As I walked past a hairdresser’s recently and read its tagline – Appearance is Everything – I rejoiced that Christians don’t have to buy into this myth (partly because my own appearance certainly isn’t everything).  Christians understand the old maxim that appearance is only skin deep.  We know that what’s on the inside is more important than the outside.

So why do we continue to live our lives as if we believed that appearances really are everything?

I’m not talking about dressing to impress or buying showy new stuff so that we can look wealthier than we really are.  I’m talking about the tendency we have to over-inflate the significance of our ministries.  How many church leaders have not faced the temptation to massage the numbers?  How many mission workers haven’t felt the need to overstate the number of converts?  Or do we simply drop names into the conversation so that others will know how significant we are: “As the Archbishop said only last week….”

There is an extent to which we all have to face up to the need to perform.  If we are going to be accountable, and make sure that we are making the most of the prayer, finance and encouragement we draw from our supporters, we have to find a way of demonstrating that what we are doing is worthwhile.  That very easily can revert to just numbers.  The church has more members so it must be going well.  We hit our targets.  But numbers have their limits.  How many followers did Jesus have when he died?  Probably just 120.  Failure?

The need to perform creates a negative cycle in the life of mission workers.  Having performed well they receive praise (possibly an unusual experience for them).  This motivates them to achieve more, and more, and more, until they become exhausted by trying to achieve too much.  And so burn out.  Many mission workers I deal with are exhausted by this inner drivenness.  David Ellis wrote:

“Driven relentlessly without recognizing the symptoms, we have become infected by the disease of activism.  It is easy to hide barrenness behind a charade of busyness.  To rely on activity, plans and strategies to cover spiritual bankruptcy.” (quoted by Tony Horsfall in Rhythms of Grace).

This drivenness and emptiness in many mission workers needs to be exposed (lovingly and supportively) and addressed.  It leads to stress and, ultimately, attrition.  Each of us needs to address the issues of who we are trying to impress, each mission agency needs to create a context in which it helps promote the ongoing spiritual development of its members alongside evaluating their performance, and each church needs to support, encourage and be committed to mission workers who don’t deliver obvious results.

There are many intangibles involved in our work: community impact, increasing knowledge of God among our members, growing Christlikeness in us, increasing influence of the church in society, and many more.  We need to devise ways of showing this in our feedback and appraisal systems in order to encourage one another to rise above counting heads.  Not long ago I had to do a ‘performance appraisal’ and took the opportunity to reinforce my view that I wanted to appraise who my colleague is, not what she does.  It was very hard, particularly when faced with statistical targets.  But with careful preparation I was able to say things like ‘I liked your attitude in this situation’ and ‘You dealt with that difficult issue with grace and humility’.  I affirmed who she was rather than what she did.  And now she knows that I care more about her than the results that she delivers.

Appearance is definitely not everything.  There is a lot going on under the surface and if we focus on superficial issues we will not be developing stronger people, we’ll be creating performers.  It should not be necessary to exaggerate the numbers if we are secure in our identity and have good supportive relationships with sending agencies and churches who recognise that sometimes God does more in us than he does through us.

So let’s stop counting heads.  And we all know that name-dropping is a bad habit.  The Archbishop said so only last week…