How Do You Define Success in Missions?

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that is driven by results. And while goals are great and they keep us motivated, we, as a society, have become so driven by goals that sometimes it works to our detriment. So to the person who wants to lose some weight, losing ten to fifteen is not a success until they’ve reached their thirty pound goal.
To the parents who want their student to bring her grades up, the goal may not be fully met until that C becomes an A, all the while it took tremendous effort on the daughter’s part to get it up to a B. Goals are great and we should set them and work towards them, but sometimes goals are not met due to external circumstances and a task is written off as unsuccessful simply because a goal was not met.

I think we do this sometimes with missions. Regardless of the focus of our mission trip, we often embark with a certain set of expectations (many times this is unintentional), but come home with a sense of disappointment when these expectations are not met.
This is no different if we are doing service trips (doing service projects to show the love of Christ to others) or evangelism trips (going to a new place to share the message of Christ with them). Some trips, of course are a combination of the two. But regardless of what our purpose is, things never turn out exactly as we planned and it is important to teach that to our students.

We do a junior high missions camp and a high school missions camp each summer. We also do other mission trips as opportunities present themselves. In April 2006, we had a chance to go to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina and help some people start the rebuilding process. While we were down there, we worked on two different houses. One was a fairly average middle-class brick home on a slab foundation. The other home was an older home that had been somewhat restored prior to the hurricane. Several of us working in that house thought, “Wow, this is nicer than my house.” Both of these houses had FEMA trailers parked in the yards where families were staying, so we expected sooner or later to run across a home owner or a relative who may drop by to thank us for coming.
After five full days of being on the work sites, we never met either homeowner. Some of us had gone with the expectation of bringing a smile to someone’s face or a tear to their eyes because they were grateful for the work we were doing. But that didn’t happen. Now, we don’t know the life situations of these particular homeowners. They may have been out job-hunting full time, or their work schedules may have prevented them from dropping by to say, “Thank you.” Maybe they were at another FEMA trailer in the area taking care of a family member with needs greater than their own. This was a hard lesson learned for my students who went on this trip expecting to get that half-choked up, tearful “Thank you so much” from a sweet, elderly person who truly believed we were a godsend.

Another way we set ourselves up for failure is by placing numerical goals on conversions in an evangelism mission trip. In the Great Commission, Christ calls us to make disciples. I think we should be careful to distinguish disciples from converts, or what I call “baby Christians.” If we set a numerical goal on how many people we will “win to the Lord” (I personally don’t like this term because it sounds like we are really doing something when it is God who is allowing us to be used by him), we may get forceful in our efforts instead of letting God do the things only He can do through the Holy Spirit.
In I Corinthians 3:6, Paul is clarifying in whom the Corinthian believers should be putting their faith. He says “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” God is the one doing the growing and drawing when we share our faith with others. So why do we place numerical expectations on ourselves for the things only God can do?
Now, can we say we need to visit a certain number of homes or people? Can we try to invite a certain number of people to a church service? Absolutely. But when we feel like our mission trip has been a bust because only one or two people have made professions of faith, aren’t we missing the point? God does things in his time. We should celebrate and praise him for these that have come to faith instead of worrying about reaching our goal. We do this in our ministries as well.

I was in a youth ministry discussion forum the other day and a youth pastor had been challenged by a friend to make ten contacts with students at a local school. His question was, “How do I do that?” He had already acknowledged that his challenged seemed unnatural and forceful (and if not done carefully could get him removed from the school, depending on the administration). It’s awkward enough walking around a school cafeteria where everyone knows you’re not a teacher and 99% of the kids are thinking “Who is that old person?” So adding a quota to this endeavor is only going to send the awkward scale through the roof. I encouraged him to start to get to know the kids who are in the same circle with kids from his youth group then expand from there. Any time we make numbers our goal, we can lose focus of what our true goal should be-relationships. It is the same in missions.

So, how do we measure success in missions? I think it is determined not by whether or not we made someone happy or whether we helped someone to put their faith in Christ, but rather, how well did we fulfill our marching orders? Did we love our neighbor as ourselves? Did we do our best at “making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey everything he has commanded?” These are the goals we should strive for.
We may get to the end of a mission project and feel disappointed because no one seemed to care about what we were doing. We may finish the week and think that this was a lot of work to see only one or two people put their faith in Christ. But if we served others in love and have been faithful to teach others about the love of Christ, then our mission trip was a success.  And no emotional or numerical goal can replace the fact that we were obedient to Christ.