One of my favorite church-planting stories is found in Acts 16, the account of Paul’s apostolic journey and outreach to Philippi. How did Paul get started on his quest to reach Philippi with the Gospel? Did he schedule a crusade? Did he try to evangelize the synagogues, as he did in other places? Did he develop a cell-church network? No, Paul had a strategy that might seem highly unusual to us today? He prayed.
How could such a strategy work? Why not get right into the work of preaching the Gospel to the lost? Paul realized that, as E.M. Bounds would later point out, “Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men in even greater.” Paul knew that before organizing an outreach to people, he first needed to spend time agonizing before God. He understood, as J.C. Ryle has warned, “Never, never may we forget that if we would do good to the world, our first duty is to pray.” Judsom Cornwall expands on this: “God does not command to pray as a form of chastisement or disciple. Prayer is as necessary to spiritual life as scuba tanks are to the physical life of a deep-sea diver. Prayer is the atmosphere in which a human spirit can function comfortable. It is the breath of eternity so necessary to our eternal spirits that are confined in temporal bodies.”
Paul’s apostolic ministry in Philippi can best be observed in several distinct scenes:
Scene One: Paul’s leading to visit Philippi: A vital key to successful apostolic evangelism is ascertaining God’s direction. The body of Christ is called to take the Gospel into all the world, but individually we must know our specific sphere of ministry. Like the disciples who had fished all night and caught nothing, we need to know on which side of the boat to cast our nets.
Paul and his team originally intended to take the Gospel to Asia, but, “they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6b). They changed course and tried to go into Bithynia, “but the Spirit did not permit them” (Acts 16:7b). It must have been baffling to face those closed doors, yet it wasn’t long before The Lord had shown Paul where he was to go:
“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that The Lord had called us to preach the Gospel to them.” (Acts 16:9-10)
We might not experience as dramatic a “Macedonian call” as Paul received, but we too need a clear sense of the Lord’s direction for our ministry. Apostolic people are “sent ones,” but we need to know where God is sending us.