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Missionaries Do Sometimes Fail

Sometimes missionaries don’t make it to the end. The New Testament has a powerful example of that – Demas. Demas is referred to three times in Paul’s epistles. In Colossians 4:14, writing to the Colossian church, Paul says: “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.” Demas is listed next to Paul’s long-time companion Luke the physician. Status indeed. In verse 17 Paul writes: “And say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfil it.’” Archippus gets his knuckles wrapped by the apostle Paul. Not Demas. Demas is in the “doing well” group, alongside Epaphras, who is “a bondservant of Christ.”

In Philemon 1:24, Paul again mentions Demas, this time in the context of sending greetings to Philemon, a fellow believer. “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow labourers.” Paul describes Demas as a “fellow worker” or a “fellow labourer.” There is no level one and then level two, Demas is right there with the best of them, one of Paul’s most trusted co-workers.

Then there is 2 Timothy 4:10. In this verse, Paul writes to Timothy, his son in the faith, and says, “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Now, instead of continuing to work alongside Paul, Demas has chosen to abandon him and pursue worldly interests. The phrase “in love with this present world” implies that Demas became enticed by the attractions and temptations of the world. It suggests that he prioritised worldly pleasures and desires over his commitment to the gospel and his partnership with Paul. As a result, Demas deserted Paul and went to Thessalonica, leaving behind his previous ministry responsibilities. It is sobering that we never hear of him again. 

The exact reasons for Demas’ departure are not explicitly stated in the Bible. One source list four reasons why missionaries fail:

1. Moral Failures: Some individuals involved in mission may succumb to moral failures, such as dishonesty, infidelity, or financial impropriety, actions that lead to a disqualification from the missionary calling.

2. Burnout and Discouragement: Ministry can be demanding and emotionally taxing. The weight of expectations, conflicts, or disappointments can cause individuals to question their calling and choose to step away from it. There can be a feeling among mission workers that the work is never finished and that it is difficult to quantify success.

3. Doctrinal Shifts or Doubts: Individuals may undergo significant shifts in their beliefs or develop doubts about the faith they once embraced. These doubts or changes in theology can lead them to walk away from their missionary calling.

4. Worldly Temptations: Like Demas, individuals may become enticed by the attractions of the world, prioritising worldly pursuits over their commitment to ministry. This can manifest in various ways, such as pursuing material wealth, fame, or personal ambition.

Is there anything churches can do to help prevent such failures? One of the reasons that FieldPartner International exists is to encourage churches to “send” not as a “done and then forgotten” single action but as ongoing support. We are passionate about abolishing the missionary “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome by encouraging churches to care for their missionaries long after they have sent them out, to sustain relationships that encourage healthy missionary accountability. 

There are also missionaries who think they have failed – but they did not! In 1912 Dr. William Leslie went to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He spent 17 years in the remote corner of the country, ministering to the tribal people there. However, he returned to the U.S. after having a conflict with some tribal leaders. Nine years later, he died thinking he had failed in his mission. But in 2010 a team visiting that same region were astonished by what they found: thriving churches hidden deep in the jungle of the region where he had worked. “When we got there, we found a network of reproducing churches throughout the jungle. Each village had its own gospel choir, although they wouldn’t call it that. They wrote their own songs and would have sing-offs from village to village.” Though there are no Bibles translated in their local language, yet the Gospel still thrived. The tribes there were using French Bibles to study the Word of God.

The tribal people knew of a Dr Leslie, that he had taught them the Bible. He had taught the tribal children how to read and write. He had talked about the importance of education and told Bible stories. Dr. William Leslie made a huge impact on those tribes. He felt he had failed as a missionary in his 17 years of service and that he had never really made a big impact. But in reality the legacy he left was huge and eternal. (Source: Within Reach Global).

You never know!

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