The Missional Movement is Mostly White
For most of its 15+ years, the missional church movement has been largely white. Its participants, thinkers and leaders are mostly white. Although there are many women involved, especially recently, its leadership has been overly dominated by white males. And even though there are men from Australia, South Africa and Britain who have come to the United States to lead this movement, the missional movement has been largely American, based in the U.S., its denominations and publishing houses. The missional movement is mostly a white Americanized male movement. Can we think of anything worse?
And Yet Racial Reconciliation Drives Us
And yet, at the same time, reconciliation is a driver of the missional church. Racial reconciliation – the vision of God uniting “every nation, kindred, people, and tongue” in worship (Rev 7.9 etc.) – is a central theme to the missional conversation. This is because we affirm that the gospel is more than individual forgiveness of sins or an individual status of righteousness before God (although it is that). Reconciliation of all things, the overcoming of exclusion, the making right of unjust oppression, the renewal of community under one Lord is the reality of salvation in Christ breaking into our midst. This is what the social reality of His Kingdom looks like being birthed among us as we submit to the one Lord, one baptism, one Spirit. This is what we proclaim. We seek racial diversity, the replacement of false hierarchy with a mutual participation, in leadership.
And so the question is, why such a lingering predominance of white males at Missional gatherings. Why is it that when missional gatherings work for diversity of presenters, leadership at its core remains largely white male driven?
It’s About Narratives, Our Histories
Recently Austin Channing wrote a wonderful blog post explaining the inadequacy of “colorblindness” as a strategy for solving racism. Colorblindness, she helps us see, is a strategy that merely covers over and even maintains unjust systems all in the name of ‘”colorblindness” (Cornel West is a master of explaining this). We think by eliminating cultural distinctions we can eliminate the factors that we use to discriminate. We think we can eliminate injustice by seeing everybody as the same. Many have tried to make right the systemic oppressions/prejudices between races via“ equal rights” legislation that obliterates distinctions between races. Although some progress is made, in the end, it keeps it in place, and even reinforces the existing power structures and cultural forces that enforce the oppression and discrimination of minorities in the first place. Colorblindness does not get at the histories that drive our behaviors. It does not unearth the patterns of oppression woven into the way things are now. It does not reveal the way we see ‘the other’ born out of past subjugation and oppression. It does not get at the deep seeded histories that drive the structures and the way people see. It does not honor the struggles and experiences of the other’s history. It obliterates it in order to start over. But there is no starting over.
We Need Places to Hear One Another’s Histories
We need places therefore to come together to listen, honor, understand each others’ narratives. We need places for white men to listen to the histories of African-, Hspanic-, Asian- Americans and others. I’m talking simple social places where we sit and listen 5 -10 people at a time. All groups need to understand our lives and the lives of others in terms of our histories. From here we can genuinely confess our sins one to another (beginning with the ways our white structures have oppressed, injured, done violence and imprisoned our brothers and sisters). When we listen to the other’s narratives and the experiences that have been shaped by these narratives we begin to own our sins and reshape the way we see our brothers and sisters and their struggles. We begin to see how the structures came to be this way and the ways they enforce privilege. We begin to see our own participation in the privilege. It’s the long histories. It’s the stories. It’s here by the Spirit true healing begins.
These Histories Play a Role in the Missional Church’s Whiteness and Distance from the Black Church
I humbly suggest this all applies to the missional movement. There are multiple stories going on here as to the history behind the missional movement. There are equally as many stories surrounding other movements that are not being heard. We need to listen to all of the histories (including our own) if we are to get at why the missional movement remains stubbornly white and see a true birthing of racial reconciliation in our midst.
Let me just try to give one example of the way two histories/narratives bypass each other in the missional conversation, at least the parts that I have observed. These two narratives create a disconnect that can only be joined and transformed by sharing our narratives with each other. I tell these observations owning I am hearing and telling them as a white man seeing it from a posture of privilege. This may be only a local phenomenon so this is only an example from one observer (this is not a proposed explanation of why the missional church remains so white).
- The young white missional narrative: For at least the last ten years I have heard the recurring story of white evangelical young men and women who were raised in large evangelical suburban mega churches or smaller type “Bible” churches. They tell the consistent story of their church’s focus on an individualistic gospel of personal pardon from sin and hell in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This led to an exclusion of living out the gospel in concern for justice, what God is doing among us socially for the overcoming of injustice. High on their list of complaints is the accommodation of their churches with the material affluence of modern suburbia and the grotesque consumerism of a “Jesus for me” who forgives all my sins and saves me from hell. All this is associated (by these young whites) with a dispassion for the poor and God’s Kingdom renewing all things! Their turn to God’s Mission in the world is driven by a rejection of their suburban affluent dispassionate past church history. Their turn to communities of mission/justice makes sense to them in light of their rejection of suburban comfortable church. You cannot understand the current missional movement without knowing this narrative.
- The black church narrative in contrast: What I hear from my brothers and sisters in the black church in U.S.A., on the other hand, largely comes from a narrative of poverty, oppression and being blocked from the socio-economic opportunity that white suburbans have been able to take for granted from birth. Mission has been part of the black church’s understanding of redemption for 100 years. The patient working for justice in communities, that the white suburban’s critique their church for lacking, has not only been a mainstay of black church life for years, it has been a necessity for survival. Seeking justice has been part of the black church’s way of life for many years in ways the white church cannot possibly understand.
Because, there are two radically different histories here (narratives) the missional conversation between these two histories often talks right past each other. And so I’ve heard from my African American brothers and sisters many times “Huh? We’ve been talking this stuff for years? Where have you been?” I’ve also heard white missionals talk about Missio Dei never being able to connect with some of the greatest stories of Missio Dei ever in the Black civil rights movement of the 60’s, 70’s etc. I’ve heard white missionals say “we seek to give up affluence, live beneath our means, and we reject the excess of our excessive consumerist economy” not realizing how this sounds to the black church that has been working tirelessly for the overcoming of poverty in their midst into fuller participation in the economy.(BTW the histories between various racial/ethnic groups plays out totally different in Canada).
There Are Reasons That Go Deep in Our Histories For This Disconnect
There are reasons here for the disconnect that lie deep in the histories of the “white missional movement” and “black church.” And it is pretentious for white people to assume the missional concerns we have apply to non-white churches. I suggest therefore it is exceedingly important for white missional leaders to be careful how we try to architect missional conversations/conferences around diversity if it is “our” diversity. This invites say “black church” leaders into a missional conversation that is formed by the white narrative. This disconnect between white missional and black church cannot be overcome by architecting a good diversity among speakers at a missional conferences to riff off a post by D. Kyle Canty on Drew Hart’s blog (although this perhaps is good in itself because it lays groundwork for the kind of discussion we must have).
Neither will this disconnect simply be accomplished by white men resigning their roles in leadership and giving them over to minority voices. (Although this is something I am very tempted by and willing to do on boards/steering committees I am on). This will now be a missional movement running off a white narrative being led by people who see and understand the world via another narrative. The disconnect will most likely end the existing missional organization movement when it becomes apparent.
Instead of these tactics (we need good tactics), I suggest the disconnect will only be healed, true reconciliation can only emerge, from a mutual submission of our narratives, our histories to one another. This will come from white men listening. From these places of confession and submission of power and oppression (for white leaders especially), a reuniting to work together for what God is doing can happen together and discerning those next steps. A new thing shall emerge. This may mean “missional” is left behind.
I, a white male of privilege, have been listening to these stirrings in ‘missional land’ for at least 10 years. I offer the following suggestion not as a pronouncement. I offer it to test and submit to my brothers and sisters of all races (these disconnects are true between white, black. Asian, Hspanic, and all racial groups). My suggestion is to open up a space for the joint discerning of the future of God’s mission among us where the many voices can tell each our own narratives that brought us here. This meeting should be initiated by someone who is non-white. This should not be a conference. It should be organic, local and born out of a concern to manifest the Kingdom in a particular time, place, city. It should start local. White men need to sit and listen first, confess, repent. Call it an intervention, a therapy session, or frankly what the church has always called the practice of reconciliation (founded in Matt 18:15-20). Ultimately, we need to sit together, tell our narratives, confess, repent, commit, discern. Let the Kingdom break in.
Perhaps then a leadership emerges that is completely different unexpected and named something else. Until we do this, reconciliation via any other tactic- colorblindness, architecting a diverse board/power structure, white leaders resigning their leadership of a white narrative guided movement to non-white non-white narrative leadership – will be just another shill. It will be a manufactured maneuvered diversity but it won’t be reconciliation. Yes?
What say u? What are your suggestions? How would you make space for this kind of listening possible? Remembering this is only a blog-post missing many complexities, what am I missing? Be nice, remember I am a middle aged white man. I’m limited in perspective. And I got feelings J