The Productivity Myth

The truly effective and productive missionary is the one
whose precious and godly work of love
survives into eternity.

The three moments we most remember Jesus for are times when he was completely, physically motionless, when he was: (1) wrapped in swaddling clothes as a baby, (2) nailed to the cross, and (3) laying in the tomb. At these three moments Jesus’ productivity was not measurable by any modern, corporate missionary standard; and yet it is precisely these moments that changed the world.

Similarly, many of the prophets and apostles did their greatest work while in prison or in exile. These men of faith did not have corporations—instead, they had deserts and disciples. Indeed, none of the prophets or apostles seemed to have ministered from organizational strength; they were Spirit-led individuals: “The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

These observations, along with several others, have led me to question the way we often do missionary work today. We have blended modern management theory with the urgency of the Great Commission to create an addictive and compulsive “productivity treadmill” that is emotionally, mentally, and spiritually exhausting. The presence of spiritual qualities such as love, joy, and peace has been replaced by Excel spreadsheets and the need for an increased number of indicated decisions for Christ per donor dollar. As a direct consequence the Church is being deprived of deeply spiritual missions exemplars that can inspire future generations. 

First Corinthians 3:10-15 tells us about God’s reward system, which blesses those who work with “gold, silver ,and precious stones.” Generally, such works are small and difficult but of exceptionally high quality. By contrast are the works of “wood, hay, and stubble,” which are larger and easy to build, but of quite low quality. In the eternal perspective the small “diamond ring” ministry will last and be rewarded while the large “haystack” ministry will perish. (This is not to condemn all large ministries.) Thus, the truly effective and productive missionary is not the one with the largest organization, but the one whose precious and godly work of love survives into eternity. There are several ways we can better attain this high goal:

  1. We must reclaim our times of worship, both our private times of prayer and Bible study and our corporate worship, including missionary prayer meetings. Let us dare not serve God without worshipping him regularly. Indeed, how can we build with “gold, silver, and precious stones” if the Spirit of prayer is absent from our lives? The idea that we have so much to do for the kingdom that we have no time to worship God is utterly false. The reformer Martin Luther said, “I have so much to do today that I must needs spend three hours in prayer.”
  2. We must study God’s methods of ministry and accept them, even if they include times “in the wilderness.” True ministry is God’s Spirit working through us. Even when we are imprisoned or persecuted like the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33), God’s word can come to us in great power. Spiritual power is often unleashed when we are at our weakest (e.g., Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail; John on the island of Patmos). Second Corinthians 4:7 reads, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Second Corinthians 12:9-10 says, “And [Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may overshadow me. Therefore I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am powerful.”

The biblical heroes of faith often ministered from weakness, poverty, and isolation—sometimes spending years at a time withdrawn from all public ministry. Church history continued this pattern with classics such as Pilgrim’s Progress, which was written from jail, and Practicing the Presence of God, which was a record of a prayerful monk who lived a simple life by doing chores in a monastery kitchen.

We missionaries must repent of seeking significance through corporate paradigms. We must start embracing the cross, along with all the costs involved in doing that. Jesus does not want his servants to be spiritually destitute. God calls us to be more than executives. He calls us to be carriers of his light and vessels of his grace.

John Edmiston is chairman and CEO of the Asian Internet Bible Institute and