere….

Like the Lausanne statement, Wan recognizes God’s providential hand in the unprecedented movement of peoples throughout the earth. Wan also stresses “missions to the diaspora, missions through the diaspora, and missions by and beyond the diaspora,” giving explicit attention to the third category of gospel ministry “by and beyond” Christian immigrant communities.
The newness of diaspora missiology, in comparison to traditional missiology (“traditional” in a “modern missions” sense), comes from stressing the central place that migrating peoples have within God’s providential orchestration of Christian missions. To return to Enoch Wan’s construct, this central place in missions of migrating peoples consists of the three-fold missions to the diaspora, missions through the diaspora, and missions by and beyond the diaspora. An accompanying new stress – complementary to traditional modern missions – is on God’s providential orchestration of missions apart from, or at least prior to, Christians’ organized initiatives and programs.

The influence of Roland Allen’s 1912 Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? has been inversely proportional to the influence of Western colonialism. Roland’s criticism of Western missionary control and encouragement of indigenous Christian initiative fell on rocky soil until Western colonial systems imploded after the Second World War. Only then was the ground tilled with the right kind of humility such that Roland’s insights could take root.
Similarly, the development Allen’s understanding of Christian missions needs to be seen against the backdrop of his general life story and historical context.[3] Born in 1868 into an Anglican clergyman’s home, Allen became an ordained deacon and priest, serving in the Diocese of Durham in the early 1890s, Allen’s young 20s. Allen soon applied for missionary service and was eventually accepted by the Church of England’s North China Mission society;[4] he set sail in 1895 and was soon training young boys to become catechists. Vital, no doubt, to Allen’s developing views on indigenous leadership and education was his quick proficiency in Mandarin, including reaching the benchmark “3000-character” level. Learning to live in another people’s language and accompanying world of ideas and relationships breeds recognition of that people’s worth and creative capacities.
Following the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and a furlough in England, Allen and his new wife Mary Beatrice Tarleton left for China in 1902. Allen soon “attempted to apply some of his missionary principles that were contra-traditional missionary paternalism. He helped local believers to elect church councils and take more responsibility for finances, evangelism, and church leadership.”[5] However, within less than a year the Allens had to return to England due to Roland’s declining health; the Allens would never return to China.
Interestingly it was upon regaining his health and engaging in rural vicarage ministry that Allen felt the deep impact of the Apostle Paul’s writings. That led into Allen’s 1912 Missionary Methods, followed in 1913 by his Missionary Principles in which Allen argued that genuine missionary zeal comes from the indwelling Holy Spirit.
After serving as a naval chaplain Allen published in 1917 what he himself believed to be his best work, a small pamphlet entitled Pentecost and the World. One admiring analyst summarizes the main points of this little work in three emphases: “(1) God directs missions through the Holy Spirit, and (2) God provides for missions through the Holy Spirit, and (3) the unity believers have in the Holy Spirit is the only real basis for Christian unity.”[6] This analysis continues: “Here is the central principle of the book: all believers are called to be missionaries because of the gift of the Holy Spirit given to all believers.”[7] In Allen’s own words in the conclusion,

In the preceding chapters I have tried to show that the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the coming of a missionary Spirit; that the Spirit stirred in the hearts of the disciples of Christ a great desire to impart that which they had received; that He revealed to them the need of men for that which He alone could supply; that He enabled them to hand on to others that which they themselves had received; that He led them to reach out farther and farther into the Gentile world, breaking down every barrier of prejudice which might have hindered their witness, or prevented them from receiving into communion men the most remote from them in habits of thought and life.
Those who received the Holy Spirit became witnesses….
The Spirit, the missionary Spirit, was given to all.

And as the conclusion’s last paragraph resoundingly states,

… if we believe in the Holy Spirit as He is revealed in the Acts, we must be missionaries…. We must embrace the world because Christ embraces the world, and Christ has come to us, and Christ in us embraces the world. Activity world-wide in its direction and intention and hope and object is inevitable for us unless we are ready to deny the Holy Spirit of Christ revealed in the Acts. [9]

Allen’s central emphasis here on the Holy Spirit as “a missionary Spirit” is unmistakable.
Several other important writings ensued, including Allen’s significant 1919 Educational Principles and Missionary Methods. There Allen emphasized all the more the need for Paul’s apostolic missionary method to be implemented with great cultural distances are involved. Then in 1927 Allen published his particularly significant The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder It. Allen pointed to the importance of that book in his preface to the second edition of his Missionary Methods, published in the same year:

In the light of experience gained in the last fifteen years [since 1912, Missionary Methods’ original publication year] I might have enlarged this book, but it did not seem wise to add greatly to its bulk. I have therefore contented myself with making as few corrections and additions as possible, and have carried the argument further in a book, which is now published as a companion volume to this, entitled The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder It. In that book I have tried to set forth the secret of an expansion which was a most remarkable characteristic of apostolic churches, and have examined the hindrances which have prevented us from establishing such churches.
If any of my readers desire to pursue the consideration of missionary methods further, I can only refer them to that book.

We will follow Allen’s suggestion and note two important and conjoined points from his 1927 Spontaneous Expansion.
First is central role of the Holy Spirit, not human beings (although human agency is important in facilitating or the “enlargement” of the Spirit’s work), in controlling Christian growth and service:

Spontaneous activity is a movement of the Spirit in the individual and in the Church, and we cannot control the Spirit.
Given spontaneous zeal we can direct it by instruction. Aquila could teach Apollos the way of God more perfectly. But teaching is not control. Teaching can be refused; control cannot be refused, if it is control; teaching leads to enlargement, control to restriction. To attempt to control spontaneous zeal is therefore to attempt to restrict it; and he who restricts a thing is glad of a little but does not welcome much. Thus, many of our missionaries welcome spontaneous zeal, provided there is not too much of it for their restrictions, just as an engineer
laying out the course of a river is glad of some water to fill his channels, but does not want a flood which may sweep away his embankments. Such missionaries pray for the wind of the Spirit but not for a rushing mighty wind. I am writing because I believe in a rushing mighty wind, and desire its presence at all costs to our restrictions.
By spontaneous expansion I mean something which we cannot control. The great things of God are beyond our control. Therein lies a vast hope. Spontaneous expansion could fill the continents with the knowledge of Christ: our control cannot reach as far as that.

Allen longed for the “rushing mighty wind” of God’s Spirit, the one who alone can control and empower Christian growth.
The second and interrelated noteworthy point is that of recognizing and even facilitating, on the part of expatriate missionaries, indigenous Christians taking the initiative and control in Christian service. This point is perhaps the best known one in Allen’s 1912 Missionary Methods, but it is even more pronounced here in 1927, especially as conjoined with the more explicit emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s control:

Until we learn that not only self-support in a financial sense, but self-support in a spiritual sense, a sense that implies self-government, must begin from the very beginning, we cannot hope to see that wide propagation of the Gospel which alone could penetrate a continent like Africa, or reach the vast populations of India and China, or cover those wide, sparsely-populated areas where communications are difficult, or find an entrance into those countries or districts where the Government is definitely opposed to Christian propaganda. Could we once persuade ourselves that self-extension, self-support and self-government go hand in hand, and are all equally the rights of converts from the very beginning, we might see such an expansion of Christianity throughout the world as now we little dream of.[12]

The illustrate the point, “The Bishop of Lagos, for instance, has told us that in Southern Nigeria the greatest progress of recent years has been due not so much to the direct work of the European missionaries, or of paid African teachers, as to the spontaneous work of untrained and unpaid native Christians. I believe the time is ripe for this advance.”[13] Clearly, at this more mature point in Allen’s understanding (he was almost 60), he explicitly advocated the free work of the Holy Spirit in using the free actions of indigenous Christians apart from expatriate direction and control.
In Allen’s mid-60s he and his wife moved to Nairobi to be closer to their children. Allen would assist in leading worship at St. Mark’s Church, but he eventually stopped doing so when members clearly expected him to continue instead of wanting a more permanent indigenous clergy appointed, as Allen’s clear beliefs preferred. Remarkably he progressed in learning Swahili, so much so that he was able to translate Swahili works into English for publication. Once again, it is noteworthy how indigenous language was important for Allen, and it is equally noteworthy that he thought it important for non-Swahili-speaking English speakers to have access to what was being articulated in Swahili. That reverse-direction of who should instruct whom was in keeping with Allen’s sense, expressed in Missionary Methods, of the “modern Western spirit” being on a par with the Judaizing instincts that Paul faced:

St. Paul’s method is not in harmony with the modern Western spirit. We modern teachers from the West are by nature and by training persons of restless activity and boundless self-confidence. We are accustomed to assume an attitude of superiority towards all Eastern peoples, and to point to our material progress as the justification of our attitude. We are accustomed to do things ourselves for ourselves, to find our own way, to rely upon our own exertions, and we naturally tend to be impatient with others who are less restless and less self-assertive than we are. We are accustomed by long usage to an elaborate system of church organization, and a peculiar code of morality. We cannot imagine any Christianity worthy of the name existing without the elaborate machinery which we have invented. We naturally expect our converts to adopt from us not only essentials but accidentals. We desire to impart not only the Gospel, but the Law and the Customs. With that spirit, St. Paul’s methods do not agree, because they were the natural outcome of quite another spirit, the spirit which preferred persuasion to authority. St. Paul distrusted elaborate systems of religious ceremonial, and grasped fundamental principles with an unhesitating faith in the power of the Holy Ghost to apply them to his hearers and to work out their appropriate external expressions in them. It was inevitable that methods which were the natural outcome of the mind of St. Paul should appear as dangerous to us as they appeared to the Jewish Christians of his own day. [14]

Allen died in 1947 at the age of 79 and was buried in Nairobi.

This summary of important features of Roland Allen’s missiological understanding points to some clear anticipations of today’s diaspora missiology. Allen’s advocacy of Holy Spirit-controlled “spontaneous expansion” of Christianity apart from expatriate missionary control connects favorably with the recognition that God is at work apart from missionary strategizing as peoples migrate throughout the earth. Both frameworks rest on a basic notion of God’s sovereign control that is more than theological lip-service. Diaspora missiology points to a general providential orchestration of events more explicitly than Allen’s formulations which are geared more specifically to Christian growth, but the basic frameworks of divine versus human (particularly expatriate) control are the same. It bears repeating that Allen insisted on an operative recognition of the Holy Spirit’s work in a way that had actual repercussions on missionary activity, namely to relinquish control and let God work as he will among and through indigenous Christians. That insistence on not trying to control, but instead on recognizing and facilitating, God’s work among others is central to diaspora missiology as well.
Together with that common emphasis is that Christians outside such “spontaneous” work of God nevertheless have meaningful roles to play, namely those involving instruction and equipping.
Another point of continuity that shows how Allen foresaw diaspora missiology is the strong historical sense evident in both. That is, both Allen and diaspora missiologists articulate their analyses and suggestions with a deep awareness of where those analyses and suggestions fit within wider history. To be sure, Allen looked to what was happening in the Apostle Paul’s day as a biblical example to be emulated. At the same time, Allen sensed that what happened in the apostolic age was a historical development in Christianity that was one example of many other similar developments throughout history that needed to be acknowledged as relevant today. Here are Allen’s own words to that effect in Missionary Methods:

St. Paul’s missionary method was not peculiarly St. Paul’s, he was not the only missionary who went about establishing churches in those early days. The method in its broad outlines was followed by his disciples, and they were not all men of exceptional genius. It is indeed universal, and outside the Christian Church has been followed by reformers, religious, political, social, in every age and under most diverse conditions. It is only because he was a supreme example of the spirit, and power with which it can be used, that we can properly call the method St. Paul’s. [15]

That is, Allen did not see Paul’s missionary methods simply as constituting an apostolic pattern that therefore held unique authority. Rather, for Allen what took place with Paul was “a supreme example” of a universal method of reform and expansion exemplified throughout human history. That historical sense of Allen anticipates the same sort of historical sense that diaspora missiology embodies in its recognition of migrating peoples – a historical phenomenon that has accelerated in contemporary times.
In my view, then, Allen foresaw and anticipated diaspora missiology primarily in these two areas, namely of (1) an active, implication-bearing recognition of God’s work outside of missionary initiative; and, (2) a strong historical sense of similar macro developments throughout human history. Looking back at Allen through the lens of diaspora missiology, one can see how Allen’s instincts and emphases were blazing trails in the same direction. At the same time, Allen’s historical location with the era of Western colonialism understandably prevented him from foreseeing the kind of free movement of peoples that diaspora missiology actively embraces. The political realities of Allen’s day kept him from foreseeing the migration of non-Western people apart from colonial orchestration, i.e., the way that the British, Dutch, and others moved colonial subjects within their imperial domains for accomplishing specific tasks, for example moving Indians to East Africa to manage the development of financial and transportation systems. Throughout Allen’s writings the sense of Christianity’s “spontaneous expansion” is that it takes place among indigenous peoples where they live, not as they migrate to other parts of the world.
As ahead of his times that Roland Allen was, he was still a man of his times in certain ways that are clear. He could thus foresee some of the basic characteristics of diaspora missiology’s spirit and instincts. However, in ways that Allen could not have anticipated, the political and economic realities of today’s post-colonial world enable the actual movements of people upon which diaspora missiology focuses.

What insights can we gain for our own missiological understandings and mission practices from seeing the continuities and discontinues between Roland Allen and diaspora missiology? In my mind there are two main lessons we can take to heart.
First, the historical setting within which such a prophetic voice as Roland Allen understood God’s work in the world should humble us into acknowledging our own limitations due to human finitude. Such historical limitations are not to be disdained but embraced. God is God, and we are not. Seeing broad historical patterns in a way that enables constructive, prophetic insights such as those that Roland Allen had is a vital gift to God’s people and the cause of the gospel. We must always recognize, however, that we see dimly as in a mirror, and that God alone is omniscient and perfect in understanding what is happening in his world.
Second, we should assume a certain missiological passivity, if you will, in acknowledging that I, my church, and my mission organization are not the central, essential agents in God’s mission to redeem his world. That is not to say that we become inactive. Rather, it is to assert that we acknowledge – and behave accordingly as humble co-laborers – that God, not me and my organization, is the central driving force behind fulfilling his mission of world redemption. Vital to constructive mission practice is the capacity to “Be still, and know that I am God,” as the familiar words of Psalm 46:10 exhort the people of God. After all, as that verse continues, God’s firm intention is that “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” God is at work, and we his people privileged to participate with him.
May we have the eyes to see how God is at work and how we most effectively can be his co-laborers, just as Roland Allen and today’s diaspora missiologists exemplify for us.


[1] Available online at http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/home/diaspora (accessed July 6, 2015).
[2] Enoch Wan, Diaspora Missiology: Theory, Methodology, and Practice (Institute of Diaspora Studies at Western Seminary, 2011), 315-317.
[3] I will rely heavily here on J.D. Payne’s “The Legacy of Roland Allen: Part One – His Life,” CMARESOURES.ORG (posted May 13, 2008). Available online at, for example, http://www.cmaresources.org/article/legacy-of-roland-allen-part1_jd-payne (accessed July 6, 2015).
[4] A heart condition prevented Allen’s acceptance into the Anglican Church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6]Robert McAnally Adams, “The Spirit of Missions: An essay on Pentecost and the World by Roland Allen,” The Christian Quotation of the Day, August, 2000. Available online at http://www.cqod.com/cqodb006.htm (accessed July 6, 2015).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Roland Allen, Pentecost and the World (1917), republished in 1960 in David M. Paton, ed., The Ministry of the Spirit (World Dominion Press, 1960), with portions republished again in David Paton and Charles H. Long, eds., The Compulsion of the Spirit: A Roland Allen Reader (Grand Rapids, MI:): William B. Eerdmans, 1983), 91.
[9] Ibid., 93.
[10] Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? 2nd (1927) ed. Available online at http://www.gospeltruth.net/miss_methods.htm (Gospel Truth Ministries, 2005; accessed July 6, 2015).
[11] Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder It. Reprint ed. (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), 7. Available online at http://www.gospeltruth.net/allen/spon_expanofch.htm (accessed July 6, 2015).
[12] Ibid., 13.
[13] Ibid., 28.
[14] Allen, Missionary Methods. Available online at http://www.gospeltruth.net/miss_methods.htm (accessed July 6, 2015).
[15] Ibid.

Dr. J. Nelson Jennings served as a missionary in Japan 1986-1999, first in church-planting then in theological education at Tokyo Christian University. He taught world mission at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, USA 1999-2011, then served as Associate and Executive Director at the Overseas Ministries Study Center, New Haven, Connecticut, USA 2011-2015. He has been editor of Missiology: An International Review and of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

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