Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 1)

[This is the third set of guest posts from my Advanced Studies in Acts class. John Caprari is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]

The Apostle Paul is undoubtedly one of the greatest missionaries to walk this earth. The fruit of his labor is convincing enough! I’m sure Paul would suggest that he was simply a vessel. And a vessel he was. But, what does that mean? Some might say he just went wherever the Spirit led him. I might add, we should always be obedient to the direction the Spirit guides us in. With that being said, Paul did not just sit around and wait for anything supernatural happen.

Missionary ChurchRoland Allen is one of the classics of our era who have written on Paul’s missionary methods that many look to for understanding. He believes Paul’s ministry strategy was more a lack of strategy than anything else. He calls it spontaneous expansion: “This then is what I mean by spontaneous expansion. I mean the expansion which follows the exhorted 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…” (Allen 10).

In his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church Allen argues that the less control we have over the church, the more growth we will see. The more freedom we allow the Spirit to work, the more expansion of the Church will happen. For Allen, no type of organization is important. The pre-requisites of a great missionary are: 1) faith and 2) dependence on the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit’s influence on Paul’s ministry is not only evident, but also vital. It’s the Spirit that called Paul and Barnabas out: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “’Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit who led them where they were to go: “The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4). Just a few chapters latter in the narrative of Acts, Luke again shows the presence of the Spirit in these missionary journeys: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, have been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). I wonder what Paul was thinking after this: “Come on! There is so much potential in the province of Asia. The gospel needs to be preached there!” But, God had other plans.

These are just a few examples telling of the influence of the Spirit in Paul’s ministry. Surely, there are many more that communicate the Spirit’s guiding and also the importance of the Spirit’s ‘hand’ on the fruit of our work.

Can you think of any passages, especially in the book of Acts that communicate the absolute need of dependence on the Spirit in our ministry? Is Allen right in suggesting that we should drop all ‘control’ we have and allow more freedom for the Spirit to expand the Church? Is there room for organization and strategic planning in missions? Why or why not? Was Paul more strategically oriented in his ministry or was he completely dependent upon spontaneous expansion?

13 thoughts on “Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 1)

  1. Not that I want to continue to refer to Paul’s conversion, but this is a great example of “dropping control.” Jesus lines Paul up to be his first draft pick in spreading the gospel through Asia Minor. Did Paul more than likely know where he was going to go? We don’t know that for sure. The question of Paul and his strategy is two-sided. On one hand, Paul failed some people and was thrown into prison. When he got to Athens, he changed up his speech that it was academically sound for the Greek philosophers at the time. So it really depends on how you look at Paul for the way he was “strategically” sound in converting pagans and Jews to Christianity.

    • Paul’s ministry in Athens was a total failure. It produced zero fruit for the kingdom of God. Based on Paul’s failure, what do you think we can learn NOT to do “like Paul” in order to be successful?

  2. Hebrews 11:6 says “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” And Paul is one of the greatest demonstrators of this, When Paul’s life was radically changed he had to have faith he wasnt just losing his mind or that it was the devil trying to derail his good works for God. With a life of living like Christ trying to live without the spirit is about the same as getting in a car with no engine, sure you can put the key in, sure you can roll down the windows and look cool, but you wont go anywhere of importance. The truth of Paul and his work was that he didnt bring people in, the Spirit did it and the spreading came from the Spirit through the people he just was the car that drove the message around.

    • You said, “Paul’s life was radically changed …”

      I don’t really see that in my Bible, in terms of Paul’s character and the fruit of the Spirit in Paul’s life. I would say that Paul was somewhat changed at the end of his ministry, at the end of Acts. But I don’t see radical, quick change – rather I see that Paul was a “carnal Christian” for most of his ministry.

  3. It does seem that Paul has some type of strategy that he uses in the sense that he almost always goes to the synagogue first when he goes to a city and he seems to know at what level he should preach to the people of whatever city that he goes to. I like what Allen is saying about giving over control to the Holy Spirit to do work in the church but that does not mean we can just sit around in our comfy recliners in the parking lot and expect the church to be built up. I think that turning over control to God does not mean that we are not to plan and organize, i think we are to do all of those things but instead of doing what we think we should do, we should put these things before God and really meditate and pray over what He would have us do. I also think that planning and organizing is one of the biggest aspects of being a missionary whether it be local or over seas. If you go in blind, and just hope that God will do everything for you, you might have a rude awakening. We cannot just “Let go, Let God”, we need to put in hard work through the Holy Spirit to further the kingdom of God. Why would Christ have called all believers to go and make disciples if the Holy Spirit would just do all of the work for us. We do not save people, but we are the means in which the seed of the gospel is planted in someone’s life.

  4. I think that, in some ways, it does seem like there isn’t much method to Paul’s decision-making process as far as where he will go preach the gospel next. Yet, as Tyler said, Paul does head toward the synagogues primarily in every city he visits. He also devotes time to some critical cities, such as the eighteen months that he spent in Corinth, where he would be able to reach large groups of people for the cause of Christ.

    It seems that, as you suggested, the key to successful ministry is not so much the planning of man, but the plan of God. The fruitful preaching of the gospel does not come about by the power of man, but by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. So whether Paul really did travel spontaneously and preach, or whether he had a well-crafted mental itinerary, we can safely say that the inspiration and empowering of the Holy Spirit were more important than Paul’s own plans.

    “Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24)

  5. You wrote, QUOTE:
    “The Apostle Paul is undoubtedly one of the greatest missionaries to walk this earth. ”

    There is lots of room for doubt about that. But I know that it you are thinking to be a traditional Evangelical Missionary, and going through a Mission Board, they train you to “be like Paul” and “raise support.” That’s why missionaries love to preach Paul so much – it’s profitable.

    I’ve put forth dozens of points of truth from the pages of the Bible that no one in the world is even attempting to refute – they can’t. But they are part of Christianity Inc. and they follow Paul rather than Jesus, because it’s good business. The cost to challenge the status quo is too high a price to pay for many.

  6. Do we drop all control and let the Spirit lead? In a way yes, but I also think that God has given us brains and gifts that we are able to use to reason and use our decisiveness to understand the course of action that we should take next. For instance, after talking in class today, Paul would chart his course beforehand–yes the Spirit-led–but then he would organize his plan of action. An example of this is in Acts 19:21-22 that we talked about in class today. He knew he would go to Jerusalem while passing through cities on the way. Honestly speaking, I don’t think we rely on the Spirit enough as Western believers. We don’t want to give into mysticism or rely on what could be emotions or feelings. Yet we go to the extreme and thus quench the Holy Spirit from working in our lives, especially our ministry. Paul was definitely more strategic in his expansion of the church, like I would say we should be in our mission, but we also need to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance and for those moments where spontaneity is important in preaching the Gospel. When it comes down to it, some things need to be planned when it comes to missions and the planting of the church, but if the Holy Spirit is not part of our mission, then we will fail to make an impact. The Holy Spirit brings people to repentance, we are merely the tools He uses.

    • If you read the narrative Acts 19:21- Acts 23:11
      other than Paul talking about himself, recorded by Luke in Acts 20:22,
      is there ANYTHING here to indicate that the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to go to Jerusalem? All the evidence I see points to the Holy Spirit telling Paul NOT to go to Jerusalem, but Paul choosing to go anyway.
      Can you show me where I might be wrong?

  7. Galatians 5:25

    If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

    John 16:13

    “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.
    Isaiah 59:21

    “As for Me, this is My covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from now and forever.”

  8. As a personal eyewitness who was himself physically present at the time, , Luke records:
    “Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. THROUGH THE SPIRIT THEY URGED PAUL NOT TO GO ON TO JERUSALEM. But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way.” [Acts 21:4-5]

    Was the Holy Spirit wrong? Or did Luke make a mistake, and everyone else was wrong too?
    was PAUL wrong…..

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