“A real live missionary.” That’s the introduction that my wife and I often get when we speak at churches. Many “average” Christians can’t imagine a holier person than one who would leave family and home to take the gospel to the nations. The stories of the missionary heroes of old have led many churches to think we hung up our halos and capes before we stepped into the pulpit. Almost as if they believe that our super missionary powers will emanate God’s glory while we’re with them.
When I look at my own life, I see a different story. It’s a tale filled with selfish ambition that leads to loads of sin and heaps of shame. I have often worked with a temptation to do God’s job for him by measuring numbers and results. I’ve worked to make a name for myself in doing his work.
Time and again, I am reminded that even missionaries find pride, selfishness, and wrong motives lurking at their heart’s door. Fortunately, the Bible is not silent on the issue of selfish ambition and pride in missions. From the beginning of Paul’s missionary endeavors, some men preached Christ with wrong motives (Philippians 1:15–18). Paul also warned us about super-apostles who boast in their work rather than Christ (2 Corinthians 11).
A Vision Toward Greater Joy
After 15 years of overseas service, I believe God offers a better way. His grace roots ministry in the sufficiency of the gospel. God offers a joy that transcends success in missions. When Jesus sent out the 72, he fixed their attention not on passing results but on a precious reality. He reminded them that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:1–20).
Only this eternal truth of God’s love can produce a deep and lasting joy despite fluctuations in the pace of performance, productivity, or even progress in sanctification. I believe this was missing from much of my work, and I want a better way for others in the future. I offer eight re-orienting visions below.
Missionaries Should See Jesus as Our Treasure
Paul models this point. As much as he wanted to complete the missionary task (Acts 20:24), he wanted to press on to know Christ even more (Philippians 3:8–10).
Christ, not the nations, is the pearl of greater price for which wise missionaries sell all.
Paul even considers the amazing task of reaching the Gentiles (nations) as something he’s content to lose. Christ, not the nations, is the pearl of greater price for which wise missionaries sell all.
Missionaries Should See Faithful Stewardship as Success
In 1 Corinthians 4:1–2, Paul described himself as a steward of the mysteries of God and a servant of Christ. Missionaries must seek faithfulness to Jesus over fruitfulness in the most common metrics. Pressure to produce, whether internal or external, must yield to a passion for holiness and deep sharing of both the gospel and their lives. Re-oriented missionaries ask, “Am I faithfully proclaiming God’s truth in all my relationships?” and “Am I fully obeying King Jesus in all of life?”
Missionaries Should See All Their Accomplishments as Sheer Grace
The joy of mission rests purely in the triumph of grace over the world, the flesh, and the devil. The grace of Christ does the work through us (Romans 15:18–19). Thus, any ambition must be tethered to a guarantee of future grace (Romans 15:20–21).
There remains no room for boasting, swagger, or self-promotion in the work of God’s kingdom. As God would not permit Israel (Deuteronomy 8), Gideon, (Judges 7), or even Herod (Acts 12) to steal his glory, he will not share his praise with missionaries or our often well-intentioned methodologies. And He could do nothing better for us.
Missionaries Should See Ministry Motives as More Important Than Ministry Results
Recent scandals involving ministers of the gospel prove “successful” ministries can grow despite weak character. Blessings prove harder to handle than sufferings. We can see this clearly in the life of Solomon, the book of Judges, and the history of God’s blessing to Israel.
Recent scandals involving ministers of the gospel prove “successful” ministries can grow despite weak character.
Stumbling missionaries like me have reached whole people groups despite our unhealthy heart motives. It would serve all of us to spend time with them, asking the Spirit of God to use the word of God to expose our hearts. I’ve found David Powlison’s X-ray questions useful for self-examination.
Missionaries Should See Their Limitations as Blessings in Disguise
I’ve never met a missionary who expects to faithfully sow gospel seed and see little or no fruit. Proponents of church planting movements (CPM), disciple-making movements (DMM), and other rapid-growth techniques have trained missionaries to expect big numbers and quick fruit. Yet neither history nor Scripture would bear witness to massive movements of God that began because someone sought a massive movement of God.
God has always worked through humble disciples who are prayerful and persevering. Viewing ourselves as mere mortals, and the work as often slow but always worthwhile, will help us live like humans participating in God’s kingdom rather than demi-gods building our own.
Missionaries Should Be Involved in Local Churches in Their Places of Service
Nearly all the struggles missionaries face should be addressed in the context of the local church. Many overseas workers see membership in a church with others who speak their native language as a distraction to their work overseas rather than a useful component.
Worse yet, they often treat involvement with any local church as a hindrance to obeying God’s call on their lives rather than the starting point of it. Neglecting accountable engagement with a local church is a sure path to disaster. God has designed the local church, not the missionary team or sending organization, to be the primary place missionaries learn how to live the Christian life, mature together in Christ, and submit to godly authority.
The local church is the place where those proclaiming the gospel learn to live out the implications of the gospel with others (Ephesians 3, Matthew 18). Missionaries, like every other Christian, only grow to maturity with a local body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1–16, 1 Peter 2:1–12).
Pastors Should See Missionaries Through Their Unique Temptations
Pastors and elders can play an invaluable role in guarding against idolizing the missionary task, which can sacrifice spouses and children on the altar of kingdom work. They must challenge missionaries to be disciple-makers at home as well as among the nations, to live out both Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 28.
They must help missionaries find rest in the gospel by living as abiding disciples even as they make disciples. Without pastoral care, missionaries can devolve into slaves of the mission, or even their sending organizations, rather than servants of Jesus.
Church Members Should Treat Them as Sinners and Sufferers, Not Spiritual Superheroes
Missionaries need spiritual families who are unimpressed with them. They, like every other Christian, must have brothers and sisters who are committed to their growth in holiness and patient with their slow progress toward Christ-likeness. Those caring for and walking with missionaries must be willing to ask them hard questions, dive below the surface, and wade into the deep waters of the heart (Proverbs 20:5).
We can win the nations without losing our souls.
By God’s grace, there is hope for those of us called and compelled to live among the nations. We can win the nations without losing our souls. God’s desire is that his sent-out ones grow in their love for Christ, learn how to rest in their acceptance, which flows from the gospel, and root their work in the power of God’s grace.
Jesus delights to pull down idols in order to make room for more of himself in our lives. He ever lives to magnify his glory and our joy in him, not just in other countries but also in the hearts of his servants serving there. By his grace, we can learn to say together. “Let the missionaries be glad.”