Perhaps the most difficult time in the life of a missionary/church planter is when it is time to leave. One church planter, Darrell
, raised the question in a comment from the last post. How do we know when it is time to leave? What characteristics should the new church or churches demonstrate? Before I offer an opinion, let's look at the apostle Paul's example. Below is a summary of where Paul went during his missionary journeys. You will find the reference from the book of Acts, approximately how long he stayed, and the results. This comes from a document by S. Smith (from our org in Asia).
PAUL'S MISSIONARY MINISTRY (Total time - approximately 8 to 10 years)
Island of CYPRUS
13:4-5 Cyprus 4-6 weeks - Word shared in whole island of Cyprus.
13:6-12 Paphos (Cyprus) 2 weeks - Proconsul believes; possible church plant; miracle.
Province of PHRYGIA
13:14-52 Pisidion Antioch (capital of Phrygia) 3 weeks or more (possibly longer) - Church planted; word spread through the whole region (13:49); movement resulted, HS filled disciples; mainly gentiles; run out by persecution; weekly or daily meetings.
Province of GALATIA
14:1-6 Iconium (Galatia) "long time" 4-8 weeks? - Church planted; large number believed (v.1); bold witness with signs; stayed until run out by persecution.
14:6-20 Lystra (Galatia) 2 weeks - Church planted; some believers; no great results; stoned and run out of town by Jews.
14:20-21 Derbe (Galatia) several weeks? - Church plant & many disciples; preached gospel; good results.
GALATIA & PHRYGIA
14:21-23 Lystra, Iconium, P. Antioch (Galatia & Phrygia) several weeks - Re-visited disciples; strengthened them, encourage them to continue in face of persecution; appointed elders in each church (churches solidified); commended to Lord.
Province of PAMPHYLIA
14:25 Perga (Pamphylia) 1-2 weeks - Shared the gospel but no evidence of results.
15:39 Cyprus - Barnabas and Mark re-visit disciples.
16:1-5 Derbe, Lystra, Iconium (Galatian region) several weeks or months - Strengthened the churches and disciples; impression that the number of churches has multiplied; disciples still increasing daily; Timothy taken as a team member.
Provinces of ASIA, MYSIA, BITHYNIA
16:6-7 Asia, Mysia, Bithynia several weeks - FORBIDDEN by Holy Spirit from sharing. Not the right time???
Province of MACEDONIA (Europe)
16:12-40 Philippi (capital of Macedonia) 2 weeks - Church plant; via 2 people of peace; miracle; sent away by authorities.
17:1-9 Thessalonica (Macedonia) 4-5 weeks - Church plant & large number of disciples; Jason as leader? Run out by Jews; weekly meetings, "day & night". "Upset the whole world!"
17:10-14 Berea (Macedonia) several weeks - Church and many disciples; Jews ran out Paul, but Silas & Timothy REMAIN a little longer.
Province of ACHAIA (Greece)
17:16-34 Athens (Achaia) 2 weeks - Few disciples, possible church plant; left because of poor response?
18:1-18 Corinth (Achaia) 1 and 1/2 years - Weekly training; great harvest; raised up Priscilla & Aquila, Titius Justus. This time NOT run out but protected by authorities. Taught the word of God to them. Probably all of Achaia (Greece) evangelized from here.
Province of ASIA
18:19-21 Ephesus (Capital of Asia) 1 week - Great interest from locals, Paul decides to return one day. Priscilla & Aquila left there.
PHRYGIA & GALATIA
18:23 Phrygia & Galatia several weeks - Re-visited churches strengthening disciples.
Province of ASIA
18:24-20:1 Ephesus (Asia) 3 years - Apollos continues witness. He leaves & Paul finds disciples there. Then begins witnessing & training daily regarding the kingdom of God. Everyone in Province of Asia hears word! Seven churches of Revelation started. Great miracles, radical commitment by disciples (life transformation). Apparently Ephesus is the base for mission (the new Antioch?). Great uproar. Night & day for 3 years with tears Paul admonished believers (20:31). Paul finally leaves.
MACEDONIA & ACHAIA
20:1-2 Macedonia several weeks, months - Re-visited and encouraged the disciples.
20:2-3 Greece (Achaia) 3 months - Re-visited and encouraged the disciples; run out by Jews.
20:3-5 Macedonia short visit - On way back to Jerusalem.
20:6-12 Troas (Asia) 1 week - Encourages disciples from the Asia mission in Ephesus.
20:15-38 Miletus (Asia) 1 week - Final exhortation to Ephesian elders to take up their shepherding responsibilities.
Okay, did you notice anything about the length of time Paul stayed in any one place? Most of the time it was very short, only weeks, maybe months. The longest period of time was three years. So, we can learn from this that there is no certain length of time required to plant viable churches.
Another observation is that Paul laid the foundation, baptizing initial believers and teaching them to obey before moving on. After leaving, we see Paul's teammates often stayed behind or revisited. Sometimes Paul revisited the church or churches to encourage and strengthen them. We also know that he followed up through correspondence. So, the new churches were not abandoned, however, Paul never stayed. In every case he left for another field.
The Holy Spirit led Paul from place to place and we assume indicated when it was time to leave. (In many cases persecution was the determining factor).
When Paul left, the new church was empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the work among their own people, spreading the gospel, planting new churches and maturing in their faith by obeying the word.
Missionary (church planting) ministry is different from pastoral ministry. The missionary stays as long as the Holy Spirit and circumstances controlled by God's sovereignty permit. The missionary is an outsider used by God to initiate new work among people of a different culture. The missionary will revisit from time to time, follow up through correspondence, and team members may stay on. But the missionary team should never stay in the same place indefinitely. The new churches must grow up and take responsibility for their own people, the sooner, the better.
How do we know it is time to leave? By following the Holy Spirit's lead and submitting to God's sovereignty. As missionaries/church planters we should regularly ask the Lord to "show us the door" when it is time. We should make sure that we have done everything possible to "teach them to obey" before we leave (the last part of the Great Commission). One indicator for me has been: Are my disciples making their own disciples? Do we see a third generation of disciples obeying the Lord?
When it is time to leave, does this mean that we make a physical move to another state, region or country? That is up to the Holy Spirit. He will lead if we will follow, and it depends on the sovereignty of God in our lives. Some will live in the same place for years but change focus or travel to different areas within the same region. Others will make a more drastic move. The important thing for the missionary is to always maintain an attitude of "wherever He leads, I will follow."