We all want Christ to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” when we stand before him. But few of us spend much time thinking deeply about what “well done” actually means for us as missionaries. What do we need to be doing in order to receive Christ’s commendation?
Some might protest that the question about “doing” clashes with the concept of grace. But Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10 (NIV), “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” There will be a judgment of works for believers, and according to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, the quality of our participation (or lack of participation) in the building of Christ’s church is definitely subject to this judgment.
So if we don’t take the time to think about what Christ might be expecting of us, how else do we determine whether we are “good” missionaries? What are some of the definitions of success that we live by?
10 definitions we use
In my 25 years as a missionary, I have seen all of the following definitions, and most of them have been the standards by which I have judged myself at some point in time in my career.
1. Arriving and surviving — Just being a missionary automatically makes you a success.
2. Fitting in well into a new culture – Learning the language and culture, thinking like a native, feeling at home, developing many significant relationships with nationals.
3. Accomplishing more than other fellow missionaries – Speaking more fluently in the language, leading more Bible studies, preaching more sermons, winning more converts, planting more churches, or simply being busier than other missionaries.
4. Nurturing a healthy, loving family – Enjoying a healthy marriage, close family, warm friendship with fellow missionaries. Children are doing well in school, husband and wife are working together in ministry.
5. Living a godly life – The quality of your personal spirituality, rigor in personal spiritual disciplines, length of time you spend in prayer and Bible study.
6. Helping needy people – Making a difference in someone’s life, feeding the hungry, improving the quality of life for someone in need.
7. Completing the task you were given to do — Fulfilling your mission assignment, meeting the expectations of your team leader and teammates
8. Giving leadership in your mission organization — Becoming a team or field leader, the number of leadership roles you have in the mission, the size of the team you are asked to lead.
9. Meeting a strategic need – Doing something that could not be readily filled by national believers, making a contribution that is truly significant to a movement of regional or national importance
10. Leaving a lasting legacy — Starting something that will endure after you leave
Hopping from definition to definition
Back in the 1980s, while I was raising support for the first time, the goal of finally getting to the Philippines was about as far as I could see. I somehow unconsciously assumed that once my feet touched Philippine soil, I could consider myself a success. I would finally be a real missionary, and all missionaries are automatically spiritual successes, aren’t they?
When I arrived in the Philippines, I soon realized that I was not satisfied with this goal; in fact, it left me empty. So I switched to the second and third definitions of success. Being naturally competitive and a good student, I received all kinds of strokes and affirmation as I worked on mastering Tagalog, the Filipino national language. I thought of myself as a success because I spoke with fewer errors and with greater freedom that some of my fellow students.
But after I graduated from language school, that definition of success was quickly replaced with others. Some of them were competitive in nature. My friend Larry had opportunities to lead many more Bible studies than I did, and I felt like a failure. Some of my standards of success were based on what types of leadership roles I was asked to fill – or what leadership roles I was not offered. Sometimes these definitions led me to think of myself as a really good missionary. Other times, in my own eyes (and probably in others’ eyes as well), I was a dismal flop.
All fall short
All of the definitions above are desirable qualities in an effective missionary. Some of the definitions are better than others. Some of them are more appropriate at different stages of our missionary careers. But as a definition of ultimate success or failure, they are ALL inadequate. (Yes, even definition No. 5 — living a godly life.)
In Part Two, I explain why each of these reasons are inadequate. I invite your additions to this list. What are some inadequate ways that you have seen missionaries (or maybe even yourself) define what it means to be a good missionary?
About the author: Ken Guenther and his wife, Bertha, served in the Philippines and Far East Russia before moving to Ukraine. Ken runs SEND U, our department dedicated to lifelong learning. This article originally appeared on the SEND U blog.
Read on …
- What is missionary success? It’s not measured by time on the field: ‘I realized that I was thinking of people who returned after one year, or even after one term, as failures.’
- What is missionary success? Staying open to Spirit-led change: ‘I had to lay down before God my prejudice toward valuing overseas ministry more than US-based ministry.’
- What is missionary success? Why many of our definitions leave us feeling empty: Plus, a better way to think of success, pulled from 2 Corinthians.
- Feeling God’s call yourself? We invite anyone who senses God’s leading into cross-cultural service to sign up for On Mission, SEND’s free, monthly guide for people interested in becoming missionaries. Subscribe here, and as a welcome gift, you will receive a free download of a world map that highlights today’s unreached people groups. Together, we can bring them Good News.