by Scott Bessenecker
Roland Allen, in Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? looks over the panorama of churches established by Paul with wonder and incredulity: wonder that so many growing indigenous churches over such a broad territory could be established in just 10 years; and incredulity that so many in missions today consider the feat impossible to repeat.
Roland Allen, in Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? looks over the panorama of churches established by Paul with wonder and incredulity: wonder that so many growing indigenous churches over such a broad territory could be established in just 10 years; and incredulity that so many in missions today consider the feat impossible to repeat.1
What factors contributed to Paul’s success? How did he plant so many churches, made up of very different people groups over a large geographical area, in so short a time? Most importantly, can his success be duplicated today?
I believe there is, indeed, a basis for expecting, in the 20th century, results such as Paul experienced. After briefly surveying and drawing lessons from some of Paul’s church-planting methods, I would like to draw attention to three primary areas of comparison between his day and ours—cultural conditions; spiritual conditions; and potential “entry points” for gospel witness—and show that we, like Paul, can trust God to raise up the essential components of an indigenous church in time frames ranging from one month to one year.
PAUL: SHORT-TERM MISSIONARY PAR EXCELLENCE
Paul was, in essence, a short-term mission leader. Like many present-day short-termers, he took missionary teams from place to place, seeking to proclaim the gospel along the way. It was not uncommon for him and his traveling companions to see a church begin to grow out of a stay of just two months. Moving on, usually because of persecution, they would repeat their pattern of ministry while the Lord continued to raise up church after church.
PAUL’S FIRST JOURNEY: APRIL 48 TO SEPTEMBER 49
Several years after God had told Paul he would evangelize the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), and after he and Barnabas had spent several years in ministry at Antioch, the Spirit of God singled out these two men as missionaries—during a worship service at the Antioch church. That church included both Gentile and Jewish believers, and as such was well equipped to fan into flame Paul’s calling to the Gentiles. Indeed it would have provided a working prototype of the sort of church Paul was setting out to plant. If we are to see results today similar to those that Paul experienced, we must not short-circuit the process of calling, community confirmation of the call, and Spirit-anointed commissioning.
Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark sailed from Antioch to Salamis, on Cyprus, where they “proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews” (Acts 13:5). This probably means that they expounded the Old Testament Scriptures in light of their Christian fulfillment. The team then traveled to Paphos and saw the conversion of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, who probably was familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. Then, after just two months in Cyprus, they sailed to Asia Minor.
After their arrival on the mainland, they traveled through Pam-phylia, where John Mark left them, and on to Pisidian Antioch, 100 miles farther north, where once again they spoke in the synagogue. This time, their synagogue preaching led to their being run out of town—but not before a core group of believers had been established.
We do not know why John Mark left the team, nor why Paul turned northward. Some have suggested illness (see Gal. 4:13). Whatever the case, God used the circumstances to direct their travels.
The pattern continued: synagogue entree; preaching the word; curiosity and acceptance giving way to confrontation and persecution; ending with the establishment of a small group of believing Jews and Gentiles while Paul and Barnabas were forced out of town. After four or five months in Iconium they left the new church and moved on to Lystra, but were followed by angry Jews from Iconium and Antioch, who stirred up trouble for them in Lystra as well. Paul was stoned, recovered, and moved on with Barnabas to Derbe, where they “made many disciples.” They had spent a total of three and a half months in Lystra and Derbe.
By this time it was June of 49, more than a year since they left their home church.Groups of believers had been won in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Paul and Barnabas spent the summer retracing their steps to encourage the new Christians, appoint leaders, and teach in each place.
PAUL’S SECOND JOURNEY: APRIL 50 TO SEPTEMBER 52
The first few months of the second missionary journey (April to June 50) were spent visiting the earlier church plants, including the churches in Lystra and Derbe. There Paul and Silas met Timothy. Though Timothy may have been a Christian for only a year or two, and probably had had no formal leadership training, Paul felt he was ready for mission work.
Paul’s bringing Timothy onto the team highlights several important keys to short-term church planting. First, Paul was active in his promotion of national leaders. Second, in this case, a young person of potential was identified—someone with many years of service ahead of him. Third, Paul did not confine Timothy to a lengthy “home” education program but actively employed him in mission work right away. This accomplished two things: It educated Timothy in the “school of hard knocks,” and it very quickly propelled the young local church into world evangelization, forestalling any provincial, inward focus. Additionally and more practically, Paul now had an ethnic Greek to help him reach the Gentiles. Finally, note the absence of the “Lone Ranger” mentality. Paul always traveled with a team. This allowed for a multiplicity of gifts and mutual encouragement. His traveling companions were as invested in the work as he was. Paul’s success at quickly planting churches surely could not have happened alone.
The short-term church-planting team tried to travel north and east, deeper into the heart of Asia, but apparently God had Europe on his heart. Three mystical encounters led to a change in itinerary (Acts 16:6–7). They ended up in Philippi for “some days,” where within two or three months they saw a church established. And once again there had been the predictable church planting cadence: Entrance through a Jewish gathering (in this case, God-fearing Gentile women), conversion of mostly Gentiles, followed by persecution.
On to Thessalonica, where after three weeks in the synagogue a church was apparently formed (Acts 17:4). Note here the special mention of women. Though Paul always began at the synagogue, it was often those on the fringe of society (women and Gentiles) who responded first.
Paul’s work in Thessalonica led to a riot, after which he and Silas were whisked off to Berea. We can only imagine that Paul was quite concerned for the infant church amid such persecution. After an effective ministry of less than a month in Berea, Paul left Silas and Timothy and went to Athens. F.F. Bruce proposes that Paul may have written 2 Thessalonians before he left, intending for Timothy to deliver it to Thessalonica to encourage them.2
Paul enjoyed several weeks of ministry in Athens then moved on to Corinth sometime in mid-March of 51. By perhaps May, Silas and Timothy rejoined him. Timothy brought word from Thessalonica which encouraged Paul and warranted another letter—1 Thessalonians.
Looking back on the church in Thessalonica, we see that it was planted in the span of about three months. Shortly after a hasty departure by the foreign missionaries the church was sent a letter by way of an ethnically Greek missionary-in-training with whom they had some relationship. This young man spent probably about three months with the believers and then caught up with the foreign missionary (Paul) and brought him news of the church. The foreign missionary, anxious for the church’s establishment, was relieved to have good news and replied with another letter to further establish and build up this church not yet even a year old.
It is amazing to note the level of affection in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians (see 1 Thess. 2:17–20; 3:6, 9). Deep and meaningful relationships can be developed in short periods of time. Short-term church planting need not be seen as promoting shallow andineffective relationships.
Paul stayed in Corinth 18 months, during which he began a missionary-in-training program with fellow tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila. With these two coworkers he went to Ephesus, where he left them after staying only a week or two. Apparently the training had been effective, because Priscilla and Aquila helped to educate Apollos, and they probably established the church in Ephesus and perhaps in other places as well.
Paul’s third journey would involve mainly revisiting churches planted on the first two journeys. What do we learn from Paul’s “short-term church planting journeys”?
1. We must trust God to call mature people who will wait on that calling until, in the context of community confirmation, they are released into ministry with the assurance of the Holy Spirit’s backing.
2. The commissioning church should be one in which the church planters have labored and learned, and one that can serve as a prototype for the churches they will plant.
3. Redirection due to undesirable circumstances may be God’s sovereign way to bring us in touch with the right people at the right time.
4. The short-term missionary must carefully look for a point of entry for witness, then be prepared for both enthusiasm and antagonism.
5. We should revisit the churches we establish, to give them additional guidance and help them establish leadership.
6. Our relationship with the churches we plant should be so good that we will want to stay in touch with them, even years later.
7. Each new church should be a bridge to additional churches, as missionaries and new believers move deeper into unreached territory.
8. We should identify young leaders among new converts and involve them in our ministry.
9. We should work with teams, including men and women, who can provide examples of church life even as they plant new churches.
10. People of stature and influence may not always be attracted to our message. Often those people who do not completely fit in with our target people group will respond.
CULTURAL COMPARISONS BETWEEN THE FIRST CENTURY AND TODAY
But what, we might ask, does Paul’s day have in common with the 20th century? Actually, there are several similarities—things which helped advance the gospel in the first century and which may help short-term church planters today.
1. Language: English vs. Greek. Paul’s success was due in part to his ability to communicate fluently in a language spoken by the vast majority of the people he sought to reach. As with Greek in the first century, English today is the most widely spoken language in the world.
2. Travel: Roman roads vs. modern air travel. The world in the first century was shrinking through the expansion of trade by land and sea. Likewise, travel today is fast, cheap, far-reaching, and widely available. It would be difficult to prove that Paul’s church-planting success was due to any advantage over us in the area of travel.
3. Hellenization vs. Westernization. When Paul interacted across Asia and Europe with peoples of varying cultures, part of what helped him communicate and develop relationships was the predominance of Hellenistic culture. In our time, for better or for worse, the whole world is being Westernized. Someone accustomed to city life could conceivably get along well on brief stays in almost any country on the planet. What’s more, the philosophical underpinnings of Western thought are accompanying many of these changes. Like the Hellenization of Paul’s day, this is often a veneer-like surface over a dramatically different heart culture, but it does allow for enough familiarity to begin a dialogue.
4. Spiritual conditions then and now. Christianity was born in a world where mystery religions were flowering. The mystery religions were indicators of an inward hunger not being satisfied. “Their appeal seems to have been the assurance of immortality which they gave to their members, combined with a fellowship which many craved in a world [of] uprooted individuals.”3
Today, the New Age movement is quickly becoming a global phenomenon. Groups like Planetary Citizens boast a long roster of leaders and host New Age conferences involving hundreds of worldwide organizations.4 I believe that the appeal of the gospel will be high among those New Age dabblers disenfranchised by Westernization, even as first century crowds groping for an experience with the divine through the mystery religions responded to Paul’s message.
Religious persecution was a major reason Paul’s stays were so short in several cities. There are at least two reasons to believe that this persecution may have actually helped new churches become established more quickly. First, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. God in his mercy sustained the church by intervening in special ways, giving strength and numerical growth in the face of martyrdom. Second, opposition to the persecution galvanized the fellowship of believers and tested the tenacity of their faith.
Similarly today, short-term ministries often seem most effective in establishing strong new churches precisely in areas where, because of persecution, longer-term ministry is not possible.
5. University and synagogue. The university campus is often the open door to a hostile environment today, just as the synagogue was for Paul. Like the Diaspora synagogue, the university is a gathering place for people from many ethnic backgrounds, all drawn by a quest for learning. Like the synagogue, it also exerts substantial influence on society. If we hope to see results like Paul’s, we need a platform like the synagogue where the message will gain a hearing. The university is just such a platform.
CONTEMPORARY CASE STUDIES
In addition to the principles we have learned from Paul’s church- planting journeys, we have looked at several aspects of first century Mediterranean life that parallel current world trends, and which may suggest greater opportunities for success in short-term church planting. Two contemporary case studies suggest that such success is indeed possible.
KIEV LINGUISTIC UNIVERSITY: CASE STUDY NO. 15
In 1990, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship sponsored an exchange program between Kiev Linguistic University and InterVarsity members, during which 13 Ukrainian students and faculty professed faith in Christ. One of the student missionaries spent the next year in Ukraine encouraging the young believers. Here is an example of a budding church emerging in response to a short evangelistic visit.
But could such a young group of Christians survive? Yes, they showed quickly how well they grasped the essentials of the gospel. The following year seven of them attended a conference sponsored by Sun Myung Moon, and without exception they all realized the error of his teachings. They even led one of the other attendees to Christ.
In 1994, 13 Ukrainian Christian student leaders, most of whom had come to faith as a result of a short-term mission, took part in an internship program to become student ministry leaders. Most of them now travel regularly to begin new student fellowships.
American students who were part of these efforts often returned for longer terms to support the growing student group. Many others kept a correspondence relationship with their counterparts to encourage them in their walk. These activities reflect the church-planting strategy of Paul and his companions.
CENTRAL ASIAN UNIVERSITY: CASE STUDY NO. 26
Mark, an American student from Dallas, led Yousef, a Central Asian student, to Christ, and together they led a short-term evangelistic effort in Central Asia, resulting in four new believers. Within two months Mark and three other American college graduates had moved to Central Asia to work with Yousef in establishing these young believers. Today a group of 30 attend a Christian fellowship at their university, and two, besides Yousef, are evangelizing other areas.
Both of these examples suggest that deep relationships, solid conversions, and competent leaders can emerge out of short-term programs.
This examination is in no way meant to denigrate longer-term church-planting efforts. In many places missionaries must grow deep roots for the gospel to flourish. I have tried to show, however, that short-term church planting is possible and can be very fruitful—if the New Testament criteria are met.
1. Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 3.
2. Bruce theorizes that Paul spoke about persecution in the present tense in 2 Thessalonians and in the past tense in 1 Thessalonians. The order of these books in our Bibles was according to descending length, not by date.
3. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume 1: to A.D. 1500 (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1953), p. 25.
4. Douglass Groothius, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986) p. 118.
5. James Evenson, “Building Indigenous Christian Student Movements in the Former USSR,” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1994.
6. Names of locations and people have been changed. Information is based on the author’s personal knowledge of those involved.
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