Paul’s Missions Strategy
Monte Shanks Copyright © 2014. Used by Permission. (emphases added)
Missions should be at the heart of every church. It is not the only focus of the church; but nonetheless, a church that has little concern for missions is a church that knows little about the Lord Jesus Christ. If one wishes to know how to go about the task of missions then one only need to look at the church’s first missionary, the apostle Paul. This blog will predominantly draw from Paul’s own approach to missions as described by him in his letters. It will first identify his goal, and then his message, and then lastly it will attempt to briefly explain his method. First, everyone should understand that Paul became a missionary in response to the Lord’s call on his life, which is described in Acts 9.15-16; 26.15-19. The Lord chose Paul to be an international ambassador for the gospel so that he would reach Jews, Gentiles, and global leaders of his time. Consequently, everything Paul did was in obedience to the Lord’s call upon his life. So with that in mind let’s first look at Paul’s goal.
Paul clearly stated his goal in Roman 15.20, which was to take the gospel to places where it was previously unknown. Regardless of what anyone else may tell you about what the mission of the church is, if the clear proclamation of the gospel where it has not been heard is not the primary and ultimate goal of any missionary organization, then it is not really doing missions. It may be doing other great things in Jesus’ name, but it is not doing missions. Regrettably, some institutions and organizations like to call themselves “missions organizations” because by doing so they find it easier to raise funds, but in reality they are not actually doing missions. Taking the gospel to the unreached people groups around the world is the heart and goal of the mission of the church. Does the church have other important “ministries,” yes, but disseminating the gospel throughout the world is the “mission” of the church. Moreover, only the church has been commissioned by the Lord to complete this task. No other human agency or institution has been called to this most holy endeavor.
This raises a most essential question: which is what is the gospel—more specifically, what is the gospel message (and to be clear, we are not referring to the gospel’s impact, but the essential components of its message). Quite simply Paul understood that the gospel message was the news of the physical crucifixion and bodily resurrection from the dead of the Son of God—the Lord Jesus Christ—for the forgiveness of sin and the reception of eternal life with God the Father (1 Cor 1.23, 2.2; 2 Tim 2.8-10). This message was to be received and internalized in Paul’s hearers simply by repentance and placing one’s personal trust in the living Savior (i.e., by faith alone). Thus we have both Paul’s goal and his message. Now we come to his method or strategy for fulfilling his calling.
Paul’s calling and strategy was to preach the gospel (1 Cor 1.17), and to do so simply, clearly, and without pretense, gimmicks, human sophistication. Paul stated that the gospel itself was the power of God for the purpose of saving people (Rom 1.16-17), and that to preach this message via the impulse of human ingenuity or sophistication would actually diminish its capacity to affect salvation into the lives of its hearers (1 Cor 1.17, 2.1-5). Paul stated that Jesus had called him to reach those who had no hope of hearing the gospel unless he went to them, and that Jesus had called him to do so by the method of preaching. In other words, it was Jesus who chose the foolishness of preaching in order to reach the lost (1 Cor 1.22-29). Preaching was not Paul’s chosen method, it is a method ordained and commanded by Christ. Lastly, Paul also knew it was important that having preached the gospel, and having gathered a community of converts, that it was essential for them to remain faithful to gospel that they had received from him (Gal 1.6-9; 1 Cor 11.1-2, 23-26). In other words, Paul was not in the business of evangelizing the lost and establishing churches, only to see them corrode into community centers that were free to lose their focus and become social outreach centers for their community’s greater good (e.g., YMCA). They were to remain faithful to Christ their savior and to the gospel. Paul was so serious about this that he constantly did follow up with the churches that he had planted. He was not a traveling evangelist that barnstormed one town for a week and then was on to the next—never to be seen or heard from again. Constant follow up and oversight for the purpose of fidelity to the Lord and His message was an essential part of Paul’s strategy, and why this was important will be explained in further detail below.
Another important strategy for Paul was adapting himself to the cultures that he engaged—that is within reason. Paul explained this in 1 Corinthians 9.19-23; his point was that he did not require pagans to act like Christians or Jews before he explain to them the gospel. An excellent example of this is seen in Paul’s interaction with the philosophers of the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17.16-34). What makes Paul’s engagement in Athens such a significant model is that while he adapted his dialogue to his audience he never compromised the essential elements of the gospel. The salient point is Paul never expected the lost to act like him (i.e., like a devote Christian). Instead he accepted them where they were. Moreover, neither did he enter brothels, pagan temples, or dens of iniquity in order to reach the lost (this is what I meant by “within reason”). Paul never engaged in sin or enabled others to sin in order to reach them for Christ. Paul never acted like a sinful pagan in order to reach pagans. Did he love them—yes, but he never acted like them at the expense of personal convictions and holiness.
Additionally, Paul knew it was important that as he entered new mission fields that he was not a financial burden to those he was attempting to reach. In other words, he did not hit them up for money, nor did he immediately require them to give their money away (1 Cor 9.18; 2 Thes 3.6-8). Paul understood the importance of not building unnecessary barriers between himself and those he was seeking to reach. Consequently, he modeled an industrious life of self-support while walking in devotion to the Lord and trusting that the Lord would provide for his daily needs.
Another extremely important strategy for Paul was to partner with others in the work of missions (Phil 2.19-22; 2 Tim 2.2; Acts 20.2-4). Paul’s most well know disciple and partner was Timothy, but there were many others (e.g., Barnabas). Paul knew that the Lord had called the leaders of the church to make disciples (Matt 28.18-20). He also knew that Jesus informed him that he would inevitably suffer for the sake of the gospel. Consequently, Paul knew that one day he would be gone, so it was important for him to train (2 Tim 2.22) and partner with other gifted men to take up the mission of the church after his departure—and Paul’s letters are littered with dozens of references to those he partnered with and trained for the task of fulfilling the church’s mission. This leads us to recognize another essential partner that Paul enlisted in the task of missions, which were local churches. Some were churches he was instrumental in planting (Phil 4.10-18; 1 Cor 16.6, 17), others were not (Rom 15.22-24). Nevertheless, Paul knew that if a church was to be faithful to her Lord and Savior then she must be committed to global missions for the purpose of reaching the world with the good news of Jesus Christ. Clearly Paul did not suffer from a “lone ranger” complex, but strategically trained others and partnered with them in order to have a greater impact for Christ. And an integral part of Paul’s strategy was to instill within local churches a passion for missions and a sacrificial partnership with him as he went out in the name of Christ on their behalf. Their partnership with him could only endure and prosper as they remained faithful and committed to the gospel message as identified above.
And lastly, as one traces Paul’s 3 missionary journeys it becomes obvious that he was incrementally attempting to fulfill his specific calling from the Lord Jesus Christ to take the gospel to Rome (Acts 9.15: notice that whenever Paul began a mission trip he always started by heading west, he never went north, south, or east). Since Paul was also called to preach the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles he usually entered synagogues and first proclaimed the gospel there, and then as converts came and opposition arose he would see to it that unified fellowships would be fostered, and from these groups local churches would be established. Paul knew that he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2.7-8), but Jesus had called him to reach Jews as well. Consequently, when he entered a new city he first engaged audiences that already possessed the best pre-understanding of the theological construct of his message (i.e., Synagogues containing Jews, proselytes, and Gentile “god-fearers” that embraced monotheism and the belief in a personal God). The mission principle here is to always try to find or develop a common point of contact that will assist you in the goal of communicating the gospel. Nonetheless, while Paul did all these things he did so on his way to Rome, to the heart of power of the entire empire (Rom 1.13-15, 15.20-21), just as Jesus had called him to do (Acts 9.15).
This brings us to one aspect of Paul’s missionary strategy that is not necessarily universal for all mission endeavors. As you map Paul’s incremental advance westward toward Rome he made it his aim to engage multicultural urban centers of influence, commerce, and important travel corridors. While this was an extremely productive strategy for Paul, the church is called to take the gospel throughout the world, which necessarily means that at times it will be necessary to engage cultures that are primitive, isolated, ethnocentric, and non-monotheistic. Reaching these people groups will take greater time, expense, and endurance, but this will be unavoidable if Christ’s commission to the church is to be fulfilled—just as the Lord predicted it would be (Matt 24.14). That being said, an important approach of effective missions is strategically penetrating urban intersections where cultures comingle so that the gospel of Christ can be efficiently disseminated throughout the world.
There is one last point, which should be assumed but often it is not, which is that everything Paul did he did out of a love for Christ and a love for those he sought to reach (2 Cor 5.14). Paul knew of Jesus’ great love for the world, and because of Paul’s great love for the Lord he sought to reach others with gospel. Virtually everything that Paul did—his preaching, his teaching, and his ministry—he did with a love for Christ and a love for those he was trying to reach. For Paul there was no other way to engage in ministry other than with a heart filled with love (1 Cor 12.31-13.3). Paul believed it unimaginable to do anything in the name of Christ without love for those he was trying to reach. Some do ministry out of a desire for fame, while others out of a desire for control, authority, or simply out of a sense of duty. Paul would have found such motives contrary to the example set by the Lord. There are others who think they have to demonstrate love to others before sharing the gospel—the thinking is “to earn the right to be heard.” The problem is that sharing the gospel is by definition an act of love. We do the lost no favors by delaying our proclamation and explanation of God’s love for them. And no one can confess love for Christ if they are tardy, passive, or ashamed of the message that He so passionately wants us to spread abroad throughout the entire world. The bottom line is that we don’t need permission to share the message of God’s love as found in Jesus Christ since the Lord himself has commission us for this very purpose. Thus, sharing the gospel is by definition an act of love.
This was Paul’s strategy for missions in a nutshell. I wish this blog was shorter, but this was the best I could do. I hope you will also embrace Paul’s passion for missions, as well as instill it into every ministry with which you partner. Blessings.