In Romans 15 Paul famously declares that he had resolved to preach the gospel where Christ had not been named. A fire burned deeply within him—an insatiable desire for those who had never been told to “see” and for those who had never heard to “understand” the message of God’s grace in Christ (Rom 15:21). His relentless urge to make the word of God fully known led him inexorably to the “regions beyond” (2 Cor 10:16, KJV) with this message that Jesus had entrusted to him. Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, the unreached were always on his heart and mind, creating in him a restless impulse to keep pressing the boundaries of Christendom further and further out from its epicenter in Jerusalem.
Paul’s Ministry Among the Churches
As passionate as Paul was about pioneer church planting among the unreached, another fire burned deeply within him as well—a driving commitment to deep discipleship and leadership training among the already ‘reached.’
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face” (Col 2:1).
Paul says that he had “toiled” and “struggled” tirelessly over the years (1:29), “admonishing and teaching” local congregations like those in Colossae and Laodicea, proclaiming Christ to them (1:28), and suffering great affliction on their behalf (1:24). So while Paul aspired to preach the Gospel where Christ had not been named, he was also “eager to preach the gospel” and to “proclaim Christ” in existing churches (Rom 1:15; Col 1:28).
Paul’s commitment to strengthening existing churches is clear from the itinerary of his missionary journeys. A large percentage of his ministry during these travels was dedicated to ministering to established congregations spread throughout the Roman world. Each of his three major missionary journeys included return visits to churches he’d already planted. In fact, the express purpose of his second missionary journey was to visit the churches that he and Barnabas had founded on their first journey (Acts 15:36). Acts repeatedly reports how Paul and his companions strategically traveled through reached regions “strengthening the churches” (14:22; 15:41; 16:5; 18:23).
Paul’s missionary ministry was as pastoral as it was pioneer.
So, for example, the churches of Galacia received multiple visits from Paul, as did the Churches of Achaia and Macedonia. The church in Corinth, in particular, received at least three visits and four letters from Paul over a period of about 5-6 years. As Paul planned his missionary trips over the years, the needs of the churches, not just the needs of the unreached, dictated his itinerary (Rom 1:10-11; 1 Cor 16:5). Importantly, this commitment was not limited to churches he had planted himself. He was also committed to strengthening churches that he’d not planted or ever even visited, like those in Colossae, Laodicea, and Rome.
The Goal and Nature of Paul’s Ministry
In Colossians Paul describes his goals for this ministry among the churches:
My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:2-3).
Again, Paul’s goal is pastoral. His desire is to present the believers fully “mature in Christ” (1:28), and he labors and struggles tirelessly to accomplish it (1:20). This pastoral labor occupies a great deal of his time and energy. The work is exhausting and at times he finds himself “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed” in these believers (Gal. 4:19).
Paul’s ongoing pastoral labor among the churches was multifaceted. It included letters, personal visits, and visits from members of his missionary team. His ministry involved teaching and encouraging them, discipling and disciplining them, training and appointing leaders among them, and praying regularly for them. So committed was Paul to the maintenance and growth of the churches that he sometimes assigned members of his own church planting team to permanent (or at least long-term) ministry among churches that he’d planted earlier.
Both Titus and Timothy, for example, were assigned by Paul to provide ongoing leadership ministry and pastoral training in areas where the church was already established. As the needs presented themselves, Paul was more than willing to commit time, resources, and personnel to the teaching and church strengthening side of the coin. One would never hear Paul say, “Our ministry is just to the unreached. We only do church planting.”
Paul and his team were reachers and teachers, and were equally committed to both tasks.
The Complementary Role of Reaching and Teaching
It’s important to recognize that Paul’s focus on church planting among the “unreached” and his ministry to the churches were not mutually exclusive. Rather, the two tasks were complementary—two sides of the same coin.[i] On the one hand, his ministry in the churches was a critical part of the church planting process. Paul did not plant churches and then just move on, leaving them to fend for themselves. He was driven to complete the full-orbed task of disciplemaking—a task that included deep discipleship and training church leadership who could carry on and reproduce his work (2 Tim 2:2). So for Paul, strengthening churches and training leaders was not an endeavor distinct from or subsequent to the church planting process. They are part of that process.
Paul believed that teaching is part of reaching.
On the other hand, his ongoing training and strengthening work among the churches played an important role in his strategy to reach more unreached. Work in the churches was part of his plan to make the word of God fully known (Col 1:25) and to reach those who had never heard. When Paul told the Romans that he wanted to go to Spain because he had “fulfilled the ministry of the Gospel of Christ” from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum (Rom 15:19), he was not claiming to have personally reached every city, town, and village in that massive area with the gospel. Not even close. There was still much work to be done.
But because Paul had planted churches in strategic locations throughout that area and had taken the necessary years to develop healthy congregations with well-trained leaders, he believed that the remaining gospel and missionary work was now in the capable hands of the churches in which he had so painstakingly labored. In other words, to continue spreading the gospel to new towns and villages in a given region, Paul focused his attention on teaching and strengthening the existing church in that region.
Why? Because Paul understood that a strong and healthy national church with well-trained leaders is the best means of spreading the gospel, reaching the unreached, and planting new churches.
Rather than bypassing the existing church in a province or region to plant new churches himself, he expected the churches he’d already planted, strengthened, and trained to continue the work of church planting in their own Jerusalem and Samaria. So, Paul’s investment in deep discipleship and training in existing churches resulted not only in healthy congregations, but also in the inevitable spread of the gospel and the planting of new congregations.
So not only is teaching part of reaching. When done right, teaching will always lead to more reaching. Teaching exponentially multiplies the missionary’s reaching capabilities.
Thinking Strategically About Reaching and Teaching
Like Paul, then, we should think strategically about the particular gospel needs of each geographic region. We should not be simplistic in our decision about whether to focus more on reaching or teaching. As David Sills argues,
“The struggle to balance reaching the unreached and discipling and teaching them should always be just that—a struggle. When we capitulate to a predetermined decision independent of the specific and particular facts of a given context, we have lost balance.” [ii]
Following Paul’s example, we must recognize that what some areas need most —particularly those areas with little or no national church presence—is pioneer evangelism and church planting. In these areas, reaching will be the focus. But in other regions where there is already an existing church (or churches) it is often the way of wisdom to focus one’s energies on teaching, training, and deep discipleship. Instead of sidestepping the national body of Christ in these regions, the missionary’s time and energy, like those of Paul, would be best channeled into the equipping of the saints and the building up of the body of Christ. By this means, then, the unreached will continue to be reached and new churches will continue to be planted.
Gospel advance through multiplication rather than addition is the wisest missionary strategy.
[i] See David Sills, “Missions Does Not Equal Reaching the Unreached.” https://reachingandteaching.org/2016/01/missions-reaching-the-unreached.html