One of my favourite stories in the development of the embryonic missional church planting movement recorded in the New Testament is Paul’s trip to Troas with a few of his companions. Paul, a seasoned campaigner of previous pioneering missional excursions, heads out again, probably to Ephesus, with his tried and tested strategy.
First, get a small team, second, head to the urban population centres, third pack enough chocolate for the journey (ok, thats me!), and pray, travel, rest, discern and prepare. These methods (minus the Dairy Milk) have worked well to date (see previous chapters in Acts) with the gospel shared, converts won, and churches formed. However, in Acts 16 v 6-10 we have a rather strange and unsettling story that has made it into the Luke-Acts narrative and therefore into Bibles and churches across the globe for many centuries. I wonder if Paul tried to edit it, or offer a different cover story for this tabloid headliner? But Luke uses it as one of his key stories to show that the mission of God is rooted in the work of the missionary Spirit and that God Himself is the innovator and architect of all missionary enterprise. The story itself has much to teach us about discernment in mission, which as Cornelius J. P. Niemandt rightly says, “is the very first act of mission.” (Trends in Missional Ecclesiology, 6.) Similarly, Van Gelder writes, “The church is a creation of the Spirit that participates in God’s mission. It can only do so if the church is led by the Spirit − therefore the first act in mission is to discern the Spirit so as to understand how God is at work in the church and how God is leading the church in mission and ministry towards his preferred future.” (Ministry of the Missional Church, 107). Kim and Anderson are surely right to note that, “Discerning foundations for mission requires listening to the voice of God amidst the clamour for life and justice.”(Edinburgh 2010, 126). This crazy pioneering church planting story is short but offers helpful principles for discerning the mission of God both then and now.
Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia (Acts 16 v 6-10)
6 Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
I would love to have been on that journey eavesdropping on the conversation between Paul and his companions as they travelled together. As they head to Ephesus along the trade route near the region of Phrygia and Galatia, at some point they get an unexpected blockage on the way that prevents them from preaching the gospel in the province of Asia. This is made all the more surprising by Luke’s insertion that the “No” to preaching the gospel in one of the most populous cities in the Roman world came through the voice of the Spirit! I mean, since when did the Holy Spirit prevent the preaching of the gospel? Isn’t it the role of the Spirit to prepare the way for the coming of the gospel? I wonder if Paul and the others held all night prayer meetings rebuking the evil one for putting a stumbling block in the way, or praying against the powers and principalities that were opposing the gospel? At what point, and how did they come to realise this was in fact the voice of the Spirit? It is embarrassing isn’t it when we pray against the evil one for blocking the way only to find it it was the Holy One!
Undaunted, with Christine Caine’s great book in their backpack, they dust themselves down and decide to continue along the trade route to the next region having been surprised by this first interruption to their plans and tested strategy. They come to the border of Mysia, and try to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. This second interruption is similar to the first and raises similar questions and issues. What must they have been thinking? What must they have said to one another? As the seasoned campaigner and pioneer team leader, Paul must have surely been scratching his head from time to time wondering what on earth, or in heaven, is going on! They have travelled many miles, perhaps for months, and there is only one more place to head to, a place many of us like to head to after a long and weary season of life…the seaside. Licking their wounds, they decide to cash in their time share, head to Troas (the Bondai Beach of the Near East) and arrive to play frisbee, build sandcastles, buy candyfloss and take a well earned rest. Ok, I confess I have embellished Luke’s narrative with a little Irish stroy telling license, but they have literally reached the end of the road. There is no real way back and really no way forward, for the Aegean Sea lies before them. They seem stuck!
However, during that very night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” I don’t know about you but Paul seemed to be fairly clear on two previous attempts where they should be headed, and if it was me as one of his companions I think I would need a fair bit of convincing that we weren’t headed for another misadventure! But Luke records, “after the vision we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” I wonder how they discerned the ‘Yes’ this time but off they head across the Aegean on another lengthy journey. And because they went the Christian Gospel arrived on the shores of Europe for the first time and mission heads westwards to Rome, and the rest as they say is history! I have pondered on this story many times as a pioneer and planter, and often feel I’ve travelled seemingly down the missional cul de sac, confused, weary and dispirited more times than I care to recount. But thankfully this tale has taught me some helpful principles about discernment that have helped me along the way.
First, discernment is more of an art than a science.
Second, having and using a tried and tested strategy is not unspiritual, and better than having none!
Third, there is no guarantee that copying or following a previously successful strategy will work as well in a new or different context or situation.
Fourth, we don’t always know the route to take at the beginning of a journey, but discernment often comes as we set out on the way.
Fifth, the missionary Spirit often interrupts our plans and takes us on crazy journeys to bring us to the place He wants us to be and at the right time.
Sixth, God opens and closes doors. His “no” and “yes” are often discerned by reflecting upon circumstances facing us on the ground.
Seventh, discernment is resourced and supported by the gifts of the Spirit, particularly the prophetic.
Eighth, discernment works best when it is undertaken by a group and especially among travelling companions.
Ninth, discernment is often worked out in community through a process of listening, reasoning, discussing and experimenting.
Tenth, discernment must be accompanied by obedience and faith in moving ahead despite setbacks and disappointments. Be encouraged, Land Ahoy is always across the horizon of the sea.
Anyone for frisbee?