Missionary Methods

Introduction back to top

Paul, called of God to be the apostle to the Gentiles, is what we would call our "missionary par excellente" of the missionary activity recorded for us in Scripture. The apostle Paul is front and center. From all we know of him, he was an intense and supremely motivated man, both before and after his conversion on the way to Damascus (Acts 9). It was Paul's mission activities (Acts 13 28) that contributed remarkably towards the Christian church's move from the limited sphere of Judaism to the broader frame of the Gentile world. It then becomes, for all religious history, a preeminent model for missionary outreach.

The question then needs to be asked, "Did Paul have a strategy when accomplishing his missions?" Our problem in answering this today is that we live in an anthropocentric age. We think nothing can be accomplished, even in the Lord's work, without having committees, workshops, retreats and conferences. So much depends on our definition of strategy in trying to answer this question. If by looking at Paul's mission activities we mean a deliberate, well formulated, duly executed, plan of action based on human observation and experience, then it would be hard to determine a strategy. But if we take strategy to mean a flexible method of procedure, developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and subject to His direction and control, then Paul can be seen to have forethought to his work (Kane 1976:73). Roland Allen (1991:10) wrote, "It is quite impossible to maintain that St. Paul deliberately planned his journeys beforehand, selected certain strategic points at which to establish his churches and then actually carried out his designs." In fact, it could be said that Paul developed theology and most of his mission strategy while doing missions (see Bennett 1980:138). (Though other missiologists do not write of Paul in this way, most use Paul as their model for ministry. Some may interpret Paul's strategy more broadly than others, but this involves more reading. For starters, one may read the section in Perspectives : see bibliography.) Looking then at the history of Paul's journeys, we can note several aspects of his strategizing (see Kane, Grassi, Allen, Hedlund).

Confined Efforts to Four Provinces back to top

In looking at Romans 15:18 19 we can note two elements that summarized Paul's work. First, he directed his work particularly to the non Jewish world "to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles" (vs. 18). Second, he limited it to the main area of the Roman world where others had not gone. Paul claims "from Jerusalem round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ." The concentration of his mission was on four of the most populous and prosperous provinces, Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia. Both Luke and Paul speak constantly of the provinces rather than the cities (Acts 9:31; 15:23; 16:6,9; 1 Cor. 9:2).

Chose Large Cities as Strategic Centers back to top

The city was Paul's theater of mission. Paul's theory was not that he had to preach in every place himself, but by establishing centers of Christian life in the important places, the gospel might then spread to the provinces. The cities where he did plant churches were centers of Roman administration, of Greek civilization, of Jewish influence or of some commercial importance. (Allen 1991:13) It is important to note that, though we see today a rapid growth of urbanization, the city is not more important and the countryside less important. Rather, Paul's intention was to have the congregation situated in the city to be a center of light. (Acts 19:10) How else could Paul claim in Romans 15:19 that he had evangelized the whole province? Particularly, the church in Rome was to be of strategic importance when Paul planned to leave the East and begin work in the West. (Rom. 15: 23 24)

Began Labors in Synagogues back to top

Paul followed the principle of "to the Jew first" (Rom. 16:1), thus his strategy was to target the people of the covenant in the synagogue. (cf. Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 17:1 2, 10; 18:4, 19) The custom was to invite a visiting rabbi to give a word of exhortation (Acts 13:15), so Paul took advantage of these devout, attentive, and intelligent audiences. Found there were three distinct classes: Jews, proselytes and God fearing Gentiles. Here Paul felt at home as all of them had a knowledge of the one true God, an acquaintance with the Old Testament, and an expectation of the "coming" Messiah. Only when he was expelled did he go elsewhere.

Preferred to Preach to a Responsive People back to top

For Paul, the spread of the gospel and the extension of God's Kingdom were of paramount importance. He believed that every ethnic group had the right to hear the gospel and he would gladly preach to them, but if they adamantly refused the message and persecuted the messenger, no purpose could be served in staying amongst them. He felt it would be better to move on to a responsive group. Paul experienced that it was the devout Gentiles that were most responsive to the gospel (Acts 13:43; 14:1; 16:14; 17:4; 18:7), and the Jews that opposed his message (Acts 13:45,50; 14:2,19; 17:5; 18:12; 21:27; 23:12). Turning away from his own people hurt him deeply (Acts 13:46), for he loved them (Rom. 9:2,3), but he could not compromise the gospel. He was conscious of the fact that a Christian worker was required to be faithful (1 Cor. 4:2).

Maintained Contact with Sending Church back to top

Though Paul was called directly by God to be a missionary (Acts 13:2; Acts 9:15; Acts 13:47), he is confirmed by action (Acts 13:2,3) and sent by the church (Acts 13:3 4). Paul was convinced that the missionary must have a strong base at home, for at the end of each journey he always returned to Antioch to report on his journeys (Acts 14:26 28; 18:22, 23). The connection between the prayers of the church and the success of the missions was a vital thing. Paul spent significant time on his return visits and knew the importance of it. When he was planning to go on to Spain with the gospel, a letter was sent to Rome to ask for their support (Rom. 15:15 24).

Planted Churches back to top

Paul's ultimate goal was to establish strong, indigenous churches; congregations that would be equipped to carry on the task (1 Cor. 1:2,7; 1 Thess. 1:1,8). He stayed as long as he could, setting up the church inspite of the difficulties. When mature local leaders had been trained, he would move on, leaving the leaders in charge. These church plants were self governing (Acts 14:23; 20:17), self supporting, and self propagating (1 Thess. 1:8).

Made Use of Fellow Workers back to top

Paul believed in teamwork. On all the missionary journeys he had companions along. Barnabas and John Mark set out with him on the first journey (Acts 12:25; Acts 13:13), and Silas set out with him on the second (Acts 15:40). The preaching of the gospel was a joint effort (1 Thess. 1:1) and Paul must have recruited many as fellow laborers. Consider the following texts: Acts 17:4; 2 Cor. 1:19; 8:23; Col. 4:14; Acts 19:22; Col. 4:7,10; Acts 20:4; Phil. 2:20 22,25; Col. 2:7; Acts 18:2,3; Rom 16. Paul's strategy in his letter to the Romans was also to involve them in his mission to Spain (Rom. 1:11,12).

Became "All Things to All Men" back to top

1 Cor. 9:19-23 conveys to us the personal outlook of Paul on what the attitudes of a missionary should be. Paul knew the purpose of his life: to "gain" men to Christ. Though "free from all men," Paul knew that this freedom was given him to bring God's love to all, and thus he makes himself a servant to all. In practice this meant the complete subordination of every interest, personal and otherwise, to the work of Christ. (Rom. 15:2) Paul did not carry this "all" to include that which would be in violation of God's law. And as to the content of the gospel message, he was adamant and dogmatic (Gal. 1:6 9). Paul does give some concrete examples of what it means to be "all" to the Jews (Acts 18:18; Acts 20:16; Acts 21:21 27; Acts 16:3), to the Gentile world (1 Cor. 8:1 6; Col. 4:5), and to the "weak" (1 Cor. 8:7 13; 1 Cor. 9:12).

Adeptly Communicated an Unchanging Message back to top

Paul viewed himself as a chosen herald to announce a message from God himself that would affect the destiny of all mankind (2 Cor. 5:19). The message was not a matter of Paul's personal conviction or opinion (1 Thess. 2:13), nor just a piece of information. It was an authoritative, life changing message (1 Cor. 15:14), which Paul himself preached with boldness, assurance and confidence (Acts 9:20,29). The proclamation of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the missionary task (Rom. 10:14 15) and Paul communicated Jesus Christ through his lifestyle, work and activity. Compare Paul's communication of the gospel to different groups. When preaching to the Jews, he reasoned from the Scriptures. He began with their own historic beginnings and swiftly proceeds to the life of Christ, the promised Messiah (Acts 13:16 41; Acts 17:2,3). To the Gentiles, Paul reasoned from nature (Acts 14:14 18), and used circumstantial object lessons to bring about an understanding of the gospel (Acts 17:16 23). Notice also the testimony of Paul in his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17 38): how he was uncompromising in the declaration of Christ as the only Savior (vs. 20,21,26,27) and how he had "lived" the gospel (vs. 18,19, 24,31,33,34,35).

Bibliography back to top


  • Allen, Roland. Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.
  • Bakke, Ray. The Urban Christian: Effective Ministry in Today's Urban World . Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1987. 80-83
  • Bavinck, J. H. An Introduction to the Science of Missions. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co. 1979. 36-56
  • Bennett, C. T. "Paul the pragmatist: Another look at his missioary methods." Evangelical Missions Quarterly 16,3(1980): 133-138.
  • Hawthorne, Gerald F. and Ralph P. Marten, eds. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. "Mission." by W.P. Bowers. DownersGrove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993. 608-619
  • Hedlund, Roger E. The Mission of the Church in the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991. 213-225
  • Kane, J. Herbert. Christian Missions in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976. 72-93

Roman Catholic

  • Grassi, Joseph A. A World to Win: The Missionary Methods of Paul the Apostle. Maryknoll, NY: Maryknoll Publications, 1965.

Evangelical but not necessarily Reformed

  • Winter, Ralph D. and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992. (Various authors write on Strategies for World Evangelization, Strategies for Church Planting, Strategies for Development, and World Christian Teamwork. pages D-3 to D-280.)