The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church
When we turn from the restless entreaties and exhortations which fill the pages of our modern missionary magazines to the pages of the New Testament, we are astonished at the change in the atmosphere. St. Paul does not repeatedly exhort his Churches to subscribe money for the propagation of the Faith, he is far more concerned to explain to them what the Faith is, and how they ought to practice it and to keep it. The same is true of St. Peter and St. John, and of all the apostolic writers. They do not seem to feel any necessity to repeat the great Commission, and to urge that it is the duty of their converts to make disciples of all the nations.
What we read in the New Testament is no anxious appeal to Christians to spread the Gospel, but a note here and there which suggests how the Gospel was being spread abroad: “the Churches were established in the Faith, and increased in number daily,” “in every place your faith to Godward is spread abroad so that we need not to speak anything”; or as a result of a persecution: “They that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word.”
This was not a peculiar note of the apostolic age, a sign of the amazing inspiration and power of apostolic preaching and example: for centuries the Christian Church continued to expand by its own inherent grace, and threw up an unceasing supply of missionaries without any direct exhortation.
Nor was the result of the preaching of these unknown missionaries the creation of a multitude of detached groups of believers in cities and villages all over the Empire. All these groups were fully equipped Churches. The first knowledge that we have of the existence of Christians in multitudes of places is the name of their Bishop in the list of those attending some council. There was order in the expansion: the moment converts were made in any place ministers were appointed from among themselves, presbyter Bishops, or Bishops, who in turn could organize and bring into the unity of the visible Church any new group of Christians in their neighborhood.
This then is what I mean by 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.
I know not how it may appear to others, but to me this unexhorted, unorganized, spontaneous expansion has a charm far beyond that of our modern highly organized missions.
I delight to think that a Christian traveling on his business, or fleeing from persecution, could preach Christ, and a Church spring up as the result of his preaching, without his work being advertised through the streets of Antioch or Alexandria as the heading of an appeal to Christian men to subscribe funds to establish a school, or as the text of an exhortation to the Church of his native city to send a Mission, without which new converts deprived of guidance must inevitably lapse. I suspect, however, that I am not alone in this strange preference, and that many others read their Bibles and find there with relief a welcome escape from our material appeals for funds, and from our methods of moving heaven and earth to make a proselyte.
Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church