This is part 1 in a 3-part series on church-strengthening in the New Testament.
Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, has much to teach us about the missionary task from his own pattern in missions. How did he view his work? What does the Bible say about Paul the missionary?
The first passage that might come to mind is Romans 15, where Paul clearly considered himself a pioneer missionary, bringing the gospel to new regions where people were yet unreached (Rom 15:19-20).
But another passage should also come to mind when thinking of Paul’s missionary task. In Acts 14, we find that Paul was not only a pioneer missionary but also a pastoral missionary.
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Acts 14:21-23
Paul not only engaged in groundbreaking evangelism, but he also revisited and strengthened the churches by teaching and appointing pastors. As missiologists Terry and Payne put it, “Paul remained in one place long enough to plant a church. He did not evangelize people and then leave them without instruction or encouragement.” In other words, Paul didn’t just plant churches; he also strengthened them.
Far from being a one-off exception, Acts 14 reflects Paul’s pattern of ministry. After a season of ministry, he focused on revisiting and strengthening the churches. He did this after his ministry in Acts 13-14 (see Acts 14:21-23), and again after his season of ministry in Acts 16-19 (see Acts 20-21, but specifically 20:2). His ambition was to preach Christ in unreached areas (Rom 15), and his pattern was to develop healthy churches in these areas (Acts 14).
How did he do this? Acts 14 provides a snapshot of Paul’s pattern of church strengthening.
- He revisited the churches (v. 21)
- He strengthened the churches (v. 22)
- He appointed elders (v. 23)
- He entrusted them to the Lord (v. 23)
He revisited the churches
First, Paul revisited the churches. “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch” (Acts 14:21). After Paul planted a church, there was still more work to do. Paul had more to teach (1 Thess 3:10). Three weeks in a city wasn’t sufficient, so he went back, training them in the ways of God.
A common misconception about Paul’s work is that he was in a mad scramble to plant as many churches, as fast as possible. But urgency does not necessitate speed, and definitely not at the expense of health.
Strengthening existing work was just as important as pioneer work. In fact, for Paul, this would have been a false dichotomy. It was all one and the same work—developing healthy churches among all peoples.
He strengthened the churches
So what did Paul do on these follow-up visits? He encouraged the church to persevere even in the face of suffering. “Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The kingdom is coming, but to get there we must joyfully plod through the tribulation of this world.
Here’s the crazy thing—this message strengthened them! This was no false hope of your best life now, but rather a biblically brutal assessment of the Christian life. This is the message we must preach around the world—suffering now, glory to come!
Recently I was training a group of pastors in the interior of Brazil, and one of the pastors was not happy. We were teaching an overview of the New Testament, and the topic of suffering kept coming up. This pastor argued that I was emphasizing suffering too much. I should focus more on the blessings of the kingdom, he insisted. Not only did this pastor fail to realize the “already-not yet” aspect of the kingdom—yes, the kingdom is inaugurated, but not yet consummated—but I fear he was influenced by the “prosperity theology” infecting Christ’s church around the world. How do we strengthen churches? By telling our church members that they must enter the kingdom through many tribulations.
He appointed elders
Not only did he revisit and strengthen the churches, but he also “appointed elders for them in every church…” (Acts 14:23). For these fledgling churches to survive in Paul’s absence, he wanted to leave qualified leadership in place. Would three families gathering in a home for worship be enough? What about an evangelistic Bible study with a few friends? No, if these churches were to survive, they needed elders or pastors. And not just one, but elders plural.
Paul’s missionary task included equipping and appointing leaders in each of these young congregations. Paul’s ministry was not all about him; he trained and delegated. Neither would Paul’s ministry end with him; he had a plan for multiplying churches.
Pioneer work is not at odds with long-term leadership training. They go hand in hand. Any missions strategy that neglects intentional investment in the next generation of leaders is sure to disappoint in the long run.
He entrusted them to the Lord
Finally, Paul entrusted the churches to the Lord. “With prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). This might be the hardest part of missionary work. Not necessarily the loving, or the leading, but the leaving—leaving the church in the hands of the Lord. At the end of the day, with prayer and fasting, Paul entrusted them to the Shepherd of the sheep.
The ministry task is our responsibility, but the results are out of our control. We declare, but we do not manipulate. We evangelize, but not coerce. It’s not like we’re making widgets where we can set quantifiable goals. We make disciples, and we commit them to the Lord.
Church-planting and Church-Strengthening
Paul was a great missionary because he was both a pioneer missionary and a pastoral missionary. He did not reduce missions to initial evangelism of unreached people, but he also focused on strengthening the churches.
So let’s be committed to both. Let’s be Romans 15 missionaries, proclaiming the good news of Jesus to those who have never heard. And let’s be Acts 14 missionaries, strengthening the churches so they can follow the Lord for generations to come.
 John Mark Terry and J. D. Payne, Developing a Strategy for Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 58.
 As noted by Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 69-70.