Mission planning in Acts

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on my post Why I don’t believe in mission strategy. A number ask about the book of Acts. Others ask about the implications of what I’m saying. I’ll post on implications in the next few days. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on Acts (and 1 Corinthians 16).

In one sense the plan is revealed at the beginning. ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8) God’s plan is for the gospel to spread out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and then out again to the ends of the earth. We know how this story is going to unfold.

But notice how the gospel moves from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. Look at Acts 8:1-4: ‘On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria … Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ The next stage of the plan didn’t happen at the initiative of the apostles. It wasn’t part of their plan at all. It happened at God’s initiative. And it happened through the strangest of means, a means none of the Christians chose – a great persecution.

And notice how the gospel then moves from Judea and Samaria to the Gentiles. Look at Acts 11:19-23. Again it is persecution that drives the gospel outwards. And again the apostles didn’t plan it. They don’t authorise it. They don’t even know about it! They discover what’s happening after the event. So they send Barnabas to check it out, to support it, to encourage it.

The book of Acts is not the story of the apostles making plans and then putting them into effect. It is the story of the Holy Spirit directing mission. Our job is to keep in step with God. To follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.

Look at Acts 16:6-10. Paul and his companions plan to go to the province of Asia (part of modern-day Turkey), but they go to Phrygia and Galatia instead ‘having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia’. What does that mean? We don’t know. It may have been a dream or a vision. It may have been circumstances. It just didn’t work out. The opportunity didn’t arise. I suspect it’s circumstances because when, a few verses later, Paul has a vision Luke’s tells Paul had a vision.

Then they plan to go to Bithynia (in northern Turkey), but they go to Mysia and Troas instead. Why? ‘The Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to’?

Then Paul gets a vision of man from Macedonia asking them to help. So they travel to Macedonia.

Macedonia is in Greece. This is the first time the gospel goes enters Europe. Who’s plan was that? It wasn’t Paul’s plan. Paul would be in the province of Asia if he’d had his way. Or if not Asia then Bithynia. No, this is the Holy Spirit’s plan!

Think about what’s going on here. Imagine you sent out missionaries from your church to Turkey. Your church agrees that this is your vision. You assess their suitability for work in Turkey. You share your vision with Radstock. You get an article in Rapport. You hold a meeting to commission them and send them off. Brian Jose comes to speak. And then the first prayer letter you get home says, ‘By the way, the Spirit of Jesus prevented us from preaching in Turkey so we’re in Greece instead.’ That’s what’s just happened with Paul and his companions.

Let’s take another example. Look at 1 Corinthians 16:6-9: ‘Perhaps I will stay with you awhile, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.’

How is Paul making decisions here? He wants to spend time with the Corinthians. He sees their need and he wants to meet it. But he knows he will only meet it ‘if the Lord permits’. I don’t think that means he needs to check his decision with God in some way. Instead, I think he recognises God’s sovereignty in his ministry. He’s saying, in effect, if circumstances allow I’ll come to visit you – except of course that Paul believes his circumstances are in God’s hands.

And notice, too, that the next step for Paul is to stay in Ephesus. Why? Because ‘a great door of effective work has opened to me’. That doesn’t mean Paul goes for the easy option. This door of opportunity also includes ‘many who oppose me’. The Holy Spirit is orchestrating mission. And Paul is keeping in step with the Spirit.

What does this mean for us? In future posts I’ll suggest three implications.

11 thoughts on “Mission planning in Acts

  1. I like your Turkey scenario and the 1 Cor 16 one after that. Very helpful thoughts.

    I find myself constantly being approached by those who have been ‘called’ to other countries while their own churches are not fully behind them … and they are thus not being ‘sent’ but rather partly supported as they work for an agency. What do we do with that request without feeling troubled at so many different levels – give, ignore, pray for, try and suggest!!!!?

    After many years of struggling to balance, and arguing for, on the one hand a well thought-through plan (which can be presented objectively so as to raise support) and on the other the fact that God has His own plans and even uses those we think are unsuitable (and the other way round), I am still a little at sea most of the time.

    My only peaceful thought on the issue is to make sure that those who are being sent are already in a close ‘family’ relationship to those who are sending them so that they seek God’s will together before hand (joint decision making) and are all aware and comfortable with the fact that God may make changes after the brochures are printed!

    SO, missions become: mission as community at home, elsewhere … in gospel partnerships, under God’s direction. And yes, prayer becomes our main mission activity in everything.

    Glad you are discussion this !

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  3. Paul and Barnabas were sent by their local church (Acts 13:1-3). The local church recognised that God was setting them apart for the work of cross-cultural mission. So the backing of the local church is in my view vital. I wouldn’t send (or receive) someone who did not have the backing of their church. Paul and Barnabas also reported back to the church (Acts 14:26-27). So I’m not advocating a charter for individualists! Yet day to day to decisions did not run to some long-term plan.

  4. Tim , I’m intrigued by your thoughts here. Is in not significant that, in the examples you cite, Paul did actually have a plan of some sort? Sure, it didn’t always go his way, but he clearly had a plan.

  5. Hi Bryce, I agree – that’s why I speak of not planning beyond the next step. Obviously you have to decide what you’re going to do next. It’s big, longer-term plans with sequential steps that I think amount to hubris. The next two or three posts will spell out more what I think the implications are.

  6. Facinating too that the first convert from Paul’s preaching in Macedonia was from Thyatira IN ASIA. So he did end up reaching Asians with the gospel just not where he expected to.

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