Earlier this week, I suggested that we missionaries are pretty adept at coming up with ways of determining whether we have been “good missionaries.” I listed 10 definitions of success that miss the mark — many of them stemming from my own experience. As promised, here is my attempt to critique these inadequate definitions of success.
1. Arriving and surviving. As I noted in my previous blog post, this definition of success quickly becomes hollow after a missionary arrives on the field. We soon realize that entry into a cross-cultural environment is just that — a starting point, a beginning. God did not call us to just survive, but to bear fruit. (John 15:16)
2. Fitting in well into a new culture. This can be true of someone who is not even a believer! I am reminded of Pearl Buck and other early 20th century missionaries to East Asia who fell so in love with the culture and religion that they ended up rejecting their evangelical faith. See “The Conversion of Missionaries” by Lian Xi.
3. Accomplishing more than the other missionaries. This definition really appeals to our competitive nature, but our standard of success can never be another’s calling and ministry. We are accountable to our Master for what he has given us to do, not what he has assigned to our brother. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV), “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.”
4. Nurturing a healthy, loving family. Without question, if you are married, a healthy, well-adjusted family is foundational for effective ministry. But if our primary goal is to nurture the health and happiness of our family, then we have taken a means and made it an end in itself. We become focused on ourselves, our needs, and our enjoyment of life, rather than on being a blessing to others. I recognize that, historically, missionaries have been guilty of neglecting their families for the sake of the ministry. But the pendulum can also swing the other way. We can get so wrapped up with family matters that we have no time for anyone else.
5. Living a godly life. I have to be careful here. I believe that godliness is absolutely essential for missionary effectiveness. But if serving as a missionary were only about becoming a holy person and experiencing rich times of communion with God, then there would be no need to transfer into a new culture and language, to proclaim the gospel, or even to interact with unbelievers. I would argue that true godliness is always concerned not only with one’s own godliness, but also with the godliness of those who do not yet know Christ (see 1 Timothy 4:7-10).
6. Helping needy people. I recognize that alleviating suffering is considered by many to be the heart of the mission of God. I disagree, and I believe that Scripture also disagrees. I do not want to give the impression that evangelism is the only mission activity of any importance. I believe that effective proclamation of the gospel results in communities of faith that are committed to social justice and helping the poor. I also believe that missionaries can begin by helping the poor as their primary ministry focus, but that any holistic approach to gospel ministry must include sharing the good news that God is concerned about saving people from physical suffering on earth, and especially from eternal suffering. See John Piper’s address to the 2010 Lausanne Congress.
7. Completing the tasks you were given to do. The fallacy in this definition is that it assumes that our responsibility to God ends with fulfilling our responsibilities assigned by our mission leaders. We may have done everything our mission asked us to do, but have we done what God asked us to do? I do not want to set our calling at odds with the assignments given by mission leadership, but I also want to acknowledge that mission leadership can never fully comprehend everything that God may want us to accomplish by faith in his Spirit’s enabling. Our calling, our spiritual gifts, and our message come from God, not from mission leadership, and so ultimately we will have to give account to the One who has entrusted them to us.
8. Giving leadership to our mission organization. Many missionaries may consider a leadership role as a distraction from fulfilling God’s primary calling, and therefore a hindrance to truly being successful in missionary service! But even if one recognizes that leadership is a God-given calling, the position or title of leadership can never be equated with success in God’s terms. James and Paul assure us that leaders and teachers will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, 1 Corinthians 3:12-17), and give us no reason to expect that those who have been entrusted with leadership are automatically promoted by virtue of their position to a higher rank in God’s Hall of Fame.
9. Meeting a strategic need.The aspiration to meet a strategic need is obviously not wrong in and of itself. It can be motivated by a desire to be a good steward of God’s gifts and resources. But it can also be driven by a desire to feel important, to promote ourselves. Furthermore, this definition gets us into trouble when we are asked or prompted to do something that does not seem “strategic,” like showing compassion to a beggar. Much of what we are doing as missionaries and in the kingdom of God will not be noticed by this world (or even by national church leaders). As servants of the King, we must be content to faithfully fulfill our King’s assignments, and let him determine how our efforts will contribute to his kingdom.
10.Leaving a lasting legacy. Christ has called us to bear fruit that will last (John 15:16). Missionaries want to start reproducible movements. So far, so good. But to define whether we were successful or not by whether something visible remains is to stand on shaky ground. God defines whether something is lasting or not from his vantage point, not ours. In fact, only God knows whether a seed that we have sown will bear fruit only after we pass from this life. Think of Isaiah’s commission in Isaiah 6:8-10. The impact of his prophetic work continued long after he was long gone (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:32-34). But Isaiah himself saw few positive results from his ministry. Furthermore, as in the previous definition, the desire to leave a legacy can easily degenerate into making a name for ourselves, rather than making a name for God.
Remember, all of the above are good aspirations and commendable accomplishments. But I don’t think any of them, by themselves, define a “good missionary.” Some of them could just as easily be done by someone that is not a believer. Some of them (like numbers 9 and 10) are too narrow and can belittle less-strategic ministries that are truly God assignments. Some of them are too focused on ourselves and our own well-being.
A better way
So, what is a proper understanding of success for a missionary? First of all, it is thoroughly focused on pleasing the Master (2 Corinthians 5:9). In its practical outworking, I think it is hard to improve on what Paul used to commend himself to the critical Corinthians:
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? 10 definitions that miss the mark: Part 1 from Ken Guenther, in which he explains how he tried to apply these definitions to himself at different points in his career.
- 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.’
- 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.