by Randall Cofield
Saul of Tarsus, the inveterate persecutor of the early church, experienced radical conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus. Liberated by Lord Jesus from the binding strictures of Phariseeism, Saul of Tarsus would become Paul the Apostle, the most prolific and indefatigable missionary church-planter the world has ever witnessed. While church-planting has been the object of much study for the better part of two millennia, there remains an aspect of Paul’s ministry that has received far less attention. Acts and the Pauline epistles yield the portrait of a man not only committed to church planting, but a man passionately committed to the work of church revitalization.
Commissioned for an initial missionary thrust by the church at Antioch Syria, Paul
and Barnabas sailed to Cyprus proclaiming the word of God (Acts 13:4-12). From Cyprus they sailed to Southern Galatia. Paul and Barnabas trekked inland to Antioch Pisidia where they proceeded to the local synagogue and launched their gospel offensive. After winning a number of converts, witnessing the spread of the word of God throughout the region, and seeing the disciples filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit, Paul and Barnabas were driven from the district by Jewish opposition (Acts 13:13-52). From Antioch they journeyed to Iconium, then to Lystra (where Paul experienced a proper stoning), then to Derbe, enjoying successful church-planting in each location (Acts 14:1-22).
Having completed a rather extensive circuit of travel and missional labor, the terminal point of this first excursion at Derbe was only about 200 miles by land from their sending church at Antioch. Rather than returning by the shortest route, they reversed course and retraced their steps to all the cities they had visited in the region. This reversal of course increased the distance of their return from 200 miles to 600 miles! Why would this missionary duo take such a long return route and traverse three times the distance necessary to arrive at home? Luke gives us the answer in clear language in Acts 14:22b-23:
They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch (Pisidia), 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. (emphasis added)
Notice that the first city to which they returned was Lystra, the site of Paul’s stoning experience! Paul and Barnabas were so convinced of the necessity of encouraging, strengthening, reforming, and revitalizing these young churches that they were willing to risk being put to death and were willing to travel three times the necessary distance.
I. Howard Marshall, in commenting on Acts 14:21-23, calls attention to the two-phase nature of this first missionary tour:
So the mission moved into its second phase. Paul’s regular practice was to revisit the churches which he had founded, or at least keep in touch with them by means of his colleagues or correspondence. In the present case he and Barnabas revisited each of the churches, despite the knowledge that they were returning to cities which were hostile to them; it would presumably have been possible for them to travel on overland eastwards and to reach Antioch instead of going back the way they had come...Rather the missionaries were able to encourage the young believers (in the already-established churches) to continue in their belief and not fall away back into Judaism or paganism, and to give them realistic warnings based on experience, that the way to the kingdom of God is not an easy one.
Pauline missional practice clearly included not only church planting, but also the intentional follow-up necessary to ensure the ongoing spiritual health, revitalization, and advancement of the churches. Without Paul and Barnabas’ revitalization efforts, the local churches were in danger of falling away into heterodoxy and gospel neutralization.
The narrative of Acts 15:36—16:5 follows on the heels of the Jerusalem Council’s conclusion concerning the non-binding nature of circumcision in relation to Gentile believers. After what was likely an extended period of pastoral and evangelistic labor in Antioch, Paul appealed to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Paul’s speaks with a sense of urgency that the missionary partners embark upon a joint-oversight visit to every city where they had proclaimed the gospel and planted churches. This visit would serve the purpose of allowing Paul and Barnabas to carefully inspect and look after the well being of these fledgling churches. Paul’s appeal to his co-laborer reveals an intense, enduring concern already evidenced in their first missionary endeavor for the revitalization and renewal of these local churches.
Though disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark led to a parting of ways between Paul and Barnabas and the forming of the Paul and Silas partnership, the church at Antioch appears to sanction Paul’s desire for revitalization work among the churches. Paul and Silas were “. . . commended by the brothers to the grace of God” as they departed with revitalization work as the stated purpose of their mission (Acts 15:40). Paul was emphatically concerned about the spiritual health of the fledgling churches established in his first missionary excursion, and the sending church at Antioch endorsed this concern by means of their commendation.
Further, it should be noted here that the churches who were the object of Paul’s (and the church at Antioch’s) concern were not without leadership, for he and Barnabas had been careful to appoint elders within these churches prior to their departure (Acts 14:23). Paul and Barnabas undoubtedly vetted these elders before appointing them, aiming to buttress the health and vitality of the churches. Although these newly-established churches enjoyed duly-appointed leadership from within their own ranks, their need for apostolic oversight and encouragement clearly remained a priority for the missionaries and their sending church. Thus, we have here an identifiable and intentional effort by Paul and his sending church to examine and strengthen the health and vitality of churches in a proto-associational setting.
Paul and Silas thus proceeded on the second missional excursion through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches, and pressed onward through the churches of Southern Galatia. And God blessed their efforts with the daily increase of the churches (Acts 15:41— 16:5). Further, this pattern of church revitalization continued even in Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 18:23).
In conclusion, Paul instinctively recognized that an entropic principle was at work in the church from the very beginning. Church revitalization was an integral and prominent strategy in all three of his recorded missionary journeys. Without the constant work of reformation and revitalization, local churches will disintegrate into gospel lethargy and ineffectiveness. When this impulse for church revitalization is coupled with his constant agony for the well being of the early churches evidenced in his epistles (cf. 1 Cor 7:17; 14:12; 16:1; 2 Cor 8:18-23; 11:1-4; 11:28-29; Gal 1:6-10; Eph 3:14-20; Phi 1:27—2:4; Col 1:24-26, etc.), Paul’s stature as a church revitalizer is profoundly evident. Indeed, the case may be easily made that Paul was at least as much a church revitalizer as he was a church planter. Surely this is a pattern and practice worthy of our emulation.
Randall Cofield serves as the Church Revitalization Catalytic Consultant for the Louisville Regional Baptist Association, pastors English Baptist Church in Carrolton, Kentucky, and is Executive Director of Practical Shepherding, Inc. Randall holds an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is currently completing his Doctor of Educational Ministry in Church Revitalization. Randall is married to Cindy, his wife of 35 years, and they have three grown children and six grandchildren.
 Howard Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (IVP Numbered)) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 241.
 Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 661.