African Americans to Missions: “I Want to Join. But First, Change.” (a look at Barna’s latest research, Part 3)

by Editor on October 5, 2020

by Rebecca Hopkins

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we looked at the findings from Barna’s latest research on the Future of Missions. Part 2 discussed deconstruction of missions’ past. Today we talk about the movement within the African American community to join missions—and call for reform.  

Less than 1 percent of American missionaries are black, by some reports, but that may be about to change. Or if you consider some little-known parts of history, it may go back to how modern missions began with African Americans playing a key part.

Young African American Christians are now more likely to decide to be missionaries than their white counterparts (61 percent versus 48 percent), according to the latest Barna research. The most recent (and first virtual) National African American Missions Conference drew almost five times the number of regular attendees, up from 500 to 2,300. And almost one-third of them were Caucasians interested in learning how to better include African Americans in their white-majority mission organizations. 

“Increased this year is a sincere cry from white congregations and predominantly white (mission organizations) wanting to understand institutional racism,” said NAAMC organizer and Pastor Adrian Reeves.

While young black Christians are interested in missions, they have reservations about its past. The Barna research shows that:

  • Fewer black young adults than whites (62 percent vs 73 percent) say they value missionaries’ work. 
  • Young adult black Christians are more likely than whites to believe that “In the past missions work has been unethical” (40 percent versus 33 percent) and that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism” (48 percent versus 39 percent).
  • 35 percent of young black Christians plan to give to missions (versus 56 percent of whites); however, more of them would support a missionary (65 percent versus 58 percent of whites). 

“A key takeaway, especially with our ethnic minority young adults, let’s not be afraid to have these hard conversations,” said Savannah Kimberlin, Barna’s director of published research.

Some majority-white mission organizations are starting to do just that. Webinars, conferences and podcasts on the topic of mobilizing African Americans have recently talked about fund-raising models, culturally appropriate ways to engage black pastors, and the opportunities African Americans have to reach the world in unique ways because of the trauma and oppression they’ve experienced as a community. 

“We can pour into others and say, we understand your trauma,” said Star Nelson, co-founder of Sowing Seeds of Joy, during a Sixteen:Fifteen Webinar. “And this is how you can be healed and only Jesus can do that.”

Majority-white organizations are also assessing their own cultures. 

“I’ve been asked….and am going through a process to join a white agency that really is trying to work through their race issues and wants to bring on board members who will challenge them in that way,” Reeves said. “I think we are open to hearing the hard truth and having those crucial conversations.”

Some things in missions culture may need to change in order to involve young black Christians, Reeves said. The definition of “unreached people group” may need to include people who don’t feel comfortable joining the established church in their town because of past church oppression of their ethnicity, for instance. Fund-raising models may need to change, as African Americans struggle to raise support in the traditional model. Reeves also sees that young black Christians are more interested in helping with shorter-term, defined projects versus longer-established programs. 

But also, African Americans can know, with confidence, that their culture has always played a part in modern missions, Reeves said. Some of the earliest modern missionaries from the States—Betsey Stockton, George Liele, William Henry Sheppard—were black. 

“We have a unique story that should be told,” Reeves said. 

With everyone reimagining so many aspects of life this year, this is a hopeful time for the church and missions, he said.

“I do see a genuine desire to come together, to work through this race thing together,” he said. “I’m very hopeful. We’re looking at how we can do missions differently.”

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

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