Finish with faithfulness
One of my favorite Olympic stories is about John Stephen Akhwari, a marathon runner from Tanzania who ran in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. After cramps, a dislocation, and a gashed knee, he finished over an hour behind the winner. When asked why he finished the race, he replied,
“My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Some people say he finished last, which is partially true. Of the 57 finishers, he did finish in last place. But, there were 75 people who started the race. Eighteen people didn’t finish, which puts them behind Akwari in my book. I believe God put us here to finish His task, not just to start it. I believe the measure for an effective ministry is faithfulness. In Acts 20:24 we see faithfulness in ministry is not only about starting the task, it’s about finishing.
“It’s just not there.” I asked a missionary friend about a well-known modern missionary “celebrity” and the dramatic success stories he tells. My friend actually lived in the same region and worked almost 20 years to plant a single church.
Compared with the popular Church Planting Movements, his incredible sacrifice and labor in establishing a single church seems inefficient at best. The missionary “celebrity” helped people, but he hadn’t left a mark on any unreached people group in the region. He had not left an established church where one did not previously exist.
Often these stories of dozens of church plants in a short amount of time are passed around without anything substantiating their claims. Even when “churches” are rapidly produced, many fold because they lack disciple-makers who have been fully trained. This leaves the fledgling churches without the necessary leaders. A video and a recording of the Bible will never “equip the saints” for the work of the ministry. That’s why we need trained elders to continue the work. It takes time to raise those leaders.
Early in my ministry I was at a discipleship conference and heard this seasoned disciple-maker talk about how he discipled a guy for seven years. I thought, “he must be pretty bad at making disciples.” Fifteen years later, I realize how wrong I was.
Jesus spent all day every day investing into a few men over a period of three years. And I thought I could crank out future leaders by meeting for an hour a week at Starbucks. This takes a lot of time and will take a lot of faithfulness in the midst of failure.
So I wonder, why don’t we celebrate faithfulness in the midst of “failure?”
Christ went to towns, was asked to leave, marveled at their lack of faith and condemned them for their unbelief. In our mass-produced success-by-numbers world is there room to report what didn’t happen in Capernaum in Matthew 11? Would we report how all the disciples left Jesus in John 6? Or would we instead talk about feeding the crowds (who later cheer for Jesus’ crucifixion)?
The numbers we see in Acts are those that are added to the church. It doesn’t report “professions of faith” and it doesn’t report “re-dedications.” What we see celebrated are people who are genuinely added to a body of believers.
These are people who put their reputations on the line and sacrifice family and friends for the sake of being among the church. We see their persecution happen as promised by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Faithfulness to finishing should always be the standard of success. Numbers are out of our control and will always be a faulty measure. Most of the crowds we see in Acts were only gathered to persecute the believers.
In the next newsletter you put out, remember God is not judging your life based on the numbers. He judges based on faithfulness over time. Don’t feel the need to justify your ministry with exaggerations. Celebrate the faithfulness of key leaders, not the fickle crowd of people you may never see again. Talk about how you have been faithful with the individual souls God has entrusted to you. The Master will say “well done” to the one who was faithful with their talents, regardless of the number.