The first time I taught through the Book of Acts in a college class, I asked the students to write an essay describing Paul’s missionary strategy as illustrated by book of Acts. I thought this was simple enough and most students caught on that I was looking for “what sorts of things does Luke describe Paul as doing when he first visits a new town.” Basically, Paul went to the marketplace and the synagogue. One student, however, argued that Paul did not have a missionary strategy, rather the just did what the Holy Spirit told him two. I was rather annoyed by this, and re-phrased my question, “OK, then what is the Holy Spirit’s missionary strategy?” My point was that the Holy Spirit’s strategy was Paul’s as well, and that we should be able to use this model in our ministry in the twenty-first century.
This anecdote gets at a serious problem for students of the book of Acts. Did Paul have some sort of a plan for world evangelism? If he did, how can we adopt that strategy for modern mission? Should the modern church try and replicate Paul’s method in evangelism and church planting? Or better, is it even possible to do mission in the same way that Paul did? Eckhard Schnabel deals with this problem at length in Paul the Missionary. I plan on blogging through large sections of this book over the next four months as I teach through the book of Acts this semester.
Schnabel defines mission in terms of intention and movement. Someone on a “mission” is sent out by an authority and the mission is defined by the sending party rather than the going party. Geographical movement depends solely on the nature of the mission. Schnabel points out that this is exactly the description of Jesus we find in the Gospel of John. Jesus was sent by the Father and does nothing but the will of the Father. In turn, Paul describes himself as sent by Jesus Christ and God the Father for the purpose of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 1:1).
So did Paul have a strategy or method in his ministry? Was there an actual plan in his mind, or did he simply following the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the answer is “yes.” Schnabel cites J. Herbert Kane: Paul had a “flexible modus operandi developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and subject to his direction and control.” (Christian Mission in Biblical Perspective [Baker, 1976], 73). Paul claims to be led by the Spirit, but he also seems to have a logical plan in mind to get the Gospel into places where it will flourish and reach the most people.
Another recent attempt to discuss this problem is Paul’s Missionary Methods, edited by Robert Plummer and John Terry (IVP, 2012). This book revisits the classic book on Paul’s methods by Roland Allen and attempts to ask (and answer) the same question Allen began with about 100 years ago: Are Paul’s missionary methods supposed to be ours? About half of the essays in this collection look at Paul’s methods (content of the gospel, ecclesiology, etc) drawn from Paul’s letters as well as Acts. The second half of the book attempts to show that many of Paul’s methods can in fact be applied to contemporary church work and as well as global missionary efforts. As I read this book, it struck me that some of these chapters were actually descriptions of how modern churches do mission looking back to Paul for support rather than beginning with Paul and developing a method.
Which is the right way to create a mission strategy? It is extremely difficult to argue that Acts ought to be used as a model for mission since there are several (competing? developing?) strategies in the book. On the other hand, I am not happy with doing what works best the groping around in the Bible to find a text that supports what I already want to do, or what works “best” from a totally modern perspective.