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).