RICHMOND, Va. – One half of 1 percent.
That’s the percentage of the 4,900 Southern Baptist international missionaries who are African American. They number 27. Even that tiny total represents progress. Not so long ago, you could count black Southern Baptist missionaries on two hands – and have some fingers left over.
Times have changed. Attitudes have changed. Demographics have changed. Leaders have changed: Fred Luter, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), made history last year as the first African American elected to lead the nation’s largest Protestant church body.
And SBC churches have changed. More than 10,000 of the convention’s 50,000-plus congregations now identify themselves as non-Anglo. That’s a 66 percent jump since 1998, according to the latest statistics from the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research. The largest increase has come in African American congregations, which grew by a whopping 82.7 percent between 1998 and 2011. Some 1 million African Americans in about 3,400 churches now represent 6.25 percent of total SBC church membership.
So why aren’t there more black Southern Baptists taking the gospel to the nations? The daily challenges on their own doorsteps have something to do with it.
“A lot of our African American churches are in the ‘hood,” says Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans (see story). “[People ask me], ‘Why do I need to go to Africa, Asia or Europe? We need to get people saved in this community.’”
Luter, who visited International Mission Board (IMB) offices recently and preached to staff members, pledges to help overcome that mindset by modeling missions commitment, educating churches about global needs – and instilling God’s vision for missions in a new generation of African Americans.
“I want to challenge the pastor to start with our young people,” he says.
Young people like Jonathan Marshall,* 26, who is completing his service in North Africa and the Middle East. Last summer Marshall told about his work during Black Church Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. “My topic is ‘Young Black Men in Missions,’” he told listeners with a grin. “But I’m the only one, so I’m going to talk about myself.” At the time, Marshall was the only single, male African American serving as an IMB worker.
But 1,200 people from predominantly black churches attended the conference, including a contingent of teens and college-age folks, and they heard mission challenges from Marshall and others.
Seeing, hearing and following others who are blazing the trail – those are keys to nurturing a generation of African Americans with a heart for the world, according to Keith Jefferson, IMB’s African American church missional strategist. Jefferson served for 16 years as an IMB missionary in Brazil. But he never seriously considered overseas service until he was personally challenged by David Cornelius, his predecessor as African American strategist, who was a missionary for many years in Africa.
Increasing exposure to the world in a hyper-connected age is another key.
“The world is becoming smaller and smaller,” Jefferson says. “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.”
From early childhood through high school and college, young African American Christians need to be “groomed” for missions, Jefferson stresses. He urges pastors, teachers and mentors to tell young people, “You’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a teacher, you’re going to be a nurse, yes, but some of you are going to be missionaries.”
Young people who start out by serving overseas for a few weeks or a summer through programs such as International World Changers are more open to serving for a semester, Jefferson says. Those who give a semester are more likely to give two years through the Journeyman Program or International Service Corps. And many two-year workers go on to become career missionaries.
The opportunities are limitless. The time for delay or rationalization is over.
“God is calling us, because like every other child of God, we have a responsibility,” Jefferson says. “We don’t have any excuses.”
To learn more about how your church can play a key role in reaching the world, contact Keith Jefferson, IMB African-American missional church strategist, at [email protected] or (800) 999-3113, ext. 1422. Subscribe to a bimonthly Black Missions Link e-newsletter here.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is IMB’s global correspondent. Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com.)