I can vividly remember sitting in my car outside of my local post office over twenty-five years ago, listening to an interview with John MacArthur. When asked about his philosophy of the spread of the gospel from his local church into many parts of the world, he succinctly answered, “If we take care of the depth of our ministry then God will sort out the breadth of the ministry.” I have never forgotten that wise counsel. If we desire to reach the unreached in other parts of the world then we need a strong base from which we can send the gospel. There are many places in the Scripture that address this principle and I read one this morning in 2 Corinthians 10:12-18.
In this epistle, Paul has been compelled by circumstances to defend his ministry against false apostles who were undermining the gospel and thus harming the church in Corinth. In this particular passage, he makes the point that the church of Corinth is in fact the fruit of his gospel-driven labours and that he has therefore a “right” to be concerned and to speak frankly to them. But he also writes that, just as he reached them while they were yet “unreached,” he desires to reach others in the regions beyond that are also unreached. He is concerned for the believers in Corinth at present, and he is more than willing to come there and minister to them. But he is also concerned for those who have no gospel witness. And so he says to them, “But having hope, that as your faith is increased, we shall be greatly enlarged by you . . . to preach the gospel in the regions beyond you” (vv. 15-16). And as he has made it clear, these were regions of the still unreached. We could paraphrase it this way: “Once I am convinced that you have gotten this situation sorted out; once I am convinced that you are well-grounded in and thus protected by the gospel; then I will be able to get the gospel out to others as well.” Paul saw their maturity as a key to further mission. And the same principle applies today.
As our church increasingly grows in Christ, then to such a degree we are strengthened to reach the yet unreached—both corporately and individually as well. Let me flesh this out a bit.
A church that is constantly in the midst of conflict will probably find itself increasingly sapped of energy to evangelise and to be engaged meaningfully in making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. As a pastor I know what it is like to try and focus on the ministry at hand while there is all kinds of “noise” in my heart over conflict that I am aware of, either in the lives of others or conflict involving myself. When you are in a struggle for survival it is difficult to be consumed at the same time with ministry that is on the other side of the world. After all, how can you help them if you feel that you yourselves are in need of great help? I think that this was exactly Paul’s point. Until the church at Corinth was sufficiently solidly grounded in the gospel, Paul saw it as a bit futile to go elsewhere to proclaim the gospel and plant a church. It would be like two steps forward followed by three steps backward. However, if the Corinthians would grow in depth then the breadth of their ministry—through the ministry of Paul—would spread to the regions that still needed the gospel. If the home base was strong then pioneering efforts would be strengthened.
Think about this way: If members of the local church do not grow and overcome their “pet sins” then resources of time and energy are constantly being diverted from discipling others. And ultimately the outreach of the church is hindered. But when we persevere and grow then we require less counsel and therefore time and effort can be invested in evangelising others and in making disciples of those evangelised.
Paul, a man with a shepherd’s heart, would not abandon those in need at Corinth in exchange to reach the unreached. However, he does make it clear that if they will get it together by being established in the faith then he (and those with him) can do so much more. If they will work at being mature then the work missions will be blessed.
Please do not misunderstand: I am not suggesting that if you have a spiritual challenge or some kind of problem that you should be quiet about it so that the church can go to the regions beyond! Rather, what I am saying is that we all need to be committed to maturing in Christ by learning and obeying His Word. This does take time, effort and resources, and this is to be expected. And the local church must be committed to making such local investments. But our goal must be that of becoming a people of spiritual maturity, a congregation of spiritual depth, which will result in an expanding breadth of our ministry to “the regions beyond.” And when people are reached there, then they in turn will need to assume the responsibility for spiritual depth and maturity. And as this increasingly becomes the case then those currently unreached in “the regions beyond” will join us as we together “glory in the Lord” (v. 17). The extent of our mission is intimately connected to the increase of our maturity. May God help us.