Black church leaders explore missions
RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP) -- Standing before a room of African American church leaders in Ridgecrest, N.C., Jonathan Marshall* cleared his throat and began his pitch: "My topic is 'Young Black Men in Missions,'" the 26-year-old IMB missionary said with a grin, "but I'm the only one, so I'm going to talk about myself."
Marshall isn't kidding. Of the nearly 5,000 Southern Baptist missionaries serving around the world through the International Mission Board, only 27 are black. Of that number, Marshall is the lone single male currently on the field, working to share the Gospel in North Africa and the Middle East.
And he was one of five active African American IMB missionaries who spoke at the conference, also known as Black Church Week, July 23-27 at the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.
Some 1,200 people from predominantly black Southern Baptist churches traveled from across the country to hear from speakers like Marshall. The theme for this year's conference was "Here am I, send me," a reference to Isaiah 6:8.
"Do you really mean that?" asked Fred Luter, Southern Baptist Convention president, as he addressed the conference Tuesday evening. "Do you really mean it when you say, 'Here am I, Lord, send me?'"
Marshall meant it. What's more, he believes many more young black men like himself are willing to make Jesus' name known among the nations.
Clinton Kilonzo, 22, listened intently as Marshall laid out Southern Baptists' need for greater numbers of African American missionaries. Kilonzo, a native of Kenya, had flown to the United States only a few days before to begin pursuing an M.B.A. at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. After hearing how Marshall was able to use his own financial expertise to do missions, Kilonzo said he wants to do something similar with his degree.
"I know God opened the door for me to go to school, so now I'm so sure that's what He wants me to do," Kilonzo said. "When Americans go [overseas], it's OK, but their story is different. But when someone from [a national's] own country comes, they say, 'This person was like me, but they transformed.'"
Keith Jefferson, IMB's African-American missional church strategist, said black Southern Baptists are passionate about missions but many lack an outlet for that passion. International missions can sometimes be an especially hard sell, he said. Between the distance, language barrier, expense of travel and often overwhelming needs at home, the idea of traveling halfway around the world to tell someone about Jesus seems impossible.
IMB's goal as part of the LifeWay-sponsored conference, Jefferson said, was to educate black church leaders about the need for international missionaries and help them discover opportunities to get involved. Missions-focused breakout sessions led by African American missionaries like Marshall helped showcase such opportunities.
"People don't go if they don't know," Ken Foy, pastor of New Life Ministry Baptist Church in New Orleans, said. Foy explained that he made sure to bring some of his church members to the conference this year. "I want them to go back and testify what their experience was like, just to create some encouragement for others to come next year.... Part of that will be missions as it relates to taking the Gospel outside our immediate area."
IMB worker Marie Edwards* encouraged others in her breakout session to go by sharing about her own experiences serving in North Africa and the Middle East.
"If I think about what I've been doing the past seven years [overseas] and I think about what I could have been doing in America, there's no competition," Edwards said.
"If you feel like God's calling you to go or to send someone from your church ... it can happen. We can send you overseas. We can help you mobilize your church to get a trip together, and we would welcome all of you."
Students were encouraged to answer God's Great Commission call as well. Maina Mwaura, youth minister at Greenforest Community Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., spoke to the conference's youth about "being called" to ministry.
"The question is this, students: Are you ready to see God do something in your life that's bigger than you?" Mwaura asked. During an invitation at the end of Mwaura's challenge, 14 high school students walked to the front of the auditorium to answer a call to ministry.
Mwaura was not always so adamant about missions. "I never thought I would really do foreign missions," he said. "I just never really had a heart for it." But his interest was sparked in 2011 when Jefferson spoke at his church.
Five minutes into the presentation, Mwaura said he felt the Holy Spirit say, "What about you?" Now, in addition to speaking to youth groups, Mwaura is preparing to join a short-term missions team in South Africa this summer, an exploratory trip that will lay the foundation for a second trip accompanied by 30-40 youth.
"When God gives you a burden for the whole world, you just go," Mwaura said. "Knowledge gets you out of the door to go do it."
Jefferson led an IMB presentation during the conference's Wednesday evening worship service that included a Skype conversation with IMB missionaries George and Geraldine Smith who have served in sub-Saharan Africa for more than 12 years.
"We wanted to show the congregation just how easy it is to have a conversation with any missionary throughout the world," Jefferson said.
"To know that our church can sponsor somebody and to be able to have that relationship on a Sunday morning where we can take a morning to talk to the person that we sponsor -- that was cool," Foy said.
A.B. Vines, pastor of New Seasons Church in Spring Valley, Calif., and president of the SBC's National African American Fellowship, said awareness is key.
"I believe that the more we put missions out there, the more people will realize that missions is not a scary thing, and that once we embrace it, we can do the Great Commission."
*Name changed. Jane Middleton is an intern with the International Mission Board and Don Graham is an IMB senior writer. To learn more about how a church can be involved in international missions, visit imb.org or call 800-999-3113.