Robert Fortenberry:
A Heart for God, A Man on a Mission

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Matthew 28:19-20

by Brent Johnston

A native of Moss Point, Mississippi, Robert Fortenberry, newly-appointed Missions Deployment Director at First Baptist Jackson, is a man after God’s own heart. If you ask Robert about his IMB missionary service in Botswana with his wife, Margaret, Robert will quickly point out that it is by God’s grace alone that he was able to serve as a church planter and developer in a landlocked country in Southern Africa over 8,500 miles from his Mississippi birthplace. As part of his current missional role at First Baptist Jackson, Robert, along with Margaret, recently returned to Botswana on an exploratory trip to the village of Ghanzi.

During his early years, Robert’s family moved from the Magnolia State to Alabama and later Georgia. When Robert returned to Mississippi with his family in 1973, he attended Callaway High School and then completed his undergraduate degree at Mississippi College in 1980. With a clear call to ministry on his life, Fortenberry followed the Lord’s path to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received a Master of Divinity.

Robert’s wife, Margaret, hails from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Her parents were missionaries and were appointed by the Foreign Mission Board shortly after Margaret’s birth. Her family soon moved to the African country of Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) where Margaret grew up and received her elementary and high school education. After moving back to the States for her undergraduate studies, she attended Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. While earning her Master of Religious Education at Southwestern Seminary, she met Robert, whom she would later marry. Following their seminary studies, Robert served as the pastor of two churches in South Mississippi for nine years before he and Margaret were appointed by the IMB (formerly FMB) in 1993.

The next twenty-two years were spent as IMB missionaries on the ground in Botswana. In early 2016, Robert and Margaret returned to Mississippi through the Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI) program offered by the IMB. Together they founded a teaching and training ministry, Foundations of Discipleship, to train churches in effective discipleship strategies and tools. This training includes small group disciple-making seminars and prayer strategies.

Robert states, “We have changed the continent on which we live, but our call has not ended. The same desire to make disciples who know how to make disciples is still there. We do look forward to the chance to train, equip, and deploy the multiple teams that First Baptist Jackson will be sending out. These teams represent a unique opportunity to touch lives and make disciples of Jesus all over the globe.”

Under the leadership of Lee Thigpen and Robert Fortenberry, First Baptist Jackson sent a survey team to Botswana to the large village of Ghanzi in August 2018. The focus of the team, which included Margaret, was to explore mission opportunities, meet with a local pastor, and connect with the Naro San Bushmen people group, which generally falls on the lower end of the social spectrum in Botswana. They are under-engaged in their exposure to the Gospel and have often been overlooked by missions strategists. Some of the contacts in the Naro San village had been developed during the time Robert and Margaret were serving as IMB missionaries in Botswana. Others were only developed on the recent trip, an obvious answer to the prayer which saturated the team’s efforts.

“A survey trip and a vision trip like the one Lee and I led is a different kind of project than when you go to do a project alongside an established ministry, such as the one in which the recent First Baptist Church team participated in Zambia,” explains Robert.

When examining a new region or people group for mission work, there are four areas of exploration.

    1) Logistical Realities: As an example, how does the mission team get to the area and get back in terms of time and travel?
    2) Cultural Realities: What are the things one needs to know about the particular culture that may be points of identification in sharing the Gospel and making disciples?
    3) Ministry Realities: Are there people with whom we can partner or are we starting from scratch? What kind of ministry tools will we need?
    4) Spiritual Realities: What is the people group’s receptiveness to the Gospel? What kinds of spiritual forces will we encounter there?

In 1992, a Dutch pastor and his wife began ministry to the Naro San people group and helped develop their language into written form. The Naro had clicks and other sounds which do not have any representation in the English language so they had to find a way to express that on paper and then use those newly-created symbols to write down the language. Most of the people in the village were illiterate so they then had to be taught to read their language, a process that is still ongoing today.

The First Baptist Jackson team met a strong believer and pastor in his early thirties named Kefense among the Naro San who is leading a church group of about 40 Naro believers in one of their villages. As the First Baptist Jackson team sat around a campfire getting to know Kefense, he shared the amazing story of how he came to know Christ. Kefense also communicated to the First Baptist Jackson group that traditionally the Bushmen, including the Naro, hold to their traditions and resist outside religious influences very strongly.

In the past, the Naro have not been willing to lay aside their ancestral traditions. The Naro San’s worldview and spiritual belief systems are rooted in their own brand of spiritism, and is experienced through dreams, trances and dances. Robert was encouraged to hear Kefense tell the group from First Baptist Jackson that there is now an increasing openness to individuals making real commitments to Christ among the Naro. Kefense has a desire to reach out to other villages and tribal groups in the area.

Just before departing the campfire around which Kefense and the First Baptist Jackson team had sat as they talked, Robert asked Kefense how the mission team could specifically pray for him and the work God is doing among the Naro. Kefense’s first prayer request was, “There has never been a missionary going out from the Naro people as far as I know. We have always been a receiving group. I want to see a missionary go out from the Naro to take the Gospel to other groups.” The First Baptist Jackson team prayed for Kefense before Robert took him back to his home, voicing this request as their priority, as well as for a number of other needs among the Naro and Kefense’s congregration.

Robert elaborates, “The Naro are a people group who have historically been pretty much disenfranchised socially and economically, yet rather than asking for a prayer request for himself, Kefense was asking that his Naro people gain a vision for the Great Commission so that they could go into other villages and reach new people with the gospel. The purity of heart that came through that particular prayer request was quite striking to our team.”

As a leader of the Botswana mission team, Lee Thigpen says, “This people group has now had the Bible translated into their language. Their language was not even in written form until twenty-five years ago.”

Robert indicates that the next steps in Botswana are not only to maintain contact with some non-believers among the Naro San bushmen, but also to stay in touch with the folks on the ground who are translating and with other believers in the area involved in ministry among the people group. In particular the goal is to pray and encourage Kefense and to seek the Lord about possible openings into the Naro community in order to determine if these are viable ministry partners for the future.

Corrie Ten Boom once said, “The measure of a life, after all, is not its duration, but its donation.” One thing is clear. The donation of Robert and Margaret Fortenberry has been a significant one in spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth and making disciples.

And, as the story began, Robert Fortenberry was born in Moss Point, Mississippi, a riverfront fishing town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As Robert continues his faith journey as Missions Deployment Director at First Baptist Jackson, this man on a mission is truly a fisher of men.

And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.

Matthew 4:19-20