Old Books: Missionary Methods

People often say to me “Mark, what’s the best book on youth work?”[1] and I often reply “that’s easy, it’s a book written in 1912 that never mentions the word ‘youth work’”. And then I pause to build up some tension and fix them with a steely gaze and tell them “it’s called Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours and it’s by a man named Roland Allen and it’s great”. And it is. But how can it be so crucial to a ministry that hadn’t really been invented yet? Let me explain.

The book is written in this context. Allen has just come back from being a missionary in China, he’s returned due to ill health, but he’s frustrated with the missionary societies and the missionaries they are sending. Too often the missionary societies’ goals seemed to be making quaint English parish churches, with a English morality, in the heart of China, or India, or wherever. Allen saw this as not just a cultural problem though, it went much deeper than that, there was a problem with how the foreign missionaries were treating the converts —as people second under the missionary— and how they we treating the church they planted —as the missionary’s church to order and direct as he saw fit.

Allen writes Missionary Methods into this context. And it’s brilliant. His point is essentially this; see how the Apostle Paul planted churches? See what you’re doing? See how they don’t match up even slightly? Paul arrives in a new place proclaims the gospel, plants a church, and then leaves —the longest he stays anywhere is two years and he stays a lot of places for a lot less time. And yet, when he leaves, there’s a fully fledged church there, a church which Paul is content with. When Paul writes Romans (at which point he’s been a Christian for around thirty-forty years) he can say there is no place left for him in the Eastern Mediterranean because it’s been all evangelised. Yet how come when we undertake a mission, says Allen, we don’t really plant churches, and when we do we expect them to take decades to get even remotely safe sustaining.

Allen’s over-arcing thesis is that Paul was successful because he trusted in the Holy Spirit and trusted that the Spirit worked just as powerfully in the heathen converts as He did in him. We fail, because we try and do everything in our power, because we try to protect the newly converted heathen and we try to do everything for them. We don’t trust God that His gospel will work that effectively in these people or that His Spirit will truly reside in them.

Lesslie Newbigin in the introduction to one of my copies of the book2 says that “methodology” is perhaps a misleading word in the title, the book isn’t so much about replicable methods (things like “learn the language, build a school, reach the mums”) but more about a dependency on Christ to secure and build his church and a trusting that the Spirit works just as powerfully in the lives of new Christians as He does old believers.

But, what has this got to do with youth work? Well, while foreign missionaries have probably learnt from Allen, youth workers haven’t. We still expect the young people to depend entirely on the youth worker for their sustenance, strength, and advice on what to do in their day to day life. We operate as the superior, greater, more powerful figure coming in to show them all how’s it done. We mollycoddle them with our advice for seven years and hope they cope when they hit university. This is what Allen was railing against then, and this is what we still do now. You could if you like search and replace Missionary Methods for the phrase missionary and switch it for youth worker, and the word heathen and replace it with young person and the book would make as much sense if not more so. For example: “If the first [converted young people] are taught to depend upon the [youth worker], if all work, evangelistic, educational, social is concentrated in his hands, the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they receive their first insight into the Gospel.”

Every now and again I read through this book with interns or staff or just on my own, and it still hits me. How much of the work do I do where I rely on running and sorting everything out for the young people? Where do I not give young people freedom? Where do I quench the Spirit in them and so lead them into dependency? I’m not sure there is a book on youth work like it.

1 Lie. In reality people say “Mark, why do you have a website?” but that’s not such a convenient opener.

2 Thought I’d lost it. Bought another. Found the old one. You know how it goes.