The Case for Diversity On Your Conference Stage

storylineRecently there was a brouhaha on social media about the most recent Christian conference to feature an all-white speaker lineup. Laura Turner addressed this latest incident in her Religion News Service post, and other prominent Christian media figures such as Jonathan Merritt have also raised the issue before. But clearly, plenty of Christian leaders still fail to understand the importance of this ongoing problem.

This most recent conference featured the tagline “World Renowned Speakers That Will Help You See Life Differently.” But how would such a lineup do so if it is essentially a homogeneous group? If the goal is to help attendees see their lives differently, then would it not make sense to actually invite people whose experiences naturally reflect perspectives and life journeys different from most of those in the audience?

I’m not going to rehash the well-tread idea that Christian conferences should be more diverse because God is clearly a God who celebrates and mandates diversity. I think most Christians already know that. The Christian leaders who plan and run conferences can surely describe John’s vision in Revelation 7 of the church reflecting every tribe, tongue and nation. The problem is not that Christian leaders are ignorant of multiethnicity as God’s ultimate vision for the church. The problem is that many dominant-culture Christian leaders 1) absolve themselves of any responsibility of fulfilling this vision and 2) lack the ability to see the ramifications of omitting brothers and sisters of color because they have never ventured to the margins of the church themselves, relationally or experientially.

Maybe conference planners of these non-diverse events are thinking, “Well, these speakers we’ve invited are the people who have something to teach us all. They are the ones who sell books and whose names are known.” It’s a market-driven, not mission-driven perspective. So here are some market realities to consider: as an Asian American evangelical woman, my whole Christian life has been a cross-cultural experience. So attending events and conferences that feature  primarily- or all-white (or all-male) speakers only reinforces what I already know about the dominant culture. And I am not drawn to those gatherings. Nor are the increasing number of Christians of color in this country. (Are you watching demographic trends in America?) Nor are the (thankfully) growing number of white Christians who understand God’s call to reconciliation.

If you are a dominant culture leader, how much do you know about what it means to live as a person of color or a minority of any kind in the church? How much do you understand what it’s like to experience Christian culture from the vantage point of a person of color? How familiar are you with the gifts and blessings that people from different cultural experiences can offer the body of Christ? The reality is that those in the dominant culture need voices from the margins way more than people of color need to experience voices from the majority culture, because we already do, all the time. I know this sounds arrogant, but it’s not intended to be so. It’s just the way it is.

So if you are leading a conference or organization that does not consistently pursue diversity in your events and even amongst your leadership, you are shirking a crucial piece of your responsibility as a Christian leader. You are withholding a taste of the full glory of God from those who you are leading and instead presenting a truncated perspective of reality, a false gospel that runs so counter to the vision of Revelation 7 that it screams inauthenticity and privilege to those who have the eyes to see it.

And then there is the issue of what these homogeneous events are communicating to those in the minority. Whenever people of color see a Christian conference demonstrating a complete lack of awareness or willingness to present a full picture of God’s kingdom, we hear the following messages: You are not welcome here. Your perspective is not needed here. Your voice is not one we want to hear. You don’t belong to our tribe. Then, if any of us who were excluded choose to challenge the homogeneity of these events, we are criticized or accused of doing so out of spite or pettiness or political correctness. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We are doing so because we understand what is missing and what we can contribute, and we are taking steps of vulnerability to offer those gifts to our brothers and sisters in Christ (knowing full well those gifts may be rejected). But we believe in the church’s incredible potential to be a reconciled body, a witness to the world around us of the bridge-building power of the gospel. We challenge the church’s status quo for the sake of the gospel, not for our own sakes.

What will it take for this longstanding pattern of exclusion to finally start dissipating? I have long given up the hope of expecting cultural epiphanies to overtake Christian conference leaders en masse overnight. Change rarely happens unless a person in the dominant culture has their own road-to-Damascus experience in which their blinders of privilege and power finally fall off. In the meantime, however, there are ways you can help further the process of change, no matter how slowly it may come:

1) If you are in the dominant culture and you understand these issues, use your position and platform to voice your perspective on behalf of those on the margins. If you are a dominant culture speaker, then find out more about the event you’re being asked to speak at and make your agreement contingent on seeing diversity on the main stage (h/t D.L. Mayfield). Take the radical step of even foregoing some of your main stage time to give it to a person of color whose voice you believe in that needs to be heard. And if you are a potential conference attendee and you see homogeneity in the pre-event promo materials, raise the issue with the organizers. Express your unwillingness to attend unless the makeup of the speaker lineup changes. If enough people begin to do so, then organizers who haven’t been willing to acknowledge the issue might finally recognize that diversity matters.

2) If you are a conference organizer or an organizational leader and you want to try making strides in this area, don’t throw the recruitment of people of color onto the end of your event planning as an add-on (and certainly don’t just put all the people of color together on one workshop/panel or showcase them for a minimal time or in marginal roles on the main stage and think that is sufficient). Start early and get to know who you are inviting to build mutual trust and acceptance. Go the extra mile to find #speakersofcolor who you may never have known before–there are SO many in the church if you are willing to look just a little beyond your existing networks. If you claim that you tried to invite people of color to speak and they all refused, then you did not try hard enough. There are too many brilliant and gifted voices of color out there for this claim to be the slightest bit plausible.

Market and promote all your speakers equally, both before and at your events, and not just those who you may be tempted to give “top billing” due to their platform or name-recognition. And if your boards and leadership teams remain homogeneous, then your progress will only go so far. You need to be willing to share or even give up power to those on the margins to make true progress in the area of affirming diversity in your organizations and events. Find those voices of color who will not be afraid to challenge and stretch your organizations–don’t just settle for the appearance of multiethnicity.

3) If you are in the minority culture, don’t shy away from events that seem to skew largely white. You may have to be the lone pioneer for some time before others will join you, but reconciliation cannot happen if we don’t continue to inhabit those spaces and places. If you are asked to be a speaker, use the opportunity to probe further about the organizations that are inviting you–do they have diversity represented on their boards and leadership teams? What portion of the main stage speakers will be people of color, or are you going to be the only one? But even if you are being asked out of tokenism, you can help educate and instruct that organization in matters of race and reconciliation. Take risks to speak out in love about what you observe and see, even if the news is difficult to deliver. You might not get invited back, but you will have planted seeds of multiethnic understanding that will hopefully bloom and grow over time.

There are a number of Christian organizations who are already doing this well and their conferences reflect this competency and commitment–InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Evangelical Covenant Church (full disclosure–IVCF is my employer and the ECC is my denomination!), Christian Community Development Association, and Missio Alliance, just to name a few. But far too many Christian conference attendees experience a unichrome version of God’s kingdom that falls so far short of God’s ideal. Sure, at the end of time we’ll all experience God’s beautifully diverse kingdom. But what a shame it would be to wait that long if we can have a taste of it here and now.

51 Comments on “The Case for Diversity On Your Conference Stage

  1. Thanks for helping to make people like me more aware of this problem. I’m much more sensitive to check a lineup for women than specifically for persons of color. I’m grateful for voices like yours that push me to think outside my own demographic.

    • Grateful for your sharing and commenting, Aleah! We need more people who think like you. =) We can all learn from one another!

  2. Thanks for this article, Helen. I sat there feeling like SOMETHING HAS TO CHANGE. I was also shocked that the two women who spoke (in the main sessions) had such a dramatically shorter time frame than the men.

    • Oh Aubrey, that is doubly disappointing to hear, then. I hope the conference organizers hear some of these critiques and make changes in the future! Appreciate your input and sharing my post!

  3. Thank you, so much for this. I’m sharing. Thank you for calling all of us — no matter our race or gender — to remember how the gospel makes a difference, even on the stage.

  4. Great stuff, Helen! I’m not at all surprised that that particular conference has all-white speakers. I’m grateful that some other Christian conferences are trying to do better.

    My question is about your 3rd point, which is to people of color. At what point do you think a boycott is a faithful response to the blatant disregard for diversity at some Christian conferences?

    • What a great question, Christena. If we are talking about asking attendees of color to boycott, I don’t know of many examples that actually has resulted in change. We are talking about blind spots and heart issues; I don’t know that a Christian leader who doesn’t get it will experience an epiphany from a boycott. And if there weren’t many people of color in attendance to begin with, it won’t make an impact on that organization to boycott. I think that speaking directly with conference organizers is a good first step to see how they respond, and then building on that conversation to move to a relationship of trust in which leaders will be able to hear the critique is potentially more effective–although certainly very time-intensive and slow.

      But if we are talking about boycotting events as a speaker of color, I think we need discernment to know when it’s worth continuing to beat our heads against that wall–are we making cracks that will help bring down walls of ignorance? Are there individual leaders in the organization who can help initiate change? Or is it time to shake the dust off our feet and move on? I believe in the redemptive power of the Spirit to change hearts and minds. But there are times when we are called to let it go. If we have articulated our concerns and they are consistent ignored, we should feel the freedom to move on (or “boycott” our presence.) We aren’t called to fight every battle and it’s exhausting to do so.

  5. Thank you for this, Helen. I will add that until Conference planners and attendees are used to seeing diverse people in their daily lives, the dominant culture will not start to notice how strange these all white, all male Conferences are. Thank you for your very necessary and grace filled words.

    • YES, Catherine. Agreed! You don’t know what you don’t know, right? For those who live homogeneous lives, they may not even have awareness of what they are missing. Definitely part of the problem. Hope you are well and look forward to your book! =)

  6. Thank you, Helen. Well stated! You have described clearly a reality many of us live with and have lived with for many years. Still so many remain persistently clueless about this reality. Keep up the good work. I was introduced to your work by some friends we share. I would like to meet you some day to share stories and visions.

    • Steve, it would be a pleasure to meet! I appreciated your contributions to Tod Bolsinger’s book. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. Thank you for blogging about this important topic! As an Asian-American doing mission work in Canada, I see first hand how Christianity has turned into “how can we be more like them” instead of “how can we be more like Christ”. When a people group is unable to identify with fellow Christians due to their color, the focus slowly and unintentionally moves away from Jesus Christ. Awareness is the key… thank you again for speaking out!

    • I think the Canadians are much better at this than we Americans are. (I’m married to a Korean-Canadian, so I have some perspective on this!) We have much more baggage here and bigger blind spots for certain! And yes–it’s ultimately an issue of the integrity of the gospel. Thank you for your comment!

  8. Some good things to consider here for the present future of Christianity in America. I’ve leaned into the insight I found in the Andy Crouch book, Culture Making, that to change culture you have to create new culture. Hard to change something that exists. Easier to create something new that embodies more of the Kingdom values described in this blog post, and in the Bible.

    • Yes, I love Andy’s perspective. But sometimes it’s not practical to create something new and you have to work with what you’ve got. There has to be both, right? Both creating new culture and also helping to transform that which already exists. I think we can do both because I believe there is still much hope for existing organizations and events that are just beginning to be on this learning curve.

  9. Thank you for this Helen. It is so disconcerting to keep seeing this; not only white males but also always “beautiful people” – well coiffed, put together, upper middle class folk. What do we miscommunicatr about Christ followers to this next generation through these pretty people.

    • Don, thank you for your input. Yes, we have a tendency in Christian culture to celebrate certain folks, right? We need to keep reminding ourselves as a church that our values and metrics must be different. A good word for us in publishing too, right? =) Thanks for stopping by!

  10. I’m writing this from a Christian conference where I’m in a cohort of ten pastors (all White males, like me) with ten volunteers from their churches, again all White except for the Latina sister from our church. I couldn’t help but ask the question in one of our breakouts, “So is our denomination allowed to bring non-White people to events like this?” Awkward silence, a little chuckling, end of conversation.

    Praying for my own heart and for the church to grow in reflecting God’s heart for all.

    • Appreciate you, Bill! Thanks for raising the question–not easy, uncomfortable indeed, but what a blessing it is when folks in the dominant culture do so! Grateful for you. =)

  11. Helen, I really appreciate your post. I was seeing some of the Twitter comments on this most recent conference line-up but didn’t engage as an onlooker from Canada and outside of US evangelical circles. But beyond any one particular conference, the issues raised are here too and for the broader church. Thank you for your articulation and challenge. I’m sharing this.

    • Thanks, April! Grateful for your taking the time to comment and offer your encouragement! Much appreciated. =)

  12. I Love this! As an African American woman in a prodominately white church, this has long been my outcry. After 25 years, we ha our 1st African American preached speak from the pulpit and after 35 years our church is now being intentional about having the conversation in order to change things. What a great article!!!

    • Kathy, change takes time, doesn’t it? But it’s so encouraging to hear your story that change is happening in your church. It can happen with intentionality and purpose. So glad you stopped by to share!

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  14. Thank you for the post.

    Canadians may lack the polarized conversation surrounding race, yet we till organize ourselves almost exclusively along ethnic lines. We are complicit in the very things you’re bringing to light which unfortunately only deepens the divide.

  15. Thanks for being a strong voice even if you may sometimes feel unheard. As one of a dominant culture I am grateful for every reminder. I think many of us would stand with you but we just don’t think of it ourselves. Keep shouting til it becomes our own second nature. I hear you and in my very small corner I will stand with you.

    • Every stand in solidarity helps the church become more unified and reconciled. Thank you, Beverley. Appreciate hearing from those in the dominant culture who get it. So encouraging!

  16. “It’s a market-driven, not mission-driven perspective.” Do you know that the Storyline folks feel this way?

    “The problem is that many dominant-culture Christian leaders 1) absolve themselves of any responsibility of fulfilling this vision and 2) lack the ability to see how much they are missing out by omitting the contributions of their brothers and sisters on the margins because they have never ventured to those margins themselves, relationally or experientially.” Could you please give two examples of the Christian leaders you are speaking of?

    Specifically, which leaders with a more diverse perspective would you like to see at this conference in the future?

    • Hi Amy, my post was not specifically directed to the Storyline organizers but more a commentary on what I see in Christian culture more broadly. As to whether I will be calling out Christian leaders specifically, no, I don’t want to do so. I have chosen to reach out to people directly to have these conversations privately and don’t see the need to reveal the nature of those conversations. Diverse leaders to have invited to Storyline as speakers? I can think of so many just in the Chicagoland area alone. Next time if the organizers want names, I will gladly provide them with a list. I have never called Storyline a “racist” event as you mention in your comment below. But their choice to tell a particular kind of story through their programming demonstrates a limited view of the body of Christ. It is certainly their prerogative and choice to do so. But how much more enriching an experience it could be for the attendees to hear from a broader spectrum of speakers.

  17. I just walked by the Storyline Conference on my way to volunteer in the Care Center. I stopped to speak with a young African-American male who was at the in-take desk. He told me that he had heard about the racist comments on social media and that he and the rest of the Storyline team were most concerned with God’s message they were portraying. He said none of the Storyline team was racist and that he personally knew each speaker, none of whom he felt was racist.

  18. While I appreciate the focus on obvious external diversity, I urge conferences to move towards true diversity. Unfortunately today, most people look to diversity in skin color or ethnic origins but not in true background and perspective. I am Black and part of a large vibrant Christian tradition among churches and denominations that are predominantly Black. When I see Black participation among the speakers at a conference, they are almost never from an indigenous Black organization or church. In fact, I describe the pool from which these speakers are drawn as, the Black Auxiliary of the White Evangelical Church. Often these people have Black skins but have culturally assimilated. They are not bad people but they are not really diverse voices. Go for real diversity.

    • Thought-provoking point and yes, organizations sometimes opt for the “safe” voices who give the impression of diversity, or more often than not, they might not have the discernment to know the difference. Sometimes progress comes through baby steps. That’s why we have to keep having the conversations and continuing to help shed light on what is happening in this area. Really appreciate your input!

  19. Helen,

    I’ve been thinking about this so much lately and the issues of diversity in the church is like one of the big elephants in the room to me! I’ve been wanting to write a blog about it but I just didn’t feel like I had the words. I’m so glad you wrote this!!!!
    Visiting from,
    http://www.makemegoodground.wordpress.com

    • Thankfully, more and more we are starting to see a willingness in the church to recognize and engage with this issue. I’m glad what I wrote resonated with you! Very encouraging to read. =)

  20. Thanks for this. It made my Sunday. Because our community is so reticent to check itself, conversations like this don’t happen. People think pointing out a lack of diversity is akin to calling someone racist. They don’t realize that the opposite is true. If I thought someone was a racist, I wouldn’t bother pointing out the lack of diversity. I’d assume it was intentional. And “We asked but nobody said yes” is, at best, admitting to laziness. I appreciate Pastor Bryan Loritts’ Kainos Movement ( http://kainos.is/ ), which is focused on helping churches and organizations walk out a commitment to diversity. Thanks again for this post. Spot on!

    • Right–I think there are still people who think that by calling out the church when it fails to live up to its potential in this area, we are jumping right to a judgment of racism. Nowhere in this post did I do so, and I appreciate that you saw that so clearly! I will check out Bryan Loritts’s organization–thanks for the heads-up!

  21. As a “colorless person” (this is another topic for you to consider in the future … I think it is good to avoid terminology that effectively sets “white people” off by themselves as if they alone do not have ethnicity or color), let me say I agree with you and had begun this year to actively turn down speaking engagements in which I felt there was too little racial diversity. This has meant that I basically haven’t had very many speaking gigs at all, which is not an unwelcome reality. This is a good word that needs to be pushed out more. I will use my platform to do so. Blessings!

    • Cody, thanks for your comment. Actually, I think the word “white” does imply color–absolutely, I agree that all dominant culture folks have ethnicity and culture just as people of color do. But let’s not quibble about semantics–I think we agree on more than we disagree! I think it’s amazing that you have made the choice to turn down engagements when there isn’t enough diversity represented. How have the organizers responded to your critique? When people like you are willing to use your voice to support those voices on the margins it is such a huge help to the cause and ultimately to the furtherance of the gospel. Blessings to you and may you continue to have opportunities to share your message (and challenge conferences/organizations as needed!)

  22. Pleased to see a comment on the subject of sex (that the women at the conference had a much shorter time on stage than the men), in addition to the comments on race. Last week I wrote an expose on Donald Miller, I’ve been tracking him for a few years now. Midway in my article I address the subject of sex and immediately after that I address the subject of race relating to Donald Miller. I am a member of Willow Creek, so Donald’s connections to my church are of particular interest to me. I offer my article for the sole purpose of adding more data to the pool of information and conversation for the subjects at hand. https://esmartinonline.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/the-problem-of-donald-miller-at-willow-creek/

  23. There are a number of problems with this piece. Helen asserts that as a homogeneous group, white speakers have little to offer attendees of other races since they have the same or similar “perspective and life journey.” Identity is essentially boiled down to race, and whites are pretty much the same. I’m sorry, but that is simplistic and insulting. Diversity extends to socio-economic background, place of origin, family dynamics, values and ethics, education, etc. Do black, Asian and Hispanic speakers have the same perspective and life journey as others of their race? Why should whites? What rubbish!

    And even worse, Helen considers conference organizers who do not pay enough attention to racial diversity to be guilty of “a false gospel.” Wow. Apart from the massive theological over-reach, this quickly devolves into quotas and tokenism.

    The irony is that I actually agree with a lot of what Helen has to say here. However well intended, I think her carelessness obscures her point here.

    • lFair critiques, Andy. I will do my best to address them although I don’t know that my responses will satisfy. As to your first point, I’m not saying that white speakers have little to offer attendees of other races. I’m saying that all attendees can benefit from hearing from a broader range of speakers. The issue is one of imbalance. Wouldn’t you agree that a racially diverse slate of speakers can offer conference attendees a broader range of perspectives and life experiences? That was the gist of my point.

      As to the second point, I firmly believe in our call as the body of Christ to the ministry of reconciliation. I stand by my assertion that when the church (or a particular conference) fails to demonstrate this, the integrity of the gospel is at stake. You may not agree, but then I’d want for you to explain to me what IS communicated to the world when our conferences and other public expressions remain homogeneous. Not to mention what is communicated to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ of color.

      I do appreciate your pushback even though we may still not ultimately agree on these points.

  24. Helen, I’m linking to this post on my blog tomorrow. I’m writing as one who fits your first point, about an experience that goes to your second point. I am also married to someone who fits your third point, and she is an experienced teacher of God’s word as well.

    Thanks for speaking out in a way that invites solutions and advances the kingdom.

  25. Thanks for the response Helen. To your first point, in your second paragraph you said far more than that white attendees could benefit from diverse speakers (I would agree with that). You questioned whether it was even possible for whites to learn how to “see life differently” from other whites. You said that the experience and life journey of whites is essentially homogeneous. I repeat, that is simplistic and insulting, and draws on the same racial stereotyping that gets these discussions off base from the start. Instead of my being sympathetic with your overall point, as a reader now I am on my guard.

    Second, I disagree that a homogeneous (all white, all black, or whatever) conference (or worship service, or small group) presents a false gospel. Yes, it would be powerful if it were more racially diverse and reflective of the population, but I think you are over-reaching here to emphasize your point. I find the self-conscious racial diversity of some organizations to be patronizing and reminiscent of quotas.

    All the same, I long for true reconciliation like you do. I have found very few of my non-white sisters and brothers even willing to have the conversation without it degenerating into the assignation of white guilt. Can’t we do better than that?

  26. Thanks for this Helen. As one who has been involved in many InterVarsity and Lausanne events over the years, including Urbana and Cape Town 2010, I can say that diversity is a common conversation that comes up frequently in planning sessions for these groups. While they aren’t perfect, they definitely make a great effort. Signed, a token Black speaker.

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