What could be more important to missionaries than the mission?
But talk about the supreme importance of the work of the church can be used to silence those who would expose sin in the church. Russell Moore pointed this out last month, writing in Christianity Today about Guidepost Solution’s investigation into sexual-abuse claims, and allegations of coverup, in the Southern Baptist Convention. Guidepost’s findings include an email sent by the executive vice president and general council of the SBC’s Executive Committee, in which he comments on those bringing accusations against the SBC:
This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.
This line of thinking has played out on the mission field, too, as can be seen in published reports on the treatment of victims of child abuse overseas. For example, in 1997, the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s Independent Commission of Inquiry reported on claims of abuse at Mamou Alliance Academy, a boarding school in Guinea run by the C&MA from 1950 to 1971. About the students at Mamou, one missionary mother told the commission,
They were never allowed the freedom of expressing their hurts, their problems, their emotions to us. Each week the obligatory letter was not only read but censored, and forced to be rewritten if it appeared at all negative. This destroyed a vital link that could have helped maintain a fragmented family bond. They were repeatedly told not to share adverse happenings either by letter or by word on vacation with parents, lest it upset the parents and interfere with the work they were doing for God. The hidden message to the child was that God was more important, work was more important to the parents that [sic] one’s own child.
The commission summarized the reasoning behind censoring letters as “Children were advised not to upset their parents, lest their ministry to Africans be compromised and Africans left to their pagan ways.”
In 2010, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) reported on its findings concerning New Tribes Mission’s Fanda Missionary School, in Senegal, which boarded children from the mid 1980s to 1997.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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).