RIDGECREST — A sometimes forgotten people group has stepped into the spotlight as one of the International Mission Board’s (IMB) affinity groups.
The Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf celebrated this milestone, along with its first commissioning service honoring eight IMB missionaries during its annual meeting at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center July 26.
Seven of the missionaries were recommissioned to another term of service, and the eighth is going to the mission field after short-term volunteer service.
The missionaries are among more than 5,600 Southern Baptist personnel worldwide, including 32 missionaries who use sign languages from various countries to share the gospel with deaf people. Of the 32, eight are deaf.
The deaf are one of nine affinity groups — large groups of related peoples that share similar origins, languages and cultures — outlined in the IMB’s reorganization.
Matthew and Virginia Stuart,* veteran missionaries and deaf affinity group leaders, want to recruit deaf people to serve in ministry, empower them to reach deaf communities and then go to places with the most need. Within five years, they hope to increase the number of missionaries to the deaf to 200, including at least 150 deaf workers.
“We are committed to … lead efforts to bring Christ to every corner of the deaf world,” Matthew said.
The identification of the deaf as an affinity group has not only opened doors for more outreach to the deaf, it also has opened the hearts of deaf who never thought they could or would be involved in missions.
“When we first moved to Russia, deaf Russians told us they couldn’t have a deaf church,” Tex Winsome,* one of the missionaries commissioned at the service, said through sign language. “When we asked them why, the answer was always, ‘The hearing people tell us we can’t because God doesn’t call invalids into ministry.’”
Tex and his wife Margaret* have spent more than seven years trying to discourage this mentality.
“We planted a deaf church, and as a result, three more deaf churches have been established,” Tex said.
For years, the people the Winsomes worked with lost hope because they focused on what people told them they couldn’t do instead of what they could do. “Today the deaf of Russia have begun to understand that there is hope that the deaf can,” Tex said.
Jerry Rankin, IMB’s president, told conference participants that “your deafness is not a handicap. It is a gift from God to be used to reach others for Christ with that uniqueness that only you have.”
With this unique gift, Rankin said, each person has the potential to reach multitudes of deaf for the gospel. Jason Shifflett, one of those attending the conference, hopes to fulfill that potential.
Although Shifflett is not deaf, he grew up between two cultures — his mom is hearing, his dad is deaf.
“My first language (was) sign language,” he said. “It’s really given me a unique position. I don’t want (it) to go to waste, ever.”
Shifflett, who attends Deaf Fellowship Church in Grove, Okla., came forward after the commissioning service to learn more about deaf missions opportunities abroad.
To learn about affinity groups, including the deaf, visit imb.org/main/aroundtheworld.asp.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Brandon writes for the International Mission Board.)