How many churches did the Apostle Paul plant? Certainly someone somewhere has done research on this. I’m sure it’s a lot. By all accounts, and however much guestimating is involved, I think most everyone would agree on this: Paul was successful. He was a winner. Sure, he took a whole lot of trouble for his work. It wasn’t all rainbows and cupcakes. We’ve got some pretty gruesome stories from his life. Even though he himself boasts of his own suffering in a few of his letters, there’s probably plenty he left out. In any case, his lists of suffering endured make the point well: Ministry is hard work.
Now, that’s at least our interpretation of Paul’s life. That’s how we read his story, from the outside, and with our 21st century Western glasses. We like this narrative: “Suffering? Well, OK. I suppose it’s worth it if you’ve got something to show for it in the end. Like a network of churches, led by a bunch of leaders who look up to you like a spiritual father.” And Paul has the stats.
But what if you take away the high score? What if, in the end, all Paul had was a long list of ways he suffered trying to evangelize and start churches? What if all he ended up with was a bunch of scars and failed 2-year launch plans?
Well, we probably wouldn’t like that story too much. He probably wouldn’t get a book deal (especially not the Bible…come on, now!). He wouldn’t get many invitations to speak at our conferences. No one would interview him for their blog or podcast. No one would aspire to emulate and “programatize” (and certainly not to monetize) his failed strategies. If anything, he’d probably just make a great meme as the punchline of the opening joke of some Winner’s Conference talk.
But I suspect that that is the story Paul saw himself as being the protagonist of: the one in which he’s the loser antihero. The loser of losers. Someone who measured success by an altogether different set of metrics. After all, we read things like this from his own letters:
For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the Cross of our Master, Jesus Christ. Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate. Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do—submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God—his chosen people. Peace and mercy on them!(Galatians 6:14-16, The Message)
Why do we not know exactly how many churches Paul planted? Because he probably never told anyone. He had more important things to boast about.
This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.