by Michael Reneau
In this month's installment, we look at ministry and missions in America's different Christian communities.
Reggie Poindexter and Tim Schoap are two pastors whose congregations have been changed through intentional cross-cultural cooperation. Poindexter, an African American, pastors Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, while Schoap, who is white, co-pastors Signal Mountain Bible Church (both are in the Chattanooga, Tenn. area). While Greater Friendship's congregation is a predominantly African American and Signal Mountain Bible's is mostly white, the two churches have developed a close, intentional and strategic partnership in several ministries, including Sunday School programs, Vacation Bible Schools and joint mission trips to Haiti through AMG International.
Whereas many American churches struggle to partner with other churches at all, let alone with churches comprised of a different race, the congregations at Greater Friendship and Signal Mountain Bible make it a point to expose themselves to a congregation of a different race.
"You cannot have a church and not want to be inclusive," Poindexter said. "If it's the Church-built on Christ-the racial concerns are not there."
Schoap agreed that while the Chattanooga area has (at best) a checkered past on race relations, the congregation at Greater Friendship continues to grow closer to Signal Mountain Bible despite the area's history.
Much of the two churches focus together has been on international missions, particularly in Haiti. Poindexter went last year with a team from Signal Mountain Bible to Haiti. He said that experience led to Greater Friendship participating in its first church missions trip soon after. Out of the 10 who were part of Greater Friendship's trip to Haiti this summer, seven had never been on the mission field before, he said.
Poindexter continues to pray for members of his church to be more mission-minded.
"God has led me to be more focused on mission in our church," Poindexter said. "We've done a lot to raise awareness about missions."
Poindexter came to Greater Friendship about six years ago and has seen tremendous growth in the way of a missions vision.
"I always use the analogy of the growth of a child," Poindexter said. "We're probably like a 6-year-old. We're out of kindergarten. We're trying to move people from the inside to the outside."
An instrumental part of Poindexter's vision for missions was Jim Sutherland.
Sutherland has devoted much of his adult life to reconciling the races in white and African American churches, particularly in the area of missions, and is now the director of Reconciliation Ministries Network, Inc. (RMNi). Sutherland, who is white, was once the pastor of a predominantly African American church and has involved himself in inner city ministries for years. His job at RMNi is to plant seeds in African American churches to become missions-minded congregations.
"Jim lit the fire for missions in me," Poindexter said.
White churches and African American churches in America have had different focuses for decades, according to Sutherland. Whereas many white churches have been involved in global missions and sending and supporting missionaries for centuries, the African American church has largely focused on ministering to African Americans and its own congregations. Because of social injustices and racism, Sutherland said, many African American churches have been inwardly focused and not involved in global missions.
RMNi and Sutherland's goal is to light other fires amongst African American churches, similar to what happened with Poindexter, and help propel them into global missions. RMNi tries to have representatives in individual African American churches and sets up short-term missions opportunities and support ministries for African American congregations.
One of the bigger needs in African American churches' push for missions is the financial support, which is why partnering with congregations with more resources and organizations like RMNi is helpful, according to Poindexter. After the Civil War and emancipation, Poindexter added, the African American church had a vision for missions but lost the ability to support that vision financially due to events in American history. Instead of global missions, then, Poindexter said the vision of the African American church became more of a "social mission."
"Our mission became our own people," he said.
These trends have monopolized resources, Sutherland said. Since there were no models or teaching in African American churches for how to do missions, if a member wanted to do missions work he became a pastor. This led to a multiplication of black churches, which widely dispersed the resources of the Christian community.
Now African American churches are able to support missions work, Poindexter said, but working with other congregations is still a necessary component.
Speaking about his own church in inner-city Chattanooga, Poindexter said more support is needed.
"If we're going to truly be successful, we're going to need more support. I don't think our church has the finances," he added.
When it comes down to the actual ministry and missions work, Poindexter said there are subtle differences between white churches and black churches, mostly due to differing congregational cultures and personalities. But the purpose is the same for both groups.
"The ministries are the same, but they're done differently because of the culture. But the purpose has to be the same if we're the Church," he said. "The true purpose is to win souls for Christ, meet needs, and share the Gospel."
Sutherland has seen differences in how white Christians and African American Christians work on the mission field, particularly in Africa. He said bonds form instantly between African Americans and Africans, which offers opportunities for more "connective" ministries.
Despite the push for international missions, Poindexter said his church also sees the Chattanooga area as part of "global missions," so his congregation maintains its ministries in the community along with the international push.
"We're looking for volunteerism-to spread the Gospel through a sense of service," Poindexter said.
Poindexter, Schoap, and Sutherland are all optimistic about the future of African American churches and missions ministries. Poindexter said because of ministries like RMNi and partnerships with other churches, more young black pastors are gaining exposure to missions and coming to the pulpit with a broader vision, which spreads to entire congregations.
"They want to look at the Church beyond the walls of the church," he said. "You have to get them on the [mission] field. Once you accomplish that, you'll see a real explosion in missions."
All this pushes younger African American church members into missions, and as these members become adults, Poindexter said, missions work will explode within African American churches. But, the push needs to happen now, he added.
"It has to start now. The full fruit will be with younger people," he said.
Sutherland agreed completely.
"There are little brushfires all around the country. It's coming," he said about African Americans going into missions. "I'm very optimistic about the future; it's the present that's so difficult."
As RMNi and similar ministries continue to mobilize African American churches in missions, cross-cultural and interracial work like that between Greater Friendship and Signal Mountain Bible seems to be crucial. Indeed, such partnership is key to showing a skeptical world that the blood of Christ connects believers from every tribe and tongue in ways that aren't explainable in human terms.
"We believe there's such a strong cross-cultural commandment," Schoap said. "Every church needs cross-cultural involvement." Poindexter agreed, saying that the key for his church was to not put much of an emphasis on racial divides; they simply try to work across cultural divides.
"We don't think of ourselves as an African American church; we just happen to all be African American," he said. "If you're open to [cross-cultural ministry], it'll happen on its own."
Michael Reneau is a senior journalism major at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn.,
and worked as a summer intern for Pulpit Helps.