For the sake of the gospel, it’s critical that we send more missionaries of color because race matters. I grew up in historically black churches. I planted an inner-city church. Now I pastor a multiethnic congregation, and I work with planters in urban communities around the world. But I only know one black missionary serving on the field today.
Granted, my knowledge is limited. But according to recent estimates, African Americans comprise as few as 1 percent of international missionaries. As recently as 2013, in fact, only 27 of the SBC’s 4,900 missionaries were black. Similar stats about the rarity of missionaries from other demographics are easy to find as well.
At this point, the conversation often veers toward discussing the historic causes of this disparity. Those are important, but I’m more interested in a way forward. For the glory of God and the sake of the nations, we need to send more missionaries of color to the world. I want to show you why we must and how we can. But first, we have to talk about who “we” is.
Race Matters. Wait. Who’s “We”?
I’m arguing that we need to send more missionaries of color to the world. But many missionaries serving today are already sent from non-white, non-Western countries (places like Brazil, South Korea, and India). This is a wonderful reality reflecting the rapid rise of a global Christianity.
“For the glory of God and the sake of the nations, we need to send more missionaries of color to the world.”
Nevertheless, if you look at the top ten missionary-sending countries (p. 76), the US still sends more than the next seven countries combined. We should rejoice in the increasing missionary work of believers from other nations. But we also need to recognize that America still has a disproportionate effect on world missions—for good or for bad.
So when I say we need to send more missionaries of color to the world, I’m talking about North American sending agencies. I’m talking about the International Mission Board along with other likeminded organizations in America that we love and pray for.
Race Matters: Why Missions Can’t Be Colorblind
In a perfect world, everybody could accept the truth from anybody. Blacks could hear truth from whites, and vice versa. The poor could hear truth from the rich. And nations struggling under the long arm of oppression could hear truth from descendants of their oppressors.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead, we live in a world where fallen hearts are hunting for any excuse to reject the gospel. This is why Paul had his Timothy (who was biracial) circumcised for the sake of the Jews (Acts 16:1–3). There wasn’t anything wrong with Timothy; nevertheless, something about Timothy was still a stumbling block for his audience.
“In a perfect world, everybody could accept the truth from anybody. . . . But we don’t live in a perfect world.”
Like it or not, the legacy of European colonialism is a major stumbling block for many of the millions who suffer in places ravaged by centuries of light-skinned oppression. In contexts like these, black and brown missionaries simply bring credibility that’s hard to obtain otherwise. On top of this, diverse missionary teams avoid sending the wrong message about our faith. Simply by virtue of being different, they help the world see that the gospel is for all types of people.
Race Matters: How to Address the Current Lack of Color
We can do one of two things at this point. We can ignore the racial realities of global history and the stumbling blocks that exist because of them. Or we can take the recognized need to be contextually sensitive and expand it to include being color conscious. It’s not much of a choice.
Being color conscious will not usher in the return of McGavran’s homogenous unit principle with its strategic avoidance of diversity in our churches. On the contrary, we are seeking to increase the diversity of our missionary teams. Yet the goal is not decreasing the number of white missionaries on the field. Rather, the goal is a Psalm 67 consummation of a Matthew 28 commission. We want all ethnē (nations) going to all ethnē.