Many missionaries are plagued by doubt. Not usually about the message. At least, not most of the missionaries I’ve interacted with. But they have deep misgivings about their ministry. It is not uncommon for a missionary of many years to wonder if they’ve had any impact at all and to say something like, “What am I even doing here?”
The reason is, not surprisingly, related to the harvest. In their years of service, many missionaries have reaped far less than they bargained for. They can point to very few (or no) tangible examples of evangelistic fruit. They’ve done some stuff, sure, but if they left today, what traces of their work would remain?
This angst—from what I gather from missions books, conferences, blog posts, and personal interactions—is resolved in one of three ways. One, people quit and go home. It didn’t pan out like we hoped, so let’s go back home where we feel more fruitful. Two, people resort to redefining things. Maybe the problem is that what we thought was a church is actually all wrong and we actually need to be establishing seeker-community-peace-people-group groups. Maybe the problem is that what we need to rethink what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Three, people discover the call of faithfulness. So, the harvest isn’t what we thought it would be like. Will we then abandon the mission that God has entrusted to us? By no means! We may not understand why he wants us to man this post, but we believe that he will bring good and glory out of it.
My family has lived now for a couple years in what could be safely classified as a ‘low-fruit-yield’ context. There’s no dramatic, large-scale movement to be observed here. As a result, I’ve felt that dark cloud of purpose-angst. It’s not like the fruit we saw in China. (And, of course, the fruit there was limited compared to a lot of other parts of the harvest, too.)
So what is to be done? Clearly, the third solution is the best of those three listed above. Patient labor is key for missions. First, because our confidence in the gospel must never succumb to a negative-expectation bias. Ten thousand sinners rejecting the gospel before today doesn’t change at all God’s total ability to save the sinner I encounter today! So we must press on. Second, because we are not ultimately in the service of sinners, but in the service of the Savior. We live to glorify him through circumstances that humble us, weary us, and confuse us. So we must press on. And for a host of other reasons, which other people have enumerated elsewhere for our edification.
But I want to offer a word of caution. And not to everybody. There are plenty of people who just need to be encouraged to continue on faithfully. But there are some who should not too quickly take refuge in consistency, as if God is always pleased with people who do the same thing for a very long time. Faithfulness isn’t just continuing; it is continuing in right things. There are some of us missionaries who frankly need to start doing some other things. In other words, just because we’re missionaries and we presumably have the best of intentions, this does not mean that we get a passing grade.
Briefly, I find it bewildering that missionaries are so quickly told that whatever they’re doing, it’s just fine. By way of contrast, we generally have no trouble exhorting pastors to scrutinize their service and to make changes to fulfill their biblical duties. And regardless, it is my experience that most missionaries do, in fact, endlessly mull over their own effectiveness. Hence, the angst.
Maybe we can identify some of the reasons that missionaries are not challenged as robustly as ministers of the gospel back home. First, missionaries are rightly honored for their sacrifice of leaving home. It feels inappropriate to expose those who have made such sacrifices to too much scrutiny. Second, missionaries work in an unfamiliar context. Ministers back home know something of what gospel faithfulness looks like for pastors, but they may not know what to expect out of a missionary. Related to this is a general failure to define the goal of missions clearly. ‘Whatever you’re accomplishing over there,’ they might say, ‘I’m sure it’s glorifying God and growing his kingdom.’
Well, as a missionary, I don’t think that we should be the only ministers of the gospel exempt from examination. Just as a pastor may fail to shepherd faithfully—fail in teaching, fail in loving, fail in praying, fail in serving, fail in leading, fail in evangelism—so too a missionary may fail in his work, too.
It’s hard to continue this post without delving into what ought to be expected of us as missionaries. Let me just say that by ‘fail,’ I don’t mean ‘fail to plant lots of churches’ or ‘fail to win many converts’ or ‘fail to change his society.’ Instead I mean ‘fail to sow.’ That is, ‘fail to engage unbelievers with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.’
If you are wrestling with purpose angst, if you ask yourself often ‘what am I even doing here?’, if you wonder if you have done what you should as a missionary, you should start by considering your sowing work. Have you restricted your sowing to a particular group—one small town, one small congregation, one small people group, a small group of contacts you’ve made? Have you left off sowing for some other role? Have you come up with some scheme to spare yourself the work of sowing? Have you given up on sowing and filled your hours with other pursuits?
I’m not arguing that this is the only important consideration. But if you wrestle with purpose angst, you ought to start here. If you sow abundantly, then take heart and stay faithful! If you sow sparingly, consider some ways that you might do more. This has been helpful for me in our new field of ministry. When I feel like I’m accomplishing little, it is a reminder to take stock of our sowing efforts. I usually find that there is much more we could be doing to sow the gospel.
Lord of the harvest, don’t let us just occupy your fields, but make us your laborers, declaring your gospel to those who are far away from you.