Top 10 inadequate definitions of success

The sixth post in a series on defining success for a missionary. Part 1 demonstrated that we, like Paul, can be confident in our ministry, despite all our detractors and critics. In Part 2, we saw in 2 Corinthians that Paul repeats the phrase “commend ourselves,” to identify key criteria that he uses to demonstrate that his ministry is credible and successful. In the third, fourth and fifth posts, we looked more closely at Paul’s criteria of successful ministry, that of clearly proclaiming the Gospel, seeing lives changed by God’s power through our ministry, and joyfully enduring hardships in ministry.

Who gets to hear “Well done”?

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 Cor 5:10, “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 Cor 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 what Christ might be expecting of us, how else do we determine whether we are a “good missionary”? What are some of the definitions of success that we live by?  Maybe recognizing some of these inadequate definitions will be just as helpful as studying the Pauline definitions of his success as a missionary. 

The top 10(?) definitions of success for a missionary

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.  I don’t know if they are the top ten, but they are ten that are fairly common understandings of success among missionaries.

  1. Arriving and surviving — Just being a missionary automatically makes me 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– more fluent in the language, leading more Bible studies, preaching more sermons, winning more converts, planting more churches, or simply busier than other missionaries (ironically less free time!) 
  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 working together in ministry
  5. Living a godly life – the quality of one’s personal spirituality, rigor in personal spiritual disciplines, length of time one spends 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 one’s mission assignment, meeting the expectations of one’s team leader and teammates
  8. Giving leadership in your mission organization — becoming a team or field leader, the number of leadership roles one has in the mission, the size of the team one is 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

Switching definitions

Back in the mid ‘80s, 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?

But when I arrived in the Philippines in March of 1986, I soon realized that I was not satisfied with this goal, that 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 other fellow students.

But upon graduating 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 upon what types of leadership roles I was asked to fill – or what leadership roles I was not offered. Sometimes by these standards, I thought 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 as a missionary. 

All fall short

Now 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 career. But as a definition of ultimate success or failure, they are ALL inadequate. Yes, even defintion #5 (living a godly life).

In a future post, maybe I will look at some of the reasons why each of these is inadequate. But for now, I invite your additions to this list. What are some of the other inadequate ways that you have observed that missionaries (maybe yourself) have defined what it means to be a good missionary?

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