February 26, 2024

We all want to see progress in our work. As disciples of Jesus, we long to see people’s lives change as they encounter Christ and his Word. We want to see churches planted, and then see those churches grow in size and in their impact on their community. But maybe we should be looking first of all for progress within ourselves.

I have been a cross-cultural worker for more than 35 years. I believe that I have changed and grown in those three and a half decades. But do others see it as well? A few years ago a colleague told me that I led differently than I had in the past. I believe he said I had become a gentler leader. That was very encouraging for I realized that he had observed progress in me in areas that I really wanted to grow. It was also a reminder that I had not always been the type of leader that I wanted to be. Yes, growth was visible – but growth had also been necessary!

Paul’s charge to Timothy

In Paul’s first letter to his younger protégé, Timothy, he challenges him in a somewhat startling way:

15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 4:15–16 – NIV (2011)

Paul wants Timothy to show progress in certain “matters”. What are these matters that Paul is referring to? The context makes it clear that Paul is talking about Timothy’s own ministry within the church. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:13-14). When Paul is talking about progress, he is not primarily referring to growth within the church, i.e. number of people saved, baptized or attending services. No, he is talking about growth in Timothy himself. “Your progress” is second person singular. The progress Paul desires is progress in the way that Timothy practices his ministry.

Not just improvement in ministry skills

But not only in his public ministry does Paul want to see progress. This chapter is also where Paul tells his son in the faith to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Tim 4:7). He tells him to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Paul is equally concerned about making sure that Timothy is making progress in his personal life as a follower of Jesus, living out his faith before a watching world.

So “these matters” are referring to both Timothy’s life of godliness and his ministry of passing on the message of the Gospel. These two matters are rooted in his calling and responsibility before God. Timothy is expected to give himself fully to this calling. But he is not just to keep doing the same things, but to keep getting better at what he is doing and how he is living.

Progress is expected

Why did I say that this was a startling challenge to Timothy? While this was a letter to Timothy, it is clear that he was expected to read it to the whole church. It was not a private letter, and this was not a private challenge or word of admonition. Timothy’s congregation in Ephesus was going to hear that Paul was expecting progress in Timothy’s life and ministry. In other words, Paul is telling Timothy, “I want to see you get better, and I want your church to know that I am expecting you to get better. I want them to see that you are getting better.” How about that for motivation for change!

Note what Paul does not say. He does not tell Timothy to be diligent so everyone might see his commitment. Paul is not primarily talking about how many hours Timothy works or how many meetings he organizes. He wants Timothy’s diligence to be intentionally focused on his own growth and development. Timothy is supposed to be diligent in improving his ministry skills and strengthening his personal example.

I am sure that all of us would say that we want to see progress in our lives and ministries. Unfortunately, although we desire growth, too often we end up settling for activity. Rather than everyone seeing that we are making progress, everyone can only see that we are busy, that we are doing lots of ministry. But are we actually doing ministry better and more effectively than last year?

Unfortunately, although we desire growth, too often we end up settling for activity. Rather than everyone seeing that we are making progress, everyone can only see that we are busy.

Progress is visible

From this passage, we can see that Paul believed growth and development in a servant of God should be observable. It is not only something private that happens in our minds and hearts. Others notice the difference.

What do we need to do to make sure that our progress is visible to others? It starts with us seeing our own areas of weakness. I believe that this requires a certain degree of vulnerability. We need to share our struggles and weaknesses with trusted colleagues.

But maybe even more helpful is inviting colleagues to give us honest feedback. Every June, we begin the process of annual performance appraisals. This year, rather than just evaluating those on my team, I have asked them to evaluate me as their team leader as well.

Inviting feedback

A few years ago at the end of my sabbatical, I asked my team leader the following three questions:

  1. What improvement would make the biggest difference in your evaluation of me and my potential in this organization?
  2. What contribution could I make that would have the most impact? What would I need to get better at in order to make that contribution?
  3. What would enable me to serve you better? What would I need to get better at to do so?

His answers were not easy to hear, but so very valuable. His response immediately gave me something to focus on in my upcoming individual growth plans.

Measuring progress

When others tell us what we are doing well and where we could improve, we can set markers and goals for the progress we aspire to. We can identify ways to measure whether we are growing or not. Sometimes measuring progress is simply a matter of going back to those same people after a year or two and asking them for feedback again.

In our training department, we can learn whether we are making progress by asking participants in our training events to fill out an evaluation on whether the desired outcomes were accomplished.1 See another blog post on evaluating training. We also ask them to evaluate each facilitator. We actually have 45 minutes on the schedule for the sole purpose of giving all participants adequate time to fill out the evaluation. As facilitators, we were the teachers, but we also want to be learners and find out how we can improve.

One of the ways that I have been able to track growth in my own personal life is by reading my journals from past years. From my journal, I can see how my concerns and issues have changed over time – or stayed the same.

Practice makes perfect

Growth and development (i.e. progress) does not happen automatically. As Paul told Timothy, it requires diligence. Diligence implies hard work, perseverance and intentionality.

Let’s start with being intentional. After we have identified some areas of growth, we need to set some concrete goals for what we want to improve. We need to admit that certain areas need growth, and then ask for prayer and guidance as we seek to improve in those areas. Inviting a coach or a mentor to assist us in our growth is a great step toward being intentional about making progress. It also helps with making your progress visible. By finding a coach or mentor to help you, you will ensure that at least one other person will have a front-row seat in observing your growth and development.

Pursuing growth is similar to the process of physical training which Paul has just referenced earlier in the chapter (1 Tim 4:7-8).

7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:7–8 – NIV (2011)

Training to improve

In these verses, the Greek words translated as “train” and “training” are actually the words from which we get the English word “gymnasium”. “Gymnasia” is physical exercise which serves as training or preparation for competition. Paul says that this type of training is also possible in the realm of godliness.

To get better at something, practice is essential. When I was training to run a half-marathon a few years ago, I followed a prescribed training plan designed to develop my ability to complete such a race. As I pushed myself to run a little further each week, I began to see significant improvements in my endurance and my speed.2 See my blog post on how the right amount of stress is critical for the training effect.

We can see progress in our godliness as we practice the spiritual disciplines on a consistent basis. The same is true about ministry skills. You know, I do not enjoy reading my old sermons from 40 years ago. Those first attempts at preaching make me cringe today. I am sure many of you can readily identify with that sentiment. I believe that I can honestly say that I am a much better preacher today. Obviously, some of my progress is due to further training in seminary but mostly it is simply due to practice.

The need for deliberate practice

Grit

Practice makes perfect, but only if the practice is deliberate practice.

A few days ago, I finished reading the book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth. Duckworth argues rather convincingly that progress and superior performance is not primarily due to talent but rather grit. She defines grit as a combination of both passion and sustained persistence in accomplishing some high-level goals that are really important to the person.

She further asserts that gritty people engage in “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is a structured activity with the intentional and specific goal of improving performance. Deliberate practice is not generally enjoyable because it pushes us to do something repeatedly that we are not good at. It is not just about putting in the hours of practice. Rather, it is about focusing on practicing specific actions that need improvement and getting feedback from others as you are practicing. Deliberate practice is similar to what I described as “intentional suffering” in a previous post about resilience.

As cross-cultural workers, when do we engage in deliberate practice in order to see progress in our lives and ministry? I think back to language school. We were drilled in saying certain phrases until we could say them perfectly, and with minimal accent. I remember the hours I would spend in practicing and rewriting sermons in Russian. Then I would preach those sermons over and over again in various churches I would visit. Are there other ministry skills that you are practicing deliberately? Are you seeking to improve by doing them over and over again until you can do them without stumbling?

Staying with one thing

But grit is not just about deliberate practice. Perseverance is also a key component of grit and essential to improving and seeing progress. Progress is visible in those who follow through. Those who switch to playing another instrument or learning another language every other year do not see their skills develop in the same way as those who persevere with one and do not switch. No matter how passionate you are about your latest interest, progress only comes to those who persist year after year in honing and developing their skills in one particular field.

At some length, Duckworth talks about the correlation between greater success in life and multi-year persistence in one specific extra-curricular activity in high school. High school students who played a particular sport for only a year, and then dropped it to try something else next year were not as successful in college as those who persisted in one extracurricular activity for multiple years. It didn’t matter what type of extracurricular activity – tennis, student government, ballet, etc. The important thing was that they persevered and kept working on their skills in that one area.

The need for perseverance

Paul says somewhat the same thing to Timothy.

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 4:16 – NIV (2011)

Perseverance is an important theme in Paul’s letters to Timothy. Paul was totally convinced that faithfulness to the truth and faithfulness to one’s calling were absolutely essential and the need of the hour. And faithfulness meant perseverance, even in the face of hardship and persecution. One does not receive the reward unless one remains faithful to the end. These were treacherous times for a minister of the Gospel, but Paul emphasized that Timothy was to join Paul in suffering for the gospel and continue to proclaim that gospel despite the opposition (2 Tim 1:8, 2:3). He obviously loved his son in the faith, but he did not soften his message of endurance. In fact, because he loved Timothy so much, he wanted to make sure that Timothy did not neglect his calling and fail to realize his full potential as a messenger chosen by God. Thus, perseverance was critical.

Progress in ministry results

A blog series earlier this year talked about the need for resilience in cross-cultural missionaries. I noted there that the biblical word for resilience is probably perseverance. I was also intrigued by a recent podcast interview on the same topic with Dick Brogden on the Global Missions Podcast. In that interview Brogden declared that in his experience, it typically takes 10 years to gain traction among an unreached people group. Only after a decade does a missionary begin to see significant fruit. It just takes a long time to understand the culture, language and needs of a people group well enough so that we clearly see how the Gospel is Good News for them. Hence it is critical for cross-cultural workers to be resilient and to persevere.

But as Brogden noted, unfortunately, the average missionary career is only 7 years long – and that number is declining. This means that many missionaries are leaving before they really begin to see breakthroughs among unreached peoples. You may not agree with Brogden’s numbers nor with his suggestions for building resilience among missionaries. But I think we can all agree that there are some clear benefits to persevering in working with one unreached people group. The harvest will come in God’s time. But we need to persevere in sharing the message and love of Jesus to see that harvest. Only as we persevere will we see progress and growth, both in who we are as messengers and our skill in communicating that message.

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