The Way of Spontaneous Expansion

Recently, I’ve been reading selected writings by Roland Allen from his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. For those of you unfamiliar with Allen, he was an early twentieth century Anglican missionary and missiologist who had a profound influence on Lesslie Newbigin. In many ways, much of the current discussion about the missional church finds its roots in Allen’s writings.

At any rate, Allen is obsessed with (in a good way) trying to understand how and why the early church expanded spontaneously, why the church was spontaneously expanding in the East in his day, and why this spontaneous expansion wasn’t happening in the West. Here’s how Allen defines spontaneous expansion.

I mean the expansion which follows the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new Churches.

Essentially, what Allen describes here is a CPM (Church Planting Movement) and a wonderfully concise description of ‘sentness.’ Allen’s analysis as to why this happened is as insightful as his definition.

The rapid and wide expansion of the Church in the early centuries was due in the first place mainly to the spontaneous activity of individuals. A natural instinct to share with others a new-found joy, strengthened and enlightened by the divine Grace of Christ, the Saviour, inevitably tends to impel men to propagate the Gospel. 

As a pastor, one of the lessons Allen has taught me is that the pastoral task is not to control various ministries. Rather, I need to give up control and instead lead people to be compelled by the Spirit. Because we as pastors have excelled at structuring and programming the Spirit right out of our ministries we simply haven’t given the Holy Spirit the freedom to do what He does best—expand his Church. 

Allen goes on to write:

No one, then, was surprised at the spontaneous efforts of individual Christians to convert others to their Faith. They probably thought it quite natural. Thus as men moved about there were constantly springing up new groups of Christians in different places. The Church expanded simply by organizing these little groups as they were converted, handing on to them the organization which she had received from her first founders. It was itself a unity composed of a multitude of little churches any one of which could propagate itself, and consequently the reception of any new group of Christians was a very simple matter. By a simple act the new group was brought into the unity of the Church, and equipped, as its predecessors had been equipped, not only with all the spiritual power and authority necessary for its own life as an organized unit, but also with all the authority needed to repeat the same process whenever one of its members might convert men in any new village or town. Thus the results of the spontaneous labour of any individual Christian were naturally and easily consolidated and established within the unity of the Church.

Sounds like a decentralized network of house churches or a cell church, doesn’t it? For those of us in the position of helping churches and denominations process what it means to be missional it’s helpful to appeal to Allen. We all want spontaneous expansion. A voice from the distant past sometimes carries more weight with skeptics than the current missional writers who are frequently viewed as following the latest fad in evangelicalism.

So let’s read Allen, let’s ask God to give us ears to hear what Spirit says to the Church, and let’s live out of our ‘sentness’ so that we too might see the spontaneous expansion of God’s church.

We can fight to reestablish the church as a physical place where certain things happen. We can work harder to compete with society, to out-entertain and lure people in with as much pomp and circumstance as a church can afford. Or, we can become a church on a mission.

M. Scott Boren

The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to staunch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.

David Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 114.