Book Review: Mission Affirmed, by Elliot Clark
Elliot Clark, Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul. Crossway, 2022. 256 pages.
How do you pastor church members who often don’t show up for years at a time? I’m not talking about Easter-Sunday Christians here. I’m talking about missionaries. They constitute a crucial part of our churches, extending our love to the wider, unreached world. But churches often have little window into who their missionaries are, what their ministries entail, or what crucial ministry decisions they are making.
While sending churches should tread carefully—especially where they don’t understand the cultural practicalities and pressures of missionary life—their involvement is crucial, and simple abdication is a dereliction of duty. In Acts 15, Paul and his band of missionaries turned to the church for guidance. So, how can sending churches partner fruitfully with missionaries?
I can think of no better resource to start with than Elliot Clark’s Mission Affirmed. Clark has followed Evangelism as Exiles with another genuine spiritual treasure. It’s intensely practical, filled to the brim with deep, scriptural insight, and written with his unique blend of convicting truth and soft-hearted graciousness.
MISSION AFFIRMED BY GOD
Mission Affirmed follows the apostle Paul’s ministry at Corinth and begins by establishing the central focus of his missionary work—receiving the glory of God’s affirmation.
We can’t afford to gloss over this; many of us don’t think much about striving for God’s approval since we know he has already accepted us in Christ. But the God who initially approved of us in our union with Christ lovingly bestows additional approval for our service to him. Paul knows Christ has won his salvation, but he continues to “make it [his] aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9).
How do we continue to please God and win his approval? Chapter two explores the necessary role of suffering in the missionary task. We only “experience the reward of glory insofar as we share in Christ’s shame” (82). There is no quick or easy way to attain the prize.
Nor, as chapter three shows, is the reward obtained in isolation. Paul builds close relationships with the churches around him. He is willing to defend his qualifications to the churches he partners with in order to gain their confidence because he wants to share in God’s affirmation together with them. And though he wants to expand the church further, he is willing to slow down in order to nurture the churches he has already planted.
SLOW, STEADY, AND SPIRITUALLY MATURE
In a critical—and today, highly controversial—turn, chapter four argues against today’s most popular missions methods, which expect churches among the unreached to grow explosively with little or no missionary teaching, simply by “having the Holy Spirit and the Bible” (116). These methods teach missionaries to “limit the content of doctrinal instruction to the irreducible core…” (116). Clark doesn’t buy this: “For those who had the Spirit… [Paul] supplied more hearty instruction… Paul’s goal wasn’t mere reproduction, but spiritual maturity and gospel fidelity” (117).
Clark isn’t arguing for “colonialist and paternalistic tendencies” that establish missionaries forever at the center of church life. Rather, he wants to avoid the “false humility and cultural embarrassment” that lead missionaries to abdicate the Spirit-filled teaching that will empower those they serve (119).
Clark’s emphasis on teaching may mean growing churches more slowly. So, in a crucial reminder for today’s overly speed-focused missions world, Clark rebuffs the common mantra that “you can’t argue with results” (126) Missionaries who are seeking glory and affirmation from God build the church as he desires, even when that means slower visible results. After all, not all visible success will last, and this was Paul’s concern about the false apostles at Corinth—their ministry had flashy outward results, but the Corinthians were behaving in fleshly ways, when Paul longed to see Spirit-wrought faith.
Chapter five shows Paul’s solution to the false gospels taught at Corinth was to speak the truth while living in ways that demonstrated his integrity. Faithful proclamation cannot be separated from faithful presence. Here Clark warns against the easy missionary trap of gaining access to unreached areas in ways that lack real credibility. And he wades into a second critical and controversial area in missions, arguing against over-contextualized approaches that water down Christ’s message in order to make it more palatable to people in unreached contexts. Motivation, again, is key: “In missions, when reaching others becomes your primary end, you’ll easily justify any means” (150). Remembering, as Paul did, that God will one day reward missionaries will motivate them to remain faithful to the gospel.
Clark expands on this theme in chapter six, describing true Christian preaching as “exclusivist,” with real boundaries separating our faith from other deceptive belief systems. Pastors may be surprised how controversial this emphasis is in today’s missions world, where missionaries who are over-eager to let new believers retain their cultural identity easily downplay the need to renounce spiritual forms and identities that are contrary to the claims of Christ. After all, they reason, shouldn’t people be able to keep their “cultural” forms as Muslim or Hindu while following Jesus?
Many churches, Clark warns, are “unaware of what their supported and sent-out [missionaries] believe” (168). They don’t know missionaries are instructing new believers to continue worshiping in mosques and identifying as Muslim followers of Jesus. Pastors who are reading this, take heed! Churches that send missionaries are responsible to establish that these missionaries understand the nuances of Christ’s message.
In chapter eight, Clark reminds us that Paul rejected the boastful culture of Corinth. He served with humility, seeking only to be approved by God as a servant, together with the believers whom he loved. How widespread is this attitude in missions today? Clark pleads with a church that has “lost contact with [its] first principles” (217)
“As we’ve focused on the rapid distribution of the gospel to all peoples,” he says, “we’ve failed to secure its safe transmission. Because of this, our gospel is at risk—as are those who deliver it” (218).
Listen well, pastors! If missionaries and the gospel are at risk, pastoral care may be needed. It can be hard to offer much-needed critique to missionaries. They are often overly lionized by local congregations and wouldn’t get overseas without impressive drive and idealism.
But many missionaries—like myself—want your help. We know drive and idealism aren’t spiritual qualities. They can spur us not only to share the gospel, but also to judge our families, for example. We long to better submit our drive and idealism to Christ.
How, then, can you pastor your missionaries? Talk to us. Ask us questions (Clark has an excellent article suggesting where to begin). Read Mission Affirmed and begin learning about the theological ins and outs of today’s missions world. And together with us, ensure the central focus of our ministry—and your own!—is a loving desire for God’s affirmation.