Kind of, but not really. That’s the conclusion Eckhard Schnabel reaches in the book I mentioned yesterday, Paul the Missionary.

On the one hand, Schnabel agrees that “Paul certainly focused on cities rather than on villages” (282). Paul wanted to reach people wherever they lived and he wanted to reach as many as possible. And that meant going to the city. In particular, because he often started with Jews in a new region (and often started in the synagogue), Paul, by necessity, went to cities. That’s where the Jews were outside of Judea. When you read through Acts you can see that Paul’s missionary ministry focused on cities (286).

And yet, according to Schnabel, “it is a significant overstatement to say that Paul’s passion was the planting of churches in metropolitan centers or in the ‘strategic cities’ of the Roman Empire” (281).

Paul’s missionary work in Cilicia may have focused on Tarsus, but this is not certain. His ministry in Antioch was certainly a “metropolitan mission.” When he moved to Cyprus, he did not go straight to Paphos, the capital of the province, but to cities on the eastern and southern coast of the island. When he reached Asia Minor, he bypassed the large cities in the province of Pamphylia to evangelize in the relatively small towns in southern Galatia, without attempting to reach Ancyra, the capital of the province of Galatia in the north. When he reached the province of Macedonia, he did not go straight to Thessalonica, the provincial capital, which could be reached by ship, but to Philippi. When he had to leave Thessalonica, he did not go east on the Via Egnatia to reach larger cities further west, nor did he travel straight to Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaia, but to Athens, a city with great history and reputation but with a more humble present role. (281-82)

Schnabel questions the notion that Paul focused on strategic metropolitan cities so that the gospel would naturally flow from there to other cities.

(1) Most Greek cities were organized as an independent polis governing their own affairs. The “radiation” effect from one city to the next would have been limited by this independence, not to mention the natural barriers (mountains, rivers, seas) that often delimited cities.

(2) Greek cities competed with each other for preeminence, thus limiting the instinct to copy religious developments in other cities.

(3) Greek cities did not normally share a common sense of community, except within each individual city. There was little provincial, regional, ethnic, or Empire wide identity.

(4) The characteristics of urban life in the Roman world made the reception of the gospel difficult. People were in the cities to seek status, not to be thought weak and foolish by accepting a scandalous gospel about a Jewish criminal. And although communication flowed better in the city, so did state-sponsored supervision. Faith did not come easily in the city and it was not expected that the gospel would automatically radiate around the region once a mission work had infiltrated a particular location.

None of this means that focusing on cities is a bad strategy for today’s church. Undoubtedly, cities in our world are less independent that Greek city-states. What happens in New York very often doesn’t stay in New York. There is nothing in Paul’s methodology to point us away from cities. As was stated earlier, he ministered mostly in cities. They were hard places for the gospel then and hard places now. They needed good churches then; they need good churches now.

The point of this post–and Schnabel’s point–is not to overstate Paul’s strategy. For the most part he didn’t have one. He went where people were, where people needed to hear the gospel, and where he had opportunity to share the gospel. That led him to cities, but also smaller towns and villages too.

The geographical scope of Paul’s missionary work was not controlled by a “grand strategy” that helped him decide in which cities to begin a new missionary initiative. The evidence indicates that Paul moved to geographically adjacent areas that were open for missionary work. This is true for provinces, regions and cities. (287)

So where should we go to plant churches? The short answer is: everywhere. But beyond that we should simply look at where a church is needed and where we have an opportunity to go. This will lead God’s people to many big, important cities. And to many other smaller “less important” towns and regions God cares about just as much.

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5 thoughts on “Did the Apostle Paul Target Strategic Cities in His Mission Work?”

  1. Todd says:

    Thanks for this, Kevin! Good, careful writing, as usual. Curious if Schnabel had any thoughts on places like Athens, where it almost seems as if there were some converts, but no real intention to follow up there like Paul did in most other places.

  2. Tim Keller says:

    Dear Kevin:

    Hi! Since many readers of this post and will think of Redeemer’s emphasis on church planting in cities, I’d like to add that I’m essentially in agreement with your conclusion:

    “None of this means that focusing on cities is a bad strategy for today’s church. Undoubtedly, cities in our world are less independent that Greek city-states. What happens in New York very often doesn’t stay in New York. There is nothing in Paul’s methodology to point us away from cities. As was stated earlier, he ministered mostly in cities. They were hard places for the gospel then and hard places now. They needed good churches then; they need good churches now…[Yet] He went where people were, where people needed to hear the gospel, and where he had opportunity to share the gospel. That led him to cities, but also smaller towns and villages too.”

    I agree that, first, Paul privileged cities in his mission but he wasn’t exclusive, since you have to preach where God opens a door for you. Also, second, I agree that today’s cities are even more important to reach than ancient cities were in Paul’s time, since the world’s population is much more concentrated in cities today and because cities today are indeed more connected than they were then and gospel ministry flows outward from them more naturally now.

    What’s helpful about this post is that some people can (and do) hear the clarion call to reach cities as a denigration of non-urban areas. Some embrace the call simplistically or reject it completely for that reason. In your reading of Schnabel you avoid the extremes. Thanks.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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