The Conference Conundrum

Late last year I came across an article describing the lack of racial diversity among speakers at major evangelical conferences around the US.

Since I can be a pretty skeptical guy, let me get the limitations of this article out of the way:

  • The numbers are not serious research as they were determined simply by the author scanning names and photo’s of speakers at the various conferences. (I expect they should still be pretty close to accurate.)
  • The article’s bottom line that only 13% of conference speakers represent minorities is skewed by some conferences with many speakers but low minority involvement. In fact about one-quarter of the conferences listed have 20% or higher minority speakers.
  • The numbers do not reflect the percentage of “unique” speakers, either white or minority. It could be the same 5 black and Hispanic speakers at each conference!
  • Some of the organizations that host these conferences serve mostly white churches. The speakers reflect the target audience.
  • The evangelical movement is largely a white movement. As the article itself points out 81% of evangelicals are non-hispanic whites. Wouldn’t we expect their conferences to be largely white?
  • This is not just a white issue. The religious landscape is scattered with black denominations, hispanic workshops, etc.

Despite the limitations listed above I thought the article raised a valid point on whether these significant and influential events among evangelical church leadership should better reflect the goal of racial diversity.

In a similar analysis Mark DeYmaz concluded that based upon US population distribution at least 25% of conference speakers would be non-White. He’s not arguing for quotas or compromising the quality of speakers, just more awareness of this issue and the racial landscape of the United States.

I’ve never organized or hosted a major conference. All my reflection should be understood through that lens.

These major events that attract thousands of church leaders have an easily generalised goal of influencing the church to be more passionate and effective in carrying out the mission of God. In many ways these conferences seek to model what local churches can look like, and inspire them to move in certain directions.

If a conference rolls out white male after white male speaker, it implies that these white men are the keepers of God’s word for the church today. It discourages minorities from attending the conference as their social context and cultural perspective will not be represented. It further insulates the “white church” from the influence of other people groups and thus perpetuates the issue of segregation within the church.

I’m not at all blaming conferences for the segregation of the church. I am criticising these conferences for not leading the movement toward racially integrated churches. I see this as an opportunity missed.

Because I know some people will quickly point a finger at the various workshops and conferences catering to minority groups let me address that topic for a moment.

Some of those conferences need to exist to serve a particular language group. Some of those conferences exist because they function as identity preservation for a particular cultural group. (If there was a conference for “Australian church leaders working in the US”, I’d try to get there!) Some of these workshops allow issues specific to Asian-American immigrants to be addressed by those familiar with the issues.

I’m not trying to argue that all conferences should offer a melting pot of speakers and attendees.

However, even within the workshops that cater specifically to non-White populations it seems that many of the arguments for greater diversification still have some validity. I would hope that all church leaders across the racial spectrum agree that we can learn from each other.

If there isn’t room for racial diversity in our iconic events, then there’s unlikely to be room for this enrichment in our local congregations.

Thankfully, DeYmaz could also reflect, “With this in mind, we should be encouraged as trends are moving in a positive direction.

If you’re interested in multi-ethnic conferences here are a couple to consider:

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