Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 2)

[This is the second guest post from one of my Advanced Studies in Acts students, John Caprari. John 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.]

It amazing to reflect on the many Christian works Paul began. He had a strong desire to win as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he declares his inner yearning for the gospel’s proclamation: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

romans-1-16Paul set this framework in which he would preach the gospel, and he did just that. Although there were not many places where Christ had already been proclaimed, he certainly fulfilled this internal passion. He had a “commitment to pioneer evangelism, to pursue his mission only in virgin territory” (Dunn 544) Can you imagine entering a city that not only has a population of 0% Christians, but also live in a culture that worships pagan gods? Where and how do you even begin telling people about Jesus? Paul’s answer? The synagogue.

Luke communicates in Acts over and over that upon arrival in a city, the first thing Paul did was go to the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:10). Wait a second… Wasn’t Paul supposed to be the light to the Gentiles? Why is he going to the Jewish gathering place?

There are some who understand Paul to believe that the gospel was meant to be proclaimed among Jews before Gentiles (Rom 1:16). They believe that Paul’s custom was to go to the Jewish synagogue because he had a theological understanding that the gospel must be heard by the Jews, and then upon rejection, the Gentiles (Acts 14:36). The following is an excerpt from a scholar who understands Paul’s custom of going to the Jewish synagogue as a theological issue rather than strategic:

Although Luke’s plain intent is to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ was carried from Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world, he records of Paul’s ministry in the Roman capital only his customary initial ministry to the Jews (Acts 28:17 ff.). In Acts too, therefore, the theme is clear, the gospel is “to the Jew first.” (Stek 17)

Paul went to the synagogues first because he thought it would be the best way to carry out his mission: to be a light to the Gentiles. These gathering places were mostly filled with Jews. However, it was common for there to be a couple of God-fearing Gentiles who would congregate with the Jews. Dunn writes, “for it was in the synagogues that he would find those Gentiles who were already most open and amenable to his message” (Dunn 560).

Why do you think upon arrival Paul would immediately go to the synagogue? Was it a theological understanding or a strategical method? If theological, how come? If strategical, what made the synagogue, a Jewish gathering place, the right place to be a light to the Gentiles?

 

Bibliography: Dunn, James D. G. Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); Stek, John H. “To the Jew First.” Calvin Theological Journal 7.1 (1972): 15-52

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?

Was Paul a Really a Missionary?

My students are currently reading Eckhard Schnabel’s Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008). I have assigned a final essay for the class which asks the students to describe Paul’s missionary methodology and draw out some implications for contemporary ministry.

Do You Know My Jesus?

Do You Know My Jesus?

The problem I want them to think about is two-fold.  First, can what does Paul does in Acts be fairly described as a “mission strategy”? For example, did he have something like a modern “mission statement” which guided all his choices?  If so, what was that “mission statement”?  Second, and more troubling for students, is that Pauline Mission Strategy something that can be used for doing mission today?  And even if it can be used for modern ministry, should it be used?   Paul’s mission was embedded in a culture and time far distant from our own, so perhaps we ought to find more relevant method that might work better in a modern context.

Part of the problem students have with this assignment is the word “mission.”   Mission, for most American Christians, implies a missionary going a very long way away to “save the heathen.”  Students typically describe Paul 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.

Was Paul a Cross-cultural Missionary?

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!

Success?

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.