Prison - would we be bold enough?

Prison – would we be bold enough?

Paul’s ministry in Europe certainly got off to a turbulent start.  In Philippi only an earthquake got him and his friends out of prison after being beaten, and then in Thessalonica the nascent church rushed them hurriedly out of the city to avoid more disturbance.   Yet in the brief time they were in those two cities they established churches that would thrive and be instrumental in partnering with them in the further spread of the gospel.  Many mission workers would love to see such a response, even if they’d rather avoid the challenges it brought with it!

So how did they do it?  What are the secrets of such a dynamic ministry?  Paul (together with his ministry partners Silvanus and Timothy) explained his approach only a few months later in his first letter back to the church in Thessalonica, in a missiological treatise we often overlook.  Let’s examine what he writes in 1 Thessalonians 2.

They were bold (v2) – they had already been mistreated in Philippi and were facing opposition from the synagogue but they spoke out anyway.  How often do we take that opportunity, or are our agencies teaching us to be risk-averse, looking for longevity of service and preserving their good name in the country.  Speaking out too loudly can shut down a whole field for many agencies – but what would Paul have done in those circumstances?

They were straightforward (vv4-5) – they didn’t come to flatter but spoke plainly.  Often straight-talking can offend, particularly in more polite cultures than ours where circumlocution is advisable.  But sometimes people need to be challenged over their lifestyles and guilt.

They were selfless (vv5, 9) – they weren’t greedy.  They worked for their keep so as not to be a burden and didn’t seek glory for themselves.  They remembered that they, like Jesus, had come to serve, not be served (Matthew 20:28).

They were parental (vv7, 11) – Paul invokes the imagery both of a mother and a father to demonstrate his love and concern for the church.  Sacrificial yet authoritive, challenging and committed, mission is never merely transactional.  It has to be primarily relational.

They were hardworking (V9) – In a world where many itinerant preachers were only there to make money, they made a point of embodying the gospel as they earned their living, and earned respect in the process.

They were unimpeachable (10) – their impeccable behaviour spoke for itself.  They could not, as other churches later on did, accuse Paul of not caring, or misusing authority.  They had first hand experience of the highest standards of service.

The outcome of Paul’s compassion and integrity was that the Thessalonians accepted their message as the word of God, not merely human wisdom.  Although there were subsequent theological and ethical issues in the church, it did not produce for Paul challenges on the scale of, say, the church in Corinth.  We do not know how long he was there because the speed of Luke’s narrative masks the timescale, but it was possible only a few weeks – at most months – in which he laid such a solid foundation.  So his strategy was clearly sound.  What do these characteristics listed above look like in the culture we are working in?  How do we apply and contextualise them in the world we live in?  Is it really possible that by following Paul’s example we too can see dramatic results?