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Missions 101

Why Don't We See Many African American Missionaries?

Apr. 25, 2016By: David Crabb

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about African Americans and Missions with Timothy Byrd, a missionary with Campus Outreach in Johannesburg, South Africa. Our conversation will be posted in five parts.

Background To The Topic (Timothy Byrd)

The Great Commission does not exclude any believing people group from crossing ethno-church_backgroundjpg_page-bg_4530linguistic and cultural boarders for the glory of God. Yet African Americans are highly underrepresented in cross cultural missions making up less than .01% of all US missionaries. According to Dr. James Sutherland of Reconciliation Ministries Network International “It’s possible there are now 300-500 [African-American} missionaries. This represents one percent of the missionary force, while Blacks comprise of 13% of the population.” 

According to the Pew Forum, 78% of African Americans profess Christianity. Of all African American Christians over half (59%) say they belong to a historically Black Church. With so many African Americans professing Christianity it is alarming that the sum total of all African American missionaries is (at best) five hundred. If the word of God is still authoritative and directive in the life of the local church than the underrepresentation of any people group is important and should be addressed–especially if the particular people group in question have historically been active and effective in missions. 

I love missions and I love the church. My desire to see my people (African Americans) more involved in cross-cultural missions is fueled by a desire to see Jesus Christ glorified in all people groups and by the simple fact the Scriptures call all believers to make disciples of all nations. I feel compelled by the fact that I think African Americans have a unique biblical story to offer in missions as well. I hope by answering these questions my personal experience and research into this topic will prove helpful to the work of the Great Commission. 

David Crabb: Why don’t we see many African American missionaries?

Timothy Byrd: There are many ways to answer this question.  Dr. Carl Ellis Jr in his short book, “Going Global” gives an account for this which, for the sake of brevity, I will try to summarize. 

The first reason is the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 which resulted in the carving up and colonization of Africa by Europeans.  Many do not know this, but African Americans, along with many others, were already doing missions in Africa.  However, because of the potential threat Christianity imposed (especially from someone who looked like the Africans being colonized) African American missions was curtailed.

Secondly, historically one of the greatest issues African Americans faced were civil rights issues in the United States. The majority of the black church centered their attention on mercy and justice in their own congregations.  This is not an excuse, but rather a fact. Most black churches, particularly in the South, were focusing on civil rights issues and not cross cultural missions.

Lastly, and I think most importantly, there was a theological waning in the black church from evangelicalism to social gospel/black theology/liberation theology/ prosperity gospel (depending on your cup of tea).  In my opinion, the black church’s theology became influenced more by the culture of the day and the need of the hour rather than the mandate of the Scriptures in regards to the great commission.

In the intro of Thabiti Anyabwile’s book, The Decline of African American Theology he explains what the church missed during the civil rights era and what the church is in danger of missing today. He writes, “from slavery through the Civil Rights era, the theological basis for the church’s activist character was gradually lost and replaced with a secular foundation. The church became less critical theologically and increasingly more concerned with social, political and educational agendas.  Disentangled from its evangelical and Reformed theological upbringing, the church became motivated by a quest for justice for justice’s sake rather than by the call and mandate of God as expressed in more biblical understandings of Christianity.”  Anyabwile goes on to say, “…cultural concerns captured the church and supplanted the biblical faithfulness that once characterized it. It [the African American Church] has lost the law and the gospel, and stands in danger of lapsing into spiritual rigor mortis.”[6] The theological decline in some (not all) African American churches has huge implications on why we don’t see many African American missionaries today. 

Therefore, when you combine these three aspects it makes a deadly concoction for a lack of missions.  The rich experience of African Americans in missions is cut short–therefore, there is very little of the church’s missions history to look back on.  The black church was bombarded with so many social and civil rights issues in the post-civil war era that cross cultural missions faded into the background. These social and civil rights issues are still on the front porch of black churches today.

Tags:  misisonaries, black church
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