The Ministry of Expansion: The Priesthood of the Laity [Book Review]

With the publication of The Ministry of Expansion: The Priesthood of the Laity, J.D. Payne has made two significant contributions. First, he supplied an important document to the body of missiological literature and expanded our knowledge of one of the most significant figures in missions: Roland Allen. Second, he gave contemporary pastors and missionaries a resource to guide discussions about the ministry of the church. Both contributions are to be applauded.

A Brief Summary

Payne divided the book into two parts. Part one introduces Roland Allen. It discusses his importance to missiology and missionary practice. Payne recounts the story of how he became aware of this unpublished paper/book and of his efforts (in partnership with the Allen family) to publish it. Reading this first section is not necessary. But, understanding Allen and his passion will be helpful for the reader. Part two is the actual text of Allen’s work, The Ministry of Expansion: The Priesthood of the Laity.

Roland Allen longed to see the church expand spontaneously. He believed the church’s structures and traditions hindered the work of the Holy Spirit and stalled the indigenous church’s progress. In The Ministry of Expansion, Allen addressed what he believed to be a major stumbling block for church expanse—limiting the administration of communion to ordained ministers. Some churches, because of their remote locations, went years between communion services. This concerned Allen, and this work is his argument in favor of opening communion service to the laity.

As in his other works, Roland Allen addresses church traditions that slow, or even halt, the natural growth of the church. He was concerned that churches in mission outposts are not able to perform their most basic ministry. This, he believed, is intolerable. But, as he called for a more liberal position regarding who should administer the elements, he never minimized the importance of the Lord’s Table. Instead, he argued that, because the table was vital for the health and growth of the church, nothing should hinder its practice.

“Because the table was vital for the health and growth of the church, nothing should hinder its practice.”

Three Important Insights

To be sure, Allen’s concern was rooted in specific historical and religious tradition. The modern reader may be frustrated by the bulk of Allen’s work because he spends a significant time debating his contemporaries. The names and the specifics of the argument get lost on many of us. I recommend the reader push through. Though the names and the specific conflict is not contemporary, there is much to learn from this veteran missiologist. Below, I want to highlight three missiological insights from The Ministry of Expansion: The Priesthood of Laity.

It is easy to let tradition and habit cloud the mission.

As a missionary, Allen had seen the ways church tradition, especially those of the more established church, hindered ministry on the mission field. He understood how these traditions had developed, but he was not content for them to remain unchallenged.

Even if the tradition we struggle against is different, the same temptation is always present. My pastor, J.D. Greear, said, “Too many churches prefer holding onto their traditions more than reaching their grandchildren.” Is there anything we are hanging on to today that may be hindering the growth of the church?

The success of the church and the church’s ministry relies on the work of the Holy Spirit.

One of Allen’s arguments for releasing the laity to ministry was the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit. He distinguished between ministry exercised only on the basis of church authority (i.e. ordination) from, “the ministry which is exercised in virtue of that direct internal impulse of the Spirit” (p. 91). He claimed that the church has always advanced as men obey the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Reducing ministry to goals and spreadsheets is tempting. It seems safer to regulate ministry according to these plans. The New Testament presents a story of flexibility and following the lead of the Holy Spirit. It seems that we should learn this lesson today as well. Following God’s mission requires us to follow him for guidance and success.

“Following God’s mission requires us to follow him for guidance and success.”

The expansion of the church requires creativity and courage.

At every turn, the church faces new challenges. For Allen, the church’s growth into new areas exposed the need for a different understanding of ministry. When he read the Bible, he saw the church in the New Testament expanded spontaneously. This conviction led Allen to challenge the status quo and develop new missionary strategies.

Creativity in ministry is no less necessary today than it was when Allen wrote this book. As we encounter unreached peoples or as the gospel penetrates new areas, the missionary faces the question to push forward or retreat. This text is an example of courage in ministry. Even if the issue is different, the attitude is something we can imitate.

Allen’s chief concern was that the missionary task was too great to be left in the hands of a few “qualified” individuals. Reaching the unreached and fulfilling the Great Commission requires all believers—professional ministers and laypersons. By making The Ministry of Expansion available today, J.D. Payne has provided a resource that can help missionaries, church planters, and pastors. This book provides background into the life and missiological thought of one of the most influential missiologists of the last century.The reader will need to come to the text with a recognition that while the specific topic may not be relevant today, the work provides an example (and some guidance) for working through contemporary issues.

Scott Hildreth is assistant professor of global studies and director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @dshildreth.