Strengths We’ve Lost: Missions

Memory is a blessed aid to faith. Recalling the works of God’s salvation, providence, and goodness stir the anticipation of future grace and present power.

It works that way in the lives of individual saints. It works that way in the lives of entire congregations and nations. Consider Moses’ frequent admonitions to Israel as he began to pass from the scene and they were poised to enter the Promised Land:

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” ()

When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” ().

“Memory is a blessed aid to faith.”

“Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” ()

We could summarize the message of Deuteronomy with the phrase “do not forget.” The key to remaining faithful to God and living in faith was, in large part, remembering who God is and what God had done for Israel.

The same could be said of the Christian Church today. The strength of the church depends, in no small part, on remembering our gracious God and His great exploits in and through us. That’s true of the Black Church. Her future depends, in part, on her memory. Thriving depends on a kind of reviving. Going forward depends on a careful look backward. That’s where we’ll find reminders of God’s blessing and strengths we’ve lost.

One such strength lost in too many parts of the Black Church is an emphasis on international cross-cultural missions. The Black Church received the Great Commission along with every other branch of God’s Church. And from her beginning — even during the days of enslavement — when the first independent Black congregations began to meet, the African-American church invested itself in spreading the gospel across cultures, national borders, languages, and ethnicities.

Consider John Marrant (1755-1791), a free Black from New York City, who preached the gospel to Native Americans. By 1775 Marrant had spread the gospel to Cherokee, Creek, Catawar, and Housaw Indians. After being ordained in 1785, he went to Nova Scotia to serve as a missionary to the thousands of African-Americans fleeing to the north during and following the American Revolution.

Or consider George Lisle (1750-1820). Born a slave in Virginia, Lisle was converted in Georgia and became the founding pastor of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. In 1782, after successfully establishing First African Baptist, Lisle left as a missionary to Jamaica. This was a decade before William Carey left England for India and two decades before Adoniram Judson left America for Burma! This makes Lisle the very first missionary sprung from American soil and a forerunner of international missions in the west! By 1791, Lisle’s church plant in Kingston, Jamaica grew to about 350 persons. Despite harsh persecution, by 1814 there were some 8,000 Baptists in Jamaica who got their start from the labors of George Lisle, his wife, Moses Baker, and George Gibbs.

The record of 18th century African-American missionary efforts is impressive.

“Do not forget.”

  • Prince Williams, another former slave, sailed in an open boat from Saint Augustine, Florida to Nassau, Bahamas where he organized Bethel Baptist Meeting House in 1791. He helped plant two other congregations in the Bahamas.
  • David George left the Americas after the American Revolution. He served as an evangelist and itinerant in Nova Scotia. After persecution in Canada, George led nearly 1,200 African Americans to Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he established a church.

Lisle and George held Calvinistic doctrinal positions, reinforced by their interactions with men like John Ryland and John Rippon of England. Trusting our sovereign God, these men pioneered missions and church planting without education and without sponsoring sending agencies.

The 19th century also included notable missions efforts by African-American Christians. There’s a great hall of fame of faith that we should remember and be inspired by. Time will not permit me to write more of Lott Carey and Colin Teague who went to Liberia. There’s Daniel Coker and the 80 African-Americans who left Baltimore for Liberia. John Stewart of Virginia remained in America but went to Native Americans with the gospel. Betsy Stockton went to Hawaii with the American Board of Missions, the first single American woman to serve as a foreign missionary, and later opened a school for Native Americans in Canada. Scipio Beanes went to Haiti in 1827.

With all the rich mission history, it’s remarkable to see how inactive African-American churches are in international missions today. As best I can figure, there are only 300 full-time African Americans serving in international missions. Of the 4,000 full-time missionaries serving with the International Mission Board of the SBC, only 27 are African American. We live with every conceivable advantage compared to our enslaved forebears. Yet they did far more with far less than many of our affluent churches and Christians today.

We need more men like “Jerry Bates” and more churches financially supporting those missionaries who want to serve the Lord among the nations. In our day of affluent churches, it’s a sin that the number one challenge confronting African-American missionaries is fundraising.

We need to remember, repent, and return.

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children— 10 how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ (ESV)

10 “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. (ESV)

8:1 “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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