2 Corinthians 10:9-16 ESV
9 I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. 10 For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” 11 Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. 12 Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. 13 But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you. 14 For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you. We were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ. 15 We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged, 16 so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another’s area of influence.
Nobody ever does anything of significance without collecting a few critics. History has been very good to the apostle Paul, but in his day there were a lot of people who did not care for his ministry – both within and outside the church. His 2nd letter to the Corinthians bears that out. Here are just a few of the things some people in Corinth were saying about him: “1) He had a lot of bad luck. Obviously God was not blessing him for a reason. 2) He can’t be trusted. He promises to visit, then backs out at the last minute. 3) He’s too harsh. When someone got out of line, Paul ordered him excommunicated. No grace. 4) He’s not really an apostle. He is so much different from the real apostles from the Jerusalem churches. He is actually a wannabe tentmaker.”
In 2 Corinthians Paul addressed these criticisms. He was concerned to set the record straight, as we all should be.
Often criticism comes from a lack of understanding. That is the case with the Corinthians who criticized Paul’s ministry. They did not understand the driving force behind the decisions that Paul made. Three times in today’s text Paul talks about a person’s “area of influence” (13,15,16). What drove Paul more than any other principle — and affected the choices he made – was the desire to expand his area of influence to the widest scope possible. Notice in verse 16 he says that he wants to preach the gospel in lands beyond the Corinthians.
Paul began his life as Saul of Tarsus. Most of the choices he made for himself narrowed his area of influence instead of expanding it. He wound up rejecting Jesus as the Messiah because Jesus did not fit within his worldview. He persecuted Christians because they were outsiders, and outsiders were not to be tolerated. When Paul met Jesus on the Damascus road, he not only converted to Christ, the direction of his circle changed. From that time on, Paul was dedicated to reaching his world with the gospel.
What about you? In what direction is your circle moving? Is it getting narrower of broader? My guess is that if you could be a missionary right here in McAlpin without crossing any oceans, you would want to do it.
I think that if we look at the life of the apostle Paul, we can get some ways of doing just that. First, I want to suggest that you keep learning. Foreign territory is scary, whether it is another culture in another nation, or just another part of town. The more you know about the territory outside your present circle, the better you will be able to expand into it. Paul probably knew five languages. He had Roman citizenship, which enabled him to travel extensively. He had learned to adapt to different ways. He did not compare himself to those who were criticizing him. That’s what they did (12). He learned how to do ministry differently.
During our 13 years in the Philippines as missionaries, Penny and I encountered lots of challenges. But we were able to endure those challenges partly because we had spent a few years training specifically for cross-cultural ministry at seminary. Education is not the answer to every problem, but a good education can at least let you know what kinds of problems you are going to encounter. During those same 13 years we saw many missionaries come and go, and some of them had no preparation whatsoever. It was like they just felt the call and got on a plane. I don’t recommend that. Anything worth doing is worth learning how to do. So, if you want to reach your town, or city for Christ, let me suggest that you first learn what needs you can meet that will draw the people in your town or city to yourself.
When we moved to New Zealand, we had to learn that culture as well. We could have just assumed that everyone would understand us because most people speak English there. But we would have been wrong. Just like in the Philippines, the English spoken there has differences that we have to pick up on to communicate. For example compare the car we drive here with that we drove in New Zealand. My P.T. Cruiser does not have a boot, a windscreen, a bonnet. It doesn’t have any dings or prangs, but if it did, we would not go to the panelbeaters to repair it. Mt PT Cruiser does not know what a WOF is, but the Hyundai had to have one every six months. And when I take the Cruiser to the Jiffy Store I park in the parking lot; but I took the Sonata to the dairy and parked in the car park. So you see I had to learn how to talk about the Sonata as well as how to drive it on the left side of the road.
My second suggestion that matches Paul’s strategy is Keep Changing. Be flexible. Paul was the first to try reaching the Corinthians (14). Paul had a strategy during his ministry among Gentiles that the first thing he would do was go to the Synagogues. There he would make some converts among the Jews, but eventually he would get kicked out. Then he would concentrate on winning the Gentile God-fearers to Christ. He would do that until he had established a church, or until he got ran out of town. His strategy worked because he was flexible enough to change direction when that is what it would take to reach his objectives. There are a lot of things that people have done to reach others for Christ, but times change. We have to be willing to try new ways.
Our church in New Zealand has a movie night once a month in the church lounge. We provide the Christian movie and refreshments, and send flyers out to the neighborhood. Sometimes it is only our people who show up, but it has been useful as a way of introducing people to the church in a non-threatening way. This is just one of many ways a church can help its members expand their circles. And that is what it is all about. It is not about attracting people to the church. Think outside that box. It is about the area of influence that God gives each one of us. You see, all of our pastors have outstanding gifts, but they will not be able to reach the people that you can reach because those people are in your circle.
My third suggestion that matches Paul’s strategy is Keep Investing. Notice what Paul says in verse 14: “our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged.” Paul did not plan to single-handedly reach the Gentile world for Christ. He led key people to faith in Christ and expected them to plant churches in their geographical area. His investment was in people, and those people produced churches. Sometimes those churches needed help, so Paul send other members of his missions team to help develop those churches (like Titus in Crete, and Timothy in Ephesus).
My point is this: all that time, effort, prayer and money invested was worth it because of the goal behind it all. In the same way, I believe we will see more church growth when we invest ourselves in our communities. The reason that the apostle Paul’s area of influence was so great was that he invested his time, money and prayers and energy in his missionary journeys. He did not just sit in Damascus and wait for somebody somewhere else to do something for somebody else. If we want to expand our circles, we are going to have to make room for other people, and some of those other people are going to be different than us.
I go back the question I asked earlier. In what direction is your circle moving? Is it getting narrower of broader? Is there room in your area of influence for new people? That is a very important question for a Christian. Jesus commanded up to make disciples of all nations, which includes McAlpin, Lake City, Obrien, and Dowling Park. I want to challenge you to be like the apostle Paul and strive to reach beyond your present limits.
LORD, give us the insight to see beyond our present boundaries. Give us the courage to make new friends, to join new groups, to begin new habits … whatever it takes to expand our circles of influence so that we can reach more people with the gospel.