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)
Commission does not exclude any believing people group from crossing
ethno-linguistic 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.”
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.
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
David Crabb: Why don’t we see many African American
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.” 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