The first Baptist missionary to a foreign land was a black man.
George Liele, a former slave, predates other pioneering missionaries such as William Carey and Adoniram Judson by more than a decade. While this is an often-forgotten truth in the history of the American Church, especially Baptist history, it is a crucial part of the rich history of Christian missions and the African-American church.
One historian, Leroy Fitts, states, “The black Baptist church was born a missionary movement” (A History of Black Baptists, 109). If this is the case, then the crux of this post should make these facts more sobering.
The International Mission Board (IMB) gave sobering data to The Center of Great Commission Study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This information was on the current missionary personnel as of January 2017. The data revealed there are currently about 3,500 missionaries serving internationally. The ethnic backgrounds represented among missionaries showed the following:
- 0.44% of current international missionaries are African-American
- 7.12% of current international missionaries are Asian
- 1.7% of current international missionaries are Hispanic
Such percentages are more alarming considering that 20% of all the 51,500+ Southern Baptist churches and mission churches are ethnic majority congregations.
Numbers are Deceiving
The popular saying “numbers never lie” may be true in some sense. But the numbers in the case of minorities and the international mission field do not tell the whole story. This is not an “SBC problem”, since other denominations also report that minorities are underrepresented on the international mission field. This does not mean minorities are not concerned about God’s global mission, but these stats are indicative of historical and socioeconomic factors that characterize the minority experience in America. Here are a few of them:
An oppressed people have limited opportunities. It goes without saying that American Christianity has often been an unfortunate participant in the marginalization and discrimination of minorities. The residual sociological and financial effects of this oppression limits access and hinders minority churches from sending its congregants overseas.
Modern American international missions is tainted by a history of paternalism. While the richness of the gospel should have been the main “good news” many white missionaries brought overseas, they often ended up emphasizing what they perceived as the richness of their ethnicity and Western culture.
The targeted group of people have often not been treated as equal image bearers of God, and therefore missions from the Anglo perspective often came along with a feeling of superiority to those they intended to reach. Since many minority communities know what this feels like, it’s hard for potential minority missionaries to participate in a narrative that paternalistic mission efforts have created.
The problems that are often seen overseas, are often next door. International missions are often motivated by both spiritual and material needs that are present in each country. However, the needs of minority communities often mirror the problems “over there.” Thus, the missiological energy of minority Christians is spent at home, because the difficulties of urban, dense and diverse communities are just as urgent spiritually and materially as those overseas.
We All Are Missing Out
From God’s promise to Abraham to now, He is clear that he will gather a people for himself from all over the world. By the time you reach the end of the Bible, the Apostle John points us to the day when this will be fully realized in the Church, where every tribe and language are represented before the throne of God.
With this said, the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth is non-negotiable to the Church. However, what is also embedded in this “every tribe and nation” reality is that those who would come bringing the good news would reflect the picture in Revelations, and that this message is for everyone. When countries in Africa or Latin America only see white faces coming to bring them Jesus, Jesus could appear to them to be the tribal God of white America. I currently have a great friend who is an African-American woman overseas who has attested this:
“I think it’s (soley white missionaries) a huge mistake because if Christian missionaries = white people, then Christian faith = a white faith. With this indirect message, there is not place in Christianity for the non-white “me.” Diversity is a powerful tool for witness in places where ethnicity and faith are inseparable. ” –African-American Missionary in Asia
In many places, ethnicity and faith are deeply connected to a people group’s identity, so to only see people with white skin representing Christ speaks volumes about what Christians look like.
The human heart naturally doesn’t want to receive Christ due to depravity, but what if the dark skin of a missionary helps them be received into an African village, simply because they look familiar? The unreached will physically see that Jesus changes the lives of people who look like them. African American missionaries could inspire a generation of African missionaries to receive Christ, and take His message to places AA’s could never go. In the same way, sending Hispanic-American missionaries to Latin American countries, we could help deconstruct the notions of white superiority, and point to the reality that white Christians do not have the copyright of international missions.
It is obvious the issues run deeper than just numbers. The reality is often rooted in inherit racial bias and historical discrimination. But my friend’s words resound deeply with me: “Diversity is a powerful (and much needed) tool for witness.”
Jesus commands all Christians in Matthew 28 to make disciples of all nations. The words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 teaches us that the local and global body of Christians has many members, who all have an indispensable part to play. Therefore, the lack of minority representation in international missions is not something to be ignored. It should tell us that we currently have an incomplete, and unhealthy picture of the Church overseas. Per Paul, we all suffer when all parts of the body don’t work together. So we all must understand that we are missing out on a vital piece of the blessing and fruit of God’s mission when we are not pursuing it together.
Kingdom Diversity Missions Initiative
Southeastern’s response to change this narrative about minorities and international missions is the Kingdom Diversity Missions Initiative.
The KDMI seeks to spark a Great Commission resurgence among multicultural Christians by creating a platform to catalyze minority believers to the ends of the earth, and integrate a passion for international missions into their current and future areas of service.
– Walter Strickland, Professor & Special Advisor to the President at SEBTS
To familiarize yourself with this initiative, click here to learn more. I pray you can join and help spread the word, because we all need to get involved to impact change.