Joe and his wife, Jane, have been serving on a church planting team in Southeast Asia for 3 years. The time has come to be back in the States and enjoy the amenities of western life while updating their sending church on what they have been doing. At a special mid-week meeting Joe gets up to the podium with a pit in his stomach. The people were expecting stories of drastic conversions, of rapid multiplication of churches, perhaps even of healing and bizarre encounters where God flexed his saving arm. But there is a problem. Joe feels like he has none of that to tell. He has tried his best in newsletters to make things sound exciting, if he was honest even the numbers he submitted were embellished or “preemptively hopeful” as he told himself. But Joe knows the truth. Joe is anxious. Joe is embarrassed. They sent Joe on a mission. A mission at which he had failed – and now he had to get up in front of them with seemingly nothing to offer.

As he gets up and shares the mundane, day-to-day, seemingly fruitless ministry he is engaged in, should the church be disappointed? Should they consider recalling him or silently cutting their support in favor of the new guy who has planted 1000 churches in the past 6 years? The answer to that all depends on what the church expects of him.

What did they send him to do?

There are many “Joes and Janes” out there in the harvest fields, feeling the same pressures, asking themselves the same questions. Are we failures? What are we doing wrong? What will our supporters think of us?

Churches, you can help them. You can help them answer and avoid troubling questions as you raise up, send, and support them. And do churches go about doing that?

Churches help them by thinking clearly and biblically about what is they are sending people to do. There needs to be a theologically-based hierarchy of expectations.

Looking at a passage like Romans 10 we see that unless someone is sent, then Christ cannot be preached – a simple reality. And if Christ is not preached, he cannot be believed in and confessed by those that are lost. This passage outlines well our responsibility, the expectation that should be placed on those being sent.[1] To preach the word of Christ. This is how disciples are made.[2] But this duty that is presented to us has to be carried out in tandem with the biblical reality that no one can come to God unless the Father draws them. It must be done while embracing the truth that winning souls requires not only the word of Christ proclaimed, but the sovereign coming of  Spirit with power.[3]

What does this mean for the expectations churches place on missionaries? It means we need to know that God works through our faithfulness, but it isn’t always the work which we desire or the ideal result for which we send people. Paul admits as much when he says “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”[4] Not everyone will believe, because some are destined to hear and disbelieve.[5] But the only way any will believe is if they hear the “word of Christ” from those sent to preach.

With that understood one can begin to discern the common problems regarding the expectations placed on missionaries. Sending churches often expect those they send to make converts, start movements, plant churches, and tally baptisms. All of these things should be desires, prayers, and aims for the ministry – but they can’t be the expectation placed on those that are sent. Why? Because all of these things require both faithful ministry of the gospel and something that is outside of the control of the messengers – the sovereign work of God.

The faithful preaching of Christ unites and divides, it softens and hardens, it serves to establish and to cause to stumble. It is not for those that are sent to determine which result their work has, but to proclaim the gospel in confidence that the God-ordained result will certainly occur.

People may be producing flashy-yet-faulty results because of unfaithfulness and faithful people may be seeing nothing to literally “write home about”. It is the duty of the church to call people to faithfulness, identify such people, and send them for the purpose of being faithful to the mission: which is to plant and to water with the word of the cross, to be the “aroma of Christ”, “to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light”.[6] You send them to do that, support them and encourage them in that, regardless of what the results may be. Why? Because “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” as we spread his aroma through the gospel proclaimed and lived, knowing that “even if our gospel is veiled it is veiled to those who are perishing”, knowing that we will be to some “the fragrance from life to life and to others the fragrance from death to death” because it is “God who gives the growth” and causes “light to shine out of darkness” “so that it might become apparent that the surpassing power belongs to Him and not to us.”[7]

The important truth that must shape your sending and supporting is that faithful, loving proclamation of the gospel, done for the glory of God, is never in vain – regardless of what kind of results are seen. That truth must shape your vision of missions at all stages: equipping people to go, sending people, and supporting them.

So when one couple has planted 100 churches and another has planted 0, you applaud God for his work and you encourage both for their mutual faithfulness.

This author has written elsewhere that there are people sent to the field who should not be on the field, but the other reality is that sometimes good, faithful people struggle to stay on the field, get immensely discouraged, and even leave when they can’t sustain their work because they don’t have the flashy numbers that are expected of them.

Churches need to have a biblical, theologically-rooted understanding of what we are sending missionaries to do. They need to have a different definition of success than the world does. They need to send people with the confidence that in the Lord our labor is never in vain.[8]

Make sure that the “Joes and Janes” that are sent never feel insecure about their ministry, that they are never tempted to embellish their reports, that they understand as they are faithful those churches that support them are with them 100%. Equip and encourage them for faithful ministry filled with humble confidence in the God who called them – in times of both ministry feast and famine. Remind them, as I was reminded by a friend recently, that God is always working, it may just be winter.

The following list is by no means comprehensive, but is simply some things that churches may consider as they raise up, send, and sustain missionaries in the field.

Practical steps for churches:

Define Success – Prepare people you may send by giving them a biblical definition of success as faithfulness.

Quantify Faithfulness – In ministry reports, do not ask primarily about results but develop ways to quantify faithfulness. If someone is being lazy and unfaithful they certainly shouldn’t expect fruit and faithfulness to proclaim is a right expectation for which they should be held accountable. In language learning ask people if they can clearly articulate the Gospel message. Ask missionaries not how many converts or Bible-study attendees they have, rather ask them how many people to whom the gospel has been clearly articulated. Find out the amount of time they are spending in intentional relationships – regardless of where those relationships end up.

Beware of The Message You Send – Avoid showcasing workers who have reports of a lot of positive results. This sends the wrong message to the weary-faithful. Often workers seeing a lot of harvest get promoted and put on a pedestal for things which only the Holy Spirit can be given the credit.

Communicate Expectations Both Ways – Ask those you support and send “What do you think we have sent you to do?” Find out what expectation they have placed on themselves. Clarify and even adjust your biblical expectations of them.

Support Faithfulness – If you are a church looking to financially support people, don’t necessarily pick people with flashy ministries with big success stories and assume that is a guarantee of their faithfulness. Some of the largest churches in the world are devoid of the gospel – numbers can lie. Support people who have proven to be faithful to the mission, including the message, even if they have little to show for it.

Send Faithful People – Make your church a proving ground for faithful ministry. Don’t assume zeal equals calling or maturity. Send people who have already proven faithfulness.[9] This should provide you with more confidence that they are being faithful to do what they have been sent to do when there is no discernible fruit being reported.

Pray – Labor alongside those you send/support with prayer anchored in the knowledge that it is God who grants repentance and the gift of faith[10]

[1] Romans 10:14-17

[2] Matthew 28:19

[3] John 6:44, 1 Thess. 1:5

[4] Romans 10:16

[5] 1 Peter 2:8

[6] 1 Cor. 3:6, 2 Cor. 2:15, 1 Peter 2:9

[7] 2 Cor. 2:14, 4:3, 2:16-17, 1 Cor. 3:7, 2 Cor. 4:6,7

[8] 1 Corinthians 15:58

[9] 2 Tim 2:2

[10] 2 Tim. 2:25, Ephesians 2:8