Some say Christian conferences are white-dominated events. RNS' Jonathan Merritt crunches the numbers. (Image courtesy of Latteda - http://bit.ly/I50VLk)

Some say Christian conferences are white-dominated events. RNS’ Jonathan Merritt crunches the numbers. (Image courtesy of Latteda – http://bit.ly/I50VLk)

This week, I published a column here at RNS asking “Are Christian conferences sexist?” in which I surveyed the proportion of female speakers at some of the major gatherings of importance to evangelical Christians. It unexpectedly set off ripples of emotion across social media and the internet.

Some were angered that I would even insinuate such a thing about a community in which many are theologically committed to male leadership. Others were relieved that someone had the courage to report the numbers and start an honest conversation about the matter. It seems to me there was pressurized emotion underneath the surface, and my hope is that the column began the process of lancing the boil so that we can now begin to discuss how to move forward. Diagnosis must precede treatment.

But while the wound is open, I suppose we might as well do a complete check-up. One sentiment echoing in the comments of that column and throughout the Twittersphere was not just that Christian conferences were dominated by males, but rather by “white males.” So I began to ask how, in fact, Christian conferences were faring on matters of racial inclusion. I started with The Nines conference, since their abysmal number of women speakers prompted this conversation to begin with. By my count, out of the 110+ speakers at The Nines, only seven were minorities. This low number, constituting less than 10%, made me push deeper and re-survey the major Christian conferences popular among evangelicals.

Here are the numbers of total speakers with minority speakers, by my count:

Catalyst Conference – East (Atlanta, GA): Total speakers: 13 / Minority speakers: 2

Christianity 21 (Denver, CO): Total speakers: 21 / Minority speakers: 7

Circles Conference (Grapevine, TX): Total speakers: 12 / Minority speakers: 3

Cross Conference (Louisville, KY): Total speakers: 10 / Minority speakers: 4

D6 (Dallas, TX): Total speakers: 22 / Minority speakers: 1

D6 (Louisville, KY): Total speakers: 32 / Minority speakers: 0

Desiring God Conference (Minneapolis, MN):Total speakers: 10 / Minority speakers: 0

Exponential Conference (Los Angeles, CA): Total speakers: 27 / Minority speakers: 6

Experience Conference (Orlando, FL): Total speakers: 4 / Minority speakers: 1

Gateway Conference (Southlake, TX): Total speakers: 10 / Minority speakers: 1

Global Leadership Summit (Chicago, IL): Total speakers: 13 / Minority speakers: 2

Hillsong Conference (New York City, NY): Total speakers: 6 / Minority speakers: 1

Hillsong Conference (Los Angeles, CA): Total speakers: 6 / Minority speakers: 1

Ligonier National Conference (Orlando, FL): Total speakers: 9 / Minority speakers: 1

Love Does (Austin, TX): Total speakers: 11 / Minority speakers: 2

National Youth Workers Convention (San Diego, CA): Total speakers: 80 / Minority speakers: 8

New Life Leadership Conference (Colorado Springs, Co): Total speakers: 7 / Minority speakers: 1

Orange Conference (Atlanta, GA): Total speakers: 10 / Minority speakers: 1

Passion Conference (Atlanta, GA): Total Speakers: 5 / Minority speakers: 1

Q (Los Angeles, CA): Total speakers: 35 / Minority speakers: 6

Resurgence Conference (Seattle, WA): Total speakers: 6 / Minority speakers: 1

RightNow (Dallas, TX): Total speakers: 8 / Minority speakers: 2

Sentralized (Costa Mesa, CA): Total speakers: 25 / Minority speakers: 6

Simply Youth Ministry Conference (Columbus, OH): Total speakers: 71 / Minority speakers: 3

Southern Baptist Convention Pastor’s Conference (Houston, TX): Total speakers: 10 / Minority speakers: 1

Story Conference (Chicago, IL): Total speakers: 18 / Minority speakers: 3

Storyline Conference (San Diego, CA): Total speakers: 6 / Minority speakers: 1

Together For the Gospel Conference (Louisville, KY): Total speakers: 19 / Minority speakers: 3

The Nines (Online): Total speakers: 110 / Minority speakers: 7

Thrive Conference (Granite Bay, CA): Total speakers: 6 / Minority speakers: 1

Velocity (Cumming, GA): Total speakers: 32 / Minority speakers: 4

Wiki Conference (Katy, TX): Total speakers: 47 / Minority speakers: 7

Wild Goose Festival (Hot Springs, NC):Total speakers: 74 / Minority speakers: 10

TOTAL:
Total speakers: 775 / Minority speakers: 99

If my math is correct, this number is around 13% minority speaker representation at the Christian conferences counted. One thing to keep in mind is that American evangelicalism is a predominately white movement. Though 53% of evangelicals are female, 81% are non-hispanic whites. Pollsters often say that “white” is the “silent descriptor” when talking about evangelical trends. But this is more due as much to politics as theology. For example, the nation’s African-American Protestant population is actually overwhelmingly evangelical from a theological perspective. Sixty one percent of black Americans describe themselves as “born again,” the highest of any racial group. But there are differences in how black (and Hispanic and Asian) Christians describe themselves that need to be taken into account when looking at these statistics.

Even still, while strides have been made to make Christian conferences more racially inclusive, it is clear that more needs to be done if many of these events wish to reflect God’s kingdom, which is comprised of  “every nation, tribe, tongue, people, and language.”

*Note: I counted these myself, so I may have made an error along the way. In most cases, I only counted plenary speakers as the workshops were more difficult to track down. Additionally, ethnicity is often more difficult to discern than gender. If speakers’ ethnicities were too difficult to discern, the conference was omitted. For those conferences who haven’t listed their upcoming speakers, the previous year’s event was counted. If you find that my math was off anywhere, leave a comment, and I will update the post.*

45 Comments

  1. Another thing to note: how many are the same minority speakers that are consistently and repeatedly asked to speak at these conference. Also, I would push the point on how one defines evangelical. If it is defined by theology rather than politics or sociology, the percentage of minorities would go up.

    • I was going to say the same thing, SCR, regarding how many of these minority speakers were booked at 2+ of these conferences. I’d LOVE to see #s on minority women.

      Also, I registered for the NINES, then boycotted watching based purely on the lack of women and minorities represented.

    • Good point about seeing the same minority speaker representing at several conferences. (Of course, the same speakers tend to represent at all the conferences… part of the celebrity culture of evangelicalism, I suppose.)

    • Another point to follow up on Dr. Rah’s is I wonder how many of these minority speakers are invited in order to address topics concerning “minority issues” or church diversity?

      • A category that seems to be obscured relates to the economics of the group known as “evangelical.” How many times has the perspective of poor people been addressed by these speakers? How often does a poor person gain a voice in these groups? Not only can evangelicals be described as white men, they can be defined as wealthy white men. It’s from this position of wealth that many of the common elements of life get overlooked/ignored. Evangelicals define themselves as giving high value to the Bible. These verses apply on so many levels regarding any discussion of race, gender, social status: 1 John 3:17-18 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

    • But aren’t these conferences geared towards white Christians or those who feel more comfortable with white American culture? I don’t see too many white speakers being invited to predominantly black conference. If these conferences strictly talk about theology and no more, then it makes sense that they should invite speakers from all ethnic groups. But if these conferences want to help the audience with their practical day to day life in their particular cultural context, then i don’t see why this is a bad thing. We can challenge evangelical Christian leaders to provide conferences that will be pertinent and beneficial to everyone across the ethnic/racial lines. But as long as these conference leaders have white American Christians as their audience in mind, then I think it will defeat the purpose of inviting speakers whose cultural context is different from their audience in which the teachings from the conference need to be applied.

  2. To be fair, my comment in the earlier one was by no means anger about discussing gender equity, but rather than including conferences which ARE for male-exclusive groups (for which I hold no hope) alongside those with no such explicit exclusion paints an even more dire picture than the (already bad) reality should dictate. Let’s move the needle where the agenda isn’t already *explicitly* stacked against us. Let’s expose the bias where we don’t already acknowledge it exists.

    Moving on to race relations, I think the problem is definitely worse. Few Christian groups make it a part of their platform to be racially exclusive. I don’t imagine that any of the conferences mentioned here are intentional fronts for, say, the KKK. Instead, we’re probably looking almost entirely at groups who, at least on the surface, want to promote racial diversity and/or equality. The realities belie such an intention, of course, but this is where exposing our hidden biases becomes extremely valuable.

    Thanks for your efforts.

  3. Perhaps these stats are less a reflection of the racial exclusivity of evangelical conferences and more a reflection of the fact that culturally speaking the American church is still highly segregated?

    I’d love to see data about the conference circuit of minority churches as well. Ignoring this data, inadvertently positions white evangelicalism as the plumb line and furthers the unfortunate message that the evangelical conference circuit is “the place to be.”

    We have a long way to go in the American church;part of that means celebrating the work happening outside of culturally white, middle-class evangelicalism.

  4. Good read. After years of taking my youth group to conferences and camps that didn’t reflect the true diversity of their lives, we decided to create one for that specific purpose. It’s still small so it doesn’t make a list like this, but it’s definitely and intentionally diverse in a way that kids get a greater regard for the Word no matter who the vessel delivering it is. www.SlingShotConference.org

    As an African-American, I can say that most of “our” conferences aren’t very diversely booked either. Thanks for bringing more attention to this issue.

  5. Ruth Hawley-Lowry

    Thanks for this. If you look at the gender disparity, you will find similar numbers. While the inequity is negligibly better than two decades ago, the issues continue to resound: insular echoes of suburban platitudes with the usual presumptions of mother, father, and children born of that union. There is very little attention paid to blended families or gay families, much less to issues of racism–how many white churches mourn the evil that felled Trayvon Martin? Thanks for pointing out the inequity–hopefully conversations will be held that should have been considered decades ago.

  6. Anthony Grimes

    The percentage of minority speakers is only one slice of how these conferences are ethnically exclusive. Other problems include mono-cultural subject matter, recruitment efforts, and marketing presentations.

  7. Not sure if this has come up. You discussed gender and minorities. Of the 775 conference speakers, I wonder how many are the same?

    Was it 775 speakers, or only 200 speakers, speaking in different venues?

  8. Another way to scrutinize the exclusivity of these conferences is to look at how many speakers serve faithfully in small congregations, perhaps even poorer congregations. This is where a large part of God’s kingdom meets, but these leaders are not the ones I see listed among the conference speakers.

    Women, people of color, participants from lower socio-economic congregations – all of them seem to be missing in numbers that would reflect a true representation of the people who lead and serve in God’s kingdom.

    Tim

  9. I’m an asian minority, and I probably stand in the minority in this conversation, but the question of bringing racial equality to conferences may have a flip side effect where the conferences are not as valuable for the attenders.

    The case study that comes to mind is Urbana, the missions conference. At one point, this conference was the conference to attend for missions, and was a major force was the cause of missions. It had predominantly white speakers.. the likes of Billy Graham, Tony Campolo, etc. Then as time went on, the discussion went towards making it much more diverse, and in so doing, I felt that it really diluted the overall effectiveness, and became more of a “who’s who within InverVarsity” and became racially diverse. The worship tried to include every culture and did rap, hymns, African songs, etc. As with all this focus on being diverse and politically correct, it began to be much more humanistic rather than God focused, and lost a lot of steam for what it’s original purpose was.

    For me personally, I believe there is simply a “it” factor when the hand of God is on someone’s ministry. Those people should be asked to participate regardless of trying to meet some diversity quotient or percentage. If it happens to be all white men, than so be it. I’d take that any day rather than go to a conference where it is diversified for the sake of diversity.

    As in all things, there is moderation. But I’m a little annoyed with all the backlash from Asian Christians who are crying foul for recent events from Rick Warren to others. There are more important things that we need to be worrying about then cultural insensitivity and whether enough of my race is being included. Go to any Asian American church and see if there is a large portion of White Christians there. Do White people call foul the fact that Asian Christians are being racist by not being more inclusive? Do white people call foul when we have asian conferences and there isn’t a good percentage of white speakers?

    I sense that before the Lord one day, we’ll look back and feel that these kinds of conversations were trite in light of eternity and the unreached souls that are on this earth.

      • I don’t agree with your premise that Asian non-Christians are hindered by the lack of asian representation in conferences. If they are, then I would argue that their reason for coming to Christ is flawed and ingenious. Our witness is most undermined simply by our lack of character and living out the kingdom life that something like Asian representation in leadership circles.

        Dr. Rah, i sincerely appreciate the voice that you have for Asian-American evangelicals. If this voice was not there, there would be no one that makes people pause and think and be thoughtful before making decisions. So, I think that is good, b/c there is always room for error in judgment.

        That being said, there is a tone that often comes out that is ungracious and takes on a “victim” mentality that blames the White Christians for being proud and arrogant that I think we need to guard ourselves against. Being quick to forgive, less about getting our fair share, or fair representation, but simply working faithfully in our different spheres and callings is what I would advocate for. There is simply too much beating up on the white man that I’m seeing out there.

        I am mindful that if some White missionary didn’t have the courage many years ago to go to S. Korea and risk his life, that the gospel would not have penetrated Korea, and reached my great-grandfather. I am thankful for their faithfulness to the gospel call, and their role in leadership here in North America.

        It just seems to me that while abuses should be noted and corrected, fighting and devoting oneself for fair asian american representation or any minority in the matter is a cause that is secondary to the kingdom cause.

        • let me clarify that I believe God is sovereign, and that if some white missionary didn’t go, that God would have sent someone. I’m just thankful for the American missionary that reached my great-grandfather. But similarly, at some point, that white missionary was reached by some other culture, that eventually goes back to what we see in the book of Acts, and the diaspora.

          • Jonathan, I agree, I agree, and I agree.

            What I find that is missing is a deeper understanding with these statistical studies. There are many ethnicentric conferences existing in Christian circles in North America. That’s why “statistically” 11:00am Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the USA.

            With that said, we should always be careful what we’re fighting for here. Conference speakers are most likely chosen because of 1) familiarity in their expertise, 2) relationship to conference organizers, and 3) the name on their placards and business cards more than anything. And why would be surprised by that? Is it really a “race” issue?

            In fact, a lot of minorities flock to these conferences because they appreciate the substance of the work by the person speaking and the draw of a name more than anything else. Conferences still have to cover their costs. That is part of the reality of things.

            In any event, a lot of the Asian American speakers and other minorities are chosen for these venues for the same reasons I stipulated.

            American Christendom is rife with skepticism, cult of personality, and a flirtation with cultural relevance. That’s just our country. Not to say it is good or bad, rather it is as it is. Only the gospel and God can change that. We are more tribal than anything by nature.

            Heck, I’m a Christian who is Reformed and Chinese-American. How many of me are there? Let alone how many of me are called to pursue Christian ministry? How many of those would you invite to speak at your conference? How many church positions are there for guys like me? I’m sure it’s a low number… and point made.

        • Point of clarification Jonathan Cho, you cite “issues” that are trite, rather than one issue (i.e. Asian speakers at Christian conferences). You addressed Dr. Rah only on the conferences example. You ought also to address the rest of those issues you mentioned: cultural insensitivity, as well as the proportion of white people at a predominantly Asian church. Those two factors have massive potential for hindering Asian non-Christians.

    • I appreciate your insight here. I am in agreement with you. It all depends on the kind of conference that people put out. If the conference is to reach out to white American audience, then they will be the best to reach out to them. The same will be true with blacks, Asians and Hispanics. If the conference is specifically about Christian unity in diversity, then yes, we do have to have speakers from many different ethnic groups. As long as we speak English and live in the US, I think we must do our best to build our churches to be more diverse and multiethnic representing the community where the churches are located. However, we also need to remember that God sent Peter to the Israelites and Paul to the Gentiles.

  10. How about some conferences that are intentionally being multi-ethnic & gender inclusive such as the Christian Community Development Association’s annual conference where 23 of 30 plenary speakers were non-white or women! (www.ccda.org) or The Mosaix Conference (www.mosaix2013.com).

  11. Jonathan, thanks for asking an important question.

    By God’s grace and through the commitment of many of our leaders, InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Missions Conference leads in this regard.

    At Urbana 12 just under a year ago, eight of the eleven headline speakers were not white (72.7%). And 4,248 people committed to investing at least two years of their lives in cross-cultural service in God’s global mission, the most in Urbana’s 67-year history.

    The demographics of the global church have shifted. At Urbana, we esteem and learn from actual leaders in the church around the globe. We also value and appreciate the full ethnic diversity of the Church in North America. These leaders are tremendous gifts to us!

    We value multiethnicity. But more importantly, we help college students do the same, by God’s grace. It is not an easy road. But it is a worthwhile one.

    Let me know if you’d like to talk.

    urbana.org

    • Adam, my sincere apologies if I offended you or the Urbana organization. I’m sure there was plenty of good fruit and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into putting on the conference. So I want to make sure I’m no minimizing that. Surely God continues to use the conference year after year. My comment is simply that those who were present during the years when significant shifts were happening in Intervarsity’s strategy for Urbana did notice that there was a change of focus and direction. Perhaps that needed to happen, and perhaps it was the right move. We won’t know this side of eternity.

      However, I do stand by my opinion that when Intervarsity leadership decided to shift the strategy for Urbana, and make it much more inclusive and multi-cultural, that it lost something. Many of us who were there that experienced that shift stopped coming, and it became more of an Intervarsity conference then a global missions conference. I’ll leave it at that.

      Again, Adam, apologies if I offended you, as I probably should not have used Urbana as an example in such a public forum.

      • Hi Jonathan C.,

        No offense taken! I was actually posting to Jonathan Merritt and the general audience here. I think it’s appropriate for a global mission conference to be inclusive and multicultural.

        I’d encourage you to take a browse through the content from Urbana 12 ( http://urbana.org/urbana-12 ).

        You will find that Urbana is most definitely a global missions conference (and I’d add an excellent one, by God’s grace).

        The clearest examples of this are the variety of plenary and seminar speakers (and their backgrounds) and the 250 organizations that use Urbana to mobilize people for God’s global mission.

        Simply, our aim is to compel this generation to give their whole lives to God’s global mission.

        Come to Urbana 15, and we can check it out together! : )

  12. Anthony Bradley

    The proper title for this should be Are “Evangelical” Conferences….not “Christian.” What is not linked are all of the Roman Catholic, Protestant Mainline, tradition Black Church denominations, the prosperity gospel movement churches, etc. It’s a big ironic that a post that asks about race exclusivity only lists white evangelical conferences as “Christian.” One of the America’s oldest and largest preaching conferences in America didn’t even make this list. The point, however, is well taken about evangelicalism but not so much for Christianity as a whole. http://minconf.hamptonu.edu/about.cfm

  13. It appears you have only included the “mega” church in this survey. It’s telling that the mega movement only invites to their platform so called mega speakers. Perhaps the mega movement is more of a white cultural phenomena then it is a faith issue and your survey doesn’t actually address the faithfulness of the majority of the wider church in America that doesn’t come under the mega mantle.

  14. Really great and interesting article. I was thinking about our continent’s history, specifically about the many cultures that came into America that brought many different religious beliefs, and that what may look like racial prejudices, could be the process of religious conversion; and much like assimilation takes time I think we might be witnessing this. I’d be interested in seeing data representing ratios of minority speakers to total speakers from the last 10 years in conferences -as I’m sure it has grown and is progressing,

    The first Christians on american soil had already come from a rich history that dated as far back as Constantine.My perspective is that a lot of minorities today do not have a history that date back that far and the ones that do are mostly catholic (which was a heinous crime of conversions), mostly from Mexico, Africa or Central America. These peoples have been building history every since this country began, and racism then has deteriorated the authenticity of faith in both parties.

    I believe there are not many minority public speakers in these for these kinds of events because there simply is not a strong following to push speakers through. I believe that minority cultures are still clarifying the religion within their own communities as genuine faith and give the history, there is much work to do. There is a strong history in Mexican(latino), and African American cultures…to put it bluntly they were raped of the choice to choose Christianity.

    I think we are seeing more and more Latino and African Americans become Christian because there is more freedom now a than ever to do so. So what may look like racism might actually be the minorities gaining momentum of their own and I don’t expect to see less and less minority speakers.

    We have all see this pattern before, where “white” people succeed first in many different areas in this country, but it goes to show that the it is never a long lived status for example our president, voting, military, etc. Building momentum takes time but we should not be so quick to judge to process and call it unfair or blow the racism whistle. Just my thoughts.

  15. Doug Koenigsberg

    Jonathan Merritt, your white bias is showing here. When you discuss “Christian Conferences” you do so considering it from only a white perspective. Are other races also Christian? You have written from precisely the same perspective as those you would question!!! Could it be that the real issue is that whites refuse to attend the churches of other races, particularly black churches? Why should the group with the power (whites) be evaluated by their ability to attract other races when a better measure might be their ability to sit under the leadership of other race pastors? Improving race connections should compel the white folks in the USA to move toward other races not the other way around.

    • Marcus Johnson

      Wow, Doug, talk about the pot calling the kettle white!

      Perhaps the answer to your question is actually in the wording of your question: predominately white conferences should be evaluated by their ability to attract other races specifically because they are, as you put it so well, “the group with the power.” Of course, I would love to see these predominately white conferences seek and nurture leaders of other racial identities as well, but why can’t it be a two-way street?

  16. Jonath, thanks for highlighting and being bold enough to speak on the issues of racial inclusion. I also find it problematic when faith base NGOs address social justice issue as a white-savior-movement that’s only done best when we sprinkle Jesus on the work that’s being done. Often times, the CEO, COO, director for Africa’s development etc are all white, as though, the faces and color of those they are “saving” aren’t good enough to be a part of, or given a title beyond: help this poor family.
    Perhaps, it’s time we begin living out the gospel and reflect what it means to see, ”every nation, tribe, tongue, people, and language.”

  17. If your focus is on God then who cares what the race or gender of the person who is speaking at these conferences is? The “minority” wasn’t excluded completely, it was a lower percentage. The people holding these conferences probably, and hopefully, have better things to do than to consider the male/female ratio, or ethnical ratio of speakers. If racism and sexism aren’t an issue than why would special accommodations be made to make the statistics equal? Maybe is people focused on God(as intended at the conferences) and stopped focusing on reasons to play the “race card”, than the problem wouldn’t exist. There was no discrimination, move on.

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