Much missionary literature speaks at length of the need for 'contextualization'; the need to take Christianity and adapt it for a different culture. Very often it is presumed that the correct form of Christianity and missionary engagement is that modeled by the Western Church; our job is thus to take what we have and find a way to export it that is culturally acceptable. This is a difficult task. Our target cultures are generally in Asia, Africa or Southern America; areas which are much poorer than the West and which have a very different set of values.
The Western missionary approach is itself a derivative. The Biblical blueprint for missions is laid out in the book of Acts; it commences in Jerusalem and then spreads through Asia Minor and into southern Europe. This is a region which even today is poorer, and more primitive than the West. Certainly as the book of Acts narrates a period in the first century AD the culture is very different from our own; this fact is often used to justify major departures from the Biblical pattern that exist in the one we execute today.
The main thesis of this paper is that this 'double contextualization' from a Biblical time and place to the West and then out to the mission field is a mistake. The shortest path from Jerusalem to Iraq does not include New York; I suggest this is as true culturally as it is geographically.
Of course, in order to contextualize and then execute a Biblical pattern one first needs to understand what it is. I suggest this is complicated by three different factors:
Whilst acknowledging these problems that aim of this paper is to make the pattern of New Testament mission available with as little of this confusion as possible. This will be done by:
I believe that the conception of the missionary movement is often overshadowed by birth of the Church. In particular I think that one of the foundational planks of outreach activity is lost in the arguments surrounding the charismatic movement.
Acts 2 describes the day of Pentecost and took place around 33AD. The first ten verses describe the coming of the Spirit and an incredible outpouring of tongues. Some dismissed this as drunkenness but the tongues were not some ecstatic gibbering. The Spirit had actually enabled Galilaean Jews to tell forth the wonderful works of God in more than a dozen different languages. Peter than stood and delivered an evangelistic address which resulted in three thousand being saved and baptized.
Whilst it may be a matter of circumstance it is interesting to view this account as a mission might. Firstly we note that the targeted location was both cosmopolitan but also religious. Acts 2:5 tells us that there were men there from every nation and that they were devout. Acts 2:10 suggests that many may already have been Jewish or Jewish proselytes.
I find the language issue particularly fascinating. As residents of Jerusalem and probable Jewish proselytes these men could almost certainly speak Greek, a little Latin and many would have been used to hearing the scripture read in Hebrew or Aramaic. In fact whilst it is possible that the tongues continued all day and that Peter's sermon was interpreted the plain reading of Acts 2:14 would suggest that the primary evangelistic address was delivered in one language. Yet each of these men was reached out to in their native tongue.
The consequence of this outreach is also noteworthy. Essentially from day one a church was formed that had teaching, fellowship, sacraments and prayer. Further, by the end of just the second chapter God is viewing evangelism as a church building exercise rather than as unattached outreach.
The persecution and scattering of the church detailed in Acts 8:1 is generally believed to have occurred in 36AD; thus the events of Acts 2-7 cover a period of three to four years. It is a time characterized by many signs and wonders executed by the apostles; we even see an instance where church discipline results in the death of church members. Yet behind the spotlight of the attested apostles the congregation manages to grow spiritually and numerically to the point where it was able to flee Jerusalem and leave the apostles behind. The Word also makes clear that the scattered were not just a pitiful group powerless away from base; they became the mechanism through which the gospel continued to spread.
It is possible that some of the robustness of the congregation stems from the decision taken in Acts 6. This started as an administrative problem; the daily ministration was not being handled evenly. Rather than stepping in to solve the problem the apostles made a firm and conscious decision to step out. In the reading of Acts 6:1-4 note there are three parties involved. Firstly are the apostles, secondly the deacons and thirdly the 'brethren' that the apostles address and who appointed the deacons. Now the apostles set the criteria for the deacons but then the selection of the men is handled by the church. The apostles then focused upon prayer and teaching. The result was a massive increase in the Word of God, an explosion of converts and an uptake of the gospel amongst the priests.
Acts Chapter 8 details the work of Philip which appears to have occurred in two distinct phases. Firstly he settles in Samaria and preaches to those that would hear him; he caused a stir and many were baptized although they did not receive the Holy Spirit. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard of this they sent Peter and John to lay hands upon people and also to preach the Word of the Lord. Whilst returning to Jerusalem the narrative accounts that they preached in many villages of the Samaritans.
It appears that whatever Peter and John did the effect on Phillip was as dramatic as the effect upon the Samaritans. Phillip is first supernaturally transported for his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch and then he becomes a peripatetic preacher as he found his way towards Caesarea.
We don't know exactly how long the account in Acts 8 covers but we do know it slots in between the persecution of 36AD and the 'rest' that descended upon the church in 39AD. Thus it took three years at the very most. So, in modern terminology, an offshoot of the mother church was able to plant itself and grow strong enough for all of the leadership to exit inside three years. This was despite the fact that it was planted in a place with a strong satanic footprint.
The conversion of Saul was entirely supernatural and thus I have chosen to exclude it from a general account of the missionary movement. There are, however, some points of the account which I consider interesting. Firstly in Acts 9:20 we see that Paul preached the crucified Christ within days of his conversion. Clearly Paul had special tuition; still we have never been given indication that his spiritual growth was anything beyond what other saved men could obtain.
Acts 9:23 is one of those little verses that probably absorbs the bulk of the three years between Acts 8:1 and Acts 9:31. We see him disputing in Damascus to the point where the locals wanted to kill him. His response was to flee to Jerusalem and repeat the cycle; this time disputing with the Greeks until they wanted to kill him too. He fled to Caesarea and then Tarsus, his home town.
Acts 9:31 gives us an important time marker and also a scene change. Whilst some interpret the rest falling upon the church as being due to the conversion of Paul this is unlikely as Paul was probably preaching for most of the three years from 36AD to 39AD. More likely, as Adam Clarke and others suggest, it was due to the attempt by Caligula to erect his effigy in the temple in Jerusalem. This so incensed the Jews that they focused their efforts upon fighting that rather than the Christians.
Whatever the cause of the cessation of hostilities the effect is clear. Peter went throughout all the regions where churches were believed to exist. He healed and strengthened and ended up residing in Joppa for many days as the church flourished. While there he had his encounter with Cornelius which again is too supernatural to be considered from a missionary perspective. However it had a major consequence outlined in Acts 11 of legitimizing the spread of the Gospel to gentiles as well as Jews.
Acts 11:19-20 gives us a breathtaking introduction to the formation of arguably the second most important church is the first century BC: Antioch. It is breathtaking because it illustrates three different things:
I have included the two verses in question for completeness:
Act 11:19 - Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
If we are not careful our natural tendencies to ignore lists of place names can lose what these verses are saying. Because of the persecution of Stephen (AD36) some Jews from Jerusalem were scattered to Cyprus and Antioch and they witnessed to Jews only. But some of the men from Cyprus continued on to Antioch where they spoke to the Greeks with terrific success.
We therefore see that for a period of time, possibly two or three years, Antioch was home to two different missions. A mission started by Jews from Jerusalem which witnessed to the Jews and another started by a younger (spiritually) group of converts that was witnessing to the Greeks. At least at the start of this second work it would have been considered extremely un-orthodox and possibly even heretic. This effect was probably exacerbated by its success and the relatively weak spiritual pedigree of the workers.
The church in Jerusalem acted swiftly and with brilliance. With an impressive array of heavy hitters to chose from they instead chose Barnabas; a man that had been there from the earliest days but who seemed to prefer to work quietly and with a ministry of reconciliation. He travelled to Antioch saw that the work was of God and was filled with joy and encouraged them to keep going.
I suspect that Barnabas was a little shrewder than his gracious heart and mild demeanor may have suggested. The spirit notes that he then travelled to Paul in Tarsus, whom he already knew, and brought him back to Antioch to teach for an entire year. I believe that Barnabas saw that enthusiasm and genuine conviction had produced a church of genuine converts but it was a church with neither Jewish nor Christian teaching nor experience. It therefore needed teaching and he procured it for them.
By the close of Acts 11 we are in the year 44AD and we see a profound shift has occurred. When God had a major prophetic message to announce he sent the prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch and the church at Antioch then sent relief back to Jerusalem. Acts 12 then narrates the persecution of the church under Herod culminating in his death and the growth of the Word of God. It is telling however that it ends with the statement that when their ministry was complete they returned from Jerusalem to Antioch with John Mark. In less than five years from its illicit conception by new converts the church at Antioch had become the base of operations for World Christian Outreach.
By modern standards Paul's first missionary journey would count as a short term engagement. The journey of about 1100 miles took between two and three years and included two stays that the Bible describes as lengthy. At least seven cities were stayed in long enough to merit mention and six of them were visited twice; once on the way there and once on the way back. Thus if we assume each 'lengthy' stay was six months and three months was spent on the rigors of travelling we see that the average stay in a city was from four to six weeks. Based upon this analysis we see that the accounts given in Acts 13-14 may be rather less condensed that we might otherwise assume and we should keep that in mind as we consider what happened.
The first thing to note, as I have done elsewhere, is that the group separated for the missionary journey constituted 40% of the oversight of the church in Antioch. They were called by the Spirit and commended by the church.
The route taken by the missionaries is extremely interesting. Antioch was ideally situated to reach almost any part of Asia Minor by land. Paul could have travelled to Derbe, Lystra and Pisidian Antioch by travelling down a well maintained road that would even have taken him through his hometown of Tarsus. Instead he heads for the coast and a relatively dangerous sea-passage to Cyprus which he would cross on land before heading up to Perga.
This circuitous route is even stranger when you consider that we know there was an active church in Cyprus. It was from Cyprus that the church of Syrian Antioch had originally been founded! It is tempting to think that as the evangelization of Cyprus had been exclusively Jewish and that Paul was on a mission to evangelize the Gentiles. However the Word makes clear that in Cyprus Paul preached exclusively in the synagogues. I think therefore we have to accept that Cyprus had been strong enough to dispatch missionaries but the witness had weakened to the point where the senders needed to be sent to in order to bolster their own growth.
The Biblical narrative of the work at Pisidian Antioch reads as if it might only have taken two to three weeks and I suggest, based upon the opening analysis of this section, that that timeframe may be correct. They arrived in town and on the first Sabbath went to the synagogue. Upon being asked for a message Paul delivered an address that covered the entire Gospel. This seems to have divided the group into those that wanted to hear more next week and those that followed Paul down the high-road because they wanted to hear more now. The following week the synagogue was packed with people wanting to hear Paul. This riled the Rabbis who were jealous. Paul tells them that if they do not want to be saved that is their problem; he will speak to those that do.
The Bible then records that many believed to eternal life and the Good News began to spread throughout the region. This caused opposition to arise and therefore Paul and Barnabas left to go to Iconium.
One might be tempted to wonder what would happen to a three week old church that is deserted by its missionaries in the middle of a persecution. The Word of God tells us in Acts 14:21-23. Within about 18 months Paul was back and found the church still there and that the Spirit had raised up men capable of being elders. Paul reminded them that persecution would follow but then entrusted their care to the Lord.
Iconium then followed the same pattern. Paul preached in the synagogues; some believed others did not. Those that did not believe started to cause trouble for the believers. In this case, however, the response of the apostles was to stay. So why did contention cause departure in Antioch but persistence in Iconium? The question is even more puzzling as Acts 14:5-6 proceeds to state then when the dispute became life threatening the Apostles did flee.
I suggest that the distinction is that Paul considered the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit to be sufficient to preserve new believers through physical turmoil. There is, after all, very little that is confusing about people throwing stones at you. But he did not consider it appropriate to leave new believers with questionable doctrine. Reading Acts 14:2 carefully suggests that the initial dispute was not a physical one but one of 'mind-share' between the Jewish and Jewish/Christian converts in front of the largely Gentile crowd. Paul was not willing to have the Gospel muddied. Neither was the Spirit; Acts 14:3 makes clear that apostles were granted the ability to perform miracles to prove out the truth.
The next city, Lystra, also provides an interesting insight into the question of how opposition should lead to missionary withdrawal. Having fled Iconium, following stoning, Paul again preaches fearlessly until a mob incited by some individuals from Iconium again stone Paul; leaving him for dead. The disciples gathered around Paul who rose to his feet and returned to the city only to depart the next day. By returning into the city Paul was clearly showing that he had no fear; or at least he trusted God to overcome his fears. However by leaving he also showed that he was more than willing to move on if the inhabitants really did not want to know the gospel.
After Lystra Paul moved on to Derbe. Here he appears to have worked without opposition, making many disciples. We do not know exactly how long he was there but a figure of around six months appears reasonable given the two year period of the whole first missionary journey.
At the end of this period Paul returned to his home church of Antioch passing through each of the new churches he had formed. It must be stressed that this was not co-incidental. Inspection of a map will show that Paul had completed three quarters of a circle; only to turn around and head back through the cities that he had left with rocks flying around his ears.
Given the gravity that Paul clearly attached to these return visits it is worth noting the stated purpose for the visit. It is perhaps even more important to note the items absent from the return visit. In Acts 14:22-23 the reasons given for returning to not include preaching the gospel. The verses discuss strengthening, continuing and the appointing of elders. There was then prayer for protection and some exhortation. It appears however that after only a few weeks of work the new converts were considered capable of the evangelism piece already.
There is one intriguing exception to the above statement which may almost prove the point. In Acts 14:25 we are told they spoke the word in Perga. So why was Perga singled out for preaching? I suggest that it is because in the outward leg of the journey Perga was singled out as being the one place that the disciples did not preach. Therefore on the return journey it was the place where there wasn't a local church to take over the preaching aspect of the work.
At the end of the first missionary journey around 47AD Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch to report upon their journey. However this was not a 'flying visit'. The Word records they were there a long time, probably until around 49AD. In fact it appears that Paul and Barnabas resumed their role as elders; when trouble arose in the church of Antioch it was Paul and Barnabas that represented the church at the council of Jerusalem (50AD). Following the council Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and resumed their roles as teachers and preachers.
Paul's second missionary journey took somewhere between three and three and a half years and probably commenced in AD51. It was motivated, at least initially by a desire to see how the churches established on the first journey were fairing. By this point in time each of them would be approximately five years old.
The journey was marked by a somewhat inauspicious start. Barnabas, ever keen to encourage, wished to give Mark a second chance. Paul was not prepared to take the risk and therefore the two leaders of the first journey parted company. It should be noted however that they also parted the work geographically. Whilst they may have departed company they were not going to parade the separation before the new churches. It may also be significant that Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus which is the leg of the journey that Mark had participated in previously.
Unencumbered by the seaward part of the journey Paul took the overland route through Derbe, Lystra and Iconium. They found that these churches were still functioning and even flourishing. In particular one of the believers, Timothy, had grown to the point where the brethren were able to commend him to Paul. Paul therefore decided to take Timothy on the remainder of the journey as a missionary.
The work performed in these cities by the missionaries does not appear to be evangelistic. We are told that they delivered the decrees of the Jerusalem council and that this strengthened the church and that the church therefore grew on a daily basis. It would appear therefore that a five year old church should be capable of self-sustaining and beginning to produce workers that the further fuel wider missionary activity.
We are not told why Paul decided to extend his vision to include the evangelization of new areas. We are not even explicitly told that it was a Spirit led decision. In fact there are hints that at least initially Paul was operating to his own agenda.
Act 16:6 Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. 7 After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them. 8 So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.
It almost appears as if Paul and Silas got to the end of their intended journey at Pisidian Antioch and realizing that they did not need to complete the loop (Barnabas having covered Cyprus) they just decided to keep going down the same road: literally. The Spirit forbad this action and therefore rather than heading West they took the road up to the North. They were allowed to go a distance North but were then blocked again and therefore headed West until they reached Troas.
At Troas Paul received the famous Macedonian call and crossed to the Greek mainland to commence the evangelization part of his second journey. It is a testament to Paul and Silas that having been blocked in their own efforts they were still willing to receive the vision of God and embark upon it immediately. For completeness I would also note that Acts 16:10 shifts from the third person view to the first person. This suggests that Luke joined the party in Troas.
The events in Philippi give a clear indication of Paul's approach to the evangelization of a new territory. Landing in Samothrace they journeyed straight to Napolis and then on to Philippi. One might wonder why two towns were skipped on the evangelistic tour. Acts 16:12 gives the answer; Philippi was the leading city in the district. I suggest that Paul was not interested in planting a church anywhere. He wanted to plant it in a place that would maximize the ability of the church members to reach the surrounding area. Again for emphasis: from day one in a new country Paul was planning on the bulk of the witnessing to be performed by the locals.
The same narrative also provides insight into the section of the population that Paul expected to be most open to the Gospel. On the Sabbath day he went out to find where people were praying. He was therefore clearly looking for those that were religious, had at least some time on their hands, and that probably had some exposure to Judaism.
One of the first fruits of their witness was Lydia and her household who immediately start to support the work practically through the provision of accommodation. The missionaries then fall into a pattern of visiting the place of prayer something they do for 'many' days.
This is provokes a confrontation with an evil Spirit, a mob, the civil authorities and eventually an earthquake. These events are probably too specialized and supernatural to form a proscriptive pattern for our behavior. I would however note that Paul was not willing to be released until the civil authorities had acknowledged their error in arresting them. Some take this as high dudgeon on Paul's part. I believe though that this was necessary to establish the legal status of the church that he would soon be leaving behind. We then find that upon release they return to Lydia's house, encourage the brethren and then depart.
Thessalonica and Berea present a crisp and clear indicator of standard practice for Paul's evangelistic encounters. In Thessalonica there was a Jewish synagogue and that is therefore where he went to preach; he went for three consecutive weeks. The core of his message was the suffering and resurrection of Christ. The harvest was significant amongst Jew and Gentile. Upon persecution Paul reached a reasonable understanding with the town magistrates and then moved on.
Berea is applauded as being more open and receiving the message readily. It appears that the response of the missionaries was to switch from weekly synagogue visits to daily Bible studies. News of Paul's preaching reached Thessalonica which provoked some of the men there to head to Berea to cause trouble. On this occasion only Paul left leaving Silas and Timothy with the Bereans. This suggests that the evacuation of missionaries was not for their own safety but to prevent antagonism of the civilian authorities. As Paul was the one receiving the attention he was the one evacuated.
Paul's flight from Berea appears to have left him in Athens in a rather unusual situation. The main party was still in Berea and Paul was waiting for them. The spiritual state of Athens and particularly its idolatry annoyed him enough that he was goaded into action. Here he departed from his normal pattern in that in addition to disputing in the synagogues he also took the fight into the marketplace on a daily basis. This eventually got sufficient attention that he was invited to make his famous address on Mars Hill. This did result in some converts although I do not know of any church having been formed there.
Paul's work in Corinth marked a clear break from his previous pattern of engagement; the Biblical text takes pains to demonstrate this and the reason for the departure. Initially Paul followed the routine approach. Paul found two Jew's of similar trade to stay with and work with. He went into the synagogue on a weekly basis and preached Christ. Once Silas and Timothy arrived from Berea he redoubled his efforts which provoked opposition from the Jews.
It was Paul's reaction to the Jewish opposition that showed a turning point in his missionary endeavors. To this point Jewish opposition had resulted in a departure of the missionaries and a new church growing as a kind of underground movement. On this occasion Paul's response was to inform the Jew's that if they didn't like his message he would go to the Gentiles. He then went and started his preaching in the house right next door to the synagogue!
This bold and provocative move worked. Firstly the Lord assured Paul that he would not be harmed and that many would be saved. More surprisingly the ruler of the synagogue was saved together with his entire house. The other noticeable change was in the length of engagement; rather than a three to six week visit Paul remained in Corinth for at least 18 months; further when opposition arose Paul stayed in the city rather than departing.
I believe that the scant four verses given to the return leg of the second missionary journey convey a vital but unstated fact: Paul had become a missionary. On the first journey the return leg provided a degree of closure; every city visited was visited again. Paul returned to Antioch and his previous duties and it was several years before thoughts of travelling returned to his mind. In contrast there is every indication that Paul was already planning his third missionary journey before completing his second.
Specifically Paul did not revisit the cities on the return leg as he had done the first time; instead he completed a circle. Also Paul paid a 'flying visit' to Ephesus and explicitly stated that he was going to try to come back of visit them. Paul also did not return straight to Antioch; he went via Jerusalem which suggests his thoughts were of 'touching base' rather than 'going home'. Finally we may note that the Bible covers his period in Antioch in less than half a verse.
To my knowledge we are not told when or why this mind-shift occurred within Paul. To me there are three candidates. The first is that towards then end of the 'revisit' leg of the second journey: Paul just felt like going on and did so until the Spirit allowed him to visit Macedonia. The second is that the Macedonian call itself was a re-commissioning of Paul to a new form of service. The third is that the opposition in Corinth close on the heels of the idolatry in Athens was enough to convince Paul that a gradual awakening of the Jewish Diaspora was not how the church was going to spread. Either way I am convinced that by the homeward leg of the second missionary journey Paul had no intention whatsoever of settling down into a home church.
Paul's so-called third missionary journey could just as easily be entitled 'Paul Targets Ephesus'. Not only do we find that Paul commenced the journey with the stated intent of visiting Ephesus but we also see that the majority of the time as well as the majority of the Biblical account was focused upon the Ephesian church.
The journey probably commenced late in 54AD or possibly in the spring of 55AD. Paul had therefore only been in Antioch for a period of around six months and was ready to embark with little introduction.
Actually it is interesting to note that there are two different accounts given of the initial leg of his third missionary journey. In Acts 18:23 the tour of Galatia and Phrygia is seen as an adjunct of his time in the church of Antioch. Whilst he did strengthen the disciples in the churches he appears to be treating these eight year old churches as 'home' churches. In Acts 19:1 we read of the same phase but this time it is simply referred to as 'passing through the upper regions to get to Ephesus'.
Paul's stay in Ephesus is crucial to our understanding of first century missions not only because of its' centrality in Paul's mind but also because it highlights some of the issues faced by those approaching a semi (or miss)-evangelized region. We see Paul dealing with issues of weak doctrine, false converts and outright opposition.
Apollos has to be one of the most enigmatic characters involved with New Testament mission. On the one hand the Spirit is lavish with praise of his character. He was eloquent, learned, fervent, courageous and diligent. He was even humble enough to be corrected by Priscilla and Aquila. Nonetheless from Paul's perspective he was the one that left Ephesus with weak doctrine, caused schism in Corinth and then refused to return to help clear up the mess.
Paul expends significant ink explaining to the Corinthians how the issue of 'multiple heavy hitters' needs to be viewed. Paul planted Apollos watered. Paul considered himself the 'skilled master builder' that had laid the foundation that Apollos was building upon. This is especially poignant given the commonly held belief that 1Corinthians was written from Ephesus where Paul was building upon Apollos' foundation. The issue is further compounded by the observation that in Rom 15:20, which was probably written from Corinth shortly after Paul's Ephesian experience, Paul states quite categorically that he much prefers to build where no foundation has been laid.
Unfortunately I think the lesson to be learnt at the personal level is that the more gifted brethren tend to need some personal and ministerial space. The very force of character that makes them greatly useful to God makes it very difficult for them to exist in each others space. We read of Paul praising Apollos and we read of Paul urging others to support Apollos. But when the two of them get too close together there tends to be trouble.
Switching from the personalities to the doctrine the results are equally eyebrow raising. The preaching of Apollos, and presumably Aquila and Priscilla to some extent had not even gotten around to mentioning the Holy Spirit. The Baptism being used was a Baptism of repentance not one of Resurrection. Paul's response was swift, decisive and effective. He corrected their false doctrine and re-baptized them into the truth.
Following this correction Paul appears to fallen back to his more normal rules of engagement. He goes into the synagogue and disputes with the Jews there. Upon vociferous opposition Paul retreats from the synagogue and switches to daily lessons in a local school.
During this period the Lord granted Paul many supernatural signs; something that the local 'faith healers' attempted to replicate. Rather than outright opposition however this new threat came with a twist; they were exorcising in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul's response here is telling: there was none. False doctrine needs correction: if people want to try to fake miracles then let the forces of nature deal with them. In this case the evil spirit dealt with them and brought glory to Christ in the process. Acts 19:20 shows that the ministry in Ephesus was extremely fruitful.
Acts 19:21 marks a turning point and it ultimately commences the culmination of Paul's missionary activities. He purposes that having passed through Macedonia and Achaia he will head to Jerusalem and then Rome. We know from Acts 20:25 that he was not expecting this to be another 'round' trip.
I believe that Acts 19:22 suggests that he viewed the Macedonian and Achaian part of the journey to be a necessity rather than central to his goals. Rather than leaving immediately he had had the thought as he had done on the second journey we see him instead sending ahead some workers and remaining in Ephesus until he is driven out by a riot. Or more accurately, following his normal pattern, he waited for the riot to abate and then left leaving behind many last minute instructions.
Paul's stay in Greece lasted about three months and he had originally purposed to complete a loop in much the way he had on his second journey. Hearing of a plot to kill him he changed his plans and retraced his steps staying in Philippi for a short while. It is worth noting that his retinue at this point consisted of four people from Derbe (first missionary journey), 1 each from Thessalonica and Berea (second missionary journey) and two from Asia (third journey). In other words that maximum experience level of his party was four eight-year veterans, two four-year recruits and two three-year old newcomers.
Ephesus was the only significant new church on Paul's third journey and he was acutely aware that he would not be visiting it again. Therefore as part of his voyage to Jerusalem he took the time to stop and Miletus and call for the Ephesian elders. This tells us three related things:
I think the conclusion here is clear: knowing he had limited time and resources Paul focused upon the construction of a well trained and focused eldership and accepted the potential downsides that would bring.
As this entire essay has really been a linear summary of the book of Acts I do not really wish to conclude simply by condensing the material still further. I therefore intend to eschew the traditional closing summary in favor of some closing analytical observations based upon the entire corpus of material.
It is perhaps overkill to summarize conclusions but I cannot help but notice the incredible pace at which this occurred. Paul expected churches to grow quickly, he delegated responsibility quickly and the churches grew explosively. It is of course true that if we had followed the epistles more than Acts we would have seen that some of these churches had issues, even severe ones. However Paul was aware of this; in the case of Ephesus he predicted it. Yet he stuck to his method.
In closing I would note that as warned in the introduction: we do not know to what extent any of the above is proscriptive. Nonetheless I would like to raise the question in the readers mind: is the rapid growth of New Testament times really irreproducible? Or are we just too unwilling to adopt the methods they did?