Top 10 definitions of missionary success revisited

The seventh 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.  In the sixth post, we look at some typical, yet flawed definition of success.

Last week, I suggested that we as missionaries are pretty adept at coming up with ways of determining whether we have been “good missionaries.”   I gave my top 10, many of them coming from my own experience.   Any one want to add to this list?   No need to stop at ten!
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 arriving 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 China who fell so in love with the Chinese culture and religion that they ended up rejecting their evangelical faith.   See The Conversion of the Missionaries by Lian Xi.

3. Accomplishing more than the other missionaries.   This really appeals to our competitive nature.  But our standard of success can never be the calling and ministry of others.  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 Cor 10:12, “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, a healthy, well-adjusted family is foundational for effective ministry (if you are married).   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 us, 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 all 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 is 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, proclaim the Gospel, or even to interact with unbelievers.  I would argue that true godliness is always concerned not only about ones’ own godliness, but also the godliness of those who do not yet know Christ (see 1 Tim 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 with 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 here 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 of success is that it mistakenly 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 in our mission organization may see 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 Cor 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 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 street 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 Is 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 little 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, will be what you will want to base your understanding of what it means to be a good missionary.   Some of them could just as easily be done by someone that is not a believer.  Some of them (like #9 and #10) are too narrow and belittle ministries that are truly God-assignments.   Some of them are too focused on ourselves and our well-being.   
So what is a proper understanding of success for a missionary?   First of all, it is thoroughly focused on pleasing the Master (2 Cor 5:9).  In its practical outworking, I think it is hard to improve on what Paul used to commend himself to the critical Corinthians:
  1. His clear proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:2-7, 5:18-21
  2. The fact that the Corinthians believed and were changed by the Gospel he preached (2 Cor 3:1-3, 2 Cor 10:13-14
  3. His joyful acceptance of the hardships of being a missionary and apostle (2 Cor. 6:4-10, 11:23-30, 12:9-10)
See posts 
threefour and five  in this series for an explanation of each of these.
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