Many Christians would agree that missions is important. However, when we look below the surface and start getting into specifics, we find that there is little consensus on what “missions” even means.
Christians ought to be living lives of personal obedience to Christ and leading all kinds of efforts to steward God’s resources well and to seek general human flourishing. However, the mission that we have been given by Christ is to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19). When we talk about missions, there must be a focus on the proclamation of the gospel.
Even with that said, there is great disagreement in terms of how we ought to carry out this mission. Many, seeing the need, are eager to promote novel strategies that aim to see the evangelization of the world completed in the least possible time, and these people often generate very impressive numbers. However, impressive numbers can distract us from the reality that the work needed to carry the gospel to the least reached peoples and places will take long, slow, patient work. The way the Lord normally works is through faithful men and women who are willing to measure their success in fidelity to the Scriptures rather than easily quantifiable metrics.
The End Goal
The end goal of missions is to proclaim the name of Christ where He is not worshipped and to make disciples and see churches planted among every tribe and tongue and people and nation. While there are some deep disagreements between proponents of varying methodologies, most of us can agree on some things. We are eager to see disciples raised up and churches planted. Jesus is coming quickly and the need is urgent. However, the motive of urgency by itself can become far too man-centered.
Relying solely on needs-based motivation for missions threatens to squeeze the life out of the missionary and turn the Great Commission into a list of numbers on a spreadsheet. The fuel for faithful and enduring gospel proclamation is not the urgent need of man but the exceeding worthiness and glory of God. We are also strengthened by the knowledge that while we have a part to play, the work is the Lord’s (Ephesians 2:1–10). If the success of a gospel endeavor depended on the strength of the minister or missionary, it would fail every time. But the power to call dead hearts to life and open blind eyes belongs to God and God alone; he is the one who works for his own glory. As one pastor has said, divine sovereignty is the fuel of death-defying missions.
The Measure of Success
In addition to having the right goal, we also need to have the right measure of success. For the missionary, success is not tied to speed or results but faithfulness to God and his Word. Scripture teaches that the primary qualifications for Christian leaders are not gifts or skill but faithful character (1 Timothy 3:1–13, Titus 1:5–9). If we want to measure our success accurately, then character is a good place to start.
Our success should also be determined by how we carry out the missionary task. God’s Word has much to teach us here too. Most of the books of the New Testament are in fact letters written by missionaries and frontier church leaders to newly planted churches and young gospel ministers. God in his providence has inspired and preserved them for our instruction. May we listen to them and measure our success not in speed or numbers but in faithfulness.
If the goal of missions is to raise up worshippers for God from every corner of the earth, then it is easy to feel an urge to go, go, go. But speed is not an end in itself. There are times when the Spirit brings supernatural revival and lends wings to a gospel effort. When this happens, praise God! He is the only one who can do it and he receives all the glory! But when speed becomes a goal or even a feature of our plans, it can lead to cutting corners and minimizing the clear teachings of Scripture.
The Long View
Among the hardest to reach people, we need missionaries who are willing to do long, hard work with only the approbation of God to spur them on. Sometimes an emphasis on speed can be motivated, whether consciously or unconsciously, by reporting structures meant to foster accountability. While gospel workers ought to be accountable to the churches that have sent them, both the sent and the sender would do well to remember that above all we are accountable to God for our faithfulness and obedience. In the end, doing something because it would make for a good Facebook post or an impressive newsletter is a poor motivation. The power to change a heart or raise up leaders qualified for ministry—whether it happens quickly or slowly—belongs to God alone.
The work of ministry is by its very nature slow and difficult. It is not fundamentally different in a different part of the world. The specifics may look a little different, but the task is the same. Gospel proclamation, discipleship, and counseling can often feel like one step forward and two steps back. But a faithful minister of the gospel needs to be prepared to labor in lean seasons and in plenty, being driven ultimately by a love for God. Some may offer a solution that’s quick and easy, and they may report incredible numbers. But don’t be distracted by the glitz. For people who live according to a book that is centuries old and unchanging, innovation is not a virtue.