Ignite the Passion
African Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but less than 1 percent of the American missionary force to the world. Why is this? What can be done to change it? Many are saying that African Americans are in a position to become one of the most effective mission forces in the world. The need today is mobilization.
The Manila Manifesto held as its motto, "The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World."1 The African-American church is a part of the whole church, and the African-American church can relate to a whole Gospel. The problem is that the African-American church is not involved in the whole world. Most evangelical African-American churches know little about cross-cultural missions, and even fewer are involved in cross-cultural ministry.
Under-Representation. The number of African-American missionaries serving cross-culturally has always been proportionately low. What are the reasons for this under-representation? Why is it still the case today and what will it take to change it?
The aim of this article is to consider the role of the African-American church in world evangelization and propose recommendations for mobilizing the African-American church.2
The latest statistics paint a sad picture of the current involvement of African Americans in missions. Jim Sutherland counted 242 total African-American missionaries serving cross-culturally in 1998.3 In 1973, Robert Gordon reported under 300.4 These numbers compare to 33,000 missionaries from the U.S. in 1973 and about 45,000 U.S. missionaries today.5 African Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population but less than 1 percent of the U.S. mission force to the world. If it was proportionately represented in the mission force today, the African-American community would have some 5,400 cross-cultural missionaries.
We know that history has played a part in bringing about this shortfall. Several generations were simply cut off from direct involvement and promotion of missions. Because of this, subsequent generations just did not have missions on their agenda at all. But what other factors have come into play in today's church situation?
In March, 1999, a new mission association called COMINAD (the Cooperative Mission Network of the African Dispersion) held a conference on the subject of mobilizing the Christian descendants of Africa to world missions. The conference identified many contemporary obstacles to African-American involvement in missions. Among those hindrances:
· Most African-American pastors are unfamiliar with what is going on in the world today regarding missions. They were not taught about missions. They do not know general missions history. They are unaware of the heritage of African Americans in missions. Thus they cannot teach their congregations about missions.
·African-American pastors desire financial stability. They want to bring the money into the churchnot send it out. Since the African-American community has historically been oppressed and deprived of opportunity for financial gain, now that many opportunities exist, the desire is to bring it in and keep it in the community. Many African-American churches still struggle financially for their own survival. Yet the statistics indicate that a high percentage of African-American churches are doing very well financially.6
Some African-American pastors will discourage and even rebuke anyone who endorses sending resources outside of the community. The needs of the community overshadow missions. They cannot see the needs of the world, because they are focused on the needs next door. The church is correct in concern for the needs of the community, but with almost two billion people outside of the reach of the Gospel, we are not released from the responsibility to reach the world.
Historically, the American dream has eluded the African-American community. For many, attaining it has become a Christian value. Thus, moving from oppression and want to materialism and comfort is a subtle but natural distraction. American prosperity is finally within the reach of the African-American community, and missions runs counter to that plan.
·Many African Americans fear rejection and a lack of emotional support from white mission agencies. In the past, African Americans were accepted to serve with white mission societies, but on the field they were given menial tasks. Blacks were accepted to work, but not to lead.
With a lack of mission education and a priority on home, it is no wonder that the African-American church represents only a small percentage of the mission force in the world.
A forerunner in the modern African-American-intiated efforts at sending missionaries, Carver International Missions had a majority of their missionaries retire in 1996--ten missionaries with ovwer 200 years of experience.
"They must be replaced."
--says Executive Director Glenn Mason.
The Role of the Church
Before looking at mobilization, we must be clear on the task to which the church should be mobilized. Often we have great plans, but to reach inappropriate objectives. What is the purpose of the church? Why does this organic institution of God's people exist?
The purpose of the church is to glorify God by equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:11-12, NASB). Every member should be growing toward maturity in Christ and every member should be using his or her giftedness toward the completion of the Great Commission (Eph. 4:13-16).7
Equipping. Church leaders are not to function as dictators, but as equippers. Leaders should not do all the work, but equip the body to do the work (Eph. 4:11-12). Since we are a body, we all have functions. Rather than watching a few parts perform their function, we should all be set in motion to accomplish our unique tasks (1 Cor. 12:18).
Paul takes it a step further with Timothy. He admonishes Timothy to develop multiplying leaders. "And the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these commit to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). Not everyone will be a leader, just as not all are to be teachers (Jas. 3:1). But leaders and disciples are to multiply themselves in order that the church may grow and mature. Everyone is to operate in his or her giftedness.
In the African-American church, equipping is usually accomplished through the preaching of the pastor and the Sunday school program. If we are going to see a fervor for missions in the African-American church, then it also must be integrated into those two primary components of the church. The education ministry of the church must include basic equipping for ministry, including taking the Gospel to the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20).
Growth toward Maturity. Ephesians 4:1 admonishes us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called. Ephesians 4:13 and 4:15 speak of our growing to maturity in Christ. Maturity does not come independently, but through the ministry of God's leaders and through unified use of our gifts to build one another (Eph. 4:16).
Paul labored with and for the Colossians so that they would mature. "And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me" (Col. 1:28-29). In this capacity, Paul nurtured the body. Nurture is a necessary part of bringing the church to maturity.
As we consider mobilizing the African-American church for global evangelization, we must consider how we are helping the body to mature in Christ so that we can be prepared to serve outside of the church in the community and world.
Giftedness. God has gifted each member of the body of Christ, the Church (1 Cor. 12:4-7). These gifts are often discovered in the context of the community of faith and discipleship. It is our job to encourage others to operate within their giftedness. In discipleship, we should provoke others to find and operate within their giftedness.
The gifts given to all are for the edification of the church (1 Cor. 14:12). The parts of the body are to work together, complementing one another, for the completion of the task before us (1 Cor. 12:12-27). Too often, we use our giftedness to contrast rather than to complement. This causes the whole body to suffer (1 Cor. 12:26).
As the African-American church is involved in the community, we often deploy our gifts to aid our neighbors in community development. This same energy can be developed and channeled to the world.
The Great Commission
The Great Commission gives us the imperative to make disciples. "And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'" (Matt. 28:18-20). The work of evangelism is central to this task, but it is not exclusive. After evangelism, new converts must be incorporated into the body. They should be baptized and taught how to grow in Christ. This is the task of making disciples. It does not matter which terminology we use to define the process as long as we understand the whole process to be necessary in obeying the commission.
Before we can effectively make disciples of the nations, we must learn to be disciples and to make disciples of our neighbors. Many African-American churches have gotten away from this original charge and tend to focus more on social issues. As we focus on the Great Commission, the social issues will not be forgotten, but there will be a stronger foundation from which to address them.
Recommendations for World Impact
In the second of the "Servant Songs," the Lord says through Isaiah, "It is too small a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is. 49:6). In the African-American church, it is too small a thing that we should restore our communities and our own people. The challenge before the African-American church is to mobilize for global impact. God can use the unique experience of the African-American church to restore the community and also to serve as a light to the nations. We can relate to many of the struggles of the two-thirds world better than the typical Westerner. As minorities, we already know what it means to adapt to a culture not our own.
I would be remiss to conclude this article without making some recommendations for the future of missions within the African-American church. I shall make recommendations directed to the African-American church and to the predominantly white missions arena including missions training institutions and mission agencies.
To the African-American Church/Pastor
The greatest motivation is a Biblical one. The African-American church must walk in obedience to the Biblical mandate to fulfill the Great Commission. The church must look inward to train and equip and it must look outward to the world to which we are sent.
Pastors should seek opportunities to educate themselves and their congregations about missions and the African-American missions heritage. Understanding our heritage is often a motivation to further action.
For example, pastors may invite missionaries to speak at their churches. In the late 19th century, missionary testimonies were instrumental in recruiting. As Walter Williams reports, "Some of the missionary volunteers were recruited after listening to the testimonies of other missionaries or mission advocates. William Sheppard, for example, attracted four other Afro-American Presbyterian volunteers during his 1893 trip to the United States."8
Pastors may also seek opportunities to go on short-term vision trips overseas or across cultures. In doing so, they can develop a vision for the needs in other parts of the world and gain some insight into how their church can develop international partnerships for world impact. They can also begin to develop a vision for the unreached people groups.9
Finally, pastors should realize that when people from their congregations are involved in short-term mission trips, they return more excited about the ministry at home. They usually become the most equipped for ministry and they add depth to the congregation. Missions involvement makes for a stronger local assembly.
In addition to short-term tripsor apart from themthe class titled Perspectives on the World Christian Movement has also had a lasting effect on peoples' lives.10 Perspectives has led to increased missions giving, effective leadership in the local church, increased prayer, and increased going, especially to pioneer mission fields. But most important, it shows people and churches how they can fit in strategically to what God is doing.
To Mission Agencies and Training Institutions
Leslie Pelt, an African-American missionary with SIM, recognized that few African-American churches were familiar with any mission agencies. It is no surprise that the churches are not sending candidates to agencies they are unaware of. Pelt recommends that mission agencies take the initiative to make contact with and seek to build bridges with the African-American church.11 In the turbulent 1960's, Dick Hillis was willing to challenge the mission agencies to recruit in the African-American churches and institutions.12 His challenge still applies today.
Schools. Even in the late nineteenth century, many African Americans were influenced for missions in the schools they attended. "For some of them it was their school experience which set them on the course of becoming missionaries," said Walter Williams.13 A renewed effort should begin to recruit university students who have the mobility to participate in short-term mission trips during summer breaks. This is an ideal time to help students gain a vision for the world.
Recruiters should also make a new effort to attend African-American conferences, schools, and churches. They need to sensitively build rapport in the African-American community.
Training Institutions. Most African Americans are unaware of the many missions training institutions in this country. These institutions should should pro-actively recruit in the African-American community. Bob Harrison, a retired African-American missionary with Overseas Crusades, recommends, "The next time your church holds a missionary or Bible conference you ought to invite delegations from black churches to attend and provide a bus to pick them up if necessary."14 This can apply to churches or training institutions.
Pastors. The most important relationship that a recruiter can have is with the African-American pastor. If a pastor feels you are trying to take people from his congregation, he will resent you. If the recruiter builds rapport with the pastor and the pastor gains a vision for missions, then that pastor can be his greatest advantage in recruiting and helping to mobilize.15
Having looked at some historical and some contemporary obstacles to mobilizing the African-American church for global evangelization, we see that it took a long time to get where we are today. We cannot pretend that change will be easy. But we should not run from the task merely because it is difficult.
We have also looked at the purpose of the church and the Biblical mandate for reaching the world and making disciples of all nations. The whole church needs to be mobilized to accomplish the task. We must work together using our diverse gifts.
Many African Americans have paved the way through incredible obstacles to travel to distant lands to take the Gospel to the world. They have shared a vast array of motives, but the primacy of the gospel overshadows them all. The hindrances of the 20th century have prevented the African-American church from experiencing a missions movement. There are exceptions, but overall, the African-American church is not actively engaged in world evangelization today. This situation is not self-correcting. It will require mission agencies, churches, and individuals taking the initiative to be contagious with a vision for missions and infecting the African-American community within its reach.
As we focus on the Great Commission, the social issues will not be forgotten, but there will be a stronger foundation from which to address them.
Much effort has been used to aid our neighbors in community development. This same energy can be developed and channeled to the world.
We cannot pretend that change will be easy. But we should not run from the task merely because it is difficult.