“Why Some People Are Unproductive” Revisted: Slothfulness and the Missionary

by Steven L. Estes

The author shares four powerful reasons why missionaries need to remain focused on their calling.

 I was looking through some old EMQs the other day and came across the article “Why Some People Are Unproductive” by Phil Parshall (1990). While I recall reading the article when it first came out, I was more intrigued this time around. It is not my intention to critique what Parshall says because Clyde Cook (1990) did so in that same issue. My intention is rather to take another look at the issue Parshall raises and give a complementary perspective.

Parshall does not dedicate much space to defining the term “productive”; rather, he emphasizes effective time management. My emphasis is also on time management.  

The Illusion of Slothfulness
Parshall uses the words “unproductive” and “slothful” as synonyms. This will also be the case here. Missionary work can involve situations in which there is an illusion of slothfulness. Let me illustrate my point.

Example 1: When I first arrived in Argentina, someone referred to a missionary by saying, “That guy rests so much I don’t know how he gets any work done!” Since then, I have observed people that missionary won to the Lord and discipled who have faithfully evangelized and served in leadership positions decade after decade. Likely there are “productive” missionaries who would love to name converts of theirs with similar credentials but cannot.

Example 2: I knew of a couple who worked many years with two small, struggling churches. I remember hearing comments to the effect that it was unproductive for them to spend all of their time on such unpromising congregations. Yet today those two churches are thriving without help from foreign personnel or resources. How many “productive” missionaries wish they could point out churches they worked with that are similarly thriving?

Example 3: Another situation that involves the illusion of slothfulness are the times when we missionaries move in and out of ministries. A mission pastor visited us during an in-between time and reported to his church that we were not doing enough and our support was discontinued. Sometimes our efforts need to be curtailed in a ministry so that nationals will take over. During those times, we may not have yet started in another ministry. As a result, we can appear unproductive.

The Challenge
Parshall writes, “Missionaries…want freedom to decide how to use their time and effort” (1990, 247-248). The fact is that many of us have such freedom whether we like it or not. I would submit this is often the crux of the issue. Parshall also writes, “There’s much help on the market for disorganized missionaries. Leaders need to require their people to read books and attend seminars on time management” (1990, 249).

The challenge of organizing our lives and ministries never ends. It is a daily, perpetual discipline. Perhaps I can illustrate through the experience of Argentine tennis player Gisela Dulko during the 2009 U.S. Open. She won her first three matches; however, in the fourth round she lost 6-0, 6-0. Her fine showing in the first three rounds did not help in the fourth round. Missionary days are like that. We may be productive and organized three days, but fall on our face on day four. Managing our time day in and day out is tremendously difficult.  

What Has Helped Me
Below is what has helped me in the area of time management. I share these ideas only as an example of how one can find help with this crucial challenge. My emphasis is on reasons why we should be disciplined, not on practical tips about how to go about it.

One could react by saying people are lost and that is why we should avoid slothfulness (Col. 4:2-6). While there is a sense in which I immediately concede the point, I have found some complementary motivators helpful.

Recognize that life is short. Psalm 103:15-16 describes our lives as flowers and grass that perish with the passing of the wind. James says we are a mist that quickly fades away (James 4:14). The Bible says we are but a breath that passes “like a fleeting shadow” (Ps. 144:4). I have recently been impressed that my shadow is a lot shorter than it used to be! The years I have left on this earth are fewer than the ones I have already lived. My missionary career has lasted twenty-nine years and, assuming I leave Argentina at normal retirement age, I will be on the field only about six more years. The shortness of life motivates me to use my time more efficiently.  

Have a desire to depart from this life. Not only is life short, but we should want to make it even shorter. The Apostle Paul writes that while “we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord” and “we…would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6, 8). Paul further states, “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil.1:21). His desire was to leave this life and be with Christ, which he describes as “better by far” (Phil. 1:23).

Second Peter 2:12 indicates that we should “look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” While there is no direct indication of how to go about that, certainly prayer is part of what we should do. We are to pray “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10) and “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). Our desire ought to be that this brief, earthly life be even shorter through death or the coming of our Lord. In the meantime, being unproductive is not an option as we take on this eternal perspective.

Focus on the heavenly city. Another reason for being productive comes from Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on things above.” Recently, I was at a pastors’ meeting in Argentina and the question was raised as to what are the things above. While it is not my intention to treat that issue in great depth, I would like to take a look at what the New Testament clearly refers to as “above.”

Hebrews 11:10 tells us that Abraham “was looking forward to the city…whose architect and builder is God.” In the same chapter, verses 13-16 say that “aliens and strangers on earth…were longing for a better country, a heavenly one,” and “God…has prepared a city for them.” Revelation 21 describes “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem” which will come “down out of heaven from God” (21:2). The magnificence of the city is described not only in terms of precious stones, pure gold, and pearl gates, but also because the glory of God and the Lamb will be present. The Lord God Almighty, Jesus our Savior, and angels are in the heavenly city (21:10-14, 18-23).

Setting our minds on things above means longing to be in the heavenly city. Such a longing behooves us to work for what will have value when we reach the New Jerusalem. Just writing these words motivates me to use my time better! Christian missionaries have a future that is glorious beyond belief. In the meantime, let’s make the most of the years we are given.  

Remember that we will be judged. Again it is Paul who tells us, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). The Apostle Peter exhorts us to “live…in reverent fear” (1 Pet. 1:17) because God judges the work of everyone. Incorporating some healthy fear into the way we organize our time, conscious that a judgment awaits us before our Heavenly Father, can be very useful.

Keep in mind the eternal reward. The other side of the coin is that an award awaits us for having done what is good. Moses focused on the reward (Heb. 11:26). Jesus will reward every Christian according to what he or she has done (Matt.16:27; Rev. 22:12). There will be unmerited favor for believers when our Lord returns and that alone should motivate our service (1 Pet. 1:13).

Following the example of Moses and focusing on the eternal reward motivates me to serve with more diligence. Being conscious of that reward should cause all of us to use our time differently than we otherwise would.

Be aware of the evil in this world. I debated with myself about including this point because I wondered how well it communicates what I want to say. But I have to admit that this idea has made me more disciplined in the use of my time. Colossians 3:2 tells us not only to set our minds “on things above,” but also that we should not set our minds “on earthly things.” The reason for the latter is that what flows from our “earthly nature” is clearly evil (Col. 3:5).

“Everything in the world” is related to evil lust (1 John 2:16). That makes sense because the Apostle John also says that the entire world is under the power “of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). He further quotes Jesus as stating that Satan is “the prince of this world” (John 16:11). Paul makes a similar observation, referring to the Devil as “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). With good reason, Jesus said, “Woe to the world” (Matt. 18:7) and “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

As I walk the streets of Argentina and observe the mountains, trees, plazas, and buildings, it is difficult for me to think of everything as evil and under Satan’s power. However, besides being what the Bible clearly states, taking on that mindset has helped me to be more industrious and productive. We need to be vigilant about spending our time on good things because we are surrounded by a world that is not good.   

The evil of this world is such that it will be completely destroyed by fire on “the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:7, 10). The fire will be so intense that “the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Pet. 3:12). The new earth we await will be “the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13), which clearly implies that the present earth is not a righteous place. When it really hit me that this evil world will be burned up, I realized how much of what we humans do is going to pass away as well.

While doing what is evil is a constant temptation, there is also the possibility, which Parshall points out (1990, 249-250), of spending our time on what is frivolous and not of lasting value. Being aware of that helps me a great deal as I make decisions concerning how to schedule my days.     

Finally, there is the issue of our relationship to a world that is evil. John says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). James forcefully makes the same point. He says that “friendship with the world is hatred toward God,” and anyone who is “a friend of the world” is God’s enemy (James 4:4-5). I began to ask myself how much of my time showed that I was rather friendly with the world.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to make a list of worldly practices, each of us should examine his or her conscience as to how much time goes to world-friendly activities. While I have not spent a lot of time on such an examination, what I have reflected upon has helped me with time management.

Certainly there can be an illusion of slothfulness when it is not altogether convincing that someone is productive. But that does not change the fact that we missionaries face a daily challenge as we seek to be disciplined in the use of our time. Concentrating on the brevity of life, the desire to depart from this life, the hope of our Lord’s return, the celestial city, future judgment, future reward, and the evil of this world have all helped me use my time better.

The Apostle Paul writes, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Recognizing the challenge we face is the first step in avoiding slothfulness. At this point in my life, I would be concerned about anyone who does not feel at least vulnerable in this crucial area. I trust this article will help promote honest dialogue and positive action toward missionaries becoming more productive in the use of their time.

Cook, Clyde. 1990. “Why the Opportunity for Unproductiveness?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 26(3): 251-253.

Parshall, Phil. 1990. “Why Some People Are Unproductive.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 26(3): 246-251.

Steven L. Estes (DMiss) has served as a missionary to Argentina in church planting and leadership training for twenty-nine years with WorldVenture. He authored Transfer of Ministries and Partnership: A Look at Baptist Mission Work in Argentina.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 32-36. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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