The Expansion of the Church

This article was written to accompany the The Mission of God and the History of the Church’ hangout.

This article was written by Tom O’Toole, based on an outline created by Andy Johnston.


  • If you had to explain what the Mission of God is in a couple of sentences, what would you say?

God’s Mission

According to Christopher Wright,

“Our mission is nothing less (or more) than participating with God in this grand story until he brings it to its guaranteed climax… Mission is not ours; mission is God’s. Certainly, the mission of God is the prior reality out of which flows any mission that we get involved in. Or, as has been nicely put, it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission – God’s mission.”

To understand our mission and its out-working in the history of the church, we must first understand God’s mission. This mission is revealed to us in Scripture.


Read each of the following Bible passages. What light do they shed upon the mission of God?

  • Genesis 1:28
  • Matthew 28:18-20
  • 1 Corinthians 15:22-28
  • Ephesians 1:7-10
  • Revelation 5:9-10

The story of God’s mission is one continuous story. In the Old Testament, the New Testament and Church History, the mission remains the same – bringing together all of creation with a global community of worshippers under Jesus, to the glory of God the Father.

Whilst the mission is unchanged, at different times in history, the way the mission was to be fulfilled has varied. Before the fall, it was through Adam and Eve filling and subduing the earth, with no reference to the redemption of sinners or need for reconciliation with God. For much of the Old Testament, it was through God’s interactions with the nation of Israel, and though there were prophetic exhortations to be a light to the Gentiles, the majority of this season of salvation history was focussed around this one nation. For three years, it focussed around the personal ministry of Christ and his disciples as he preached the kingdom, healed the sick, and freed the oppressed.

It was following the deathresurrection, and ascension of Christ that the mission of the church to the Gentiles took centre stage.

The last thing that Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended to heaven re-iterated the mandate for their mission. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

The Acts of the Apostles

The rest of the book of Acts is the story of the disciples following these instructions. On the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2), they received the promised power and were witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea.

Following the persecution of the disciples (see the article on ‘The Persecution of the Church’), the disciples were scattered and bore witness about Christ in the places they were scattered to. Philip ended up in Samaria and many there believed (see Acts 8). The Apostles Peter and John came to the region and prayed, and the Samaritans too received the Holy Spirit.

The first Gentile to receive the Spirit was an Italian centurion named Cornelius (see Acts 10 & 11). Following an appearance of an angel, Cornelius sent for Peter, and because of a vision of his own, Peter went to Cornelius’ house. Peter bore witness about Jesus, and Cornelius, along with his household, responded and received the Spirit.

These three incidents of the Holy Spirit coming, in Jerusalem, in Samaria, and in a Gentile home, underscore the mission that God has given to his church to bear witness to the ends of the earth.

The Missionary Journeys

Much of the second half of Acts is devoted to the account of missionary journeys, spreading the gospel to new places and planting churches around the known world.

These missionary journeys were usually made by teams, and men like Silas, John Mark, Luke, and Timothy were heavily involved. The leaders of these teams were the Apostles Barnabas and Paul (also known as Saul), who were set apart for this work by the leaders of the church in Antioch.

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manean a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:1-3)


  • Skim through the book of Acts. Find each place that the gospel is preached and/or a church is planted. Look up the location of each place and mark it on a map.

Acts 28

In the final chapter of Acts, Paul arrived in Rome. He had been working towards this for a long time, and at that point in history, it was the most influential city in the known world.

When Paul reached Rome, he was a prisoner under house arrest, yet he was free to preach the gospel, and this is what he spent his time doing.

The book of Acts ends with the following verses, “’Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.’ He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:28-31)

At this point, the task that Jesus had given to his disciples was only partially fulfilled.

The Next Chapter

As good as it was to reach Rome, Paul realised that there was still work to do. There were other parts of the world that the gospel had not yet reached. He had aspirations of going to Spain, which, by the knowledge of the day, was the very end of the world.

“I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.” (Romans 15:24)

Of course, Spain is not the end of the world, and the task of spreading the gospel is far greater than any of the disciples imagined. The book of Acts did not finish in the pages of the New Testament but is continued throughout church history and in our present day.

The story goes on, and we have a part to play!


  • What would you say are the three most significant events in the post New Testament history of the church?
  • What make you choose the events that you did?

The Roman Empire

Over the 250 years following the end of the book of Acts, the church spread through the Roman Empire. Jerusalem had fallen in 70 A.D., and whilst there were missionaries that went east, the bulk of church growth was in the west, and particularly in the Roman Empire.

This growth came at considerable cost and with much opposition (which will be considered in detail in the article on the Persecution of the Church), but the historian Adolf Harnack estimates that by 250 A.D., there were 30,000 believers living in the city of Rome itself.

The majority of these believers came from the lower echelons of Roman society. In the words of the contemporary critic Celsus (quoted by Bruce Shelley),

“Far from us, say the Christians, be any man possessed of any culture or wisdom or judgment; their aim is to convince only worthless and contemptible people, idiots, slaves, poor women, and children… These are the only ones whom they manage to turn into believers.” (Celsus – quoted by Bruce Shelley)

In the early 4th Century, under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian came one of the most brutal persecutions of Christians in Roman history. The objective was to wipe out Christianity, but the effect was the opposite, and public sympathy for the church started to grow.

A few years later, in 312 A.D., following the death of Emperor Galerius, a power struggle ensued in the Roman Empire. The two contenders for power were Constantine and Maxentius. The latter had a distinct advantage. He was already established in Italy and had a superior army. As Constantine approached Rome, he asked the Christian God for help and in a dream saw a cross in the sky with the words, ‘In this sign conquer’. Constantine advanced and won, and he attributed his success to the power of Christ.

The emperor was now a Christian and the church was in power.


  • What advantages are there in Christianity becoming the religion of the establishment?
  • What disadvantages are there?

Medieval Europe

Following Constantine’s conversion, the gospel quickly spread through Europe. In the 5th century, St Patrick went to Ireland, Clotilda brought the message of Christ to the Franks, and Augustine came to England and lead King Aethelburt of Kent to faith.

For over 1000 years, Christianity was considered to be the norm. Everybody in society (with the exception of a few Jews, heretics, and witches) was considered to be Christian. This is often referred to as the ‘Corpus Christianum’, or simply ‘Christendom’.

Whilst ‘Christianity’ was in a sense universal, much of the Christianity was nominal. Folklore and popular superstition were still very prominent and the Christianity of the day was often a very thin veneer. One scholar has suggested that,

“The religion of the masses in the so-called ‘Christian middle-ages’ should be instead seen as a mixture of magic, folklore, and pagan survivals.” (Laura A. Smoller – referencing Jean Delumeau)


Some of the key features of medieval Christianity were monasticism, scholasticism and the Crusades. Look each of these up, and for each of them, consider the following questions:

  • What was it?
  • What was the motivation behind it?
  • What were the long-term effects of it (consider both the positive and the negative effects)?

The Early Modern World

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, two events occurred that resulted in seismic shifts in the trajectory of church history.

The first of these events was the discovery of the ‘new world’. In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail west from Spain, hoping to arrive in the East Indies, but instead landing in the Bahamas. In subsequent voyages, Columbus also visited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, Venezuela, and Central America. Columbus continued to argue that the lands he had reached were part of Asia, but others realised that a new world had been discovered, and this meant a new mission field for the church.

The second event was the reformation, where Martin Luther and others stood in opposition to the Pope, and the Western church was split into Catholic and Protestant streams (more attention is focussed in this in the article on ‘The Battle for Truth’).

Both Catholic and Protestant churches focussed much attention on mission to the new world, with Catholic efforts concentrating on South and Central America and Protestant focus directed towards North America. This corresponds with the Iberian interest in South/Central America and the Anglo/French interest in North America.

At the forefront of the Catholic work in South America were the Jesuits (who were also engaged in much missionary work in Asia). The Jesuits created Christian city-states for Native Americans called ‘reductions’, and protected the natives from the desires of European colonialists to enslave them.

In North America, the motive behind the initial Christian colonies was escape from the religious climate of Europe. The group that have come to be known as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ were English and Dutch puritans who desired a new setting to live out their faith, free from the state-churches of Europe and the persecution they faced there. The interactions between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans were varied. At times there was conflict, but at other time friendship. Some, such as John Eliot, actively engaged in mission amongst the native people, and Eliot was the first to translate the Bible into a Native American language.


  • Would you say that the spread of Christianity through the Americas had more to do with mission or colonialism? Why?

The Modern World

From 1800 onwards, the advance of the church has picked up pace in what has become known as the ‘modern missionary movement’. The Gospel reached India, China, and Africa, and has now literally gone around the world. Many people have been involved in this work, and it has taken a number of different forms.

A few examples of how this progress was made:

William Carey (1761-1834)

In Carey’s time, the evangelical church had become paralysed by hyper-Calvinism (the belief that because God is sovereignly working out his purposes, there is no need for us to do anything). One of the implications of this doctrine was the idea that the Great Commission was only for the twelve Apostles and is therefore no longer relevant to the church. When talking about the need for the church to engage in foreign mission, Carey even had one Baptist minister respond,

“Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.” (John Ryland Sr.)

Carey was undeterred, and in 1792 he departed for India to live as a missionary there. Things were difficult for Carey. His wife died and for the first seven years of his work he did not see a single convert. Despite the apparent fruitlessness, Carey persevered in the work, and by the end of his life he had seen five hundred Indians come to faith in Jesus and had translated the Bible into forty different Indian dialects and languages, as well as establishing a ministry training college, a medical hospital, a leper mission, and thirty other mission stations throughout India.

John G. Paton (1824-1907)

Paton took the gospel to Vanuatu (the New Hebrides) 150 years ago. At the time he went, the only other Christians to have visited the islands were eaten on the beach by cannibals.

Like Carey, Paton faced opposition to going to this island. He is known to have responded to one man who brought up the cannibals by saying,

“Mr Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen redeemer.” (John G. Paton)

Paton arrived on the island of Tanna in 1858. Within a year he had buried his wife and his infant son.

He went home, re-married and came back to Vanuatu. The next 45 years were spent on the island of Aniwa, and in this time, Paton saw the whole of the island won for Christ, churches planted on neighbouring islands, and the New Testament translated into the local dialect.

Hudson Taylor (1832-1905)

Taylor took the gospel to the Chinese Interior. He worked with CIM (China Inland Mission, now known as Overseas Missionary Fellowship) and approached missionary work differently to anybody before him.

Taylor did not go to China as an outsider with a message, but he took on a Chinese way of life. He wore Chinese clothing, grew a pony tail as was the local custom, did not affiliate with any particular denomination, and broke down cultural and social barriers, recruiting (amongst others) working class people, single women, and multi-nationals.

Taylor was an inspiration for many future missionaries, including the well-known Cambridge Seven that included C.T. Studd. According to Ruth Tucker,

“No other missionary in the nineteen centuries since the Apostle Paul has had a wider vision and has carried out a more systematised plan of evangelising a broad geographic area than Hudson Taylor.” (Ruth Tucker)

Jackie Pullinger (1944-)

Jackie Pullinger moved to Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong in 1966. She established the St Stephen’s Society and continues to work amongst the poorest people of Hong Kong, seeing God do miracles amongst the gangs, drug addicts, and prostitutes.

Reflecting on her years in Kowloon, Pullinger has said,

“I loved this dark place. I hated what was happening in it but I wanted to be nowhere else. It was almost as if I could already see another city in its place and that city was ablaze with light. It was my dream. There was no more crying, no more death or pain… I had no idea how to bring this about but with ‘visionary zeal’ imagined introducing the Walled City people to the one who could change it all: Jesus.” (Jackie Pullinger)


It is inspiring to hear the stories of missionaries that have done great work, but it is important to realise that the Great Commission given to the church is not for a few heroes to complete, but for millions upon millions of believers.

Undoubtedly the greatest missionary thrust in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has come from the Pentecostal church.

Pentecostalism was born in a prayer meeting at Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles, where the Holy Spirit fell, people were filled and began speaking in tongues. This quickly grew into a revival with hundreds of people beginning to meet in a building on Azusa Street. The Spirit continued to be powerfully present, though these early Pentecostals received a lot of criticism from other Christians.

By the start of World War I, the momentum of the Azusa Street Church had been lost, though many spin-off congregations had been started and missionaries had been sent out across the world. Within two years, Pentecostalism had spread to fifty countries and had become a global phenomenon.

Harvey Cox describes the growth of Pentecostalism this way,

“The lightning spread of the Pentecostal movement was not like the dispersal of some new idea. It was more like the spread of a salubrious contagion. First thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then tens of millions were struck by the Spirit. However small the sparks of Azusa Street were, within a few decades, Pentecostalism has become a full-fledged forest fire.” (Harvey Cox)

Today the number of Pentecostal Christians has grown into the hundreds of millions, as well as the charismatic movements that have been birthed within other denominations, largely due to Pentecostal influence. This represents incredible church growth, and whilst in some cases it is the awakening of people who were already believers, in many cases it is new birth, and the church is estimated to have quadrupled in size over the last century.


  • How do you think the church is doing presently when it comes to completing the great commission?
  • What do you think are some of the challenges that still lay ahead?

The Present Challenge

Whilst the church is growing, the task is not yet complete.

There are numbers of challenges ahead. We will focus on three of the most prominent.

Unreached People Groups

There are currently estimated to be more than 3,000 unreached people groups in the world (defined as any people group without an indigenous, self-propagating church), and this means that there are huge numbers of people in the world who have still never heard of Jesus.

In Matthew 24:14, Jesus makes it clear that he will not return until all the people groups of the world have been reached, so it is imperative that we remain involved in apostolic mission to the ends of the earth.

The Re-Evangelisation of Europe

Most of Europe is now considered to be post-Christian, and we have the responsibility of doing something that has never been done before in church history – re-evangelising areas that were once Christian but are no longer so.

The Muslim Majority World

In many ways, reaching the Muslim majority world is very similar to re-evangelising Europe. It is an alien culture and largely comprised of areas that were once Christian but are no longer so.

The Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey today have very little Christian presence and we have the task of seeing those areas impacted afresh with the Gospel.

Christians historically have a bad track record in reaching Muslims. In the Crusades, some so-called Christians literally waded knee deep through the blood of Muslim women and children, believing that they were executing God’s will. Today, we have a huge challenge to show Muslims God’s love in Jesus.


  • “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed thoughout the wholeworld as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14) How do the words of Jesus motivate us in reaching the unreached people groups of the world?
  • What particular challenges are there in the re-evangelisation of Europe in the 21st century? How and why does re-evangelisation present different challenges from first time around evangelism?
  • What particular challenges do we face in reaching our Muslim neighbours?