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

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.”


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

What’s Wrong with Missions. . . .and Why It’s Still Right (a look at Barna’s latest research, Part 2)

by Rebecca Hopkins

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we looked at the findings from Barna’s latest research on The Future of Missions. Today we talk to Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus on the current trend of deconstruction of missions.


If you want to get people excited about joining missions, you may need to have a conversation about its past—the questionable parts.

“When we look generationally about concerns about missions’ past and specifically about colonialism, young adults are more inclined to say, ‘yeah, that’s something I want to talk through. I want to wrestle through that if that’s something I’m considering giving my life to,’” said Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research, to a group of CEOs and recruiters for Christian nonprofits during a recent online presentation of Barna’s The Future of Missions study.

She told the group that this reality has really both “rocked the boat” in previous presentations and resonated with people. 

“I want to make sure I don’t miss this moment,” she said. “Let’s not ignore the past. Let’s have conversations about it.”

The Barna research shows that: 

  • 34 percent of young Christians (aged 18 to 34 years) agree with the statement “in the past, mission work has been unethical.” Just 22 percent of older Christians believe that.
  • 42 percent of young Christians (aged 18 to 35 years)  agree that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism.” Just 29 percent of older adults agree with that. 
  • Young African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities are particularly concerned about both statements. 

The trend of deconstructing missions has been on the radar of Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus, a network of 360 Christian nonprofits and churches which have 30,000 people serving all over the world.  Before Missio Nexus’s annual leadership conference this year was cancelled for a virtual 40-day time of prayer, deconstruction in missions was its main topic. 

“I would say that missions is like any other human endeavor—it’s trapped in its time and its era,” Esler said in a recent interview.

But while younger generations are hungry for conversations about missions’ past and its ethics, Esler is still confident in its foundations. 

“We’re deconstructing everything by today’s standards, not realizing that people were working in a different era,” he said. “I’m not arguing that the model of missions we’re using is sacrosanct, but the concept of missions is valid. Things will change, but this will be weathered. Missions to me is transcendent over our current historical situation.”  

Mission pioneers who are now considered regressive were actually progressive in their time, he argued. For example, William Carey, considered the father of modern missions, sought to abolish the practice of widow burning in India, despite even his own country of Britain’s initial acceptance of the practice in its colony. 

“So, is he a colonist dude?” Esler asked. “I guess he is. He was a Brit who went to India as a missionary. But in relationship to what was going on around him, he was progressive.”

Modern Americans are, in general, less enthusiastic about religion and Christianity, Barna research has shown. But deconstruction could create an advantage in missions, Kimberlin said.

“It is actually a beautiful gift because we are getting to reset our clocks with Gen Z,” Kimberlin said. “We have deconstructed all the way down to a generation now who are not carrying baggage of religious hurts, or dos and don’ts about how to be good Christians. They don’t want to play that game. What a beautiful moment to reset the clocks and teach a generation about authentic, life-changing Christianity that really transforms hearts and minds and is life-giving.”

Esler also urged the “near record number of attendees” of Kimberlin’s presentation to continue to listen to welcome “God’s heart” for the younger generations. 

“The next generation is going to be coming along and doing some things different,” he said to the attendees of the virtual presentation. “My challenge for you today is that you would see things in light of God’s heart for every generation. There might be things that frustrate you, but let’s try to see the positives as we go through this presentation today.”

Relationships between current missionaries and younger generations are key, the study shows.

Younger Christians who personally know a missionary are:

  • More likely to give to missions (58 percent vs. 46 percent)
  • Pray for global workers (54 percent vs. 45 percent) 
  • Go on a short-term missions trip (40 percent vs. 30 percent)
  • Go on longer-term missions (22 percent vs. 9 percent)

But younger Christians who know missionaries also are more likely (16 percent vs. 7 percent) to believe that mission work, if not done properly, can create unhealthy dependence. They also are more likely (17 percent vs. 10 percent) to believe that “Christianity should fix its reputation before doing more missions.”

That’s all the more reason to meet them with conversation in their concerns, Kimberlin said.

“We need to take steps to do as much as we can to break down those barriers and those walls,” Kimberlin said. “As these young people are wrestling through their concerns and their questions about who they’re going to be, if they can see and speak with someone who can represent what they’re aiming for and what they’re considering being, then their likelihood to consider going on missions themselves jumps.”

One particular group that is especially concerned about missions’ past is African Americans—which also happens to be one of the most willing to serve overseas in the future. More on this tension—and possibility—in Part 3 of the Future of Missions. 


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

Please Don’t Make Me “Win Souls” (a look at Barna’s latest research)

by Rebecca Hopkins

A note about this series: Barna recently released The Future of Missions, a 100-page report about trends in American missions. Some of the findings indicate that in the future, Americans may choose to stop referring to themselves as missionaries who “convert” and “make disciples,” out of principle. The data indicates that younger generations of Americans will need to find ways to make peace with—and perhaps call out—practices of the past in order to serve. It also predicts that African Americans may be, proportionately, more likely to sign up to serve overseas than whites will.

Starting today, A Life Overseas will cover Barna’s basic findings. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll bring Ted Esler, Missio Nexus president, into the conversation about deconstruction and missions. Part 3 will publish on Monday and will cover the data on African Americans and missions and the conversations happening around mobilizing them into overseas work. 

Who will be the major players in the future of missions? They’ve got a name—“supportive skeptics.”

Younger generations want to make a difference—especially in areas of social justice. But they need some things to change in overseas mission work in order to join. This mixture of conviction and concern was a main finding of Barna’s latest research. 

“Millennials are giving themselves permission to wrestle with things and giving themselves permission to ask the hard questions,” said Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research at Barna. “Their religious practice is not just tied to a way of life that you were told that you needed to adopt.” 

And those characteristics likely won’t go away when they get older. 

“This is a generational thing, not a life stage,” she said. “What we’re seeing in the data is that there are certain environmental factors that really do impact generations and change them in a way that’s not just a life stage factor but is having a large impact.”

The International Mission Board commissioned the study that surveyed Christians: 600 teens (ages 13-17), 1,000 young adults (ages 18-34); and, by comparison, 1,500 older adults (ages 35 and up). They also included surveys of 500 parents of teens and young adults. 

Foundationally, younger American Christians continue to care about global Christian service. Young adults—72 percent—consider mission work “very valuable.” And while only 62 percent of young adult black Americans consider the work “very valuable,” they’re also more likely than whites to go on mission. And younger generations are the best qualified for missions.

“We’re consistently seeing that the up and coming generations care very deeply about social justice,” Kimberlin said. “They’re moved by this. Are we communicating to these young people that addressing injustices is a large part of what it takes to do missions?”

But while they support much of the work of missions, they question the “why” and “how” of it. 

Some key findings:

  • One-fourth of engaged Christians aged 18 to 34 is a “supportive skeptic.” They have given to missions, volunteer in their church, and believe that “sharing the Gospel with non-Christians” is an important part of the work. But they have concerns. They either believe missions creates unhealthy dependency, missions was too linked with colonialism in the past, missions hurts the local economy, or missions needs to repair its reputation. This group also includes a large percentage of minorities.
  • One in three of young adult Christians believe “in the past, missions work has been unethical.” Just one-fourth of adults 35 and older agree with that statement.
  • Christians of all ages strongly prefer the term “sharing faith” over terms like “convert,” “evangelism,” “making disciples” and “winning souls.” 
  • Aid edges out evangelism for its importance in missions in some of the survey results among the more skeptical of younger Christians.
  • “Show God’s love” is the top responsibility missionaries should do, most young Christians say.
  • Younger Christians are more likely (29 percent) than older Christians (23 percent) to believe that the role of missionary is similar to “someone else who does work to fight poverty and injustice,” showing their strong value of social justice work. 
  • Short-term missions, accountability, and traditional fund-raising models were some things younger Christians would change. Business-as-missions models also raised some concerns. The concern of “Tent-faking” was mentioned in interviews, for instance. 
  • Younger Christians are less likely (50 percent) to pray for missionaries in the future than older Christians (63 percent).

The report poses 10 questions that the church must answer about global ministry along with the next generation. The questions center around language, fundraising, history, accountability, aid vs. evangelism, new kinds of missionaries, parents as potential barriers, and how to prepare the next generation for missions. 

“I think we need to approach Gen Z in a way that we understand that they are skeptical and all that they’re really craving is humility, teachability and authenticity from the leaders,” Kimberlin said. “Show them that we don’t have it all together, but we’ve got passion and we’ve got drive and we’ve got the Great Commission on our side. And we love what we do.”


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

How to Communicate so People Will Care

Newsletters. Prayer updates. Itinerations. Reports. Furloughs. Presentations.

Are you stressed out yet?

For most of us, living and serving abroad means communicating back to senders. A lot. But this isn’t what we went to school for, and besides that, communicating in person or in print is scary. It’s exposing. It’s like learning a new culture and language; sometimes when we mess up it’s funny, sometimes not so much.

We’re all too familiar with the dangers:

Communicate too much and we’ll annoy people or people will say we’re not protecting the privacy of the nationals.

Don’t communicate enough and we’ll get dropped; people or churches will stop supporting us, because “out of sight, out of mind.”

Talk about the right stuff in the right way. One missionary recently told me that you have to appear miserable enough that people will still support you while not appearing so miserable they want you to come home.

To be sure, communicating with senders (via newsletter or a live missions report) is a unique form of communication, blending a bit of travelogue with a side of sales pitch, and then adding a large spoonful of sermon. It’s like a Christmas Letter got married to a Church Bulletin and had an Amway.


Extreme Sports, Convents, and Space Missions
As crazy as it seems, some people actually love talking. We call these people 13-year-old girls. I’m just kidding. Yikes. Anyways, for some of you, communication is like an extreme sport, full of excitement and danger and the very real risk of serious bodily harm. And you think it’s fun.

For others, communicating (in print or person) makes you feel like you’re wearing the appropriate attire for a European beach when you’d much rather be wearing the appropriate attire for a convent. Communicating, for you, seems dangerous, and dangerous, for you, is never fun.

Writing or speaking can feel like launching a space probe into the cosmos hoping it just might land on a tiny comet and provide even a smidgen of feedback. And when you get one positive e-mail or comment back, you’re all like, “Whooohooo! Mission Accomplished!”

Celebrating at the European Space Agency after the successful landing of the Philae lander on a comet after a journey of 4 billion miles. Or me, when I find out someone actually read my newsletter.


So, You Want People to Care? Try This…
Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
Or both.
But never neither.

That’s it. Communicate like this, and you’ll change the world. Or at least your newsletter.


Why This Matters – The Bride of Christ
It’s our great privilege to speak back into the lives of those who send us. They sacrifice too, and not just money: many of our senders have given up relationships and friendships, children and grandchildren. Simply put, they are worth our time.

Additionally, communicating from the field is an amazing opportunity to minister to the Bride of Christ. We can help them see God’s passion for His glory as the Kingdom spreads globally. We can enlarge their vision of God and His mission, reminding them that national politics is a small bit of what’s going on in the world. We can remind them that the Church is alive and well and the Spirit of God is moving in the hearts of people. Of course, none of that happens if we’re snooty.

Even a church missions presentation can be ministry, if done with care and thought. A report could be part of what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination,” helping folks see an alternative reality, where the Kingdom is advancing and there’s more to life than the daily grind.

Please be careful not to love the Church only where you serve. Love the Church where you came from too. She is no less Christ’s Bride.


Why This Matters – They’re Volunteers
The folks reading your newsletters or listening to your missions talks are volunteers; they don’t have to pay attention to you or your words. They have chosen to listen to you (except maybe the 6-year-old boy in the third row who’s been threatened with “No McDonald’s” unless he sits still and pays attention).

They are giving you one of the greatest gifts ever: time. Value their gift, and give something back. Make them glad they came. Be wise and “make learning a joy.” (Proverbs 15:2)

Remember, you’re speaking to volunteers. They don’t have to pay attention to you, but if you speak from your heart or you’re funny or both, they will.


It’s Not Just Data – Speak from the Heart
Very few people get excited about data. We’re all tired of data. So, stand in front of a church and give them facts and percentages, sure, for maybe five seconds. And then give them your heart. They can get facts from Google, but they can only get your heart if you give it to them.

Want an easy way to do this? Tell them the Why and the Who, not just the What and the Where. People will care a whole lot more about what you’re doing when they see the heart behind it. Show them that heart.

Why are you going?
Why do you live there?
Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Who’s behind the newsletter?
Who’s the project for?
Who is God transforming?

What are your newsletters and presentations full of? Are they full of What you’re doing and Where you’re doing it? That stuff’s important, but it’s pretty sterile. If the majority of your communication is full of details and factoids, please stop. You’re boring people, and missions should be anything but boring.

Take a step back and ask yourself how to incorporate more of the Why and the Who. Put some heart in it.

You’re talking about people, right? So don’t reduce them to a stat or a large group photo of 50 people no one in your audience knows. There’s enough dehumanizing going on in the world already. Go ahead, show the group photo, but then tell a story about one person in the group who was impacted.

Cecil the lion, shot and killed in Zimbabwe, July 2015

Why did Cecil the lion get so much attention? It’s because he wasn’t just a stat — another lion poached. He had a name and a family. He had a story. If we can give a lion in Africa a name and a story, can’t we do the same for people? God does.

So speak from the heart. About people, not tasks. About hearts, not projects.

Ask for God’s help. Ask Him to help you see people as He sees them, because once you connect with the heart of God on the matter, it’s all over. You’ll never be the same, and neither will your audience.


How to Be Funny
Sometimes, our theology erases our joy. Does yours? I realize that humor and joy are not synonyms, but really, do we actually believe the folks who look completely miserable while they grunt through gritted teeth, “I know I’m not happy, but at least I have the joy of the Lord”? Is there a laughter and peace that comes from God that is actually – really and truly – fun? We take ourselves way too seriously.

God is still in control.
God is still good.

So when was the last time you laughed? Like, really belly laughed?

Life is filled with heartache and pain. I am not immune to that, and I’ve spent a good bit of my time at A Life Overseas writing about outlawed grief, and bleeding grief, and feeling worthless.

It’s just that people are really funny creatures.

We should pray more for the joy of the Lord in our teams and churches and families. There is a time to mourn, for sure, but there is also a time to laugh and dance. Make sure you stay balanced. And remember, there’s nothing holier about sadness, just like there’s nothing juvenile or immature or sinful about enjoying life so much that you LOL.

Remember, Jesus got in trouble for having too much fun. Be like Him.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you want to be funny in your communications, learn to laugh, and laugh long and laugh hard. Wrap up your kids in tickle fights and joke about the crazy stuff.  Look at other drivers on the road and make up stories about their lives; create a running commentary. Practice various accents. In our family, one person’s good at Russian, two are great at British, another imitates Jim Carrey’s Grinch scarily well, and the last one’s four.htc5

But please, if you don’t think you’re funny, don’t worry. This is not supposed to make you even sadder and even more not funny. If funny’s not your thing, it’s not the end of the world, just make sure you communicate from your heart. No humor required.


Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
Or both.
But never neither.

Try it out. See if it changes anything.
And then add me to your newsletter list.

 *photo credit