The Problematic ‘Creative Class’: When a Generation of Church Planters Only Reach White People

So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Scholar Stephen Hayes has long noted that Sunday mornings are the most segregated time in America. There are many reasons for this, most of which I will not delve into in this post. Instead, I want to explore one, perhaps hidden force that may be perpetuating this trend. 

Closing in on 10 years ago, my wife and I, along with some close friends and a few pie-in-the-sky ideas, started the process of planting a church.

Around this time, a book came out of nowhere, capturing the imagination of America and finding a spot on the New York Times best seller list: The Rise of the Creative Class (by Richard Florida).

In a nutshell:

This book quickly achieved classic status for its identification of forces then only beginning to reshape our economy, geography, and workplace. Weaving story-telling with original research, Richard Florida identified a fundamental shift linking a host of seemingly unrelated changes in American society: the growing importance of creativity in people’s work lives and the emergence of a class of people unified by their engagement in creative work. Millions of us were beginning to work and live much as creative types like artists and scientists always had, Florida observed, and this Creative Class was determining how the workplace was organized, what companies would prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities would thrive.  –Description of the newly revised and expanded The Rise of the Creative Class

Not only was this book a best seller, but it changed the way people started talking about vocational desire. This was injected straight into church planting conversations in ways that went something like this: “What if we had churches that reached the creative class? After all, these will be the people who are shaping culture!”

The missiological question that came to dominate these conversations was essentially, “What if church (in structure, in practice and in ethos), was built to reach this cooler-than-thou group of culture makers that so many suburbanites aspirational?”

Seemingly overnight, church plant after church plant after church plant popped up…all looking somewhat similar taking their cues from the concept of reaching the”creative class.” It would be difficult to describe the impact of this book on church planting in the last decade. Not just the church planting world…but our country as a whole. 

In fact…it’s gone mainstream. Today, the core principles planted with these concepts have born the fruit that is lovingly, ironically, and sardonically called Hipster Church (a purposeful over-generalization). And Hipster Church? Well…it’s everywhere in church plants. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’ve visited such a church. You might even be part of one.

But there was one thing that always seemed to be missing in the description of this creative class. Yes, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Yes, they like flexibility in workspace and dress. Yes, they want to tap into and blend all of the various creative avenues in their life. (I could go on with these descriptions.)

But the one unspoken?

The creative class is disproportionately WHITE. The creative class is disproportionately WHITE. Click To Tweet

Because of the racialization of America, the vast majority of people who have access to the experiences one would need to become a part of this class means that most of these people are: 

Disproportionately affluent
-1 in 3 earn over $100,000 per year, 9% earn over $150,000
-48% are members of what is called “the Investor Class”

Disproportionately educated
-Over half have college degrees (compared to 30% nationally)

And disproportionately white
-65%, according to Forbes, but I think this is significantly off (but is still 2/3rds!)

Just so I am 100% clear, I’m not saying that there aren’t loads of creative voices who are minority voices. Rather – and this is how race and class come together in a subtle way – the sociological distinction known as the “creative class” means things that include economic realities and educational realities. And study after study shows that white people have more access to these opportunities than anyone else. 

So it’s not, “Who is creative?” It’s about who fits the sociological description of “creative class.”

Now, I’m not going to spend lots of time proving the point above. Chances are, if you don’t believe the creative class is mostly white, and the ability to access the creative class is far easier if you’re white, even if I try to prove the point, I doubt you’ll agree with what I’m saying. So no need to take up any more space. 😉

So herein lies the problem: What happens when a generation of church planters buy into a core concept that, almost by nature, is seeking to reach one group of people? White people. What happens when a generation of church planters only seek to reach one group - white people? Click To Tweet

If you’re not white and you walk into one of these churches, even though they are trying to reach the “creative class,” my sneaking suspicion is that it still feels distinctly white. And if you’re a minority voice in America, something that feels white doesn’t tend to feel safe.

My good friend David Bailey runs an organization, called ARRABON. They help churches work through practical issues of racial reconciliation and diversity, so they become a “foretaste of things to come.” He puts it this way:

A vast majority of churches say, ‘All are welcomed.’ I believe that that their motives and thoughts are sincere, but the issue is not, ‘Are all people welcomed?’, but do all people feel welcomed when they walk through the doors of the church? 

The people who feel welcomed are the people who you have set a table of hospitality for.  The people who feel welcomed are the people who you have set a table of hospitality for. Click To Tweet

The majority of our modern church growth strategies are primarily targeted toward the hospitable interests of cool affluent white people. If there is an interest in being “multi-ethnic,” then there is a secondary target for people of color who can navigate well within the affluent white culture. People who are on the margins economically, ethnically, racially, and culturally have to do the cross-cultural, code-switching work to be a part of a community that is designed for the cool affluent white aesthetic.

What compounds the problem is that 10 years later, it’s way beyond church plants now. In many ways, church planters serve as the “tip of the spear” for innovation within the church. What church planters do and learn through trial-and-error eventually gets passed to the “mainstream” of the rest of churches. 

So now, it’s not just that many church plants have this affluent, creative white vibe to it. It’s that most churches attempting to connect with wider culture tend to have this same vibe. 

In other words…the virus spread. 

I can’t help but wonder in this age of soundbite overstatement, political polarity, increased tribalization and faux infuriation (on every side of every issue!)…is there is an opportunity for the church to embody the community of new-creation, to live as a prophetic witness juxtaposed against our nation’s tragic and deeply immoral original sin? To see life come out of the burnt ashes. 

And if we are to carry the Ministry of Reconciliation with integrity, representing the Gospel to every man, woman and child…how can we be reconciled to God without being reconciled to our brother and sister (even if we don’t know or understand the ways we have contributed to their suffering)? How can we be reconciled to God without being reconciled to our brother and sister? Click To Tweet

A few years ago, a pastor in Richmond, Virginia (the city where I serve as a pastor) gave a prophetic word to a group of Kingdom leaders throughout the city, gathered together: “I feel like the Lord is asking: What if the Capital of the Confederacy became known as the Capital of Reconciliation?”

So this is a real-life question, this idea of whether we are continuing the segregation of Sunday mornings in America. This question is located in ‘real time.’ As someone who is passionate and involved with church planting, I’m forced to confront all the places, even in my own past, where I have undermined the ability of the Church to embody a kingdom where issues of race and class come together, locally, under the Lordship of King Jesus.

I can’t help but wonder if this generation of church planters…my generation…has unintentionally elongated segregation’s pock-mark on the American Church.