In my previous post, I introduced Elliot Clark’s Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul. While various factors motivated Paul’s labor, an underlying concern that often gets overlooked is simply this: Paul wants God’s approval. He wants honor or commendation from the Lord on the day when he judges Paul’s work.
Therefore, Paul is worried about the quality of his ministry, whether the churches he planted actually reflect the kingdom of God. This concern trumps the modern fixation among missionaries for rapidity and numbers. The book unpacks this point over the span of several chapters.
What exactly are we reproducing?
Clark expresses his concern clearly,
Today, in many places where the gospel is spreading the fastest and where churches are rapidly multiplying, Satan appears to be the most active in deceiving believers. Simply having the Holy Spirit and the Bible does not guarantee a mature disciple.
This is one reason why I’m so concerned with the growing number of missionary strategies that advocate for the gospel’s advance by reducing the amount of biblical instruction missionaries give new converts. Simplicity, it is argued, leads to reproducibility. Complicated teaching can’t be easily or quickly transmitted. And since we’ve assumed that our ultimate goal is multiplication—and ideally, rapid growth—then the attendant means must be simple and transferable. Accordingly, missionaries are told to intentionally limit the content of doctrinal instruction to the irreducible core, focusing on obedience to the text at hand and its transference to others. (116)
From my experience, I’ve often wondered whether CPMs (i.e., Church Planting Movements) may, in reality, lay the groundwork for Cult Planting Movements. Why? When people prioritize speed and numbers above all else, they inevitably minimize theological training and short circuit character development. These latter tasks are time and resource-intensive. They don’t happen in a hurry and don’t generate large numbers to report to donors.
“Paul doesn’t define ministry success in terms of conversions or even the rapid numerical growth of his churches. His ‘primary concern is with their faithfulness, with the integrity of their witness’” (54).
He likewise suggests that missionaries have so focused on the rapid reproduction of churches and new believers that we compromise the gospel message and its intended fruit (218).
Definitions of Ministry Success Determine Reward
What we define as successful will largely determine our reward. If a basketball team judges success by how many practice sessions they have rather than the games won, they will not get the championship they seek. Similarly, Clark says
Paul didn’t quibble with whether or not their ministries were “fruitful”; he challenged whether they were faithful… And our missionary ambition cannot simply be a strategy of reproduction. Even if we see growth— with field research showing obvious multiplication—we must not evaluate ministries merely by outward appearances or mission practices by worldly values. We must not judge according to the flesh. (128)
How many churches and mission organizations chase the applause and funding that comes with reporting high numbers. Yet, they forsake the Lord’s approval. Clark adds,
Paul’s “confidence in God’s commendation was connected to the Corinthians’ growth and stability in the faith. Any hope he had of ministry expansion beyond Corinth was conditioned by a prior need for greater ministry influence within Corinth. He prioritized their faith over new fields.” (100)
Some organizations are content to preach a salvation message, solicit a prayer, then leave them with the Bible and the Holy Spirit. However, for Paul, this would be akin to abandoning a newborn baby to raise itself.
Paul’s goal wasn’t mere reproduction, but spiritual maturity and gospel fidelity. He wouldn’t resign his influence among weak believers or a young church simply because they had God’s word and God’s Spirit. (117)
Clark’s remarks challenge readers to self-reflect. Have we settled for sub-biblical ministry methods in the name of speed or fundraising (perhaps unconsciously)? If so, we measure ourselves by human standards and set aside honor from the Lord.
 He quotes Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 125–26