According to a colleague’s recent newsletter, after S-san finished elementary school she stopped attending worship services and Sunday school led by missionaries at their nearby home. Reading between the lines, she fell prey to the busyness of life in Japan and the pressure to conform to the materialistic values of animistic Buddhist Japanese society. As an adult she neglected and repressed the work God had done in her heart during her formative years as a child.

…sixty years later her husband came down with a terminal illness, requiring that she take on the role of primary care giver. In the midst of this personal loss, hopelessness, and emptiness, she met a follower of Christ who invited her to attend worship services at my colleague’s church. Through warm Christian fellowship, songs, and regular hearing of the Word of God once again, S-san soon confessed faith in Jesus. For six long decades Jesus had patiently waited for S-san to come home to him!

For those who think missionary success must be quantified in a matter of months or several short years, let’s remember that the missionaries who first sowed the seed of God’s Word in the heart of S-san were never able to share her story of salvation with their friends and supporting constituency. Those faithful missionaries have moved on to heaven. If they were still with us today they might feel as if they were failures.

This is because missionary success in American and Canadian evangelical circles is typically quantified by reporting the number of new converts and baptisms. High numbers are equated with success (loudly proclaimed and widely acclaimed) and low numbers imply failure (embarrassingly hidden). Mission agencies, even those that pride themselves in caring for their missionaries, seem to persist in pushing this myth of the necessity of quantifying missionary success, when such a criterion for evaluation actually discourages missionaries who serve in the Buddhist countries of Asia such as Japan that are gospel resistant and anti-Christ.

Furthermore, this emphasis on quantitative success over the short haul is difficult to tease out of the pages of Scripture. If we must use the notion of success to evaluate missionary ministry we might be wise to reframe the discussion in terms of something like “qualitative success” that emphasizes the spiritual qualities of missionary ministry—such as faithfulness—while still giving a nod to quantitative statistics.

God will reward that faithful missionary couple who first shared Christ with S-san more than half a century ago. But they were far from successful in the way that is typically portrayed today.