Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Persecutor Becomes a Proclaimer

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?
A Persecutor Becomes a Proclaimer

One of the critical milestones in the first century of Christian mission was the “conversion” (more accurately, the call) of Saul of Tarsus to become a follower and proclaimer of Jesus Christ.

The back-story may be familiar to you.   Saul first shows up in Acts, chapter 7, as a witness to the martyrdom of Stephen the deacon.  The writer of Acts observes that “Saul approved of their killing him,” before going on to describe the severe persecution of Christians that followed Stephen’s death.  “But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8.3).

In chapter 9 of Acts, however, the tables are turned on Saul.   En route to the Syrian city of Damascus, a heavenly light blinds Saul, and a voice confronts him:  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).   The voice belongs to Jesus, who takes the persecution of his followers quite personally!

You can read the entire 9th chapter of Acts to learn how Saul the Persecutor became Saul the Proclaimer of Jesus Christ.   The story was so crucial in the life of the early church that the Book of Acts reiterates it two more times (in chapters 22 and 26), and Saul himself writes about it in the first chapter of Galatians. 

Missionary to the Mediterranean “World”

We, of course, know Saul the Pharisee better by his Greek name, Paul.   We think of Paul as a writer of epistles that make up much of our New Testament.  We remember him as a founder and pastor of early Christian congregations.   All of this activity of Paul, though, reflected his role as a missionary in the ancient world.

As a youngster I learned about the three “missionary journeys” of Paul, throughout the world as it was known at the time (largely the “world” around the Mediterranean Sea, see the map above).   The first journey is narrated in Acts 13-14, and it begins and ends in the city of Antioch which was apparently the “home base” for Paul’s missionary work.  The second journey plays out in Acts 15:40 through 18:22.   The third journey is described in Acts 18:23 through Acts 21:14, before Paul journeys to Jerusalem where he was arrested and eventually taken to Rome where he was martyred under the cruel emperor Nero in the mid-60s, A.D.

The picture I developed of Paul the missionary in my Sunday School days was rather simple, even simplistic.   I envisioned Paul as

·        An intrepid traveler who braved hazards and opposition, largely on his own;

·        A compelling speaker who won over non-believing Gentiles simply through the pure power of God’s Word; and

·        A highly successful spreader-of-Christianity who moved from triumph to triumph as he established and supported fledgling congregations around the Mediterranean Sea.

Although there is truth in each of these early impressions of St Paul, the Sunday School “picture” I had of him was incomplete.

This fact was brought home to me recently as I read a new book, The Triumph of Christianity:  How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion by Rodney Stark (HarperOne, 2011).   Stark, who grew up as a Lutheran in Jamestown, ND,  is a historian who teaches at Baylor University in Texas.  What makes Stark’s book so intriguing is his use of the techniques and principles of a social historian—someone who looks at sociological “facts on the ground” such as recent archaeological discoveries, new demographic information about the ancient world, and an awareness of how social interactions influenced the rise of Christianity.

A More Nuanced View of Missionary Paul

Stark questions the impression folks have of Paul as an intrepid, solitary traveler on his missionary journeys.   Stark writes:  “In the beginning Paul and Barnabas may have just walked into a town with several apprentices in tow and started preaching in the synagogue.  If so, Paul soon learned better and refused to go anywhere without careful prior arrangements and some commitments of support.  Typically, he began a visit to a new community by holding ‘privately organized meetings under the patronage of eminent persons…who provided him with…an audience composed of their dependents.’  Paul did not travel alone….(but) was often accompanied by a retinue of as many as forty followers, sufficient to constitute an initial ‘congregation,’ which made it possible to hold credible worship services and to welcome and form bonds with newcomers.”  (pp. 61-62)

Stark also sketches a more complex picture of how conversions actually happened in Paul’s missionary work.  Paul preached Christ crucified, of course, though even he seems to have had doubts about his own ability as a proclaimer (see I Cor. 2:1)—doubts shared by some of his critics!   But Stark suggests that conversion was more complicated than simply hearing the Word and believing it.  He writes:  “For generations it was assumed that religious conversions were the result of doctrinal appeal—that people embraced a new faith because they found its teaching particularly appealing….Surprisingly, when sociologists took the trouble to actually go out and watch conversions take place, they discovered that doctrines are of very secondary importance in the initial decision to convert….Conversion is primarily about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering attractive doctrines.  Put more formally:  people tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes.”  (pp. 62-63, emphasis in the original) 

In this regard, Stark nuances the picture we have of “Paul the apostle to the Gentiles.”   While it is true that Paul’s missionary work did contribute to Christianity moving beyond the confines of Judaism, the means whereby Paul seems to have done this involved his deep connections with Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews and Gentile “god-fearers” who were already interested in and obedient to the ways of Judaism.   (pp. 69-70)

Finally, the picture we have of Paul moving from “triumph to triumph” as a missionary in the Mediterranean world is belied by the ways even the Book of Acts (see Acts 14:8-20 and Acts 17:16-33) portray the mixed results of his missionary preaching.   Again, Stark writes:  “Given how conversion actually occurs, it follows that Paul’s visits were more like evangelistic campaigns, such as a Billy Graham crusade, than they were like a visit to a community by a missionary.  Graham did not found churches, nor did he often bring the irreligious into faith.  What he did was to greatly energize the participating local churches by intensifying the commitment of their members, which often led them to recruit new members.  So it was with Paul’s visits.  When he spoke to the unconvinced as in Athens and Lystra, the results were meager, at best.  But when he spoke mostly to the converted or to converts-in-process, as he usually did, he aroused them to far greater depths of commitment and comprehension.”  (p. 64)

Implications for the 21st Century Missionary Church

So what might we learn from Rodney Stark’s provocative insights on the missionary work of St Paul?  How might this more nuanced “picture” of the Apostle Paul inform our participation in God’s mission?  Let me share three observations on how 21st century mission outreach is happening:

1.      Lutherans have long valued social networking (even if we haven’t always used the term) as a means whereby God’s Word engages the lives of non-Christians.   For example, members of Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham (and other neighboring ELCA congregations) have been showing up at worship services of our new Waters of Grace Lutheran Church in the Frazee-Vergas area to help “prime the pump” in the outreach work of Pastors Phil Johnson and David Beety.

2.      In our Companion Synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church, social networking happens through the “Bible Women” ministry.   “Bible Women” of the AELC befriend and walk with Hindu women who are considering the claims of Christianity, in transition toward becoming disciples of the Lord Jesus.   The Word of God is powerful, not only in its message but also in the means of social interaction whereby living, breathing human beings walk with one another during the daunting process of conversion.

3.      Lutherans have a natural affinity for “relational evangelism.”  The message of Jesus Christ has its best shot at winning new followers as this message is embodied in the daily lives of ordinary Christians engaging with their family, co-workers, neighbors and friends.    We understand how doctrine plays a critical role in embracing the way of Christ.   In this regard Rodney Stark’s comments on the role of doctrine make sense to Lutheran ears:  “To say that doctrines play a quite secondary role in conversion is not to suggest that doctrines remain secondary.  Once immersed in a religious group, people are instructed as to the significant implications of the doctrines, and most converts soon become very strongly attached to the doctrines—as are their friends.” (p. 64)

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion: 
1.      How do the insights of Rodney Stark strike you?   What is helpful?   What is challenging?
2.      In what ways do you see congregations using “social networking” to engage with persons who are exploring Christian faith and life?
3.      How is it helpful to realize that even the Apostle Paul didn’t always “succeed” in bringing others to Jesus Christ?
4.      How does your congregation preach and teach Christian doctrine for the sake of deepening persons’ faith-commitments?

This is the tenth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

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