Gone are the days when the word represented those who would set out for the field knowing it was likely a one-way trip. This type of missions aimed at converts, finished Bible translations, and churches that would last generations. Missions was seen as a lifetime endeavor, not a task to be completed. Of course, this is partly because of technological limitations; round-trip transatlantic journeys are much more difficult than round-trip transatlantic flights. And yet, I suspect there also exists some philosophical disagreement as well as to what the goal of missions actually is. What previous generations called “missions” we have specified and relabeled as “long-term missions.”
The point of this article is not to knock short-term work, mercy ministries, social programs, and other good endeavors. These are all helpful in their own way. But we should be aware that short-term endeavors, by their very nature, are insufficient to establish generational churches by the power of the gospel.
My goal is not to rebuke anyone but to remind all of us that long-term missions is costly—and it’s worth it. It’s worth prioritizing over everything else. True churches take years to plant—in the English-speaking world. How much more so where “no foundation has been laid”?
When it comes to the church, faster is not better.
The Value of Long-Term Missions
Let’s consider a few reasons to prioritize long-term missions.
First, long-term missions adorns the gospel.
My wife and I lived overseas for 13 years among the Yembiyembi people in Papua New Guinea. During that time, we observed the gradual metamorphosis of cross-cultural church planters who lived among the people long-term. Their English started to bend around the local language. Their knees and ankles grew calluses from constantly sitting cross-legged. Their appetites changed. Their very bodies started to take on marks that lent credibility to the gospel.
As missionaries die to calendars and buy into long-term ministry that looks, smells, and sounds like the people whom God has sent them to, they model the heart of the message they seek to proclaim. We see a biblical example of this in Paul’s love for the Ephesian church. It’s clear the Ephesian elders know him not as an at-arms-length leader, but rather as a dear friend.
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house. (Acts 20:18-20)
Second, long-term ministry is necessary if healthy churches are the goal.
Let’s return to Paul’s farewell speech for a moment. As he leaves his friends behind, he seems to be most concerned about their church. He said, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28-29).
Establishing long-term churches requires long-term workers. God may grant that converts are made in a short amount of time, but to see disciples gathered into a self-led, self-taught, self-propagating body of believers—led by men qualified according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1—is always a long-term venture.
There are shorter, quicker, more efficient methods that are common in our day. They celebrate strategies that seem to circumvent the need for patience. For example, they utilize unbelievers as teachers, they view language fluency as a time-consuming encumbrance to ministry, and they prefer oral translations over the written Word.1 Indeed, these new methods shave off years and years of time, which leads to unprecedented increases in “converts” and “churches.”
But make no mistake, the cost of that speed is paid in full by the churches left behind.
When short-term workers and methods were introduced in Burma, Adoniram Judson’s views were quite clear. He wrote,
I fear that this will occasion a breach in our mission. How can we, who are devoted for life, cordially take to our hearts one who is a mere hireling? I have seen the beginning, middle, and end of several limited-term missionaries. . . . Though brilliant in an English pulpit, they are incompetent for any real missionary work. They come out for a few years, with the view of acquiring a stock of credit on which they may vegetate the rest of their days, in the congenial climate of their native land. . . . The motto of every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or schoolmaster, ought to be “Devoted for life.”2
To our modern ears, Judson’s concern may sound overstated. But should it? He knew what so many in pioneering, church-planting contexts intuitively grasp: if the church left behind is to be healthy, then only a long-term approach will do.
The Cost of Long-Term Missions
One of the primary reasons long-term missions is rarer in our day is that the cost is so awfully high. The unreached language groups of our time are the last ones reached for a reason. I lead a missions training organization called Radius. We exist to equip students who plan to invest their lives among the unreached and unengaged. The students who come to us are uncommon, and they quite often come from uncommon families and uncommon churches. The desire to spend 15, 20, or 30 years in some of the most difficult locations on earth requires everyone involved to know the cost.
The Cost to the Family
Saying goodbye to sons, daughters, grandchildren, and futures that will never be realized; walking away from family businesses and holidays at home—this cost is so high. But it’s worth it.
In his excellent biography of the life of John G. Paton, Paul Schlehlein describes Paton’s decision to leave behind a thriving ministry and go to a land that had recently claimed some of his fellow countrymen. Paton’s parents were among the few who spoke in support of his going. Schlehlein reflects on this fact with this helpful insight:
Let every person note the weight such wise counsel will have upon their children’s lives. Let every parent who clutches jealously to kith and kin ponder Paton’s godly parents. Let them contemplate whether it be hypocrisy to sing “Give of thy sons to bear the message glorious,” but “glorious” only if that son belongs to someone else. When it seemed the whole world of Christian influence impeded Paton’s plans, it was the words of his parents that buttressed his resolve. Whatever uncertainty he may have had, it melted like snow atop the glowing hearth of what he learned in his home.3
When we read things like this, it sounds superhuman. How can “normal” Christians see their sons and daughters board ships and planes and be gone for decades, perhaps forever?
The only sufficient answer I have found is this: these saints see past this world. By God’s immeasurable grace, they measure things not in years, but in eternity.
Near the end of his life, Paton saw his own sons off to the mission field. By this point, he had lost his first wife and seven children. And yet, this is what he writes: “I deeply rejoice—when I breathe the prayer that it may please the blessed Lord to turn the hearts of all my children to the mission field; and that he may open up their way and make it their pride and joy to live and die in carrying Jesus and his gospel into the heart of the heathen world.”4
The Cost to the Church
Since coming back to the United States in 2016, I’ve noticed lots of people end up in the mission field for the wrong reasons. In many evangelical quarters, the thinking goes something like this: “He or she is kind of awkward, kind of strange, and not very disciplined. But he or she is super sincere—and loves lost people. We would never make them an elder or a deacon. But you know what? They might be perfect for the mission field!”
The rise of an “anyone can be a missionary” mentality has brought more people into missions, but “more isn’t always better.” In fact, more missionaries sometimes compromise our goal of a clear, competent, and theologically rigorous gospel witness.5
David Brainerd preached to thousands in the English-speaking world before giving his life to missions. He turned down dozens of senior pastor positions, even the option of serving alongside Jonathan Edwards.6 Before William Chalmers Burns gave his life to ministry in China, he was hand-picked by Robert Murray M’Cheyne to pastor his church for over a year, and membership increased.7 These weren’t flighty, searching men with nothing better to do. They were serious, dedicated, and gifted.
We should aim to send such men and women.
Some might say, “Wait! If we send our best, then what happens to our churches here?” Sometimes, the benefit of the nations is viewed as a loss to the sending church. But that’s not true. The Lord will equip his churches anywhere with what they need for maturity. Ephesians 4:11–16 applies to churches in America and churches in places we will never go, among peoples we will never see.
Sending your best is costly, but it’s worth it. And it jeopardizes exactly nothing.
The Glory of Long-Term Missions
The Glory of a Strong, New Testament Church
We speak often at Radius of finishing well. As we’ve already seen, finishing well means seeing a strong, New Testament church established where none existed. The Scriptures and church history know nothing of Christians who are content with converts and lukewarm to the task of solidifying a local church.
But here’s the unfortunate truth: starters in church planting are common; finishers are rare.
In Acts 20 again, we see Paul’s abiding vision of finishing well.
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:22-24)
Should we not assume Paul expected the same devotion to the church of Ephesus from the elders who stayed behind?
On the last page of John Paton’s autobiography, we find his exhortation for those who would come behind him: “Plant down your forces in the heart of one tribe or race where the same language is spoken. Work solidly from that center, building up with patient teaching and lifelong care a church that will endure” (emphasis added).8
Even the best of missionaries can’t accomplish this over several summer trips or even five-to-ten-year stints. It takes, as Paton says, “lifelong care.”
God may allow certain missionaries to see this task completed in a shorter period of time. But for the vast majority, it will be a long, arduous process with a steep price tag.
For John Paton it took 42 years. For Adoniram Judson, it took 40. Paton lost his first wife and seven children; Judson buried two wives and nine children. Both faced sickness, shipwreck, spears, broken bones, and a myriad of other trials. But they were ultimately spared by God to finish the work he had called them to.
This is Paton’s final analysis:
Let me record my immovable conviction that this is the noblest service in which any human being can spend or be spent; and that, if God gave me back my life to be lived over again, I would without one quiver of hesitation lay it on the altar to Christ, that he might use it as before in similar ministries of love, especially amongst those who have never yet heard of the name of Jesus.9
Friends, for nearly 2000 years, the people of God have been marked by patient, quiet endurance while leaving the results to God. Long-term missions is our heritage. May we raise up many to carry on that heritage, to the ends of the earth.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 9 Marks on January 26, 2023. Used with permission.
1. This is a helpful article that speaks to the current problem: A Plea for Gospel Sanity in Missions, by Aubrey Sequeira.
2. Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore (Little Brown and Company, Judson Press: 1987), 409.
3. Paul Schlehlein, John G Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas (Edinburgh: The Banner of Trust, 2017), 96.
4. John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 444.
5. This is a helpful article on why more missionaries is not always better, from one on the field: Stop Sending Missionaries: Why More Isn’t Always Better, by Steven Jennings.
6. John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 222-223.
7. Michael D. McMullen, God’s Polished Arrow (Christian Focus, 2001).
8. John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 496.
9. Ibid., 444.