Monday, February 25, 2013

'Lord, bless the missionaries'


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It’s a familiar prayer. Too familiar, some say, to mean much.

“Lord, bless the missionaries.”

For church folks of a certain age, these words are as comfortable and automatic as “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies” or “Bless the gift and the giver.”

Mission leaders who’ve heard this prayer uttered countless times sometimes criticize it as perfunctory, meaningless or ritualistic. Which missionaries? Where? Bless them how? And what about the people missionaries are trying to reach with the Gospel? Don’t they need prayer, too? A quick “Lord, bless the missionaries” gives people an excuse to check praying for missions off their to-do list, like dropping a buck or two in the offering plate takes care of supporting missions.

Effective praying for missionaries and their ministries needs to be a bit more specific.

“I continue to be intrigued that God, a sovereign God, would link His activity over the nations to the prayers of His people,” said Jerry Rankin, retired IMB president. “But are we willing to move beyond a simple ‘God bless the missionaries’ and pray to invoke His blessings on their efforts? Prayer is not simply a way to bless the strategies and methods of our missionaries. It is the foundation of the strategy. Missionaries go to tell the story and to reap the harvest, but if the doors are to be opened, if the barriers are to crumble, if hearts are to be softened, it’s our responsibility to pray them into the kingdom.”

Wanda Lee, Woman’s Missionary Union executive director-treasurer, made a similar observation years ago: “Praying ‘God bless the missionaries’ once you are informed is not specific enough to open these dark places to the light of Jesus Christ. It will take informed, inspired praying to reach our world with the message of salvation.”

“Informed” is a key word. There are many ways to become informed about the needs of missionaries and the people groups they strive to reach. A good place to start is, IMB’s main prayer network, which offers a variety of ways to pray strategically for missionaries, mission teams and people groups. You and your church might even become part of one of those teams as you discover God’s heart for making disciples among all nations.

Storming the gates of darkness requires informed, committed spiritual warriors willing to pray big prayers — and “small” ones. God cares about little things, because they aren’t so little in the grand scheme of His work.

“It’s been another challenging week for us,” a missionary wrote recently. “My husband’s back suddenly started to spasm on Wednesday and by Thursday he was in real pain. Our crate arrived Thursday, which was a great encouragement. It’s been a little slow trying to get everything in place by myself, but I’ve done pretty well and things are shaping up. Did I forget to mention that my husband also slashed his finger pretty badly Wednesday afternoon? We just washed it, put a dab of super glue on it and bandaged it.

“Why do you need to pray for missionaries?” she asked. “Because these are some of the more minor things we face. Because a cut finger and severe back issues mean we’re a man down. Because we can’t just run down the road for medical attention. And because little things can become big things if you let them. God doesn’t need us to do His work. He can get it done however He chooses, with us or without us. He does need us to cooperate with Him if we are to be made holy and sanctified saints. And this requires the right attitude. Pray for us to persevere through all circumstances and to rejoice in all things. In this way, we honor the Lord and bring glory to His name. And that is what will draw the nations to Him.”

Are back spasms and a cut finger too trivial to pray about when the world is falling apart? Not if you’re the one experiencing them. Not if they prevent you from focusing on the work of God. Back spasms can shut you down faster than being arrested for spreading the Gospel. If you’re jailed, at least you can share Jesus with fellow inmates. Back spasms put you on the couch, afraid to move a muscle.

Lord, bless that missionary. But let’s get more specific: Heal his back, if You are willing, or teach him to rejoice in weakness and trust Your grace completely. Help him and his wife to persevere day by day when the going gets tough, when discouragement blots out hope like an eclipse. Give them joy. Give them strength and energy. Help them to lift Your light in the dark place where they live and use them to bring many new disciples into Your kingdom. And show us how we can do our part — through prayer first, but also through action.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A new generation of black missionaries

To see a multi-media package celebrating African Americans on mission, visit

One half of 1 percent.

That’s the percentage of the 4,900 Southern Baptist international missionaries who are African American. They number 27. Even that tiny total represents progress. Not so long ago, you could count black Southern Baptist missionaries on two hands — and have some fingers left over.

Times have changed. Attitudes have changed. Demographics have changed. Leaders have changed: Fred Luter, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, made history last year as the first African American elected to lead the nation’s largest Protestant church body.

And SBC churches have changed. More than 10,000 of the convention’s 50,000-plus congregations now identify themselves as non-Anglo. That’s a 66 percent jump since 1998, according to the latest statistics from the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research. The largest increase has come in African-American congregations, which grew by a whopping 82.7 percent between 1998 and 2011. Some 1 million African Americans in about 3,400 churches now represent 6.25 percent of total SBC church membership.

So why aren’t there more black Southern Baptists taking the Gospel to the nations? The daily challenges on their own doorsteps have something to do with it.

“A lot of our African-American churches are in the ’hood,” says Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. “[People ask me], ‘Why do I need to go to Africa, Asia or Europe? We need to get people saved in this community.’”

Luter, who visited IMB offices recently and preached to staff members, pledges to help overcome that mindset by modeling missions commitment, educating churches about global needs — and instilling God’s vision for missions in a new generation of African Americans.

“I want to challenge the pastor to start with our young people,” he says.

Young people like Jonathan Marshall,* 26, who is completing his service in North Africa and the Middle East. Last summer Marshall told about his work during Black Church Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. “My topic is ‘Young Black Men in Missions,’” he told listeners with a grin. “But I’m the only one, so I’m going to talk about myself.” At the time, Marshall was the only single, male African American serving as an IMB worker.

But 1,200 people from predominantly black churches attended the conference, including a contingent of teens and college-age folks, and they heard mission challenges from Marshall and others.

Seeing, hearing and following others who are blazing the trail — those are keys to nurturing a generation of African Americans with a heart for the world, according to Keith Jefferson, IMB’s African-American church missional strategist. Jefferson served for 16 years as an IMB missionary in Brazil. But he never seriously considered overseas service until he was personally challenged by David Cornelius, his predecessor as African-American strategist, who was a missionary for many years in Africa.

Increasing exposure to the world in a hyper-connected age is another key.

“The world is becoming smaller and smaller,” Jefferson says. “African-American professionals are traveling worldwide. Communication is becoming greater and greater. Younger people especially are communicating with people throughout the world, and they are more adventurous. They’re not ‘set.’ They’re open to new things.”

From early childhood through high school and college, young African-American Christians need to be “groomed” for missions, Jefferson stresses. He urges pastors, teachers and mentors to tell young people, “You’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a teacher, you’re going to be a nurse, yes, but some of you are going to be missionaries.”

Young people who start out by serving overseas for a few weeks or a summer through programs such as International World Changers are more open to serving for a semester, Jefferson says. Those who give a semester are more likely to give two years through the Journeyman Program or International Service Corps. And many two-year workers go on to become career missionaries.

The opportunities are limitless. The time for delay or rationalization is over.

“God is calling us, because like every other child of God, we have a responsibility,” Jefferson says. “We don’t have any excuses.”

*(Name changed)

To learn more about how your church can play a key role in reaching the world, contact Keith Jefferson, IMB African-American missional church strategist, at or (800) 999-3113, ext. 1422