Measuring a Missionary’s Success
In 1793, William Carey – the Father of Modern Missions – set sail for India to never return home. His purpose was simple: to make the gospel known to the heathen, a task that many had said should be of no concern to him. Carey cared deeply for the lost. When you read his main missiological work, An Enquiry, you can see in his words an undying burden, particularly for those who had no access to the gospel. He said that it should be every Christian’s desire “to use every lawful method to spread the knowledge of [God’s] name.” His reason for writing this short work was to stir a nation’s desire – and in turn, the world’s desire – to make the gospel known to the unreached people of the world. While acknowledging that some attempts were being made in missions, his conclusion of those attempts was still thus: “[They] are inconsiderable in comparison of what might be done if the whole body of Christians entered heartily into the spirit of the divine command.” Thankfully, Carey was just the first of many faithful missionaries who would go forth in what Kenneth Latourette called “The Great Century of Missions.”
When No One Repents
Out of all the lessons we can learn from Carey and others during that time, one of the greatest is on missionary success. That is, what should be the response of missionaries – and all Christian workers for that matter – when our efforts to share the gospel seem to result in little “success?” What do we do when no one is responding to our message in faith and repentance? While Carey certainly knew he was called to go, this did not mean immediate results for him. During his first seven years on the field, Carey had a terrible hand dealt to him. His wife went estranged, mostly due to his own irresponsibility. He lost a child. His partner wasted away their resources. He was only able to devote a little time to the work of the mission. And worse than anything else, Carey didn’t see a single Indian come to faith in Christ – for seven years! How did he stay faithful to the mission? I am certain that what helped Carey through these difficult years, and on to his fruitful years of ministry in Serampore, was a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty over salvation.
Six years ago, I and a friend of mine served for six months in East Asia with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. During those six months, it was our sole purpose, every day, to go into a city of over ten million people and find someone to share the gospel with. That was the easy part. People were literally everywhere we looked – a true introvert’s nightmare! We were able to share with many people in our time there, 700 to be exact. When people hear this, they’re encouraged to know how many seeds of the gospel were sown among the lost. However, they’re less encouraged and typically shocked when they hear that only 7 of those 700 actually made a profession of faith; that’s a whopping 1% for those of you who are ill-equipped in math. On the reverse side, this means that 99% of the time, the gospel we preached was rejected. As well, it took a little over two and a half months – of preaching the gospel every day – before we saw one of the local people come to Christ. So you can imagine my dismay the first time I read that William Carey faced this daily rejection for seven, straight years.
As glamorous as Christian missions seem, they are typically far from it. To do the work of the Great Commission is immensely difficult. Sadly, short-term, humanitarian-based trips have become the norm, and with this, an over-romanticizing of missions has taken place. When one finally sees what mission work actually entails, he’s left shocked and speechless. The real work of missions consists of both broadly and particularly preaching the gospel message, with the ultimate intention of planting healthy, self-sustaining, indigenous churches. Typically, your days as a missionary are not going to consist of doing some construction with a dozen of your American friends with a fun day-trip in the city nearest you. It is hard, painstaking, longsuffering work. And so, one must be ready when the preaching of the gospel is met with fierce and constant rejection – maybe for two and a half months, maybe for seven years, or maybe for more. However, even with the likelihood of this, missionaries can rest easy whether the visible fruit of their labor is much or little. Why? Because God is sovereign over salvation.
Success as Faithfulness
Though this is certainly a theme throughout Scripture, there are three texts I want you to consider. First, in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul writes about the reconciliation that takes place between God and man, thus making us a “new creation” (v. 17). This reconciliation takes place because the one “who knew no sin” became sin for us, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). What a great and glorious truth to behold! What’s more, five words appear in verse 18 that give the missionary comfort in his pursuit to make the gospel known: “All this is from God.” The work of reconciliation that makes lost people a new creation is all due to God. He is over the salvation of His people. Our success should be found in our obedience and faithfulness to do what God has called us to do. Click To Tweet
Second, in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul addresses the division in the Corinthian church because some are following him, while others are following Apollos. To this, Paul says: “Neither he who plants (Paul) nor he who waters (Apollos) is anything” (v. 7). Essentially, he says that he and Apollos are nothing. Why? Well, Paul makes it clear here – like he does in 2 Corinthians 5 – that God is over salvation. He says that one plants the gospel seed, and another waters that gospel seed, but ultimately, it is “God who gives the growth” (v. 7). Our wages and reward for mission work are not for the number of people who come to Christ. Rather, Paul says that “each will receive his wages according to his labor” (v. 8, emphasis mine). Your job is simply to work; that is, plant and water the seed of the gospel. God will do with our work what He sees fit.
Third, in Matthew 13:1-23, Jesus tells a large group of people the “Parable of the Sower.” In this parable, Jesus describes four types of soil where seeds are thrown: hard paths, rocky soil, thorny soil, and good soil. Each of these soils represents different types of people who receive the gospel from the sower – in our case, the missionary. As missionaries sow the gospel seed, it will often fall on the hard path, the rocky soil, and the thorny soil. In each of these first three cases, the gospel is not truly believed in, so true conversion does not take place. But sometimes, the gospel – the same gospel that lands on the first three soils – lands on the good soil. Jesus says that “this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit” (v. 23). Metaphorically speaking, we cannot know those who are the good soil and those who are the bad. Without partiality or speculation, we preach the gospel to anyone who will listen, whether they turn out to be the elect or non-elect. At the end of this parable, Jesus says that the disciple made will then make more disciples, “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (v. 23). What’s interesting is that while one has much more to show for his efforts than the others, all three are still considered to be faithful, good soil. The missionary who only sees five come to Christ in a lifetime of work is just as faithful as someone like Billy Graham, who likely saw millions. The reason why is because both were faithful to do what they were called to do – share the gospel.
William Carey faced much suffering on the mission field, particularly in his preaching the gospel for seven years just to see none of its hearers come to Christ. But he was able to carry on because He believed in a God who was sovereign over his preaching of the gospel. Time after time, Carey wrote in his journal of his belief in God’s sovereignty, even over the bad things in his life. When he lost most of his work in a fire, Carey wrote: “The Lord has smitten us, he had a right to do so, and we deserve his corrections.” In the midst of this hardship, he declares: “I wish to submit to His sovereign will.” When Carey’s son, Felix, lost his wife and two sons in a severe storm while sailing, Carey said this: “I mourn for Felix in silence, and still tremble to think what may be the next stroke. I am dumb with silence because God has done it.” I think every day as Carey lied in bed thinking of those who had rejected the gospel he preached, that on his best days, he could rest assured, knowing that he was being obedient to the Great Commission. For some reason, God saved no one in those first seven years, but He knew what He was doing, and I’m sure Carey trusted in that.
In our work to advance the gospel, let’s take care to remember that our success is not found in the number of converts we see, though we can still be grateful for those who put their faith in the one, true God. Rather, our success should be found in our obedience and faithfulness to do what God has called us to do. Let’s plant the seed, water the seed, and watch God give the growth.
 William Carey, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen,” in Daniel Webber’s William Carey and the Missionary Vision (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 55.
 The image for this post was taken by Jeremy Taliaferro and can be found at imb.org.