I vividly remember one particular discussion in an Introduction to Church Planing class while in seminary. We were talking about a statistic that showed the average life of house churches was 18 months. During the discussion I raised my hand and asked why house churches were not more successful. The response of the professor has always stuck with me. He replied, “Well, I guess that depends on how you define success. If success is being around for 100 years then there are a lot of churches that no longer preach the gospel that we would be forced to call successful. I’m just not sure that is how the Bible defines success in ministry. However, if a group of people gather together as a church for two years, reach some of the lost, make disciples, grow together, and then move on, was that not a successful church?”
His point was clear when it comes to church planting, we must not define success simply by longevity and I would argue that we also must not define success in missions by longevity. Yes, staying the course and carrying out one’s calling can be an important part of having greater ministry impact in missions, but it is possible for a missionary to be on the field for many years and not have much gospel impact, or worse, leave a trail of destruction wherever he goes. In fact, we have seen this firsthand. We have seen people who seem to have a lot of potential as missionaries leave ‘early,’ while others who seem to continually have problems with nationals, other missionaries, do not have much ministry output, and/or have overall poor missions approaches continue on for years.
Why does this happen? Why does the Lord send some with such great potential back to the US while He allows others who may not be best suited for this type of ministry to stay? Ultimately, we do not know. There are many reasons why people leave the mission field earlier than expected such as family issues, lack of theological or cross-cultural preparation, health problems, and lack of funding, just to name a few. Often times those who return to the US ‘early’ do so with a lot of shame and embarrassment while those who helped to send them have many questions as to why so much money was spent on someone who was gone for such a short time.
I firmly believe these feelings often come from a misunderstanding of how we define success on the mission field, or in ministry for that matter. Interestingly enough, Jesus does not define success by our typical standards — longevity or numbers. If he did, he would have been seen as very unsuccessful. After all, his ministry only lasted three years and he only had twelve disciples and one those deserted him.
So, how does Jesus define success? Faithfulness (see Matthew 25:14-29). Jesus desires that his servants are faithful — faithful with what he gives them to carry out their ministry wherever he has them and ultimately faithful to Jesus himself. Almost, everybody would agree with that statement but the confusion comes when we realize that, perhaps, God only puts some people on the mission field for a short season before moving them back to the US.
Why would He do that? I am not at all sure. Perhaps, He will use that experience to help others who are preparing to go to the mission field. Perhaps, He primarily wanted to show that person/family something about Himself or themselves that they could only learn wherever He sent them. It is impossible to know the answer to that question except to know that God can do what He wants, how He wants to do it, and it will always be for the good of His children. The important thing is that no matter how long the missionary is on the field they simply must be faithful to Jesus, personally and in their ministry.
This became a stark realization to me when my wife, Betsy, and I were preparing to take steps to go to the mission field several years ago. At that time I was one of the pastors in what would become our sending church and I was talking through our thoughts and desires on the subject with the other pastors of the church to get their feedback. At one point during the meeting I confidently stated, “We want to make sure we are on the field for the rest of our lives.”
I will never forget how one of the other pastors responded to that statement that I thought was surely the right way to think. He looked me right in the eyes and said, “Trevor, that is one of the most foolish things I have ever heard you say. Your desire should be to do what God wants you to do, as long as He wants you to do it, wherever He wants you to do it. So, if He wants you on the mission field for the rest of your life, that is great. However, if He wants you there for two years or ten years and then He wants you back in the US, you better be faithful to Him.”
I am so thankful for that word of sound advice, along with the gentle challenge from my seminary professor, because those perspectives on success in ministry have given me a great freedom from a wrong view of success. Longevity does not equal success in missions. Success is being faithful to Jesus, doing what He wants you to do, wherever He wants you to do it. Thus, my prayer is that churches remember this when missionaries they sent return ‘home’. I pray that the same people who attended the party to send them off are celebrating their return and encouraging them to continue to serve the Lord where He has them in their next season of life and ministry.