Early Church

The Trouble with Missionary Movements [updated]

Carracci Annibale - The Stoning of St Stephen 1603-04

Carracci Annibale - The Stoning of St Stephen 1603-04

Acts has no purpose, no plot, no structure, and no history without suffering.

Paul House

Following disturbing reports out of China and from around the world of rising persecution against Christians, it’s time to republish this post from 2010.

Ten years ago I was in Singapore having just left a restricted field somewhere in Asia. I had sought out a couple of guys named “Smith” with a lot of experience in church planting movements to help me make sense of what I was learning.

I will not forget this comment:

We've never seen a church planting movement without persecution.

Suffering and persecution go hand in hand with movements that multiply disciples and churches.

They are the unifying theme of the book of Acts. Without them the command to take the gospel to the ends of the world would never have been fulfilled.

Want to learn more?

Shipping the gospel

Screen Shot 2015 01 06 at 3 45 56 pm\ Within three decades of the death and resurrection of Christ, groups of believers were firmly settled from Spain to Persia. David Parish applies his experience as a strategy manager for a major global transportation company to ask, How did they do it?

How did the early apostles do this? Let’s set aside for the moment the powerful work of the Holy Spirit [ed. that’s a big ask!].

What were the means by which the gospel spread across this vast region?

1. Key Ministry in Ports

From Acts we know that Paul travelled by using both Roman roads (often paved) and commercial shipping. Travelling by ship was expensive, equivalent to first class air travel today in cost per mile, but it was the fastest and, in the summer months, the safest. But shipping was not as primitive as we might be lead to believe.

The shipping of the first century had been developing in both technology and speed over the previous seven centuries. Written records of trans-national shipping go back to the Phoenicians, who inhabited a coastal strip to the north of Israel. They rose to power around 700 B.C., about the time of David and Solomon, and used their expertise in building warships to also develop outstanding ships for commercial use. What may be the first written record of a supply chain appears in 1 Kings 5. The passage contains a commercial contract for supplying timber for building the temple in return for wheat and olive oil from Israel. In addition, detailed designs of ships appear on pottery of this period.

However, it is in the Greek and Roman empires that commercial shipping really develops. Estimates vary; the Roman merchant shipping fleet had in it around 3,000 ships.

Along with the ships came the construction of large ports. Take Corinth, which had two ports. The west-facing port across the isthmus was Lechaeum, and Cenchreae faced to the east. Lechaeum was the port for ships to Rome and Cenchreae was for ships going to the Greek islands and the Levant.

Corinth had the kind of reputation for low life and aggressive trading practices that is typical of ports up to the present day. David Prior, in the introduction to his commentary on Corinthians, writes, “Like most sea ports, Corinth had become both prosperous and licentious—so much so that the Greeks had a word for leading a life of debauchery: Korintiazein. Homer talks of ‘wealthy Corinth’ and Thucydides refers to its military importance.”

Prior also quotes scholar Austin Farrar’s description of Corinth: “This mongrel and heterogeneous population of Greek adventurers and Roman bourgeois, with a tainting of Phoenicians; mass of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, trades people, hucksters and agents of every form of vice.”

Luke tells us that Paul stayed “for some time” (scholars estimate about 18 months) in this port city teeming with men and women in desperate need of the gospel. Its shipping culture made it a crucial hub in the Roman Empire, bringing in people from all corners of the empire.

From here, Paul took one of the 20 daily sailings out of Corinth’s two ports to go to Syria (Acts 18:18–19) to further his work.

2. Ancient Sailing

What would have one of these ships have been like?

The larger grain-carrying ships could accommodate several tons of cargo and around 100 passengers. The ancient historian Josephus describes one vessel that carried 600 people. Perhaps half would have been crew to man the sails and to row when the wind was weak. This would still allow for a passenger load of around 300, the capacity today of a medium-sized passenger ferry from Seattle to the outer islands.

Marine archaeologists have discovered ancient models and images on pottery of vessels of this period. These show that the large trading ships had a broad beam to carry large cargoes and were powered by a large sail amidships and a smaller forward sail. This meant that it was not easy to sail across the wind, so the captains as much as possible followed the direction of the wind.

Catherine Hezser, in an article in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Palestine, notes, “During the winter months, shipping on the Mediterranean would come almost to a standstill.” Ships that did venture out in the winter months stayed close in to shore, and as Luke vividly describes in Act 27, it was very dangerous when a storm blew in. Acts tells us that Paul and Luke left after the Day of Atonement in October, so the centurion in charge of Paul likely knew the risk. They might have picked up one of the last large grain ships returning from Alexandria via Myra to its home port of Rome for the winter.

Luke’s description of how the captain handled the ship is accurate and indicates good knowledge of seafaring, no doubt picked up by observation on his many journeys with Paul. If the captain had heeded Paul’s advice to stay in port in Crete, they would have avoided the wreck on Malta that followed.

In summer, on the other hand, sea travel was fast and relatively comfortable. As these were cargo vessels, passengers had to bring their own provisions. The fast cargo ships made few stops and sailed at night using astral navigation. On one of these vessels, it would have been possible to travel from Rome to Athens in five to six days, compared with a month or longer overland. (Another sign of Luke’s accuracy is shown in Acts 28:13, where he notes the time taken to sail from Rhegium to Puteoli as one and a half days.)

3. Traders and Merchants

Modern communications have enabled global trade on an unprecedented scale, but the first-century Roman Empire enjoyed a comparatively sophisticated system: a vast network of paved roads (stretching from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the borders of India) as well as efficient shipping routes that crossed the Mediterranean. Networks of traders exploited the relative peace and prosperity of the era to trade products across the empire. From English tin to Palestinian olive oil and pottery and gold, everything passed through Rome.

And merchants of various sorts—all dependent on shipping and paved roads—played a vital role in the early church. Paul and the other apostles were quick to use this network to further the gospel cause. Phoebe, a wealthy woman who lived in the port of Cenchreae, was a patron to Paul and others. Travel was particularly expensive by sea, and contributions from disciples like Phoebe and Gaius no doubt paid for Paul’s journeys. Lydia, a cloth merchant, also features in accounts of the activities of the early church.

The other role played by wealthy merchants in the early church was to provide couriers to move letters and Gospel copies between the churches. Phoebe is the one who carries Paul’s letter to the Romans to the capitol. There are 5,800 copies of books or fragments that have been found all over the Mediterranean, from North Africa to Albania and the Levant. They are written in Greek, Syriac, and Coptic languages.

The original letters would have been circulated by hand, and as they became worn would have been copied by scribes who earned their living by copying commercial and legal documents. These copies would then have been sent out quite widely to the new churches as they were established, either by paved Roman roads or by ship.

One of the best known documents is Ryland’s Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s Fragment. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger holds the view that the fragment is very early, from around 100 a.d. It is believed to be a copy written to be used in public worship, as the print is quite large and widely spaced. It was found in Egypt, and though it is impossible to be certain, it is likely—from the style of the penmanship—that it originated in Ephesus and was brought by a courier.

One could write a similar article about the transportation systems that helped spread the gospel through Europe in the Middle Ages, and then again across the world in the 1800s, the great missionary century. I find it fascinating to see the means that God uses to spread the faith. And it’s no more fascinating than how that occurred in the first century.

Now here’s my question: These conditions existed equally for all faiths in the first century, so why did Christianity outstrip them all?

More from the Behemoth

Looking for trouble?

Glenn Townend asks a good follow up question to my post on the link between church planting movements, suffering and persecution:

HI Steve

Thought provoking!

So we need suffering to see a movement happen in Western Australia? What kind do you think we should expect?


Here's my response:

Hi Glenn

I think the best answer is don't think about it. Suffering and persecution will find us if we are pursuing God's will to redeem a lost world.

But do pray for boldness. The people who know tell me boldness in proclamation is a key characteristic of church planting movements.

It's the story of the early church and the story of Christianity in the global south.

Trust that whatever hardships come your way, God will turn them around for his purposes. We follow a crucified and risen Lord.


The Trouble with Missionary Movements

I had sought out someone with a lot of experience in church planting movements who could help me make sense of what I was learning. There's one line I will never forget—"We've never seen a church planting movement without persecution."

How Paul understood his call (con't)


The second installment on Paul's understanding of his calling as a pioneer church planter.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:10-15)

8. The metaphor of the building and of the activity of building refers, initially, not to the individual believer but to the church as a whole.

9. Paul likened his role as the pioneer missionary-church planter with a "skilled master builder" who lays the "foundation" (v10a).

Paul uses the metaphor of the master builder to describe himself as appointed and employed by God, together with a team of coworkers, to proclaim the gospel in pioneer situations, to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ and to establish new communities of believers. This is the foundation without which there would be no church in the city of Corinth.

The fact that Paul was active in Corinth for over one and a half years (Acts 18: 2, 11-12) clarifies that Paul regarded pioneer missionary work not as evangelistic Blitz whose results need to be consolidated by other preachers and teachers in follow-up work. For Paul, to lay the foundation included instructing the new believers in the fundamental content of faith in Jesus Christ and in the basic teachings of Scripture.

10. The foundation that Paul lays is Jesus Christ himself, specifically Jesus the crucified Messiah (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2).

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11).

The crucified and risen Jesus Christ is the content of the missionary proclamation and thus the foundation and the measure of the establishment of the church and of the growth of the church.

The decisive factor in the mission of the apostles is not the missionary, the preacher or the teacher but the One who is preached and taught—Jesus Christ. As a building has only one foundation, there is no alternative to Jesus Christ: the existing foundation that Paul had laid in Corinth cannot be changed.

11. Preachers and teachers are responsible for the way they build on the "foundation Jesus Christ" (v:12-15) that Paul or other pioneer missionaries have laid.

In the ancient world, when a master builder had laid the foundation and left the city or died, catastrophes could happen if the builders who continued to work on the edifice were not careful to follow the measurements that were given by the foundation that already existed.

Herod I disregarded existing foundations during his rebuilding and renovation of the Jerusalem temple and sought to build his grandiose new edifice on newly dug foundations, it sank into the ground (Josephus).

Any builder who seeks to finish a building that has been started on foundations laid by another architect must adhere carefully to the benchmarks provided by the architect, even if the builder regards the style of the building as antiquated.

Missionary work and church work will "remain" on judgment day if and when Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah and Savior, was at the center of the proclamation of the preachers and teachers, if and when Jesus was the criterion and standard of the behavior of the preachers and thus also the behavior of the believers.

Early Christian Mission (2 Volume Set), (Eckhard J. Schnabel)

How Paul understood his call

Apostle Paul-RembrandtApostle Paul - Rembrandt

I've grown weary of relying too heavily on business literature, the social sciences or even contemporary missional theology for my understanding of church planting movements. It's back to the Book for me.

I've been working through Schnabel's Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church. Detailed but valuable insights into the mission of Jesus, the Twelve, Paul and the early church.

Here's my summary of his reflections on I Corinthians 3 and Paul's understanding of his calling as a pioneer missionary-church planter.

These insights should shape how we understand the calling of a pioneer church planter today.

Background Paul is concerned that the Corinthian Christians have accepted human wisdom as the decisive measure of their spirituality and the criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of Christian preachers and teachers. The result were divisions in the church as groups championed different teachers.

Paul's problems with the Corinthian church provides the backdrop to paint the picture of how he understands his calling as a pioneer missionary-church planter.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe--as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)

1. Paul understands himself as a servant (v5).

Paul knows himself to be bound to God and to Jesus Christ as a servant, which excludes the possibility that he or anyone else might rule over the church or within the church.

Paul uses images from agriculture and house construction to describe the tasks and activities of missionaries, preachers and teachers: they plant, they water, they build. In contrast, the Greco-Roman elites despised manual labor.

2. God is the Lord of missionary work and of church work (v5).

If Paul and other Christian leaders are “servants” then God is their “master”. It was God who assigned to each missionary and preacher his task and who gave to each one and everyone different gifts.

3. There is only one ministry (v8a).

The pioneer missionary who ˜plants and the teacher in the church who waters are involved in the one and the same task, and both are dependent on the same Lord. They are literally one.

4. Paul as a pioneer missionary plants churches.

Paul sees himself as pioneer missionary called by God to plant (v6) and to lay the foundation (v10) that is, to establish new churches.

Apollos and other preachers water (v6) and build on the foundation (v10); that is they encourage and promote the further growth of the church, teaching the believers and reaching unbelievers.

The Lord has assigned different tasks to each (v5).

The Corinthian Christians focus on the personality of the preacher and teacher ( I Cor 1:10-17; 3:1-4). This attitude contradicts the character and the nature of the Christian message, whose center is the crucified Messiah (I Cor 1:13, 17-18; 2:2).

5. Success always comes from God and God alone (v6-7).

This is true both for pioneer missionaries and for preachers and teachers in local congregations: only God gives growth.

The effectiveness of missionary work and of church ministry does not depend on persons or programs, it does not depend on techniques or methods, but only on God's activity.

Preachers are nothing—a nothing from which only the creative act of God can make something. If God does not grant organic growth, the seed or grain of wheat would be like a lifeless pebble.

6. The church is God's field, God's building (v9b)

The churches that are established as the fruit of missionary work belong to neither Paul nor to other teachers.

The origin and the growth of the church are the effects of God's own work, the church is neither the work nor the possession of the apostle: it is the work and the possession of God. Missionaries, preachers and teachers work on land that belongs to God.

7. The pioneer missionary-church planter is responsible to God (v8b)

God himself is their employer, and they are accountable to him.

It is God alone who decides what constitutes success or failure of the work of the worker, not the church or the coworkers.

The scale of the worker's reward does not depend on the degree of giftedness or the scope of the success, because it is God who gives the growth who decides the giftedness and the success. The reward is promised only to sacrificial service of the individual: it is with this that Paul linked the expectation of a reward, without any inhibitions (1 Cor 9:17-18).

That's the first seven, four more to follow in the next post. . . Early Christian Mission (2 Volume Set) (Eckhard J. Schnabel)

Paul and the spread of the Christian movement

How important was Paul in the early spread of the Christian movement? He made a major contribution to the New Testament as both a writer and the subject of half of the book of Acts. Yet his direct impact on the spread of early Christianity may have been overstated according to Rodney Stark's latest book.

Stark examines the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire city by city and surprisingly finds that the more Hellenized (Greek language and culture), rather than Roman, the more likely that city was to have a Christian congregation by the end of the first century. If a city had a Hellenized Jewish community (the “Diaspora”) it was also far more likely to have a Christian congregation.

Looking at the data, we see that Paul’s missionizing had no significant, independent effect on Christianization, while the importance of Diasporan communities was quite significant. These results strongly suggest that Paul’s impact on the spread of Christianity was incidental to the general receptivity of the Diasporan communties to Christian missionizing.

Stark is no Paul basher. But he reminds us that

Paul was only one of many traveling professional missionaries, to say nothing at all of the rank-and-file missionaries who circulated from city to city. Indeed, Paul may have been far more important as a trainer, organizer, and motivator of missionaries than as an actual founder of congregations.

Did you read that last line?

“Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome” (Rodney Stark), 134-5.