By Allen Palmeri
ARNOLD—Tom Smith came to First Baptist Church here Sept. 9-11 with a vision for about 120 unreached people groups.
Smith is the Southern Baptist strategy leader for about 55 million people in eight West African countries. Missouri Baptists partnering with Smith’s 88 missionary personnel gathered here for the Western Gateway Summit and Base Camp 1. The summit and base camp were coordinated by Rick Hedger, Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) partnership missions specialist.
“What Rick is trying to do is to motivate and mobilize churches,” Smith said. “He’s bought into the idea that churches can do this. He was pastor of a church that did it (Calvary Baptist in Neosho).”
Smith has completed 30 years of active service in the region he now supervises, mostly as a missionary in Senegal (13 years), Liberia (10 years), and Sierra Leone (6 years). He lives in Thies, Senegal, with his wife, Shirley, where they pray for the lost tribes in their far-reaching jurisdiction.
“My burden is for those people groups,” he said. “How do they hear the Gospel? Who’s going to be the responsible person or the responsible body?”
He said he was excited to come to Missouri and mingle with a group of Great Commission leaders who are as inventive as any he has seen.
“In the past, state partnerships have been focused on some sort of large structure project or sending building teams or sending medical teams,” Smith said. “This is really, as far as I know, the first project where the emphasis is really on church planting. This is sort of a new territory, and I think it’s taking some months to get this message across—to get the excitement generated for this kind of approach.
“We’re not asking the churches to make one trip. We’re asking churches to make, in some senses, an open-ended commitment. The piece of paper may say three years on it, but we don’t want our strategy driven by a timeline. When the strategy’s done, we’re done.
“We have churches that are taking off and going, and I think as other churches see those churches being successful, then the excitement will grow.”
Smith is asking Missouri Baptist churches to be the missionary to people who have never had a Gospel presence in their midst. This is likely to mean a $1,500-$2,500 financial commitment per trip, to a land that is hot, dry and dusty, to lodging in a village that is probably uncomfortable, and to a reception for the Gospel message that figures to be cool. But the rewards, he said, will be great.
“Imagine being there a year, two years, three years and seeing a small group of believers form that then begin to share despite the risk to themselves,” Smith said. “As a result of their sharing, more people come to Christ—how that might feel. Are there rewards that you can bring back to your church and kind of put on the shelf? There’s not going to be. But there’s got to be a sense of joy and a sense of accomplishment that you’ve been obedient to the Great Commission and God has blessed that by bringing more people into the kingdom.”
Smith has a team of several missionaries (five in Mali and five in Senegal) who have been set aside to help Missouri Baptist churches become “engaging” in West Africa. They make the initial contacts, help with training, develop strategy, and work alongside the Americans through their first couple of visits with the unreached people group, which could number as few as 200 or as many as one million. The driving idea is that the willingness of the local church is the starter.
“They really can do it,” Smith said. “It’s not something that’s beyond their ability.
“It is a task that can be done by even smaller churches. It doesn’t have to be a big church. It has to be a church that becomes fully committed to the task, because it does require a commitment of people to go four to six times a year—not necessarily large teams. A couple of people would be sufficient in many cases.”
Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau are tropical rain forest countries where the people mostly practice African Traditional Religion. Senegal, Gambia and Mali are arid lands where Islam is more common. Cape Verde is an island nation with no missionary presence.
Northern Mali is a “very dangerous” location where a group of Americans walking in public would be a target, Smith said.
“There is some risk involved if you go to Mali in general,” he said. “It’s an affiliated group of Al Qaeda that’s active in Mali and Mauritania, and they really have made life difficult for foreigners.”
An unreached people group in Mali, the Soninke, consisting of 1.4 million, is Smith’s top priority. They are so large they spill over into Senegal and Gambia.
“It’s a huge people group, a very influential people group,” Smith said.
There are 60 known believers in this tribe with no one working with them at this time.