The Case for Diversity On Your Conference Stage
Recently 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.