05.05.14

Why We Must Labor for Laborers: The Shortage of African-American Missionaries

Not too long ago I heard a startling statistic. According to some recent reports there are roughly 300 African Americans engaged in long term international missions. And most feel that number is being generous. The Southern Baptist convention reports that only 27 of their 4,900 missionaries are black. Leroy Barber, president of Mission Year says that 1% of domestic and foreign missionaries are black. Perhaps those statistics don’t startle you. But they should. These numbers reveal a blind spot for African American Christians in particular and African American Churches in general.

There have been a number of articles written and conversations had, seeking to understand the reasons for the lack of African Americans on the mission fields. Some attribute the small numbers to a lack of money. Others say that the problems are cultural. Those are all valid points to consider, but by no means are they strong enough points to hinder us from acting.

Yes, the statistics don’t lie. There are a small number of African Americans on the mission field, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We as the church today, through the power of God, have an opportunity to change the tied.

To that end, here are some ways I believe those of us who minister in predominantly African American churches can address this problem.

Pray – In Mathew chapter 9, Jesus tells his disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. But he then follows that jarring statement with the remedy for the problem. He tells the disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out workers. If we want to see more African Americans on the mission field, our first task is to pray. The issue is not the harvest. We need to pray that God would raise up the laborers to go.

Show – God has graciously raised up some African American men and women (check here and here) who have answered the call to go. There are not many, but there are a few. Invite them to come and share their kingdom efforts with your church. But not just African Americans, invite missionaries from all ethnicities to come and share.  Your goal is to expand your congregation’s vision for the nations. Most people tend to only think about their own lives and communities, and haven’t even thought about how their gifts might be used on foreign soil. Bringing in other missionaries will help to reorient their perspective.

Go – There have been a number of articles written and chapters devoted to books in recent years, decrying the practice of short term mission trips. The premise is that short term mission trips do more harm than good. While I agree, short term mission trips when done improperly can cause a great deal of harm; I also don’t feel it warrants throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially for African Americans. Short term mission trips are where God often stirs the hearts of individual’s to stay long term. They are also opportunities for our passions to be enflamed for missions in general.  Most, if not all missionaries I have met, caught a vision for the nations while serving for a week or two in another country. See what a short term mission trip did for my man Isaac. If you serve in a predominately African American context, I want to challenge and encourage you to partner with an organization and do a short term mission trip. Perhaps commit to going once a year and maybe to the same place, praying that God would stir the heart of one of the trip goers to stay and give his or her life to the mission.

Send – This is the prayer we pray God would be willing to answer. The prayer that someone in the congregation would be so gripped by the gospel that they desire to take it wherever God would lead them. It is at this point that we have an opportunity to partner with them in prayer and support them financially. It is not hard to be a sending church. The hard part is having people to send. So when we have the former, we need to give priority to the latter. Those who go need to know that they have the support of their local fellowship. And what a glorious opportunity it is to join in the work of sending labors into the harvest.

There is no doubt that there are a limited number of African American missionaries but there is no shortage of African American Christians. And because that is the case, by God’s grace we can change the tide. See one church’s desire to make a difference. May we all follow their lead.

Want to see another conversation on The Front Porch about missions? Check out Thabiti’s article.

Philip Duncanson
Philip Duncanson serves as an elder at East Point Church in Atlanta. Holler at him on Twitter: @PBDuncs

C’mon Up!

  • Pastor Bruce

    Hi Bro

    No excuses but our history is certainly one reason why the Black Church never really got involved in missions.

    I re-read Thebeti’s article and he mentioned some historical facts about a few black missionaries. Being of Jamaican blood, I thank God that he raised up a man like George Lisle, the missionary to Jamaica – his life’s labours are a must read.

    At my previous church, the minister felt that western churches should be more focused on financially supporting good Bible churches in foreign lands rather than physically sending missionaries.He felt that with modern communications and multimedia, that the days of large mission societies was over. He also felt that in the long term it was spiritually healthier for the indigenous people to have their ‘own’ people in charge.

    At my current church, we’ve focused on national church planting, rather than sending missionaries abroad. This has proved encouraging.

    Just a final point, a few years ago my wife was visiting Ireland and joined a prayer meeting at a Reformed Church. During this meeting my wife was amazed to still hear prayers for the ‘African Heathen’ She was amazed because she is African, and coming over from Africa to the West, she was startled to find how unchristian the West truly is. If you go to many parts of Africa, you will find more Christianity there compared to many American and European cities. I don’t deny the need for missionaries, but sometimes I wonder if we should ask a few African brothers to give us a hand over here!

    God bless. Thank you for a challenging article.

    • Philip Duncanson

      Pastor Bruce,
      Thanks for joining us on the porch and for your helpful comments. I agree, we ought to praise God for men like Lisle. He is a reminder that African Americans are not new to the party, but have a history of missions as Thabiti’s article pointed out.

      I like the model for missions, but not in the either or scenario (Jerusalem or ends of the earth) but more of a concern for all those areas, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. How are we as a church reaching and supporting all of the areas?

      As far as missionaries coming to America to help us, praise God. To them we are their “end of the earth.”

      Praying God’s blessing on your ministry!

  • david

    Yes, brother.! Thank you for this good word of admonition. This thinking is indicative of the Bible-believing African American church rising up to take its rightful role and responsibility in the Great Commission. This is commendable and cause for thoughtful praise. Obedience is not for surrogates, not vicarious. God has providentially prepared even the background of suffering to effect an empathetic, incarnational witness to hurting people, until now unreached with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

    • Philip Duncanson

      Amen!

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  • Terrence Jones

    Very good sir! Your articles on missions and The Front Porch making this an area of concern has really impacted my heart! I’m praying for a signficant move of God in our life time to turn this tide! To encourage you we have an A.A. young lady and as of last week a White male who both have answered the call to go into full-time missions. I’m also going on a Short Term trip to Kenya along w/ my mom. My dad pastors a traditional black church and she is definitely on an extremely short list of people who have ever gone on a ST trip (she may be the first). Pray for our support raising for that trip! Pray our small church will learn fast on how to be a good sending church! Pray that God would send many more from among us! Lastly, please keep writing! These articles are helping!

  • Peterson Onyeukwu

    So I’m terribly late to this conversation, but the fact is that most mission work that comes from this country is mired in a deep and deadly imperialism. More along the lines of “bringing Christianity to the savages,” if you will.

    If most doing mission work are white, what problem is there really? Imperialism has always been the prerogative of that particular people group. Why should we lament if blacks aren’t participating in this same imperialism.

    I’ve been reading through the articles on this site and I can’t see 1 article about something the black community is doing right. It’s all criticism and their lack of work in one area or their lack of concern in another.

    It would seem to me that a medium designed to help foster communication among a particular people group would not attack that people group so much.

    Just my thoughts…

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