Some have said that Paul only started 14 churches in his lifetime. If so that is a remarkable thing, but I tend to think there are more than 14.
I would assume that there are some churches started that were not necessarily mentioned as churches in the New Testament. For instance there is no mention of a church started in Athens, but there are households that began to follow Christ there, so we can assume that a church was born there. In Philippi there were two households that surrendered to the gospel (Lydia's and the Jailer's), so there could be two organic churches there. Some say that there is just one church in Philippi because Paul wrote a letter to them, but it is actually to the saints in Christ who are in Philippi. He wrote a letter to the churches of Galatia, how many of them is not mentioned. So numbering the churches Paul started is a challenge.
While he only started the Ephesian church in Asia, this one in turn started so many others that every person who lived in Asia heard the message of the Gospel. Does that count as only one church? How many churches were started in Cyprus on the first missionary journey? We know it is more than one. How many were left in Crete?
There are places we have no mention of a church but we know he was there preaching such as Illyricum (Rom. 15:9). Did Paul start churches while in Damascus? Well someone already did because he was on his way there to arrest them, so probably not. But when he went to Arabia he may have started churches. Some assume he was just on retreat listening to the Lord, but he was chased out by the officials, so we can assume he did some preaching (meditating on a rock is not usually that threatening to people).
Did he start churches while he was in Tarsus? Acts does mention churches in Syria (Acts 15:40-41) could it be that some of these started before he was sent from Antioch? Did Paul go to Spain? If so then perhaps he started churches there as well, but we do not know. He did go to Crete and started some churches and left Titus there to further establish the work.
He probably started close to 20 churches himself, with many more born out of those by his apprentice leaders. In Asia alone the NT mentions Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colossae, and Hieropolis. Ephesus was really a city full of churches meeting in homes and from that work all the others were started. So while starting upwards of 20 churches in one's life is impressive, what is far more impressive is how many daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters were birthed from those. When Paul left earth in the end of his life he not only left some church plants, he left the DNA of a movement that would eventually spread to the extent that even the Roman Empire itself would surrender to Christianity (for better or worse). History was changed in dramatic fashion through this one man's obedience.
I am discovering that simple obedience is a powerful thing in one's life. More powerful than spiritual gifts or personalities. Certainly more powerful than any program or strategy. In a day where we Christians are already educated beyond obedience, I find that what we need is not more education but simple obedience to what we already know. Follow Jesus today. Take one step at a time and leave the results and the destination up to the one you are following.
Every one reading this article can also obey the same God as Paul and leave behind a lasting and vital work for the Lord of the harvest. Paul said, "Follow me as I follow Christ."
©2011 Neil Cole
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