In the world of Christian missions, statistics play a large role. How many people groups are “unreached”? What percentage of a country’s citizens are believers? How many languages still don’t have a Bible?
Here’s another question: What portion of protestant missionaries sent from the US are African-American?
Answer: less than 0.5%—even though blacks make up 20% of Americans affiliated with protestant denominations.*
That number is reflected in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant group in the US, where 0.6% of its missionaries (27 out or 4,900) are African American.
Last month, Christianity Today devoted an article to this situation, quoting Fred Luter, the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the first African-American to serve in that role, and David Goatley, the executive secretary treasurer of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, named after the first African-American missionary sent out and supported by a mission agency.
Following is some of what they have to say, on why there are so few African-American missionaries and what can be done to increase their number, along with several other voices on the topic.
A lot of our African American churches are in the “hood.” It’s a daily fight every day. [People ask me], “Why do I need to go to Africa, Asia or Europe? We need to get people saved in this community.”
It’s a both/and approach. We need to reach the people in our neighborhoods and get African Americans out on the foreign field.
Granted, some (young people) want to be nurses, doctors or attorneys. Some want to be football players or basketball players, but a lot . . . can be missionaries. I never heard that all my life in the church I grew up in . . . I don’t hear it being said in the church I pastor now.
As SBC president, I will let African American churches know that we desperately need more African Americans on the mission field. I want to challenge pastor[s] to start with your young people.
African-American Missional Church Strategist, International Mission Board (Southern Baptists)
Charity begins at home, but it doesn’t end there. The command begins in Jerusalem, but we don’t stop at the beginning.
Our ancestors didn’t say, “We’ve got to take care of Jerusalem before we go.” No, some of them had the call and they went.
The world is becoming smaller and smaller. African American professionals are traveling worldwide. Communication is becoming greater and greater. Younger people especially are communicating with people throughout the world, and they are more adventurous. They’re not “set.” They’re open to new things.
God is calling us, because like every other child of God, we have a responsibility. We don’t have any excuses.
(Tess Rivers, “SBC President: We Need African Americans on Int’l Mission Field,” Baptist Press, February 13, 2013; Erich Bridges, “Worldview: A New Generation of Black Missionaries,” Baptist Press, February 13, 2013)
Sociologist and Co-Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University
On the difficulty of raising funds for mission work:
Whites have 20 times the wealth of African Americans. So when you go to raise support, it’s really hard because there’s so much less money going around.
[African American] income is about 75 percent compared to our [Anglo American] siblings’—even when we have comparable education and experience. Our unemployment rate is also nearly twice their rate.
The prospect of African Americans being part of Christian organizations with sending capacity is small.
On the value that African Americans’ cultural history brings to missions:
[T]he experiences of racism and white supremacy . . . would teach them to avoid better the paternalism that too many Anglo Americans show toward Africans and other majority-world people.
(Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Black Churches’ Missing Missionaries,” Christianity Today, April 2, 2013)
Senior Director of Mobilization and Candidacy, The Mission Society
As a student at Oral Roberts University, Coleman went on a short-term trip to Uganda.
[W]hen I went to Africa, Africans would say “Where are the blacks? How come they don’t come?”
When you look at the civil rights movement, everyone had to focus inward and everybody was needed to deal with this big issue at home. They had to suspend other ventures.
And once we got the same rights and privileges as everybody else, human nature—and this is not a black thing or a white thing or any color thing—pursues security, comfort and equality. And so when the playing field became a lot more level, I think our pursuits changed toward building up the community and I don’t think we’ve really begun to look outward.
People around the world have heard that story and have seen the overcoming of struggles. Black churches have a message of encouragement for the world.
(Lillian Kwon , “Black Christians Largely Absent from U.S. Missionary Force,” The Christian Post, October 6, 2010)
President, Mission Year
Director, Reconciliation Ministries Network
From Black in America, CNN, September 27, 2010
Leroy Barber: I’m the Jackie Robinson of missions, you know.
Soledad O’Brien, CNN special correspondent: Leroy Barber is a man with a calling, and he’s the president of Mission Year. It’s a year-long ministry and volunteer program for Christian young adults in the United States.
Barber: There is a goal for people coming to know Jesus. There is probably another strong goal of things are not right in the world, and I want to be part of making them right.
O’Brien: How many African-Americans are involved in Mission Year’s missionary work?
Barber: Generally about five percent a year or less sometimes.
O’Brien: So why does that matter?
Barber: I don’t think it’s good for a kid growing up in an urban neighborhood, to only see white faces coming to serve.
. . . . .
Jim Sutherland: In terms of the mission area percentage of African-Americans it’s less, far less than 1 percent.
O’Brien: Jim Sutherland studies missionary work and the black church.
Sutherland: Many black churches are—do a fairly good job of taking care of their own local communities but the vocation of missionary in the African-American church is essentially off the radar. It’s basically not there.
O’Brien: So why are there so few African-Americans who are involved in missionary work?
Barber: I think the way missions is traditionally done is you raise support to do it and—
Barber: Money. How you work out taking a year off which means not working, not earning an income.
(from a cached copy of a rush transcript)
* The African American Missions Manifesto, ratified in 2007 at Columbia International University, estimated the number of African-American missionaries to be around 500, though they admit the actual number is unknown and say that 500 “may be overestimated.” This would suggest that African Americans make up about 0.4% of the total number of missionaries. The percentage of protestants who are African American comes from numbers derived from the Pew Forum’s “Religious Portrait of African-Americans,” (January 30, 2009).
[photo: “Hand and Cross,” by Tim Green, used under a Creative Commons license]