Over the next couple of posts I’m going to lay out some key elements to Paul’s missionary strategy.
By all accounts, Saul the Pharisee, the former persecutor of the church, is credited as the one who engineered and established the mission to the nations. More than any other, he dislodged “the Way” from its cultural and territorial moorings so that it could reach the ends of the earth, just as Isaiah had predicted. Luke’s insistence that believers remember Paul’s example is more than an interesting feature of Luke’s story. It’s a central theme. In other words, Luke wants us to learn from Paul how our congregations can extend the mission of the Liberating King into our changing culture. Everything Paul did was intentional, strategic. We see his strategies on every page of Luke’s Acts. We discover them as we read between the lines of his letters. Often, today’s church leaders look to mega-churches to see what they are doing and which programs are working. Then we try to duplicate those programs or methods in our own fields. Results are frequently mixed. Watching the strategies of the mega-churches can provide us some help, but they’re not the only places where we ought to seek guidance. Rather than looking to modern trends, Luke invites us to learn from the Apostle to the Gentiles, then to return to our times and situations with a renewed sense of what the church is and how we ought to tactically approach our own mission.
Paul’s mission strategy took him first to the cities. This was appropriate for two reasons. First, Paul himself was a city-fellow, and Paul knew he would be most effective with people like himself. Some call this the “homogenous unit principle.” Rather than retreat in embarrassment from this principle of social behavior, we ought to accept it and then exploit it. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try to transcend the limitations of our unique “flocks.” If we want to be effective in our own mission strategies, then we have to know who we are. But there is second reason that Paul’s mission strategy was primarily urban: he went to where the people gathered. They might live outside the city, but weekly they would journey to the city to shop, trade, and worship in the synagogues and temples lining the main roads of these Roman cities. Paul’s strategy is clear: we must go to where most of the people are.
Two Heads—Better than One
Paul was a man of his time, not of ours. In Paul’s day, there were no rugged individualists, no self-made men. He knew well what modern generations have forgotten: humans are hard-wired for community. He knew the mission would be most effective with the vitality, support, protection, help, and wisdom of a community of like-minded, otherwise-gifted men and women deeply committed to “the Way.” Paul taught that the church was a body, not a business. In this body, members are organically connected, mutually dependent, and spiritually animated. The church is a family, a household of faith, with God as Father, Jesus as elder brother, and fellow believers as brothers and sisters. If we gain anything from a gentle read through Acts, we will lose the business mentality and embrace a more organic, human, team approach to kingdom work.
Paul was no fool. He didn’t enter a city and immediately look up the local atheists and skeptics. His strategy took him to communities and places where people already believed in God, knew the Scriptures, and shared similar perspectives on the world. He went to the Jews first. Whenever Paul entered a city, he looked first for the local synagogue. Paul did this not only because it made sense. He did it because the prophecies had to be fulfilled. To Paul’s profound sorrow, often Jews in the cities he visited rejected both the gospel and Paul himself. He worshiped with them, shared with them, argued the meaning of Scripture with them, and sometimes ran from their stones. When the opposition became stiff—or should we say hard as a rock—Paul shook the dust off his feet in symbolic protest and took the message of Jesus to the God-fearing Gentiles (those non-Jews who were attracted to the one God of Israel and closely identified, without losing their skins, with the Jews). We don’t know the depth of his discomfort the first time he ate a meal prepared by one who didn’t follow the purity rituals. We didn’t invent cross-cultural missions. It started in Antioch and Galatia, around a common table, as Jews and Gentiles broke bread together. There is something unique about table fellowship. For us the table means friendship. It is an overture to enter with us in a relationship that is risky, open, and transparent. To be “on mission” means we sit often at the table with new friends, we open up our lives, and we bear witness. It means that we learn of other cultures, eat strange foods, and stop insisting that everybody be like us. Like Paul we may start our mission by sharing Christ with people who look, talk, and act like we do, but we had better not stop there. One day we will sit at the table with people gathered from the four corners of the world, representing every family, every tribe, and every nation. A good deal of ministry happens “in church” around liturgies, especially as we break the bread and drink the wine of the Eucharist. But the spiritual power of the Eucharist is ultimately found in the love feast and in dinners at our homes, with people like and unlike us.
This is part one of Paul’s Missionary Strategy. Come back for parts two and three over the next week or so.