The Church that Paul Built

There’s a lot at stake when we address our understanding of Paul’s ministry. The bulk of our missiology comes from his missionary travels. What is the missionary’s goal? How is the missionary supported? Who does the missionary target? When does the missionary move on? How does the missionary preach? These are all questions that are difficult for us to answer without referencing the biblical record of Paul’s ministry.

Reading the book of Acts is, for many of us, simultaneously exhilarating and incriminating. We are thrilled to read of the early progress of the Gospel, and at the same time, we’re convicted by what seems to be the comparative lack of power and results in our modern missionary efforts.

This inevitably leads to endless diagnoses suggesting how the church and her missionaries can regain whatever they’ve lost by a return to this or that principle of Paul’s ministry. For instance, a recent book advocating a ‘revolution’ of missionary methods calls the early spread of the Gospel “a firestorm… that took the kingdom into the remotest corners of the known world in a period of years and decades, not centuries!” Such enthusiastic rhetoric may prepare readers to buy into innovative ministry methods, but it does little to help us understand just how far the Gospel actually advanced in that first century.

I recently read The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark and learned some things that are helping me adjust my own understanding of the Apostle Paul’s ministry. And because the records of Paul’s missionary work are so important to us as modern believers in deciding our own missions strategy, I’d like to share these little discoveries with you. While some of our perplexity about not measuring up to the early church is doubtless rooted in our un-Paul-like shortcomings, some of it is based in a misconception of Paul’s ministry and its accomplishments. Let me lay out a couple of the surprising facts that revealed some of my misconceptions, and then a few related reflections…

  1. The population of the Roman Empire in Paul’s day was about 60 million
  2. Only about 30 cities in the empire had populations greater than 30,000
  3. The Roman Empire was only about 4.5% urbanized
  4. By the year 250 AD, there were likely only about a million Christians
  5. Paul’s work as recorded in Acts lasted about nine years

Reflection #1 – Supply and Demand

Paul didn’t preach to a million people in his lifetime! The populations of Ephesus, Antioch, and Corinth (where Paul spent half of those nine years) were only 200,000, 150,000, and 100,000, respectively. Yet all three were among the top ten largest cities in the Roman Empire – is it any wonder that Paul spent a longer time there than other places? The other cities in Paul’s missionary travels had 35,000 or less inhabitants! The corner of China I live in is more populous than the Roman Empire was! The Chinese city I live in is over ten times the size of Rome in Paul’s time!

This is probably something that we should ponder before we decide that missionaries should hop from one city to another ‘like Paul did.’ It helps us make sense of Paul’s remarkable mobility. Why did Paul move around so much? To find people who had not heard! Paul had to travel all over an empire to find as many ‘preaching targets’ as I have in a five-mile radius! How long would it take someone with his miracle-working and cross-preaching abilities to get his message to the bulk of 20,000 or so people? Consider, too, the extremely high population density of ancient cities. Those 20,000 people weren’t in gated communities with two-car garages! Not surprisingly given their sizes and densities, Paul and his entourage made quite a splash in many of these cities.

Conversely, when did Paul decide to stay put? As already mentioned, when Paul gets to a city of hundreds of thousands, he suddenly slows down! His ambition not to build on another’s foundation notwithstanding, Paul expresses his desire to preach the Gospel in Rome, where there’s already a church. Surely this was because there still remained huge numbers of people who had not heard! So what would it take to get Paul to pack up and move out from a modern mega-city, where there remain many millions of people who have never heard the Gospel message? Just a guess, but I think a modern Paul would be less, not more mobile!

Reflection #2 – Minimum Time Investment

Maybe you weren’t, but I was shocked to learn that there were only a million Christians after 200 years of church history! I confess that, like many others, I have a tendency to think of the book of Acts as a series of mass conversions. But how much does the book of Acts actually tell us about the numerical growth of the church? The numbers in Jerusalem are always high – 3,000 at Pentecost, 5,000 mentioned in 4:4, and the many thousands James mentions in 21:20. But Luke gets strangely silent about numbers of disciples in the accounts of Paul’s missionary journeys. It’s a ‘great number’ or ‘many’ that respond to the Gospel in other places. It would certainly seem that Paul’s numbers were not nearly as dramatic as the Jerusalem numbers.

That is not at all to disparage Paul’s missionary labors. It is simply to say, positively, that Paul’s mission efforts were remarkable for the number of people he preached to (whether they accepted or rejected) and the number of different churches he planted (whether large or small). This is an emphasis desperately needed in modern missions. While Paul rejoices in large numbers responding to the Gospel (2 Cor. 4:15), he certainly doesn’t measure his success and failure in those terms (2 Cor. 2:14). This is not to shrug off any criteria for judging missionary success, but only to encourage missionaries to aspire to what Paul aspired to: to preach to more people and to plant more healthy churches (2 Cor. 10:15-16).

And negatively, it is to say that it is unreasonable to expect mass conversions and ‘movements’ because ‘that’s how it worked for Paul.’ Unfortunately, this is just the stuff that modern missionary illusions are made of. For example, the book on revolutionizing ministry quoted above talks about a church-planting movement where 1.7 million baptisms occur in the span of a decade. This is lauded as the reappearance of the same kind of missions-might experienced by the early church. In spite of the authors’ confident assertions, the early Gospel ‘firestorm’ did indeed take centuries to achieve this kind of growth!

The truth is, regardless of what those 1.7 million reported baptisms correspond to in reality, there is a minimum time investment required to make a mature disciple or a healthy church. That investment should be considerably shorter for a Jewish convert than a Gentile convert, making Paul’s quick church plants correspondingly less miraculous. But in a modern context wholly outside of Christendom, such as North Africa or Southeast Asia, missionaries are going to have to recognize that, like newborn children, converts to Christianity are not going to mature overnight.

Reflection #3 – Urban Priority

In regards to quotes from ancient authorities you may have read testifying to the extent of Christianity’s proliferation even before 250 AD, most of those one million Christians were urbanites, leading city dwellers to feel their presence out of proportion to their actual size. And as most everyone knows, Paul’s preaching ministry was overwhelmingly urban. Why? Well, there’s no need for fluff about being ‘culturally upstream’ (as if there were universities and TV shows in the Roman Empire) when we stick with the obvious answer: there’s more people in cities. More in one place, not more total. If you’re looking to give a message to as many people as possible in as little time as possible, there’s no place like a concrete jungle – or a stucco jungle, as in Paul’s case.

Yes – even in an empire where 95% of people lived in rural areas, Paul spent all of his time in cities! If Paul emphasized urban areas in a time when they made up such a small part of the overall population, how much more should our modern missions strategy do so in the far more urban age that we live in? China is now over 50% urbanized. As always when we talk about this subject, no one is saying that people in farming villages should never hear the Gospel. But surely one of the factors we should consider when choosing a field is, ‘where can I go that will best enable me to reach the places I don’t go?’ And that question will lead us as foreign missionaries to cities over and again.

Reflection #4 – Career Goals

What would Paul have done with another thirty years as a missionary? Hard to say. Most people think he did have a few more years of ministry after his Roman imprisonment, but it’s hard to know what he did with them. Whatever he did, most modern career missionaries are in a slightly different boat than Paul – specifically, a boat where it is unlikely you’ll be decapitated! And with that in mind, we should be careful when we extrapolate from Paul’s nine years of ministry – sometimes we should probably just multiply the factor in question by four, and other times we should allow for the possibility that Paul would do something else if he had more time. To see what I mean, make a simple comparison of his missionary journeys that we do know about. They’re far from identical. And that shows that what Paul chooses to do for a time may not be what he would do for forty years. And while Paul couldn’t be sure how much time he had (unless told beforehand – Ac. 20:23), all of the rocks thrown at his skull probably gave him a clue that it was shorter rather than longer!

Put simply, we have to think more long-term than Paul. As our experience of missions is so drastically different than Paul’s in a multitude of ways, it is far more important that we make his goal our goal than that we make his practice our practice. What is going to be left when we’re gone? This is obviously a foundational concern for Paul’s ministry, and should surely be for us as well, though how we go about it may look a little un-Pauline. For example, it is more and more common to hear people – missionaries and others – insist that missionaries should not serve as pastors on the field. Not only is it nearly indisputable that Paul or members of his team functionally served as elders of the churches they planted until they appointed local leadership, but the question is largely beside the point. Whether or not Paul was ever a pastor does not alone dictate whether a modern missionary should be a pastor on the foreign field (though of course we should consider it). Let’s question the product more than the production.

There are obviously many more factors to consider in how the ministry of Paul applies to us as modern missionaries. Some that I would like to hear more about include how his role as an apostle uniquely shaped him as a missionary, the functions and size of Paul’s team, and the source of his funding (without nonsense about tent-making). But these are a few that I had never considered before. They re-energized me to focus on preaching the Gospel to as many as possible, settling in for the long haul of building disciples, sending men to cities, and thinking long-term. Are there any other books that you’ve read that have helped you better understand Paul’s life and ministry?

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9 Comments on “The Church that Paul Built”

  1. Aaron March 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen. Haven’t read it just yet, but it’s on the list. Have heard some pretty good things about it.

    • Septimus March 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

      Missionary methods… Has a lot good stuff about money management as well.

  2. Debtor Paul March 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Thank you for the post. I would also like to hear more about Paul’s team – its function and size – and the significance of his apostolic role for his missionary practice.

  3. bginasia March 26, 2012 at 4:45 am #

    Seems like the churches and missionaries these days are incapable of being Spirit-led and can only “copy” other people’s methods. Is that really what God intended for His church when He poured out His Spirit on the body through His many gifts? When Paul said “imitate me even as I imitate Christ,” was he talking about his missiological methods? was he talking about his apostolic gift? Or was he talking about his godly character and his faithfulness to the gospel message? Methods only seem to produce movments these days, which come and go. People need NOT be dependent on methods but on the Spirit of God to lead them into all truth and to reveal and stir up the gift and calling of Christ in them, and to compel them accordingly. The problem is that the church only ends up making disciples that end up being dependent on the leaders or the prescribed method and not on the Head, Christ Jesus. People are learning through these prescribed methods to make disciples in the image of their evolving methods, instead of in the image of Christ, which is a work of the Spirit through Sanctification. The leaders of these movements come and go, which is exactly why the methods also seem to come and go (and many of their disciples along with it). However, the Spirit of God sent from Christ is where our power and authority and wisdom come from in order that we might live a life pleasing in His sight. We know an organization here where we are that is molding their missiological “methods” after an emergent preacher from America who also talks about urbanization and says all the missionaries need to move to the cities because of this. Really? Shouldn’t missionaries who have the call and gifting from God’s Spirit, also be able to discern for themselves what God’s Spirit is calling them to do? This guy I’m speaking of won’t even take a definite stance on the literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation, saying in one of his white papers that we need to leave room for a biological evolutionary intrepretation in our “big tent” approach to “the church.” And he is the one I should listen to in order to have the correct missiological approach? Too many so called “disciples” are molded according to the image of the leader of their particular church movement, and have been warped by the over focus on particular methods rather than growing in a well-rounded way by having been exposed to the whole counsel of God (which by the way, seemed to be Paul’s “method” in Acts 20). If I had a dollar for every modern evangelism method I’ve heard from America alone, I would be able to retire a young man. Sorry, but when I read this article I just see the popular success and prosperity movement at work (which is just the way of the world and America)…. “Let’s analyze the demographics and marketing methods to see how someone else became successful so that we can copy his success.” “Here’s our 5 step method, buy our book for $14.99 for this must see insight into God’s prescribed missionary methods.” “This is a must have for every missionary!” Excuse my sarcasm… These men from the early centuries were Spirit-filled, Spirit-led servants, that’s why God moved through them. Willing vessels, who were Spirit-filled walking in faith and obedience, not Spirit-quenching through their unbelief and worldly marketing methods. Many chuches don’t even believe in being filled with the Holy Spirit like what we see in Acts anymore, and the ones that do, are really so far out of wack because of their deceptive practices and lack of sound teaching that they cause the Spirit of God and His work to be blasphemed by others. So, because of this, so many are stuck analyzing “missiological methods,” instead of knowing their God, having power from on High, preaching the whole counsel of God, and being Spirit-filled, Spirit-led servants just like those servants of old. Ok, I’m done. I would like to know more about your work here in China. Can you email me so I can get to know you? You can maybe delete my email from this post but here it is:, my name is Brad.

  4. Debtor Paul March 26, 2012 at 8:50 am #


    I understand your concerns, but are likely throwing the baby out with the bathwater just as much as those who emphasize strategy to the neglect of the unique leading of the Spirit. The debate over whether we should strategize or follow the leading of the Spirit is inherently unbiblical, for it is one in which the NT largely does not engage. Should we strategize or follow the leading of the Spirit? Yes. That would seem to be the most appropriate answer. It would be nonsensical to suggest that Paul didn’t do both of these. It is also ridiculous to suggest that the Spirit is never involved in the strategizing. Paul clearly had a strategy that we trust was Spirit led. Paul also allowed the Spirit to intervene in that strategy whenever He wished. As to whether the strategy of Paul should be followed by others – insofar as his strategy was a reflection of what we hear from Jesus in places like Luke 10 and others, yes, it should be followed. Insofar as it reflects biblical principles and concerns that we find in the Commissions and elsewhere, yes, it should be followed. I would suggest that this covers a large part of his apparent strategy, but we are still given a great amount of liberty to be uniquely led by the Spirit.

    It is not either/or but both/and.

    • bginasia March 26, 2012 at 9:09 am #

      Just because the Scriptures did not engage in this debate at the time does not make it an irrelevant debate at the current time. It is far more likely that God’s Word did not talk about this debate because it was not a problem in the early church, it is however a problem now. Throwing the baby out with the bath water would be failing to realize the problems we have now while at the same time failing to see how God’s Word can actually address those problems now this long of a time later. It is only those who are trapped in these man made missiological systems who cannot see the problem. Paul’s “strategizing” was no doubt Spirit-led because he was a Spirit-filled man. And when his strategizing turned out to be his own man made approach and not God-made, the Spirit of God prevented them in certain instances. It was because they were Spirit-filled that the Spirit had such power over them to keep them in God’s strategy rather than their own man strategy. Thank you for engaging in the debate. 🙂

      • Debtor Paul March 27, 2012 at 9:45 am #

        I never said there is no relevancy to some parts of the debate. However, it seems (though this may not be your intention) that what you are doing is pitting all human strategy against the leading of the Spirit. You seem to uncritically assume “copying” the methods of others or having any “missiological systems” (how do you determine which are “man made” and which are Spirit led?) is automatically unbiblical or unSpiritual. The implied accusation is that those who have worked on such systems, strategies, etc are not Spirit-led. I would admit, as would most others, that it is usually wrong for any system or strategy to imply that those not working within the same framework are somehow wrong, but you seem to be guilty of that for which you accuse them, just in reverse.

        (In regard to uncritically following certain leaders, Paul directly deals with that in 1 Corinthians. In regard to some churches not believing anymore in being filled with the Spirit as in Acts, that is again an assumption that your interpretation and application of such a filling is actually biblically justifiable – a matter that cannot be dealt with here, though you made quite a sweeping accusation about it.)

        My request is that we be careful and charitable. Thank you for the sharpening discussion.

      • Vengador March 27, 2012 at 10:07 am #

        Hey guys – sorry to take a while to respond here – was visiting a different city yesterday and just got back last night real late. Nice to see the interaction on here – appreciate that!

        Brad: I am definitely sorry that what I wrote gave you reason to think of those who peddle missiological methods. I certainly agree with you that much harm is done by packaging extra-biblical, success-guaranteed strategies for mass exportation to churches.

        However, I think it’s pretty obvious that you are drawing an unproven dichotomy between strategy and being Spirit-filled. If you concede that Paul actually had a strategy, which was at times overridden by direct intervention by the Holy Spirit, what exactly is the problem with modern missionaries having strategies as well, so long as they too are willing to have them overruled by the Spirit?

        Besides this is a far more fundamental question: is it possible to NOT have a strategy? Whatever activities you fill the day with, that’s your strategy. As long as you’re doing something, you have a strategy. If you don’t like the word, let’s change it. Your schedule. Your plan. Your activities. Your ministry. And I have no doubt that you have reasons for what you do and don’t do. And what’s your reason for doing those things? If your answer is ‘just be Spirit-led’ – I think you would have to retreat to a definition of ‘Spirit-led’ that almost no one would be able to agree to. Surely you don’t think that the Holy Spirit led you in some mystical way to do everything you do each day.

        What interest do I have in talking about strategy? If I am doing something foolish with my time as a missionary, I would like wiser, more experienced servants of God to advise me, warn me, and encourage me to choose to do something better. I’m sure you don’t think that the Holy Spirit doesn’t lead us through the wisdom of other men. And that’s all I’m talking about. There are places that are wiser to go to as a missionary than others. Based on Paul’s precedent and other missionaries’ guidance, I think it’s wiser to go to a large city. I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to go to a small place (or that going to a large place guarantees success) – but ‘wrong’ and ‘foolish’ are not the same thing.


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