Black Christians Largely Absent from U.S. Missionary Force

Richard Coleman has a passion for missions. But he's concerned that many of his African-American brethren aren't on the same page with him.

Black churches overall have not been reinforcing the missionary force out of the United States. And Coleman is hoping they'll confront their longstanding lack of involvement and make their way overseas to the millions who have never heard of Jesus.

According to the 2007 African American Missions Mobilization Manifesto by Columbia International University, blacks make up less than one percent of the total number (118,600) of U.S. missionaries.

But Coleman, who serves as the director of candidacy and mobilization for The Mission Society, didn't have to look to statistics to realize that blacks were largely absent from the mission fields.

While attending Oral Roberts University, he became involved in short-term missions for the first time. It was in his first trip where he gained a passion for missions. He was 19 at the time and visiting Uganda.

The Tulsa, Okla., school would send some 200 to 300 students every summer on mission trips. But Coleman noticed there would only be a handful of black students.

"Then when I went to Africa, Africans would say 'Where are the blacks? How come they don't come?'" the 32-year-old evangelical recalled to The Christian Post.

After receiving an M. Div. degree, Coleman served as the director of missions at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga. The megachurch, led by Bishop Eddie Long, had some 25,000 attendees but there were only two or three full-time missionaries being dispatched. And only 20 people were sent on short-term missions every year from the church.

Now on staff at The Mission Society, Coleman again is seeing only a handful of African Americans among the more than 200 missionaries who are being trained and sent to minister around the world.

"The issue continues. It's something I've carried with me here," he lamented.

During the interview on Tuesday, Coleman pulled out a book titled African-American Experience in World Mission: A Call Beyond Community. He cited an old statistic to illustrate how serious the problem was.

In 1993, he read, the African Methodist Episcopal Church reported that it had 8,000 congregations and 3.5 million members and the total overseas ministry income was $253,000 – that's $31 per church per year. The National Baptist Convention, USA, reported 40 cents per church member per year for missions.

Though the statistics date nearly 20 years back, Coleman is convinced that the AME Church today has less than 10 missionaries serving in the world.

"And the [NBC] is probably no better," he added.

The Rev. Dr. Kermit J. DeGraffenreidt, executive director for AME Zion Church's Department of Overseas Missions, doesn't deny the lack of emphasis on global missions in the black church.

He told The Christian Post that when the denomination's budget is being developed, missions "might not get on top of the list."

Currently, a lot of their support is in helping indigenous people develop leadership abilities. In other words, the denomination is sending "stipends" to indigenous leaders in some 12 countries rather than supporting full-time missionaries, which would require more financial support. DeGraffenreidt couldn't immediately provide what percentage of the total budget is sent overseas.

AME Zion Church has, however, "managed to find" self-sustaining individuals to serve as missionaries, he added.

As someone who served as a missionary in Liberia for six years, DeGraffenreidt said he would like to see the black church bolstering the U.S. missionary force and allocating more funds for missions.

"I'd like to see more of it done," he commented.

But the tough economy has not made it easier.

"With the recession now and people looking out for their families, getting the support [for missions] is not the easiest thing," he observed.

What's holding them back?

Supporting families and the community is one of the reasons African-American churches have not been involved in cross-cultural missions, according to Coleman.

Compared to white Protestant churches, there are a lot of needs in the black church, the Atlanta native pointed out.

"Just think of the number of hurting people at a black church who have lost their jobs or can't get a job and they usually turn to the church for help," he said. "And the church is paying light bills and that kind of stuff."

"So you kind of reason 'why would I give money to these people overseas who I don't know when people among me are hurting.'"

Coleman isn't trying to denounce the black church. He understands the history behind some of the decisions being made today and simply wants to encourage black churches to get back on board in sharing Jesus to the 1.8 billion people who have never heard of His name.

That history includes blacks being banned from serving alongside other missionaries and from entering certain countries, not to mention the struggle for civil rights in the United States that required a collective effort.

"When you look at the civil rights movement, everyone had to focus inward and everybody was needed to deal with this big issue at home. They had to suspend other ventures," Coleman explained.

"And once we got the same rights and privileges as everybody else, human nature – and this is not a black thing or a white thing or any color thing – pursues security, comfort and equality. And so when the playing field became a lot more level, I think our pursuits changed toward building up the community and I don't think we've really begun to look outward."

But the young missions expert believes African Americans are uniquely poised to have a big impact on global evangelism. They identify with suffering, he said.

"People around the world have heard that story and have seen the overcoming of struggles," he noted. "Black churches have a message of encouragement for the world."

Coleman made clear that he does not want to tell these churches what to do, but he wants to help them "to approach God and their church community to discover what unique place God has called them to serve."

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