This entry is merely a documentation of some of my more recent musings regarding missions in the Independent Baptist world. This is not directed at any particular pastor or missionary.
I have tried to be transparent in this entry. But I want to assure you that by God’s grace, I am still as sure of my call as I was nine years ago.
Some Thoughts on Fruitlessness on the Mission Field
So what is a young, struggling Independent Baptist missionary supposed to do? He has been conditioned to think that a lack of progress on the mission field is most likely evidence that he isn’t really cut out for missions work. This weighs heavily on him from week to week. He has given his life to learning another language and culture. He has spent himself physically, emotionally, and spiritually in getting the Gospel to his city. Dozens of churches have entrusted monthly financial support to him. And three years into his mission he finds that the task to which he has committed his life is far more formidable than he could have ever imagined. He knew that the soil was hard. He had heard others’ testimonies about the hardness of the soil; but he had never worked the soil with his own hands. Now the blisters are starting to show, and the pain is palpable.
But one thing that has yet to “show” is fruit. The seed has been faithfully sown, but it has fallen on impossibly hard ground. This is hard for some pastors in the States to understand, especially when first-hand testimonies of people visiting Southeast Asia and seeing thousands of people saved in just a few days time are being circulated and perceived as God’s mighty hand at work in that part of the world. The missionary, on the other hand, lives in Southeast Asia and understands the spiritual situation on the ground, and upon hearing of such reports he cannot help being skeptical. But what right does the missionary have to protest? The missionary begins to understand one of the unwritten rules of the Independent Baptist world a little clearer: those who produce results get taken seriously; those who don’t produce results are given pats on the back for encouragement, but their opinions aren’t always held in high esteem.
So the missionary is faced with quite a conundrum. In his own mind it is obvious that he has proven to be less than qualified for the task he has undertaken. He has failed to produce results. It could be argued that churches’ missions dollars would be put to better use elsewhere. The missionary strives to be an upright man, and the thought of continuing to receive support for being a failure is utterly unbearable for him. His integrity prompts him to graciously resign his post so that those funds can be freed up for a better man. But the missionary knows that in doing so he will be labeled a quitter by the same people who branded him unequal to the task. He also knows that he will become a nameless- and in some cases named- statistic in the conversations and sermons of some successful, influential preachers. He further knows that he will be vilified by some for having, in their words, wasted five years’ worth (including deputation) of people’s hard-earned, selflessly sacrificed money. He knows that he shouldn’t be concerned with such trivialities, but the concerns are very real just the same.
These are the real concerns of a struggling missionary. But there is one important element missing in everything I have written thus far: God. The truth is that God has indeed called the missionary. The truth is that it is God, not missionaries, Who gives the increase (that’s Bible for “producing results”). The truth is that God doesn’t always work on our timetable. The truth is that God often takes men through a period of unseen fruitfulness, because the fruit that God is producing is inside the heart of the man, and it is this very fruit that the man needs in order to carry out his mission. (Think endurance, patience, increased faith, humility, etc.) The truth is that if the missionary quits during such times of discouragement and intense soul searching, the world will never know what would have been had he chosen to embrace the grace of God and stay at his God-given task.
Pastor, I would like to encourage you to consider your own thoughts and practices in this matter. Be careful not to place unrealistic time stipulations on a missionary. I’m glad nobody placed such a stipulation on Adoniram Judson- and if such a stipulation was given, I’m glad he didn’t quit in discouragement after seven years without a convert. Thank God that the world does know his story! If a missionary decides to resign his post for reasons addressed in this article, don’t disparage him, especially if you put in place a time stipulation that he failed to meet. Remember, it is his integrity that is prompting him to resign his post. A better- and I would argue correct- response would be to encourage the missionary with the stories of other men whom God used who encountered their own times of seeming fruitlessness, but who went on to be used of God in miraculous ways. The Bible is full of such stories, and they should serve as a reminder to pastors and missionaries alike that God does some of His most important fruit-producing work in the heart of a man or woman during these times of perceived fruitlessness.
I would also like to address one other issue raised in this entry. I have seen the reports of some well-meaning men who have visited Southeast Asia and have given testimonies of thousands of conversions in just a few days time. Their methods typically involve gathering large crowds of people, giving a short Gospel presentation that does not deal with the underlying difficulties of the Buddhist worldview that so often prevent people from accepting Christ, and asking people to join in a prayer. Then a request for a show of hands from all those who prayed the prayer is made, and a count is taken that typically shows a higher number of “conversions” than some missionaries see in an entire term on the mission field. Perhaps one day I will write a more extensive explanation about the dangers of such practices, but that topic alone could fill the pages of an entire book. I would like to plainly tell you that if my main concern were impressing people in the States with reports of thousands receiving Christ as Savior, I could probably do it by using the previously described method. But impressing pastors is not my main concern. My main concern is bringing glory to God through my life and ministry; and God is not glorified when people are led- and in some cases coerced- into praying a prayer without a true understanding of biblical repentance. God is not glorified when those people leave with a false assurance of their salvation. God is not glorified when those people, still in their unregenerate state, yet now bearing the name “Christian”, return to their community without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and as a result return to their former sins, including idolatry, causing a tragic misunderstanding of Christianity for everyone.
Being a church planter in Southeast Asia involves spending hours with individuals who must first count the cost of becoming a Christian. When a Cambodian person truly understands the message of the Gospel, his decision is rarely hasty. He understands that he cannot simply add Jesus to his godshelf. He understands that persecution for his faith is inevitable. Until a person is confronted with and has an understanding of these issues, he is not ready to pray “the sinners prayer.”
Much has been addressed in this entry. I pray that what has been written is edifying to the reader.