The new International Mission Board president sat down (briefly) for a wide-ranging interview before his March 16 election by IMB trustees. He smiled at questions about his age -- he turned 67 in February -- and whether he'll be a "transitional" leader.
"You gotta love Ronald Reagan," Elliff said. "Of course, he was elected at 69 his first time around, so I find comfort in that. But I remember in his second election campaign, people were talking about his age and he said, 'I promise not to use my maturity as an advantage against my opponent.'"
Reagan wasn't exactly a "transitional" president -- and Elliff doesn't intend to be one either.
"I'm not coming as an 'interim,'" he vowed, recalling what he told the presidential search committee. "I'm coming with a vision -- and I will serve as long as God gives me grace and energy."
The longtime pastor, Southern Baptist Convention leader and former missionary will lead one of the largest evangelical missions entities in an era of rapid change at home and around the globe. He succeeds Jerry Rankin as president of IMB, which serves Southern Baptists and the 5,000 missionaries they send worldwide.
LONGING TO HEAR
The two greatest mission challenges, in his view: the world's overwhelming spiritual lostness and the urgency of mobilizing churches to take the Gospel of Christ to all peoples.
While much of the world at large seems "hostile to the message of the Gospel," Elliff noted that "there are so many people who are longing to hear."
"That's why we must go to the uttermost now," he said. "Frankly, I think we live in a generation of students who are asking, 'Why do we keep hearing about these unreached people groups? Why don't we just go reach them?' I believe we are seeing, even in our own convention, a groundswell of men and women of all ages who have the heart and are willing to go to the unreached now."
They need all the encouragement they can get, Elliff added, because they're bucking an American culture that has become "very self-absorbed." Even Christians, in many cases, have become so afraid of offending anyone with the simple Gospel message that they seldom share it. Yet Elliff believes it's lack of passion, not excessive zeal, that turns off a world in search of truth.
"God is preparing the hearts of those who are going to be different, who are totally captured by His vision for their lives," he said.
They remind him of a much earlier generation -- missionaries who went out with their belongings packed in caskets, because they knew they weren't coming back.
"I am finding among students across this country people who are saying, 'Bring it on. I am God's. He knows my days. I am giving myself to reach the unreached.'"
Elliff remembers sensing the same mission call 30 years ago.
Born in Texas, Elliff is a fourth-generation Oklahoman and third-generation pastor. He left a pastorate at fast-growing Eastwood Baptist Church in Tulsa so he and his wife Jeannie could serve as missionaries to Zimbabwe. They resigned in 1983 after their daughter Beth was seriously injured in a car accident there. But Elliff has drawn on his missionary experience ever since as a pastor and missions mobilizer -- first in his own family. Two of the Elliffs' four children went on to become missionaries.
"I don't claim to be a veteran missionary, never have, and yet we did have a wonderful and somewhat fruitful ministry in Zimbabwe," Elliff recalled. "And I was able to take the knowledge I gleaned and say, 'Look, we're going to be a mission-hearted church.'"
Elliff led Applewood Baptist Church in Lakewood, Colo., before moving on to First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., where he was pastor from 1985-2005. He was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1996 and 1997, and also served as president of the SBC Pastors' Conference in 1990. He rejoined the IMB as senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations from 2005-09. In that role, he taught and counseled missionaries and helped mobilize churches throughout the convention for missions involvement.
PASTOR TO MISSIONARIES, MISSIONARY TO PASTORS
Elliff hopes his experience as a missionary, and much longer experience as a pastor, will help him be a pastor to missionaries -- and a missionary to pastors.
"I do have a pastor's heart, and I have a tremendous concern for the spiritual welfare of our missionaries," he said. "For the past several years, I've had the privilege of teaching probably half or more of our missionaries either at orientation or stateside-assignment conferences. I love them. And as I listen to their stories, part of me says 'pastor them,' because these folks are fantastic. To me, it's exciting to hear what is happening in their lives, in the lives of their children. Jeannie and I have prayed for so many over the years that one wall in our closet is covered with pictures of missionaries."
Having been a pastor, though, "I do think I hear what pastors in churches are saying," he said. "Missionaries are not sent by boards. They are not sent by agencies. It's God who calls missionaries through the framework and environment of a local church and churches send missionaries. It's imperative for us to reach out and draw our churches into this process of what it means to have missionaries on the field. Being a pastor gives me an understanding of both the church and the field."
His message to churches who want to "go it alone" in international missions in an era suspicious of large institutions:
"We can do a lot more together than we can do alone. This is the way that IMB has become the kind of agency that it is. Do I say it is the only way that missionaries should be on the field? No. But there's something about the momentum and the resources we can harness in reaching people that can come together in no other way."
In 2009, IMB began a major reorganization, still in progress, to streamline logistics and become more effective in implementing creative mission strategies. Elliff said he's not planning additional major changes but will observe and make adjustments as necessary.
"Organizations should serve people," he said. "People should not serve an organization."
Meanwhile, a huge missions task looms. It includes facing the hostile secularism and global "mega-religions" that oppose Christ's Gospel, sometimes violently. Yet the revolutionary events now unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East show how desperate people are for spiritual freedom.
"Anytime people's hearts are plowed up, anytime there is confusion, anytime there is an awareness of great need and sometimes tragedy, people begin to look for 'true truth,' and that can be found only in Christ," Elliff said. "It is a plow thrusting deep into the hearts of people, turning up the reality that they need something more than what they've had. That's fertile ground for the Gospel.
"It's imperative that we help our generation understand that it's always been scary out there. But we don't have to be intimidated, for greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world. We need bold new believers in Christ who are willing to give all."
To those who may question his energy for leading the charge at age 67, Elliff cites his family tree (he's a third-generation pastor).
"My father is still actively ministering to people," he reported. "Recently he celebrated his 93rd birthday by extending the deck on the back of his house, which most people don't do at the age of 93. He bought a new barbecue grill, invited all of his neighbors in and cooked hamburgers for them. He had 16 different families represented there."
After the meal, his dad offered to share the message of eternal life with anyone who wanted to come back later and talk. So far, two families have taken him up on the offer.
"So, how long will I be president?" Elliff asked. "Only God knows. I have no intention of resigning early, and I have no intention of being an interim. I have every intention of fulfilling the vision."
Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.
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