The Measure of Missionary Success

A friend in Zambia once told me a story.

An old, childless king wanted an heir. He selected 10 village boys, bringing them to his court. “I have one test,” he said. “Whoever is most successful will become my adopted son and heir to my throne.” He gave each boy a handful of small seeds, instructing them to return home and to plant and nurture the seeds according to his instructions—and then to come show him the results. The 10 boys took their seeds and ran home to plant them. 

In one home, the boy and his parents were saddened when the seeds didn’t sprout. The boy had diligently done everything the king told him, but he failed. His friends advised him to buy other seeds and plant them instead, but his God-fearing parents had taught him honesty, so he refused. 

The day came for the boys to reveal their results to the king. The other nine boys had succeeded; they had pots of flowers. The king went to each boy, asking, “Is that what came out of the seeds I gave you?” And each boy replied, “Yes, Your Majesty.” The king nodded and moved down the line until he came to the last boy and his barren pot. “What did you do with the seeds I gave you?” the king asked. Trembling with fear, the boy replied, “I planted and cared for them, Your Majesty, just as you instructed. But they did not sprout.” To the boy’s surprise, the king smiled, took his hand, and made his way to the throne. “I gave all these boys the seeds of the Sun Fire flower,” he declared, “which does not sprout in the year it’s first planted. If a king must have one quality, it is faithfulness. This boy has succeeded and passed the test.”

Apostles of Speed

Let’s be honest: faithfulness is not the first synonym that springs to mind when we hear the word success.

Over the past 20 years, a proliferation of new missionary methods has shifted the definition of missionary success. Increasingly, I meet missionaries for whom success seems to be one thing: a rapid movement of exponential, numerical growth in converts or gatherings. These aren’t just folks trying to take a shortcut—many are unwittingly on a different road altogether. Other missionaries may aim to obey God through faithful evangelism, serious discipleship, and patient church planting. Yet these “movement missionaries” tend to look down on such small goals.

Now, unlike the dishonest boys in the story, these apostles of speed seem to have the best of intentions and no desire to deceive. Instead, I fear they’re the ones being deceived, pulled away by a fixation on rapid results and a natural human desire to see immediate ministry fruit. As a result, I fear many mistake immediate visible results for lasting eternal fruit, which can be long-ripening on the tree. 

Faithfulness, Missions, and Missionaries

Like the boy with the barren pot—the one who faithfully followed the king’s directions, even when flowers weren’t appearing—I want to honor the missionary who keeps to the proven path of urgently patient faithfulness. And I think many are drawn to dubious promises of rapid methods because many of us have failed to champion this biblical alternative. Thoughtful, biblical, urgent-yet-patient faithfulness is the missionary method that has been, and will continue to be, the engine of lasting gospel fruit until Christ returns. And I believe it’s the approach that gives God, the ultimate actor in all missions, the greatest glory. 

Thoughtful, biblical, urgent-yet-patient faithfulness is the missionary method that has been, and will continue to be, the engine of lasting gospel fruit until Christ returns.

What do I mean by urgently patient faithfulness in missions? I’m talking about missionaries who take the time to learn a new language and a new culture, who share the gospel accurately and boldly (sometimes for years before seeing fruit), who disciple new converts carefully, all while themselves serving in or leading a local church. They know the task is urgent, so they labor vigorously. And they know the work is in God’s hand, so they endure patiently.

These missionaries resist shortcuts and refuse to demand exponential growth. Yes, it can seem painfully slow to train up qualified leaders and to help gather healthy, biblically ordered churches. There’s a reason why the apostle Paul’s most sober missionary instruction to Timothy was to minister “with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). We would all rather see exponential growth than the slower growth that normally characterizes faithful ministry. But the rate of increase is in God’s hand; our assignment is to be found faithful (1 Cor. 4:2).

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

From more than 20 years of involvement in international missions, I’m convinced that careful, sometimes slow-moving workers are the quiet conduits for most of the real—that is, lasting—missions fruit around the world.

I’m convinced that careful, sometimes slow-moving missionaries are the quiet conduits for most of the real—that is, lasting—gospel fruit around the world.

So think twice about supporting missionaries who mainly talk about speed, mass movements, and rapid church planting. Instead, if you know a missionary aiming first and foremost to be faithful to the Bible, honor them. If you know a missionary working hard while resisting temptations toward sub-biblical techniques in dry and fruitless times, encourage them. Support such persons with your money, your time, and your prayer. Remember, the one who reports the most speedy results may not in fact be the most successful worker.

The faithful missionary has their eye on the best and most lasting harvest, which will come in God’s time—if we listen to our King. 

Written by: ANDY JOHNSON

First published 26.05.20:

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