My Ministry Isn’t Always Successful: What Missionaries Are Hesitant to Talk About

Before you start reading, take a moment and make a mental list of several missionaries you know or are aware of. Maybe they’ve visited your church in the past or even come to your home for a meal. Perhaps you receive their regular newsletters or have heard them give reports about how their ministry is going. Have you ever heard any of them express feelings like these?

I started a Bible study, but it fizzled out after a few months because everyone quit coming. Maybe it was because of me.  

I worked for weeks to plan an evangelism event, but on the day of the event only five people actually showed up.

I thought I was making progress with the relationships in my sphere before COVID, but now everyone seems really distant because we’ve been in lockdown for months. I feel like I will have to start over.

I’ve tried countless times to schedule one-on-one Bible reading with a friend who says he’s interested but always cancels at the last minute. We’ve never managed to meet.

I’ve been studying this language for several years now, but with young kids at home I just don’t have much time to practice. I’m never going to be able to communicate with people here.

Our team has been trying to start a church plant, but it doesn’t seem to be able to get off the ground because of COVID.

The particulars of these scenarios might change depending on the part of the world in which the missionary serves, but the overall struggle remains the same: Sometimes we missionaries feel like failures. We see our current situations as being very different perhaps than what we had imagined before we moved to the field, or we look at the ministry desires we have and don’t understand why God isn’t bringing them to fruition.

Then we remember that we need to write our next newsletter. What can we say to you, our faithful supporters, that won’t be a disappointment? Or maybe we have just arrived in the States for our HMA and have plans to speak at several churches, dear congregations of God’s people who want to hear of His work abroad. How can we be interesting and engaging but also honest? Once again, we’re hit with the feeling of failure.

If you know several missionaries, I can guarantee that at some of them struggle with these thoughts regularly. Or perhaps quite often.

Our Perception of Success

A few weeks ago, our pastor preached a sermon from Luke 10, the passage recounting when Jesus sent out the 72 into the towns of Israel and told them that the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few. He gave them some instructions and pronounced some words of judgment on those who would reject their message. The narrative jumps immediately in verse 17 to the disciples’ return from this evangelistic outing; they came back joyful that they had seen Jesus’ power at work. People had been healed. Demons had been cast out. They group had had what we would likely call success.

Jesus meets them in their joy in verses 17-18 but then says a remarkably encouraging thing in verse 19: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, “Don’t get too caught up in what you perceive to be success. Remember that the real reason for your joy should be your eternal status.” When our pastor pointed out this verse, a couple of trains of thought started rolling in my mind. First of all, Jesus in His grace gently gives us a reminder to be humble when ministry thrives. As wonderful and exciting as it is to see ministry events succeed, our hearts must find it infinitely more wonderful to remember that our names are written in heaven, that we have been given family status with the Lord of all the earth. 

But the second train of thought circled back to the issues expressed above. If my ultimate joy should be that my name is written in heaven, not in what I perceive to be success here on earth, then that ultimate joy should not be dampened in the seasons that feel more like failures. Ministry success or failure cannot and does not change the fact that my name is written in heaven, engraved on the palm of my Savior’s hand. 

Even as missionaries we’re tempted to view the ideas of success and failure through the world’s eyes, and sometimes the pressure of giving reports and coming up with interesting stories to tell heightens the temptation to fall into that mindset. However, we must continually take our struggles back to Scripture and remind ourselves what we’re called to do, and we need your help, as those who support and pray for us, in this effort. Are we called to succeed, or are we called to obey and be faithful? 

Simply Walking With Jesus

The familiar passage in Ephesians 2:8-9 declares that our salvation comes to us by grace through faith in Jesus, not as a result of our works. Verse 10 then tells us that, as new creations, saved totally by grace, God calls us, in response, to good works. Not just any good works either, but rather those “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” He has prepared work for us to do. It strikes me that the passage does not say about these good works, “that we should succeed in them.” We’re just called to walk in them.

I find that particular word selection very reassuring and comforting when I find myself fighting feelings of failure. God has called us to walk in obedience and faithfulness where we are and to do the good works that He gives us to do. Those good works will likely vary depending on the season and stage of our lives, but we will always have them. He promises to be with us and to be faithful even when we are not. What He does not do is place the burden of the outcome of the good works on our shoulders. That weight He carries; we walk in His strength and in the joy of our eternal hope, and He receives the glory. 

These truths are gloriously true for all of God’s people, not just vocational missionaries. I pray you take courage in the work the Lord has laid before you today, regardless of what it happens to be, and that you define your successes and failures in biblical terms. But I also pray that you might have the opportunity to encourage a missionary friend, as you do yourself, with the reality of his or her name being written in heaven and the freedom found in being obedient and faithful and in letting the Lord do His work. 

Katy B. serves with MTW in Belgium. 




Katy B. Apr 13, 2021
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