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West Africa’s need for the Gospel unites churches, board


TAMPA, Fla. (BP)–With every light in the auditorium of Idlewild Baptist Church turned out, pastor Ken Whitten noted that the physical darkness of the room could not compare with the spiritual darkness of West Africa.

Pastors, missions leaders and laypeople representing 80 Southern Baptist churches gathered for a West Africa Summit to build long-term strategic relationships with the International Mission Board to impact West Africa’s lostness.

Of the 1,612 people groups spread across West Africa’s 22 countries, only 52 of these peoples have International Mission Board personnel serving among them. And, IMB representatives pointed out, 352 of these people groups still have no access to the Gospel.

Randy Arnett, the IMB’s West Africa regional leader, said Southern Baptist churches can be strategically involved by either partnering with IMB workers to reach a particular people group or by becoming an “Engaging Church” to take the Gospel to a people group who have never heard about Jesus Christ.

Half the people groups in West Africa have a population of less than 18,000, Arnett explained. The IMB concentrates its work in West Africa on reaching people groups with populations over 100,000. But, Arnett suggested, churches can work together with the IMB’s Engagement Team for West Africa to send volunteers to these people groups that missionaries may never reach.

Ron Hill, IMB worker in the West Africa region and coordinator of the West Africa Summit, held March 22-25 at Idlewild Baptist in Tampa, Fla., told participants he wondered what would happen if 1,000 of the 40,000-plus Southern Baptist churches in the United States focused on reaching the unreached peoples of West Africa.

Hill said that when he served as a field strategy leader almost seven years ago, he was faced with the painful decision of determining strategies to allow one people group to hear the Gospel, while another people group would not. As a result, Hill said he began asking God for His strategy in reaching the lost of West Africa.

“God began to show us from His Scripture that He had given the Great Commission to the church and that was the answer,” Hill said. “He began to bring to us many churches that are here today, and we began to develop strategic relationships with them.”

Hill admitted that when he began praying he did not have a clear understanding of what a partnership between the IMB and Southern Baptist churches would look like. But he voiced a hope that the summit will help both the IMB and churches understand how they can combine their resources to effectively reach West Africa with the Gospel.

“We’re all learning together,” Hill said. “We don’t have all the answers but, together, we’re finding ways that we can work together to multiply resources in the harvest” of West Africa.

Hill said that while some churches may be hesitant to take on the task of engaging a West African people group with the Gospel, church size is a non-issue.

“What we’re looking for are churches who have a passion for God and a passion for seeing the lost peoples of West Africa reached” with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Hill said. “Some of our churches that are really doing strategic things [in missions] are only running about 150 in Sunday School because they’ve got that passion. It’s just revolutionized their church.”

One such church is Conowingo Baptist Church in Rising Sun, Md. With a Sunday School attendance averaging about 250 people, Conowingo members decided in 2001 to adopt the Fulakunda people of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

In June 2002, the church sent their first team of volunteers to Guinea-Bissau. Since then, the church has sent two more teams to West Africa, where they have partnered with IMB personnel on the field.

Derwin Anderson, Idlewild’s minister of missions, agreed that no matter how big or small, all churches can play a role in reaching West Africa. The key, he said, is letting prayer be the guide.

“We as Southern Baptists need to figure out how we can actually prayerfully do something about the need and the fact that every year there’s less and less career missionaries in West Africa,” Anderson said. In addition to missionaries appointed by the IMB, “the churches also need to get involved in being strategy coordinators for the work there.”

As a result of the summit, Arnett said he hopes to see a growing number of churches and associations that will say God has called them beyond their local communities and into the world.

A second West Africa Summit will be held this fall at First Baptist Church in St. Charles, Mo., in conjunction with the Missouri Baptist Convention, Nov. 1-3. For registration and information, interested people can visit the GoWestAfrica.org website or go to mobaptist.org.

Other IMB summits held this fall include an East Asia Summit, hosted by First Baptist Church in North Spartanburg, S.C., Sept. 13-15, and the Central, Eastern and Southern Africa Summit, hosted by Silverdale Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., Sept. 27-29.

For more information and registration, interested persons may go to firstnorth.org for the East Asia Summit, and silverdalebc.com for the Central, Eastern and Southern Africa Summit.
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  • Kristen Hiller