Book Review: Mission Affirmed, by Elliot Clark

thumbnail_Mission Affirmed

Elliot Clark, Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul. Crossway, 2022. 253 pages.

In an age of innovation and shortcuts in mission strategy, veteran missionary Elliot Clark provides the church with an opportunity to reflect on its approach to missions and, if necessary, to consider an alternative approach shaped by the Apostle Paul.

The Problem

“Over the last few decades,” Clark notes, “as our focus has been on reaching the unreached and finishing the task, we’ve increasingly prioritized rapid reproduction, with a programmatic and results-driven focus that looks more like Western capitalism and business franchising than genuine Christlike servanthood and faithful stewardship.”

Throughout Mission Affirmed, Clark identifies several trends in modern missions that are unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst. He writes, “Today, . . . much of evangelical Christian missions is a straw house built on a sandy shore.”[1]

A Need for Careful Assessment

Clark’s goal, however, is not only to critique, but to call us to consider whether we’re building work that is approved by God and will last.

My purpose in this book isn’t to criticize or unhelpfully shame; rather, I’m compelled to recount these stories and raise the caution flag—perhaps we need to slow down if danger is around the bend. I also want to call us to another goal, a different end. At such a time as this, we don’t necessarily need more impassioned pleas about opportunity and urgency. While those are important, I’m convinced that what we desperately need are voices of discernment, calls for wise investment, and plans for better building. [2]

And that’s what Mission Affirmed provides: a discerning, compelling, and edifying voice; a call for wise investment; and a plan for better building.

Help from the Apostle Paul and Missions History

Clark primarily draws on two trusted sources from the past: the Apostle Paul and voices from the history of missions.

Clark mines deeply from Acts and the Pauline epistles to help us consider what faithfulness in mission looks like. Rather than speed-driven methods and silver-bullet strategies, Paul’s missiology aims at God’s affirmation and building lasting ministry. His goal was “mission affirmed,” not simply “mission accomplished.” Clark says,

Most books about missions tend to focus either on means or ends. Even though they discuss both, inevitably their content is tilted in one direction or the other. . . . But what I’ve found is that we rarely reflect at length on one of the explicit and often repeated goals of Paul: his desire for God’s affirmation. Subsequently, we’ve rarely considered how this overarching motivation for honor and recognition on the last day had a significant role to play in guiding Paul’s missionary approach.[3]

By carefully considering Paul’s own statements about his missionary motivation, Clark helps us move beyond a focus on missionary methods to a focus on the underlying motives that drive our approach and strategies.

Likewise, Clark draws lessons from missionary giants of the past like Henry Martyn, Amy Carmichael, John G. Paton, James O. Fraser, and Adoniram Judson. Their stories are woven throughout the chapters, punctuating Clark’s arguments and observations with helpful insights and anecdotes.

A Better Way

So what does Clark’s alternative vision look like in light of Paul’s ministry and missions history? Here’s a sampling of some of the correctives offered in Missions Affirmed.

A focus on the evangelization of the world in our lifetime.

Clark demonstrates that the focus of the New Testament is not just on preaching the gospel among the unreached. “Paul’s ministry was motivated by more than the pioneer advance of the gospel,” he argues.[4] In fact, he was equally concerned about bringing believers and churches to full maturity in Christ. He writes, “[Paul] was constantly concerned with issues of ecclesial unity, moral purity, theological accuracy, and leadership development. Paul’s goal wasn’t just to preach the gospel but to teach the whole counsel of God and present everyone mature in Christ (Acts 20:27; Col. 1:28).”[5]

A western, speed-oriented approach to mission that is highly task-driven and time-conscious.

Instead of focusing on speed, Clark argues we should focus on building well. The work of the Great Commission always involves playing the long game slow; it always involves messy, relational discipleship. Unfortunately, especially for those of us who are products of a Western culture, “we value novelty and immediacy more than durability.”[6] As a result, “in missions, we recruit missionaries with urgency, not toward longevity. We tend to go fast, or we don’t go at all.”[7] And so, Clark memorably ponders, “While our missionary mantra of late has been ‘Work yourself out of a job,’ one has to wonder if a more appropriate goal would be, ‘Build something that lasts.’”[8]

The “democratization of missions” in which anyone who volunteers is a legitimate missionary.

Clark counters this trend by arguing that not all Christians are called to be missionaries.[9] Missionary “volunteerism” issues “wide-spread and urgent calls for workers to go into the harvest,” but often gives little attention to whether or not potential missionaries are truly qualified, gifted, and skilled.[10] Rather than eagerly encouraging “all who feel called to missions to missions,” the bar should be set high for those aspiring to go to the field.[11] 

The tendency to minimize the role of the local church in preparing, vetting, and sending.

In response to the “democratization of missions,” Clark offers a church-based approach to missionary launching. Clark clearly highlights the church’s role in sending missionaries: “Missionaries aren’t independent agents with their own agenda. . . . Their work is meant to be part of an interdependent co-mission where others share in the responsibility and the reward.”[12] What does this imply? That missionaries must be “tested, proven, and sent out by the church.”[13] Due to what’s at stake, “those whom we send should be competent in the Scriptures and of good character.” And it’s the church’s responsibility to ensure that.[14] Clark writes, “The onus is on the local church. They must do the work of affirming missionaries who qualify.”[15]

The tendency to ignore or side-step the national church.

Clarks demonstrates that Paul had a strong commitment to partner with the churches he planted. To that end,, Clark argues, “missionaries should pursue genuine relationship, fellowship, and ongoing collaboration with local churches and their leaders.”[16] In our efforts to avoid mistakes of the past like colonialism and dependency, we have overcompensated and become “suspicious of the role of an outsider in exercising influence over a national believer or congregation.”[17] However, “the solution to dependency isn’t independence, it’s interdependence.”[18] Clark nails it here. “What makes a good missionary? It isn’t just bringing the gospel to new people. It’s working together with them for the increase of their faith. It’s inviting them to partner with you as grace extends to the nations—to maximize their joy and crown, all to the praise of God’s glorious grace.”[19]

The abandonment of the “proclamation model” of missions, which focuses on teaching and preaching the Word.

In a chapter entitled “Speaking the Truth Sincerely,” Clark identifies two approaches that tend to represent “a not-so-subtle split among missionaries around the world today.”[20] One approach views “faithful proclamation” as central to mission. This approach says the missionary’s primary task is preaching the gospel and speaking of Christ. The other model views “faithful presence” as central to mission. It stresses “the importance of making Christ know through a ministry of deeds.”[21] While not mutually exclusive, these two approaches ultimately represent two different approaches to mission.

Which approach does the New Testament emphasize? Sadly, many missionaries deemphasize the role of teaching and preaching—a proclamation model—in favor of an emphasis on simply living out the gospel. Clark’s response to this shift is clear: “The divinely appointed means for opening those blind eyes and revealing the glory of God was through the foolishness of preaching. The way to see the light was by hearing the word (2 Cor. 4:1–6).”[22]

Longing for Approval

These are just a few of the correctives that Clark offers in Mission Affirmed. While the book does offer many important critiques, the primary thrust of the book is positive: to encourage faithfulness so that our mission might be affirmed or approved by God.

“Paul was motivated,” Clark insists, “by the approval of God. As he mentions repeatedly in his Corinthian correspondence, his driving ambition—one of many—was to receive, on the last day, God’s commendation (1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:9–10; 10:18).”[23] He continues, “Paul desires to rejoice in what Christ has accomplished through him (Rom. 15:18). And what makes his priestly offering acceptable is that those in his influence are living in a manner worthy of the gospel, mature in Christ, sanctified by the Spirit, and obedient in faith. Paul’s ability to boast on the last day is connected to the fruit of his labors.”[24]

Conclusion

Elliot Clark’s Mission Affirmed is a timely and profound critique of many trends in modern missiology. But it’s much more than a critique. It’s primarily a positive and hopeful presentation of a biblical approach to missions. Through thoughtful exegesis and engaging storytelling—stories, again, drawn from Paul’s ministry and from missions history—Clark provides us with an accessible philosophy of missions that will, by God’s grace, help many generations be faithful to Christ’s Great Commission.


[1] Elliot Clark, Mission Affirmed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022), 25.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 26-27.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 95.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 86.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 94.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 91.

[17] Ibid., 119.

[18] Ibid., 104.

[19] Ibid., 107.

[20] Ibid., 144.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 147.

[23] Ibid., 18.

[24] Ibid., 54-55.

AJ Gibson

AJ Gibson and his wife, Ruth, have served as missionaries since 2004. They joined Reaching and Teaching in early 2015 and AJ serves as Reaching and Teaching’s Regional Leader for Latin America. He also travels and teaches throughout Mexico and South America. The Gibsons now live in south Texas and AJ serves as an elder in his local church. They have two adult sons (Jonathan and Christian) and three children still at home (Katelyn, Hudson, and Sofia).

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