This question came up in a recent batch of student papers on Eckhard Schnabel’s Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008). The assigned essay was to describe Paul’s missionary methodology and draw out some implications for contemporary ministry. The question betrays a little bit of prejudice, or maybe “old-school” thinking about missionaries which gauges the commitment of a missionary based on how far the travel to be missionaries. At a fairly young age I recall thinking that missionaries went to Africa or China, and that people who called themselves missionaries and went to “only” Mexico or stayed in America were somehow “non-missionaries.”
This sort of confusion was evident in many of the papers I read for this assignment. Paul was described as a sort of Hudson Taylor meets Jim Elliot with a dash of Indiana Jones adventurer tossed in for spice, heading off to the Black Hole of Calcutta to be tortured regularly for preaching the gospel. I honestly do not think being beaten and ship-wrecked was a part of Paul’s ministry strategy. Certainly those were things he endured for the Gospel, but I am not convinced he tried to get beaten as often as possible in order to be a successful missionary!
Schnabel said that “Paul understood both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. He was at least bilingual, probably trilingual. He was evidently able to function comfortably, without consciously ‘crossing over’ into one or the other culture, both in Jewish and in Greco-Roman culture.” (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 329). This is a bit of a surprise to most readers, since we tend to think of Paul crossing all kinds of social and cultural barriers to present the gospel to the Greek and Roman world. But as it turns out, Paul went to places where he would be most effective, where he spoke the language, where he could earn a decent living, where he would be sure to meet people with whom he was already familiar.
Paul most certainly did not cross into another culture in the sense that missionaries do today. If he had, he would have went to north into Germany and preached to the barbarian hordes. In fact, why did Paul not go east? My guess is that God lead him west since that is where he would encounter the least cultural differences. Hellenism was less pervasive the further east one traveled. If he had moved east as far as Babylon, he would have found the remnants of an empire which was reverting back to its original culture. In fact, if I am allowed to speculate just a bit, if Paul had gone to the east or the border regions to the north, he would not have been successful at all that the church as we know it today would look a great deal different.
By going to the West, Paul could settle down in Corinth and Ephesus and reach people with whom he had the most in common – Hellenistic Jews who were already reading the Scripture. He would have met Gentiles frustrated with the “theology” and ethics of the Greco-Roman world and were already dabbling in the mystery cults. In short, people whom God had already prepared for Paul’s arrival as the “light to the Gentiles.”
If this is on track, how do we apply Paul’s missionary strategy? I am not against a foreign mission program, but perhaps we ought to revisit the idea of reaching one’s culture first.