FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Tom Elliff, president of the International Mission Board, spends plenty of time with seminary students, knowing they are a key resource for evangelizing, discipling and planting churches among unengaged, unreached people groups.
“I see folks like you as being bright, theologically correct, scripturally and spiritually passionate,” Elliff said during a visit to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “And you need to know IMB,” he said of the mission board.
“You are the answer to years of prayer and dreaming and work and planning,” Elliff said. “You are the product of that, and I just praise God for you. I have nothing to sell you on except for the fact that God wants to use you — and that one great, great vehicle that you might consider is IMB.”
Elliff also spoke at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Global Mission Chapel, comparing the seminarians to a sequestered jury. He presented a biblical case for missions and asked the audience to render a verdict.
At Southwestern, where he spoke in chapel and fielded questions in a student forum that evening, Elliff noted that the IMB’s task is to support local churches in reaching the approximately 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups around the world. He cautioned students not to bypass theological training on their path to the mission field.
“The call to serve God is also the call to train, and I can prove that to you biblically,” Elliff said in his Aug. 30 visit to the campus in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Think of the Apostle Paul, and this may be your Arabia, those years where God hammers into you truths which not only change your life but also because you let them become a part of the fabric of your life, God will use you to plant healthy DNA in churches and ministries around the world.”
Elliff, who earned a divinity degree at Southwestern, answered students’ questions related to the primacy of the local church; limited funds and limited positions with IMB; music missions; educating Southern Baptists on the SBC’s Cooperative Program channel of missions and ministry support; and working with other evangelicals on the mission field.
Concerning the local church, Elliff noted that IMB serves as a parachurch organization that comes alongside local churches, which he considers the only ones to whom God gave the Great Commission.
“Our emphasis right now in embracing the ends of the earth,” Elliff said, “is to turn to local churches and say, ‘Look, the idea is not for you to partner with us and just send us your money and a few people in drips and drabs every now and then. The idea of the Great Commission is for you to get involved, so will you take a look at the unengaged people of this world and begin praying and strategizing, planning and doing everything you can before God to see that there are boots on the ground among those people sharing the Gospel, discipling and creating a multiplying church?’
“The local church is something that we dearly prize. Our strategy on the field is local church planting. If our strategy on the field is local church planting, shouldn’t our strategy back here be local church honoring? There ought to be an inextricable tie between a local church and the missionary.”
Regarding limited funds and limited missionary appointments, Elliff said the IMB will not send people whom it cannot support, but he added that he prays that believers would understand the nature of giving.
“A gift is an expression and a barometer of your faith: Can I trust God? When you realize that, then you will have the exhilarating experience of God’s economy, not Ben Bernanke’s,” Elliff said, referring to the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
“When Southern Baptists learn that our giving is not to be based on this world’s economy but on faithful obedience to God, then things will change.”
Answering a question about the importance of educating Baptists on the value of the Cooperative Program, Elliff said, “You have to [communicate] it tirelessly. And you have to do it from one generation to the next. You have to keep telling people the story of Lottie Moon, the story of Cooperative Program, the story of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
When asked if the IMB will send music missionaries, Elliff replied, “We don’t send people to do music. We send people to evangelize, disciple and plant churches. Some of those people use music….” He noted that many IMB workers also use medicine, education and trekking, but the ultimate goal is to accomplish the three goals of evangelism, discipleship and church planting.
Students also asked Elliff about the level of cooperation between the IMB and other evangelical groups around the world. He acknowledged that Southern Baptists are not the only Christians reaching the world with the Gospel, but he also sees the need for discernment in cooperation.
“We can partner, but we cannot enter into a work that requires doctrinal compromise,” Elliff said. “We’re not going to give away primary doctrinal issues in an attempt to work with others, but at the same time we work closely with Great Commission Christians from all over the world.”
During Elliff’s chapel sermon, he pleaded with students to have a heart for missions — not simply a verbal affirmation of its value but a burning passion to give oneself to the task. He concluded his message with an invitation for students to come forward for prayer and to signify their desire to learn more about how they help reach the 3,800 remaining unengaged, unreached people groups. In response, students trickled down the aisles of the packed auditorium to talk and pray with professors.
In New Orleans, Elliff said, “When a preacher is preaching there is a sense in which he is very much like an attorney arguing a case before a jury. And I am preaching this morning for a verdict. I’m praying that in these next few moments together, as we open God’s Word, that the Holy Spirit will literally sequester you … and that you will not walk out of this room without making some kind of decision.”
Drawing from Romans 1:14-16, Elliff pointed to the Apostle Paul’s heart for missions. He suggested that this biblical text could help believers diagnose the condition of their hearts toward missions.
“Do you have a heart for missions?” Elliff said in his Sept. 1 NOBTS visit. “Notice this: I didn’t ask, ‘Are you for missions?’ Of course you are. But I’m not asking you if you’re simply for missions. I am asking if your heart beats for missions.”
In the passage, Paul made three declarations starting with the words “I am.” Elliff said the statements indicate Paul’s heartbeats for missions. First, Paul wrote about the serious debt he felt for the lost, saying, “I am under obligation, both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.”
Paul’s missions heartbeat compelled him to share the Gospel with those who had not heard.
“This is personal. This is profound,” Elliff said. “And if you have a heart for missions, you will say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I am compelled, I am moved. Every direction I turn, every choice I make is somehow ordered by this profound sense of indebtedness I have.'”
Paul’s missions heartbeat also was a fervent and focused passion — “So, for my part, I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome.” According to Elliff, Paul wasn’t interested in small talk. Instead, he was consumed with preaching the Gospel.
The third heartbeat for missions that Elliff noted in Romans 1:16 was Paul’s confidence in the power of a simple declaration: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The message that “Jesus saves” is a simple but powerful announcement, Elliff said. He called the Gospel the “drive train” connecting the powerful, saving God to powerless, sinful men.
There are close to 7 billion people in the world today, Elliff said. Half of those have little access to the Gospel and as many as 1.7 billion will die without even hearing the name of Jesus.
The 7 billion people can be divided into more than 11,000 distinct people groups. These groups share ethnic, linguistic and cultural similarities but not necessarily the same geographical location. Of these 11,000 people groups, 6,734 are “unreached” — a term the IMB uses to describe people groups in which less than 2 percent of the population are evangelical Christians. Many unreached groups have missionaries working among them to share the Gospel.
Elliff then turned his attention to the unengaged, unreached people groups of the world. The unengaged are those groups which no one is actively working to reach through evangelism and discipleship to develop reproducing churches. According to Elliff, approximately 3,800 people groups fit this category. Most live in remote, hard-to-reach locations or closed countries.
Elliff pledged that the IMB will continue to work diligently with the resources it has been given to reach the unengaged. He was clear, though, that the IMB cannot do the task alone. Reaching such people will take hard work from churches and individual Christians.
“You’ve got to be a part of this formula as well,” Elliff said. “I believe some of our most creative thinking, some of our most sacrificial living, some of our most energetic giving and going is right here in front of me.”
During a time of response, Elliff asked the seminary community to render a verdict. He challenged them to say yes to God’s call to embrace the ends of the earth and help engage the unengaged people groups.
He said God could be calling some to go to the mission field, but going is not the only call. Others may hear God calling them to let go of loved ones who are headed to the mission field. The call could be to help others go or to pray for those who are going. The call could mean leading one’s church to embrace an unengaged group and develop a plan to reach them.
Part of embracing the ends of the earth involves “simply letting the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ do the work” and having confidence that the Gospel message is what the world needs to hear, Elliff said.
During the response time, many students responded to Elliff’s challenge by signing a card pledging their commitment to embrace the missions challenge and giving the cards to seminary faculty members.
Based on reports by Keith Collier of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Gary D. Myers of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.