For my personal study, I am reading through the book of Acts. Our church is working through this classic historical text in the evening. One of the observations that anyone utilizing the map in the back of their Bible will notice as they read the book of Acts is that Paul’s missionary journeys covered a lot of ground. Another observation is that Paul, even when alone, always functioned within a wider network of teammates. I want to consider one of the more basic questions though as we look at the work of the Apostle Paul: How did he grow the church?
There is a sense where we must admit that Paul did not grow Christ’s church. Christ always grows His church. If you simply read along from Acts 16-24 you’ll find a large chunk of individuals who respond favorably to Paul’s message, and others who don’t. Yet, Paul preached the same message to both. That latter category was often ferocious, even to the point of violence. They were even willing to chase Paul across various cities.
Why do some people respond favorably and others don’t? Acts 18:9-10 provides an implicit clue. The Lord Jesus was encouraging Paul to continue his preaching ministry when he said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do no be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” (ESV) The particular audience in view were the Corinthians. But the Lord Jesus was not speaking merely of those Jews who would believe His message, but the Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. This mystery of God’s people is further explained by Paul in Romans 9. Our focus though is on growth, not the mystery of predestination or God’s unconditional election. Look up R. C. Sproul’s “Chosen by God” for more help on that subject.
We return to our main question though with more specificity: How did God grow His church through Paul? The clearest observation we can make is that God used Paul’s preaching ministry to save souls. Paul’s missionary method appears quite uniform throughout his adventures. He would ordinarily begin in a synagogue. In one instance Luke recorded, “there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’” (Acts 17:1-3 ESV) Although this event is speaking of Paul’s journey in Thessalonica, it in many ways is a useful cross-section of his evangelistic method across the book of Acts.
What do we learn as we follow his pattern? Paul began with the low-hanging fruit. He began with his kinsmen in the flesh, as he himself was a Jew by birth (Acts 21:39). Notice that it was an appeal to the hearts of his listeners through their mind. He was not making a vague emotional appeal. Instead, he led them through an examination of the Word of God. We find this most notably from The Berean synagogue who received Paul’s message with eagerness. What does eagerness look like in this instance? “[T]hey received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed…” (Acts 17:11-12 ESV)
Paul’s ministry was primarily a Word-centered ministry, and that message was centrally focused on the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present reign of Christ. There were no gimmicks. There was no performance. There was no raffle. There was no showy event. There were no attractions. It was a short man, simply proclaiming the message that God the Son entered the world and died on the cross, and that this was good news. Paul would reflect on this humble heavenly message later when he wrote to the Corinthian church, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24 ESV)
I wonder if this message is still central to our churches today? So often we lose sight of the big idea when we are trying to satiate various groups and circles. But the central message of a church is the proclamation of Christ’s person and work. The message is not what I must do for Him, but what He has climactically done in history. As long as churches are committed to this message, then they are linking arms with the Apostle, and countless generations who were born from such preaching. However, where other agendas have become central, a sort of intellectual scaffolding blocks the central focus of the church.
May we see in our lifetime a revival of this sort of preaching. Preaching that is focused on Christ’s accomplishments first, and its application to us secondarily. Preaching which finds its aim at the cross. As we do so, we just may find that Christ again will use us to draw His people to Himself today, and that His church will grow on His terms.