Almost everyone knows the story of Adoniram Judson. But among the most God-honoring and baffling parts of his story is what happened on his way to the mission field: he broke his ties with the Congregationalist Church because he changed his convictions on baptism. His friend and fellow laborer, Luther Rice, had similarly shifted. Rice returned to the U.S. to raise support from Baptist churches for Judson, who was now a missionary without any sending churches. Under Rice’s initiative, Baptist churches in the U.S. supported Judson for decades—without ever even meeting him. Rice returned home in 1812, but Judson’s first and only visit back wasn’t until 1845, more than 30 years later.
In other words, these churches faithfully supported the ministry of a man they’d never met. They only knew Judson by way of his reputation and the letters that came several months after current events. He never once visited with rousing stories of regular converts.
How does a church get its members invested in the Great Commission like that? It’s a question many church leaders ask themselves. We know Christians are called to take the gospel to the nations, yet often it’s challenging to get people motivated about evangelistic work in faraway places.
Perhaps this is why pastors assume that what their church members need is more excitement about the spiritual results of missions. They need to see how thrilling it is when men and women step out of a culture where Christianity is totally alien, and into the kingdom of light. So why not use whatever means possible to excite churches with those images?
SPIRITUAL GET-RICH-QUICK SCHEMES
The result is story after story of dramatic conversions and mass movements. Churches rarely celebrate slow, hard-slogging work that’s yet to see fruit. In doing so, we unintentionally create spiritual versions of get-rich-quick testimonials, showing how through only a little extra giving and a little extra prayer, you too can see an entire unreached people group saved in your lifetime.
In our efforts to quickly mobilize churches in missions, I fear we’re unintentionally undermining the church’s ability to patiently invest for the spiritual long-term. I fear we’re training churches who would’ve brought home William Carey or Adoniram Judson due to their evangelistic inefficiency in the first seven or eight years.
Not only that, but when people learn to expect those sorts of stories abroad, they begin to grade health and growth in their own church with the same rubric. Do you find yourself chasing after silver-bullet plans to bring people into your doors? Do your people find it hard to believe that their own faithful witness in their families, workplace, or neighborhood can bear fruit if no one has come to faith around them in the last year? Do they (and you) look to revivals and rallies—events that quickly come and go—rather than the faithful presence of a congregation that proclaims the Word of God year in and year out? These things may be a consequence of the way you have taught your church to think about conversion abroad.
Jesus made it abundantly clear that the effectiveness of sowing the word cannot be accurately measured right away. The parable of the soils shows us it takes time to see if a conversion is substantial or ephemeral (Matt. 13). Sometimes, said pastor Charles Bridges, “The seed may lie under the clods till we lie there, and then spring up” (The Christian Ministry, 75).
We must train ourselves and our congregations to celebrate and prize faithful endurance in ministry. Seeing the fruits of our labor is a gift from the Lord—one that even the apostle Paul didn’t always receive. We must also grow in confidence that even if we don’t get to see fruit in this life, the Word of the Lord will not return empty, but will accomplish its purpose (see Isaiah 55:11).
LOCAL CHURCH AS SPIRITUAL MUTUAL FUND
One of the best ways for a church to grow in patience is to look for evidences of enduring grace. Nothing has given me more confidence in the long-term effectiveness of the Word than seeing it in the lives of people in my own church. Men who were once chasing after sin are now pastors and shepherds; marriages that once seemed broken have healed over time; angry people have grown in mercy; selfish people now love to serve. None of these things happened quickly.
Just like in the financial market, the most rewarding spiritual investments often take a long time to mature.
The steady, slowly sanctifying life of the church should train us how to invest for heaven. It teaches churches to be patient even as they long to hear reports of mass conversions in outer Mongolia or Iraq or the Amazonian interior. It teaches them to be patient in persisting in prayer and testimony to their neighbor. It teaches future missionaries that the work of a missionary takes discipline and patience, full of quiet, unimpressive service.
As your missionaries return home and give reports of their work on the field, encourage them. Let them know they don’t need to have an incredible conversion story in order to prove they’re worth your church’s support. But also let them know that they must show labor as a worker worthy of his wages; they must be willing to trust the Lord with their labors. They may plant or water, but only God can give the growth.
Healthy churches will foster amongst their members a dogged determination to see the lost come to faith. Over time, this will cultivate both missionaries who last and churches patient and prayerful enough to support them.