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Challenges, growth in Africa seen during IMB leaders’ visit

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–The International Mission Board’s top leaders reminded trustees during their meeting Sept. 13-14 in Pensacola, Fla., that change in the discouraging and devastating environment of suffering in Africa will happen only when the Gospel changes the hearts of people and Jesus is acknowledged as Lord.

IMB President Jerry Rankin traveled three weeks in West Africa during August and visited more than half the missionaries in the region. Rankin said he has had an increasing burden for West Africa as the region perennially tops other regions in missionary resignations and rounds out the bottom of missionary appointments.

“We experienced the heat, life in the villages, bone-jarring travel and saw the challenge of evangelizing this impoverished, disease-ridden, resistant area of the world,” Rankin said. “Many missionary families live in isolated locations without the amenities of phone service and reliable electricity.

“Disease is rampant — the discussion is not whether or not one has contracted malaria, but when you last had an attack and how you are treating it. Missionaries have regularly had to evacuate countries as political coups and ethnic violence exacerbate the instability and danger.”

West Africa was one of Southern Baptists’ earliest mission fields. In 2000, Nigeria commemorated 150 years of Baptist work in that country. The past generation of missionaries spread across the coastal countries and successfully planted churches across Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia. Later, work in Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin continued the efforts.

“But now the work has moved inland in an effort to engage the formidable Islamic belt in the Sahel to the north, and bring hope to massive numbers still in bondage to African traditional religions,” Rankin said. “This trip made an impact on us. Missionaries who serve there are heroes.

“Every region of the world has its unique challenges, but few have to embrace such a sacrificial lifestyle and live in the midst of suffering and chronic needs as those in West Africa. The spiritual challenge of penetrating the wall of Islam overlaid as a veneer on traditional Africa religion and culture is as formidable as anywhere in the world.”

West Africa contains about 1,600 people groups in 22 countries. Almost 40 percent of the people claim to be Christians, but they are primarily limited to a few major people groups. However, Baptist partners in the region represent a significant potential for engaging the lost. Another major challenge is that 75 percent of the unreached people groups have a population of 15,000 or less.

The IMB West Africa regional team concentrates missionaries on 55 people groups that missions strategists say are the key to reaching others. Five missionary units assigned to the “engagement team” are designing a strategy to reach the rest of the unengaged people groups with no expectation IMB personnel will be assigned to them. One of the keys to reaching West Africa is mobilizing Southern Baptist churches to be part of the task.

While Rankin traveled in West Africa last month, Clyde Meador, executive vice president, surveyed missions work in central and southern Africa.

He told about seeing 140 members of a “completely unreached people group” meeting under a mango tree to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ in northern Mozambique.

“It’s thrilling to see the Gospel introduced to a people for the first time,” he said. “And it’s happening all up and down the east coast of Mozambique, mostly [through work carried out] by new personnel.”

Meador said his initial impression of Angola was that it is a difficult place — laden with danger and chaotic conditions. He had to go most places with armed guards, but said he saw spiritual growth, particularly in Luanda, Angola’s capital, among some 1,400 believers now training for evangelism.

“God is moving in southern Africa, too,” he reported. “Some places are hard. Some are unreached. But God is moving and people are responding.”

Rankin said trustees had seen publicity about the famine in Niger. The West African country was already suffering from drought when swarms of locusts destroyed all the crops just before harvest. Southern Baptists have been a part of food distribution and other relief projects are being planned, but officials estimate as many as 3 million people could die of starvation.

He reminded the board that Africa has received a great deal of international attention in recent months. Many governments and organizations are giving more attention to responding to the AIDS epidemic that continues to sweep sub-Saharan Africa, claiming the lives of millions, decimating the workforce and leaving tens of millions of orphans uncared for.

The plague of locusts and perennial drought in Niger could easily spread the threat of starvation to neighboring countries. The recent attempted political coup and civil war in once-stable Cote d’Ivoire have brought it in line with many of the other countries torn apart by ethnic violence.

“Corruption is a way of life, and anarchy is becoming more widespread as desperate and oppressed people go to any means to survive,” Rankin said. “The very infrastructure continues to deteriorate in many countries and economic progress and development appear to dwindle.”

Rankin shared with trustees a report filed by Sue Sprenkle, an IMB correspondent in Africa.

“For years I’ve lived and covered stories in Africa,” Sprenkle wrote. “I’ve seen poverty, famine, disease, natural disasters and civil war. Every day I’m confronted with the realities of starvation and impending death. Beggars line up at the window of my car, asking for money to buy bread. I’ve sat talking with mothers as they fan flies from the eyes of listless, malnourished children with bloated bellies. I’ve watched friends die from AIDS-related illnesses.”

In response to this situation, global demonstrations during July’s G-8 summit in Scotland appealed for debt relief for African countries. Proponents reasoned that developed countries canceling debts would provide billions of dollars in relief and Africa’s problems would be solved.

“The solution was only partially right,” Rankin said. “What Africa does need is debt relief, but not relief from the debt of economic loans. They need relief from the debt of sin that only Jesus can give. If Africa is to find hope and relief it will not come from throwing money at the poverty, disease and corruption, but through discovering the hope of a new life that the Gospel brings to those in darkness.

“Millions have come to Christ throughout Africa, but if there is to be a change in this discouraging and devastating environment of suffering it will only happen when the Gospel changes the hearts of people and Jesus is acknowledged as Lord.”

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  • Michael Chute