West Africa: Thirsty for God

WEST AFRICA (BP)--Could West Africa be won to Christ over a glass of sweet tea?

Maybe, if you drink it with the right people: village chiefs, religious leaders, heads of family clans, young trailblazers of the future.

That's exactly what some Southern Baptist missionaries in West Africa are doing. Several people groups in the region savor an elaborate tea ceremony: The host brews and serves progressive rounds of strong, hot tea to guests. Each glass gets sweeter, symbolizing the growth of friendship. Friendship opens ears –- and hearts.

But the 287 million people of West Africa also thirst for something far sweeter than tea. They yearn for Living Water.

“God has created a people here who want to worship Him,” says Randy Arnett, IMB regional leader for West Africa. "They just don't know it yet."

Arnett and other IMB missionaries in West Africa intend to tell them. But they can't do it without a major increase in participation by Southern Baptists. The IMB has set aside all of 2006 to focus on reaching West Africa with the Gospel.

The challenge of West Africa:

-- 1,612 people groups spread across 22 countries -– nearly as large as the continental United States.

-- More than 350 of those peoples have no access to the Gospel. Half of the region's population is unreached (less than 2 percent evangelical). IMB workers currently work among only 52 West African people groups.

-- Half of the region's people are Muslim. About 40 percent of West Africans claim Christianity in some form. However, African traditional religions -– animism, ancestor worship, fear of spirits, belief in charms and spells -– permeate the area, influencing both Muslims and Christians.

-- Ethnic and social conflict, unstable governments and poverty haunt many parts of West Africa. Malaria, AIDS and other diseases are widespread. Life expectancy is under 50 years. Malnutrition is high; literacy is low. More than half of West Africans live on less than a dollar a day.

-- Then there's the climate -– hot and hotter. In some areas, high humidity makes it hard to function. In others, drought parches the land.

"It's dry, dirty and hot," Arnett freely admits of the region he loves. "It's not a tourist destination. If you want five-star hotels, air conditioning and a McDonald's on every corner, this isn't the place for you. But we have God-called men and women who have said, 'I will forsake the comforts and security of America, and I will come and live in this environment.'"

Some say the unreached peoples of West Africa will never be reached.

“They said Muslims would never listen,” reports a missionary prayer update from Guinea-Bissau. “[But] Muslim villages are crying out for Jesus Christ. Village chiefs are requesting pastors, missionaries or laymen to come and teach them about Jesus. Muslims are taking the ‘JESUS’ film to their villages because there aren’t enough believers willing to go themselves.”

In Senegal, a missionary answered a knock at his gate and found a Muslim imam [worship leader] standing there.

“I was told to come to you because of what I’ve been hearing [about Jesus] on the radio,” the imam said. “I’ve been listening for 10 years, and I believe Jesus is the Son of God. What am I supposed to do about it?”

Today he’s telling people chronological Bible stories designed for Muslim listeners seeking truth.

“We are going to reclaim West Africa for Jesus Christ,” says Arnett, the International Mission Board’s regional leader.

IMB missionaries in West Africa have three main strategies:

1) Engaging -– Contacting and beginning work among unengaged peoples who have no access to the Gospel. Southern Baptist volunteers and churches will play an increasingly important role in this effort.

2) Advancing -- Helping missionaries and local believers effectively evangelize and disciple engaged people groups, setting the stage for church-planting movements.

3) Co-partnering -– Relating and cooperating strategically with national Baptist partners at every level.

With this year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions focusing on West Africa, IMB missionaries are looking for more God-called men and women to join them in reaching the large “pivotal” people groups of the region who can, in turn, reach others. They're looking for thousands of Southern Baptist volunteers. And they're looking for hundreds of churches willing to take on the strategic challenge of locating the many “micropeoples” -– populations of 15,000 or less –- and sharing Jesus with them.

“God wants to do something here that we’ve never, ever seen before: an awakening, a revival, a spiritual breakthrough that will impact the world,” Arnett says.

“He’s waiting on us.”

For resources and information on praying for the peoples of West Africa, serving there as a missionary or volunteer or strategically involving your church, visit GoWestAfrica.org.

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