so you want People of Color to attend Christian conferences?

Today, I feel like I am going to attempt to articulate the frustrations of a number of my friends, shared experiences that we have.  This post isn’t about me but something deeply troubling with institutional Christianity.

Recently, I had a white friend who attended a conference on Missional Christianity. From the looks of the promotions for the three day event, he was under the impression that it was going to be a diverse gathering. As a youth pastor who is working for a pre-dominantly racial minority church, my friend was hoping to become better equipped to minister to a diverse congregation and community. In the course of seeing and listening to the keynote speakers, my friend took a quick census of the attendees & speakers, and posted the results on Twitter, 99% white, 1% POC. 90% male, 10% female. Are these numbers really reflective of the Church located in the United State? Compared to the Church Universal found throughout six continents, do these numbers add up? Can we honestly say that conferences like these are truly about the future of Christianity? The backlash that my friend received was both hostile and utterly predictable. “Well, why don’t YOU DO a better job of inviting more POC and women?” or how about, “Are you trying to say that all the members of the entire planning committee are personally racist and sexist?”

A long time ago (precisely well over FOUR years ago), my good friend Drew Hart wrote about his experiences at a similar missional gathering. What brother Drew faced was what Austin Channing Brown calls a metaphysical dilemma. This is based on the fear of marginalized persons of feeling “devalued, unimportant, sidelined, monolithic, or invisible.” Will Persons of Color be able to stand out (as individuals)? Can we be made visible without any negative stereotypes hindering us? Why do justice conferences and missional gatherings persist in being focused, centered, and dominated by white persons and limit themselves to the interests of men? What did Jesus have to say about religion, and the building of brands and platforms?

In many instances, seminaries and other institutions for theological education have the same problems as these conferences. Due to the lack of diversity in the student body and faculty as well as support, Persons of Color in seminaries and bible schools are left to create their own resources and pressured to recruit more students of color on their own. This overwhelming burden placed upon POC by the institutions renders POC into further invisibility.  Having have been part of a campaign to make curriculum more cultural pluralistic, I know first hand that POC are always blamed for their own lack of resources. This “boot-straps” mentality manifests itself both in progressive and conservative institutions. Rugged Individualism, and the White Privilege defended by Christian institutions and conferences, are both unbiblical and break the law of Christ. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Racist practices unintentionally isolate POC individuals and communities, leaving POC to fend for themselves. But if we are supposed to be the Body of Christ, we are to choose the model of intercultural neighborly love over and against privileged, elitist notions of formation of Christian leadership.

Recently, I was both saddened and enraged when a close friend of mine told me yet another story of how a gathering of missional Christians had taken the time to reach out to him, and ask his advice about diversity issues. Yet when the time came to make final decisions, the meeting that was planned to be held is still going to happen in a white suburban area, safe from at-risk POC youth, and their issues. Is Missional Christianity showing itself to be another form of White flight, an escapism away from the joyous celebrations and oppressive realities of People of Color? Could this Emergent Christian movement (assuming it isn’t dead yet) be just another re-hashed version of a Post-Christendom Christian hegemony? I think that the label “Post-Christendom” itself is highly problematic. Exactly what type of Christendom are we referring to? There would have to be an assumption that the U.S. as a nation-state had practiced a some form of Christianity to begin with. Given the history of African enslavement and genocide that many good Christians are still in denial about, I believe that the belief of a US Christendom in the distant past needs to be called into question.

My friend who tried to help this Missional gathering deal with this issue was told that rather than have a conference reflect the Kingdom of God, the planning committee wanted to honor leaders who had brought the movement into being. In other words, the power players, the movers and shakers were to be given yet another opportunity for their platform. These approaches and practices are once more anti-Christ, and anti-Gospel. In Mark 10:42-43, “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” The Christian Conference Industry reads more like Corporate America and Wall Street, choosing the rulers and leaders who are already on top. Yet, Jesus said that greatness is defined not by the blogger with the largest platform and cleanest name-brand, but the woman or man who says, “NO!” to the world, and yes to humility and suffering servitude.

I think efforts to make Christian conferences and educational institutions more diverse are noble, however, we must get beyond diversity. There will be no such thing as a perfect seminary or a perfect conference , but the Emergent church should not allow worldly commitments prevent them from putting perfect love into practice. Missional Christians must work to intentionally co-create just spaces for people on the margins because that is where Jesus and His mission lied, with the least of these, the downtrodden, the despised ones.  This means actually listening to women and People of Color, valuing their input and their labor, sharing in the burdens of marginalized persons, and rejecting Thrones of Privilege(s).

0 thoughts on “so you want People of Color to attend Christian conferences?

  1. suzannah | the smitten word

    this is important, rod. i just got back from the festival of faith and writing, which i think did a particularly good job booking diverse speakers and sessions–international and first-generation american voices, women, people of color. on that front, their effort was noticeable and admirably set apart from other gatherings. attendees were still overwhelmingly white (even though calvin college itself is significantly more diverse than conference attendees). i know at least one black woman who said that the idea of being in a sea of white faces (again) was enough of a reason to choose to stay home.

    the conference itself was rather affordable (although obviously travel and housing make it prohibitive for many). beyond diversifying the planning committee and speaking rosters, what can a conference do to draw (or even incentivize) a more diverse group of attendees?

    Reply
  2. jasdye

    Amen, Rod!

    I wonder what has changed from the old churches that the Emerging church is becoming. While theologically more robust, in missing so much of the Kingdom in its representation and own body, it’s looking more and more to be falling in the same traps as old school White complementarian Evangelicalism.

    Reply
  3. HannahH

    Thanks for this, Rod. I especially appreciate you naming the fact that when we talk about “post-Christendom” like it’s some monolithic fact, we white people are again trying to own and sanitize a narrative that’s not ours to control. you’ve given me some things to ponder. thank you.

    Reply
  4. Richard

    Rod, I have to comment (before you protest I haven’t commented on your my little pony posts I did read them 😉 haha) but again I have to point out the other side of the story. You raise some good points but I think there are areas that need to be addressed. First, you don’t mention the theological disparity within racial groups. American black Christians tend to overwhelmingly be arminian and 59% of them attend “historically black Protestant churches.” So would you argue that to be effective you must hold conferences at black churches and that their interest in the gospel is related to the color of the speaker’s skin?

    I agree lower fees etc would help draw a more diverse crowd, but you’re not going to get a large arminian crowd to hear Piper, etc. that isn’t related to race. Youre not going to get charismatic folks to attend a speaker or group that is cessationist. Look how many denominational groups exist because people don’t want to attend the same church as those down the road because of one or two small differences. Conferences are no different.

    About 1% of the population is made up of American black Christians who attend non historically black churches, and thus 1% representation at a conference not hosted by a historically black church or group isn’t surprising from a purely numbers perspective.

    Instead of making conferences more diverse, which has the right intentions but wrong methods, we should simply preach the exact same gospel in different places. Jesus didn’t quibble over the diversity of the crowd, he spoke truth where he went. He wasn’t worried about the crowd but the message.

    Now, if the sole purpose of a conference is reaching minorities, then yes it makes sense to have the conference in a location appropriate for that purpose with speakers with intimate knowledge of the cultural barriers to the gospel.

    But the “let the nations be glad” message type conferences aren’t set up for that purpose.

    Reply
    1. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

      The problem of race is more than black & white, I used POC specifically. It’s not a numbers game, it’s about the Kingdom of God. And as far as arminian vs calvinism goes, well, there’s the problem right there. A little Eurocentric of a debate if you ask me. Which is why I got out years ago.

      Reply
  5. alyssa bacon-liu (@alyssabaconliu)

    I couldn’t agree more. When you mention lack of diversity in Christian conferences, even some of the seemingly progressive Christians get defensive and put the responsibility on the POC attending to somehow magically make it more diverse rather than the conference organizers. This happened with a prominent Christian conference last year. Grace Biskie spoke out against the lack of diversity and the comments section was filled with excuses, defensiveness, and hostility. People act like it’s really hard to find Christian POC or women to speak or lead at conferences. Honestly, besides the cost, it is one of the main reasons I am largely disinterested in attending Christian conferences.

    Reply
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  7. Richard

    Jasdye, I did read it. What in my reply do you feel isn’t representative of a disagreement with his post? I can better reply to a more specific question.
    1) I commented on the lack of diversity in conferences, he wrote about in the second paragraph with statistics provided by an attendee.
    2) also commented on was the insinuation that location of a conference or the skin color of the speaker makes a message more applicable to an American black Christian.
    Etc.

    My reply was to say it isn’t about diversity of the crowd (a line the author said it must go beyond as well) but also that the crowds that attend aren’t a result of white priveledge but primarily theological differences.

    Reply
    1. jasdye

      There is nothing within this post to indicate anything about Calvinism v Arminism. This is not a concern that is raised here as it’s not a concern among much of Christianity outside of White American Evangelicalism.

      Reply
  8. Richard

    Alyssa, theologically it is harder to get women speakers…many denominations have prohibitions on what women can do in such capacities…but passion (which I don’t attend) has both women and minority speakers.

    Reply
    1. alyssa bacon-liu (@alyssabaconliu)

      Richard, unfortunately I know that’s the case. But even based on your comment, it’s not hard to FIND women speakers/leaders, it’s just hard for other people to accept them. Considering that women make up (more than?) half the country, it’s not due to a woman shortage.

      Anyways, I’m not involved in/interested in denominations/conferences that discriminate based on gender. I’m more talking about conferences that are not specifically tied to a denomination. From what I see in my Twittersphere/Blogland, most Christian-related conferences tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. Even if there are women’s conferences, they tend to be overwhelmingly white. So for a WOC, it is not a big motivator for me to attend a conference supposedly for “Christians” when it in fact typically serves only a specific demographic of Christians.

      Reply
  9. Richard

    Rod, will try after work.

    Jas, as you suggested to me, I’d ask you to reread my concerns. I was pointing out that lack of attendance is more of a result of theological differences (ie Arminianism) as opposed to race. A Creflo Dollar congregation member is much less likely to attend Sprouls church based on things other than race and diversity. Thus my other points.

    Reply
    1. jasdye

      So black Christians are represented by Creflo Dollar?

      I’m arguing that you are dealing with a very different world and has not much to do with what we’re referencing here. But then, it’s doctrine-focused, which again has little to do with this post. I’m just not understanding why this post has anything to do with fundamentalist conferences and fundamentalist framings.

      Reply
  10. Morgan Guyton

    What was helpful to me about this is thinking through the “invisible” systemic racism involved in factors like location and pricing for conferences. I think white people are often thinking strictly according to logistics in booking facilities that are going to be spacious and convenient and thus suburban and white. What would it look like to have a conference in a space where there weren’t large LCD screens in the rooms or outlets for everyone to plug on their laptops because it was in a space that was deliberately racially and socioeconomically diverse. So many blind spots! Thanks for this.

    Reply
  11. Richard

    Rod, paragraphs 2,3,4,6 and 7 discussed conferences. So you can see how one might respond to your points about conferences.

    Morgan, is it your contention there are no poor white Christians? That the location and price solely affects poor Christians of minority races? Is it equally racist in your mind when conferences don’t have enough poor white attendees? Do you think the locations were racist because they didn’t include enough poor white Christians? I mean, honestly, everything isn’t racist. There are other factors.

    Reply
  12. Richard

    Your title also indicated conferences…titles are important labels.

    Of course it’s not just simply a matter of theological difference, nor is it matter of systematic racism. It’s a heck of a lot more complex. But theological difference is more of an issue than race. Poor whites are equally disadvantaged in conference attendance as poor minorities. I’m sure poor, small, predominantly white church pastors are equally underrepresented as conference speakers. That’s not any more racist than the alternative.

    Reply
    1. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

      Going by content in the post:

      “Recently, I had a white friend who attended a conference on Missional Christianity.”

      “Is Missional Christianity showing itself to be another form of White flight, an escapism away from the joyous celebrations and oppressive realities of People of Color? Could this Emergent Christian movement (assuming it isn’t dead yet) be just another re-hashed version of a Post-Christendom Christian hegemony. I think that the label “Post-Christendom” itself is highly problematic”

      “There will be no such thing as a perfect seminary or a perfect conference , but the Emergent church should not allow worldly commitments prevent them from putting perfect love into practice. Missional Christians must work to intentionally co-create just spaces for people on the margins because that is where Jesus and His mission lied, with the least of these, the downtrodden, the despised ones.”

      It’s obvious that I am intentionally referring to Missional/Emergent communities, no evangelicalism involved.

      And once again with the derailing, as if poor whites don’t have privilege because of their race or ethnicity. Disingenuous invocation if you ask me honestly.

      Reply
      1. Lane MillerLane

        Without diving into the many issues touched on by this conversation, I just want to note that distinguishing between “missional/emergent” communities and “evangelicalism” strikes me as a bit odd. Evangelicalism stretches the breadth of US Christianity. There is nearly no US denomination untouched by its influence. Moreover, missional theology proper was developed as a response to the sending missionary model which existed in both Protestant and Evangelical circles. It can not help but address both traditions.

        My own opinion, though no one asked for it, is basically that of SoongChan Rah. Missional theology is white theology. I can not comment on African American communities, but communities of color that are recent immigrants to the US typically show very little interest in its agenda. Why? It is surely complex, but I suspect it is in part because missional theology addresses a problem in western (maybe male) Christianity (that is the historic sending mission model). Whether it will “flee” from what it seeks to engage (its immediate contexts of injustice for one) is an excellent question. But it does not surprise me in the least that its conferences are white. If it wants to do theology with its context it should probably stop having conferences altogether. They are by their very nature rather out of context (unless you spend all your time in white suburbs. Wait a minute…)

        Does missional theology have a race problem (loaded and generalizing question I recognize)? Yes. Should we be surprised? No. How can we get past it? Good question. Alan Kreider has argued that worship and mission are two sides of the same coin (Herald, 2011). Without making a syllogism out of that and the ideas presented so far, I suggest the best way toward moving past the “race problem” in “missional” communities is to worship together as a broader (racio-culturally diverse–yes I made the term up but it is often about more than one) ecumenical body. If that is too hard, then pastors of different churches could start by having breakfast together (who bears the onus for initiation bears reflection). But all in all there is way too much theorizing about race (especially among white folk) and too little relationship across the boundaries expounded by the race dialogue. White people (and everybody else I suspect) will find that they learn more from sitting next to each other than from conference presenters. That practice takes more attention to the Spirit than the pneumatologically deficient western traditions are used to, but here’s to growing edges. (Are African American traditions counted as western? What about Korean fundamentalist Presbyterians that look much like US fundamentalist Presbyterians? We really must define “western” sometime. All to say that the pneuma struggles of much of the west are not shared by all. c.f. Barth of all people).

        Anyway, what do I know. I’m just an Anabaptist pushing embodied practices (caveat, conferences sorta count, but maybe just in WCC contexts, and sometimes.

        Reply
  13. Richard

    I think a majority of what is labeled as privilege is hogwash. Not all but most (ie that quiz)

    If you’re saying that you believe the content of your post solely applies to the emergent movement then fine. Your title didn’t indicate that. Your first paragraph indeed expands the scope to all “institutional” Christianity, which I assume you don’t limit to the emergent movement.

    So if you believe your comments solely apply to the emergent movement then I’ll stand corrected.

    But it comes after another post falsely attacking an evangelical ministry for essentially the same issues. So my reply engulfs the spectrum covered by the theme of the articles not just the example cited.

    Reply
    1. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

      “But it comes after another post falsely attacking an evangelical ministry for essentially the same issues. So my reply engulfs the spectrum covered by the theme of the articles not just the example cited.”

      Surprise surprise, and now the real beef is revealed. So shocked that you’re still upset I allowed (and stand by) the stories of CRU. I stand by them, they were affirmed by other separate sources before I posted. They were affirmed on Twitter after it posted. You can continue gaslighting the stories and experiences of POC. I’ll just continue writing the hard truths people don’t like to hear/read.

      “If you’re saying that you believe the content of your post solely applies to the emergent movement then fine. Your title didn’t indicate that. Your first paragraph indeed expands the scope to all “institutional” Christianity, which I assume you don’t limit to the emergent movement.”

      I gave you paragraph-long evidence my target was the emergent church. I AM SOOOOOOO SORRY MY CHRISTIANITY DOES NOT HAVE WHITE EVANGELICALISM AT THE CENTER. Accept my dearest, deepest, sincerest apologies, kay? Cool!

      Yes, I critique progressives, liberals, and conservatives on here, on twitter, on tumblr, and on facebook. That’s what I do. I have a mission. And I am working to accomplish it.

      “I think a majority of what is labeled as privilege is hogwash. Not all but most (ie that quiz)”

      AIN’T THAT SOMETHIN’!!!!!???? A facebook quiz from Buzzfeed or whatever fails to prove what privilege is and therefore you continue to believe privilege talk is hogwash. Here’s a secret you may not know about me (unless you have read my other posts): All privilege talk is for profit. I prefer the language of “Supremacy Narratives” and critique accordingly.

      Alright, Richard, I have had fun. God bless, and thank you for your feedback!

      Reply
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