I can’t believe it! Another amazing success story for the apostle Paul! How did he get so lucky as to be able to swoop into a city, convert a lot of people in spite of persecution, and then leave to the next city to do it all over again?
That’s the way it feels, anyway, reading the book of Acts.
But is that the way it really happened?
We have a tendency in our culture to do everything quickly, and one of those things is reading the Bible. There are places in the Bible where you can turn the page and 400 years pass (not many, but they’re there). We read in rapid succession about Paul’s extraordinary missionary trips and the phenomenal success of the Holy Spirit through his ministry.
I’d like to draw your attention to verse 11 of chapter 18 of Acts. Slipped in among this whirlwind tour of Paul’s, we find that he spent 18 months in the city of Corinth. Before we quickly move on to Antioch in verse 18, we should allow verse 11 to seep within us and dwell there.
18 months. Paul had a missionary ministry of approximately 24 years, from around A.D. 44 to A.D. 68. If you don’t count the last 10 years of his life, during which he was mostly in prison, Paul had about 14 years of a very active evangelistic ministry. He was extraordinarily gifted to be able to speak to both Jews and Gentiles and plant churches. He visited a long litany of cities and could undoubtedly have visited even more.
And yet he spent 18 months in Corinth. Shouldn’t he have moved a little more quickly and gotten to more places that hadn’t heard about Jesus Christ? Yet he didn’t.
But Paul understood what we sometimes forget in our missionary and evangelistic haste, and that is that evangelism is attached to discipleship and that evangelism and missions work is not about numbers or programs but about relationships. The goal is a new relationship with a God who is, in His essence, a relationship through a relationship with the Body of Christ. This relationship which we are to communicate is communicated through relationships: our relationship with God, our relationship with the Body of Christ, and our relationship with the people we wish to bring into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is why Paul spent 18 months in Corinth. Who did he spend the time with? This brings up another aspect of relationship ministry, evangelism, and discipleship: we have a better chance of bringing Jesus Christ to people to whom we are closer. At Corinth, with whom did Paul choose to stay? He stayed with Priscilla and Aquila because he was a tentmaker as they were. He already had something in common with them, and so he stayed with them. In time, they became pillars of the Corinthians church, and the Corinthian church even met in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19).
The truth is that Jesus Christ has always been spread most effectively through relationships, and the closer the relationship the more likely Jesus Christ will be communicated in it. In a large crusade, which is very impersonal (except for the relationships that existed before the crusade), Jesus Christ is only weakly communicated. I don’t mean that God doesn’t use such crusades or that the message given might not induce someone to have a greater relationship with Jesus Christ. But the relationship between the evangelist and many of the attendees is fairly weak, and so is the relationship with Jesus Christ that is established, which is something that can’t be communicated in a single moment of emotion.
When I acted as a counselor at a Luis Palau crusade in Tyler, Texas years ago, the crusade went on for 5 day. The papers said that 15,000 people came and that thousands devoted their lives to Christ. I saw something a little different. I saw the vast majority of the people in the Oil Palace singing the praise choruses which were sung for the first 15 minutes or more. Almost everyone was singing the praise choruses and even waving their hands, except some wise guy from the local Reformed Episcopal church who didn’t know them. That was my first clue that most of the people there were already Christians.
When Luis Palau took off his glasses, the cue for all of us counselors to come forward and act as a catalyst for people to come forward to give their lives to Christ, about 220 people came forward that night. I tried to play it cool and arrive in the middle, but by the time I arrived all the people who wanted a counselor had long ago been snatched up. I estimate that about 20 of those 220 were people who wanted to speak to a counselor. Out of those 20, I wonder how many had never before claimed to believe in Jesus.
They’ve done some interesting studies about how effective Mormons are in converting people. What do you think the batting percentage is for the two guys on bicycles in white shirts, black pants, and black ties is when they come to your door? They have a success rate of about 0.1%. I haven’t seen any research on this, but I think the real purpose of having Mormon teens serve a two-year missionary gig has a lot more to do about confirming the faith of the Mormon teens than it does with trying to convert us.
When Mormon guys hit 18, their names are entered into some kind of lottery system, as I understand it. One former student of mine drew South America, but another one had the misfortune of drawing Mongolia. Worse yet, on a 12-hour train ride while there, his appendix ruptured, and he was in great pain. But he continued on. What are the odds that guy will stay a Mormon, if he endured something like that for his faith?
If a Mormon suggests contact with someone, the odds that person will eventually become a Mormon improves to 7-8%. If the person contacted is willing to set up an appointment with some Mormon missionaries, the rate increases to 34%. And if contact with Mormon missionaries took place in the home of a Mormon relative or friend, the rate reaches its zenith at 50%.
But the real secret to the phenomenal Mormon growth rate is simply that they are having more children than we are, and they are keeping more of them in the Mormon faith. Where are the richest, most enduring relationships on earth? In the family. The family is the secret not only to discipleship but also to evangelism. In the early days, the Mormon faith spread almost exclusively through a network of several close families.
While we should reach out to everyone who God has made our neighbor, we have a greater responsibility to our own family, as well as a much greater influence on them.
It’s not surprising, then, that in the book of Acts one of the primary ways the Christian faith spread was through entire households, including children and even servants, presumably. When Cornelius believed, all his household was saved as well (11:14). When the Philippian jailer believed in Christ and was baptized, so did all of his household (16:31-34). And here in Corinth, when Crispus the ruler of synagogue believed, so did all of his household. Not only that, but being the ruler or father of the synagogue, many of those who believed in Corinth in verse 8 were probably due to Crispus’ conversion.
There was nothing automatic or easy about Paul’s evangelistic work. He and others not only preached the Word of God but spent a great deal of time and labor in teaching it with their lives and in their relationships. Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, and he went back to churches he had already visited. If we want to follow the early church in bringing Jesus Christ to people, then we must follow the leading of the Spirit whenever He encourages and provokes us to bring Jesus Christ to the people already in our lives.
A few, like Paul, are called to break new ground in foreign lands. But all of us are called to bring Jesus Christ into the lives of the people we know and love.
Finally, Paul’s pattern has application to your personal life as well. You won’t be sanctified in a moment of time. In Give Us This Day, I try to faithfully and forcefully make known the commands and demands of Christ on His disciples. But He is marvelously merciful. He knows you won’t get there in a day or even a year. You must come to Christ every day, in all ways possible, and you must not try to come to Him alone, without His Body, the Church.
I can believe it! Another amazing success story for the apostle Paul! Another day for each of us to come to Jesus Christ and be blessed!
Prayer: Father, I ask You to forgive me for the times when I have been in too much of a hurry, too lazy, too distracted, or too afraid to bring Your Son into people’s lives. I ask that by the encouragement of Your Spirit I may be emboldened to share my relationship with Jesus Christ with those You’ve put into my life. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
How intentional are you in sharing Jesus Christ every day in your own household (and with friends)? What are some things you could do to make your relationship with Him more manifest to those in your family?
Resolution: I resolve to find one specific way to communicate Jesus Christ to one person today.