We highlight numbers of Bible studies started, churches planted, baptisms performed, and gospel conversions to validate our tireless labor.
And although goal-setting can be an important component of effective ministry, it has the potential to undermine the work of the Holy Spirit and promote quantity over quality. Within these blessings resides an underlying temptation to elevate results—rather than the gospel—as the driving motivator for missionary service.
REACHING FOR RESULTS
When I led a Christian athletics ministry, I succumbed to this unhealthy fixation on results. Often during regular house meetings and large gatherings, my mind was consumed with student turnout. My preoccupation resulted in half-hearted efforts and missed opportunities to pour into the lives of whom God had already surrounded me with.
Another leader in ministry, John (name changed), admitted that he had a similar struggle with the numerically-oriented missiological attitude. When John first took on the role of ministry director, he urged his team to prioritize godly community above anything else—even if that meant potentially jeopardizing the ministry’s expansion by sticking to the counter-cultural claims in the gospel.
Despite this, John became increasingly discouraged with declining attendance. He felt like he was failing the ministry. Eventually his stress grew too burdensome. At a meeting, John broke down in front of his entire staff and repented of his sinful obsession with numbers. What had started as an innocent eagerness to advance the ministry had enslaved John.
John and I aren’t the only ones who have stumbled over stats in our evangelistic pursuits. I’ve personally heard and read many accounts of missionaries who also testify to such internal conflict.
MORE THAN THE NEXT MAN
What drives this temptation? In his classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains the dark root of the outcome-oriented mindset:
Pride is essentially competitive… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.
For many of us, Lewis is striking a nerve, exposing a sin that has festered in the heart since the Fall. When we muster the courage to honestly examine ourselves beneath our righteous facades, might not we find prideful competition lurking below?
Note that Lewis doesn’t condemn all competition as inherently evil. Competition boosts our creativity and inspires us to reach our God-given potential in our respective talents and callings. But in our sinful nature, we corrupt God’s good gifts, including the gift of ambition.
When competitive drives escape their intended boundaries, the “winners” and “losers” in ministry come to be determined by such externals as personality, outward beauty, natural talent, and recorded accomplishments. Human value becomes relative in the arena of competition.
Applied on the mission field, this ungodly spirit of competition prompts the missionary to believe that it’s not enough to simply lead a ministry or teach biblical truths; one must build a ministry bigger than the one next door and teach better than one’s fellow missionary.
PETER’S (AND OUR) DILEMMA
Jesus decried this sort of competitive behavior among his disciples. Peter, who was possibly the most insecure of the Twelve (failing to trust Jesus while walking on water in Matthew 14:22-33 and denying his association with Jesus three times in Luke 22:54-62), was constantly competing with the others to win Jesus’ favor and approval.
Peter’s pride blinded him to the fact that he was seeking his own glory. So, whenever another disciple seemed to gain the upper hand or was singled out by Jesus, Peter became irritated and jealous, uncomprehending of the fact that each of the disciples had unique roles in the kingdom of God. In the last chapter of the book of John, Jesus pulls Peter aside on the beach. After Jesus informs the fisherman on what his future would hold, Peter immediately shifts his focus to John, who was waiting nearby. Peter was concerned about how his future fared compared to John’s prospects.
“Lord, what about him?” (John 21:21) Peter asked Jesus, revealing his insecurity. In the past, Jesus had had his fair share of tough-love moments with Peter, but this occasion warranted a reply that bit deeper than his previous admonitions. “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22).
HOLINESS OVER PERFORMANCE
Jesus was commanding Peter to stop comparing himself to others. Jesus had set before Peter a particular race to run, one that only he could fulfill. Peter had equated success with outperforming his rivals, but, according to Jesus, success meant to stay on course and follow him.
Scripture doesn’t indicate how Peter immediately reacted to Jesus’ rebuke. But we can infer from history that this truth penetrated his heart, as Peter went on to help establish the early church in Jerusalem.
Why do missionaries find themselves looking to numbers as a measure of their ministry’s success?
The reason resides in our sinful propensity to drift toward comparison. But Jesus encourages us to pursue holiness over performance. We must keep to pursuing God’s will for our ministries, even if we are led down the humbling path of unpopularity and empty seats. If we aim for a holy ministry instead of a “successful” one, we may receive both; but if we merely chase outward success, we’ll attain neither.