Talking with a missionary (read: full-time, cross-cultural kingdom worker) recently, something struck me about the way we evaluate mission work.
We use “vision statements” to set an evaluative standard. In other words, we take a best-case scenario—essentially an aspiration—and make it a measure of effectiveness. If a mission team’s vision statement is, “A movement of disciples who make disciples,” then how are they to self-assess? How should their supporters judge their work?
The biggest problem with this scenario is not that it is unrealistic, or even just a high bar. The imitation of Christ already sets a high bar in every aspect of Christian life, including ministry. The problem is that such a vision is theologically skewed away from the imitation of Christ. It devalues what mission is about most of the time. What if missionaries and missional churches envision their ministries in terms of Jesus’s? How would we state that? “Sowing tiny seeds, taking the narrow path, and calling people to the cross”? “Discipling a few people closely and getting abandoned”? “Incarnation, faithful love, and obedience unto death”?
There is more than one way to construe Jesus’s ministry. The fruit of his labor after it concluded was, by the power of the Spirit, a movement of disciples making disciples. But that would not be an appropriate measure of his ministry while it was ongoing. In fact, though he clearly equips equippers, there is no evidence that scaling up to exponential growth is what motivates him. His vision is the kingdom, and we have ask the theological question: what does the kingdom look like?
Here are some questions that I think missionaries and missional churches can ask themselves on the basis of a kingdom vision: Are we sowing the kingdom with the expectation that its unimpressive beginnings may be the whole of our ministry? Are we sowing the kingdom gratuitously, despite the birds and the hard ground and the thorns? Are we sowing the kingdom faithfully and tending the good soil, even when the growth is out of our control? Are we willing to admit how much of our growth is weeds, not wheat?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with dreaming about the fruit of our labor and being motivated by that hope. And, we might ask what the huge yield of the good soil implies or what it means that the lamp is meant to light the whole room or that the yeast leavens all of the flour. But it’s unfortunate when a result that is out of our control and possibly beyond the scope our ministry becomes our evaluative standard, even if only for the purpose of our own self-assessment. Better that we should cast visions like “Faithfully calling neighbors to discipleship, even if most refuse” or “Proclaiming the kingdom contextually, creatively, and sacrificially, whatever the result.”
What do you think? Are these vision statements too pessimistic? Should we instead “expect great things”? Should we judge our participation in God’s mission by the standard of the greatness we expect of God? Should Jesus’s ministry of faithfulness with little evidence of “success” be the kind of greatness we aspire to?