As we missionaries come to the end of a term and reflect on its ups and downs, we often wonder whether it has been a good term and if we have been successful.
My wife and I are currently nearing the end of our fourth term in Japan with OMF International. We have done three home assignments and are facing our fourth relatively soon. We too have pondered the above questions before each home assignment.
However, through reading a famous missionary biography and the Bible, I think there are a couple of key qualities for evaluating missionary success.
A missionary to a different country, in a different age
The question “What is missionary success?” surfaces throughout my favourite missionary biography. He was a single missionary in a culture that expected religious people to be married. Not a good start, but he was certain that God had sent him.
He spoke the language really well, but the people did not grasp what he was saying. He spoke simply using appropriate stories and illustrations. He contextualised his message, but his foreign ways confused some and angered others. Like us, he encountered spiritual blindness on every side and even demonic activity.
He did just one term of service and even that was shorter than those of most long-term cross-cultural workers these days. For the most part, his small church loved him, and he served them faithfully. But his sermons were either really short or rather long.
For me, one of the most moving incidents of his life occurs towards the end of his term. The biography tells of him agonizing with God in prayer about whether his term could be extended. Some of us have been in a similar place.
He did all that God asked him to do. But if you look at what he left behind immediately after his one field term, by most methods of evaluation, you could not really say he was a great success as a missionary.
The missionary’s name? Jesus of Nazareth.
In the gospels, we often read of Jesus having a sense of being a missionary, of being sent from heaven to earth to proclaim—and indeed to be—the gospel. But in John 13, it seems that Jesus is particularly aware that he will soon be going back on home assignment to heaven.
So what might that passage sound like if we updated it and reworded it to take in this “Jesus the missionary” perspective?
Jesus knew that his home assignment was coming and that he would go back to his home country. Having loved those on the field, he loved them to the very last breath of his term of service.
At Jesus’ farewell meal with his church leaders at a local restaurant, the devil had already prompted one of those leaders to betray Jesus.
Jesus knew that, by God’s grace, he had great influence on this field and that he had come from the true home country and was returning there, so he got up from the meal and went out into the kitchen with the other waiters. He took off his tie, hung up his suit jacket and put on a dirty apron that another waiter had used.
Jesus then returned to the table and began to clear away each of the church leader’s dirty dishes and plates. He also got down on his hands and knees and wiped up the food they had dropped.
Was Jesus a missionary failure? Of course not.
Why was he successful? From John 13, we can say that Jesus was a successful missionary because he loved sacrificially and served humbly.
This is how to evaluate missionary success. It is not fantastic numbers, impressive results, or great cultural understanding, but sacrificial love and humble service.
May our lives, wherever we serve, have these qualities in abundance.