Why the Missional/Emerging Church is so Young and White

On the Eve of MLK week and the Obama Inauguration I want to offer some observations on why the emerging/missional church is so young and white.
I do this because it is an issue that keeps coming up. We had a missional learning commons two weeks ago. It was a gathering of people to talk missional church, encourage missional communities and pray for the neighborhoods.  We had 89 people. Although many ethnicities were represented, the majority of attendees were white persons (of both genders) under the age of 35 (my guess). A white attender (Sam Hamstra) asked me why is the emerging/missional movement so white? The next day, at my own church, Angela (an African American women under age 35) asked me about the learning commons because she had hoped to go. And then she also asked “was there diversity there?” to which I had to answer “No.” She asked “why?” Then this morning I was meeting with a church planter rep. from the Christian Reformed Church active in missional church work between African American congregations and white suburban people moving into the city. We talked again about the same issue.

I think it is fairly well accepted that the emerging movement/ missional movement is populated largely with young white people of both genders. There are older white people like myself involved. And there is say 10 to 20% of the movement populated with various ethnicities. But by and large, the overwhelmingly large proportion of the missional and emerging movements is white and young (somewhere around 35 and under).  To throw light on why this might be I offer two stories that I have experienced recently (I know I am taking a while to get to my point here but stay with me ?).

1st Story At the Learning Commons, Jon Berbaum was talking about one of the disciplines of the missional order. He called it the discipline of poverty. He then explained that the discipline of poverty is the discipline of living beneath our means. We in essence look around the neighborhood and see the standard of living and consciously seek to live beneath this standard so as to give more of our time and  our excess wealth to the Mission of God in the neighborhood. He also talked about how his group had to choose a place of mission that was not “over their existing level of means, skills and ability to earn a living.” This meant often moving to lower income neighborhoods on purpose so as to not have to adjust working hours (hence less having less time to give) to live up into higher standards of living.

An African American (named Chris) stood up and said something (and I will try to recount this as best as I can) like we in the African American community find this suspect. For we view poverty as something God has called us out of. Indeed part of salvation is the deliverance from poverty. He asked “could we use another word to describe this discipline than poverty?” Indeed the whole practice (from what I heard) of living beneath your means would have a difficult time translating into the African American context. Poverty is indeed, as Jon and Chris both agreed, a contextual issue.

2nd Story I teach pastoral ethics at Northern Seminary, a seminary that has as high percentage of African American students. One question I pose during the latter stages of the course is as follows: a pastor ministers in a community where the average house costs 350,000 dollars (this is actually true in NW Suburbs of Chicago). The pastor buys a house worth 2.1 million. Is this a good decision or a bad decision for a leader of the flock? What considerations would you use as a pastor in making the decision to buy a house within your ministry context. In my most recent class, every African American (except one) applauded this pastor as being a model for the salvation of God, for being a good leader. They said that, for the average African church congregation in poverty, they need someone to both respect and to aspire to be. For the African American members of the class (except for one), it is unthinkable for a pastor not to model “prosperity.” There are many more nuances to this culturally which I don’t have the time to recount or the cultural familiarity to properly represent here. I’m just trying to offer some general observations. Invariably, in this same Pastoral Ethics class (I have had similar stuff happen no less than 10 times in my classes surrounding this same core issue) the younger white seminary students (I’ll call them emerging church types) protest that the pastor that would spend such outrageous sums of money on a house cannot lead his/her congregation missionally into the world.

All of this points to the reality that seems to me clearer and clearer as the days go by. The majority of African Americans as well as first and second generation ethnic groups (especially Hispanics but also Asian to some degree) of N America are arriving into modernity just as young whites are throwing their hands up at it. The sons and daughter of evangelicalism are fed up with modernity (individualism and rationalism apart from a way of life), capitulation to capitalism as an organizing principle in the church (money and poverty are private issues) and a Christianity separated from engagement of the wholistic gospel for the whole world. These people are largely white and young. Meanwhile, the African American church and Hspanic church have been in poverty, are enamored with the hope of capitalism and the American dream. They have been struggling for years with poverty and America and God offers the hope to finally escape and achieve comfort and financial stability. The prosperity gospel drives these contexts. Indeed many of these ethnicities have not yet gone through the loss of community that the stark society of excess affluence and modernity brings.

I see this as one issue that separates the missional/emerging church types from the other demographic groups. A core calling of missional life for me is the call to live beneath our means to thereby have more time and funnel more of our blessings (excess wealth) into the Mission of God. Perhaps this is what keeps the missional movement from diversity? I don’t necessarily know. But I sure would like to ask others what their observations are.

Brian McLaren has used a slide in many of his talks over the past 10 years which shows how Latin America, and what used to be called the third world, are just entering modernity. Here the gospel is doing well. Ironically much of this church movement is charismatic and driven by prosperity gospel (Peter Berger outlines this in an article in Books and Culture – I hope to respond to this article vigorously as time allows in the next few months). McLaren says meanwhile post-modernity/post Christendom has begun in vast parts of Western Europe, Canada and the West, post modernity has begun. Here the gospel is failing miserably as the church shrinks to nothing.

All of the above recounts our dilemma and perhaps why the emerging church and missional church continue to be stubbornly young and white. Missional church represents the sons and daughter (largely) of evangelicals who are fed up with modernity, its programmed church, its dualistic rationalistic version of salvation, its capitulation to monetary success and the way it has distanced itself from the poor. This group has passed through modernity, free market capitalism as a social doctrine (tied to the fall), and seen its effects upon the church. They do not aspire to the goods inherent here because they have walked through the desolation of it all. Meanwhile sits the others who for various contextual reasons do not see modernity and capitalism, the accumulation of wealth as a bad thing.

I wish to make no judgemnts of who is right on the issue of “living beneath your means.” Indeed, as Chris said at the Missional Commons, this is a contextual thing. I agree that there are many contextual elements here to which I have no way to speak to. But I suggest this may be an issue contributing to the young whiteness and the lack of diversity of the missional/emerging church. What do you think? Is there a growing divide between those who are children of the American prosperity of the past thirty years and those who have been pursuing the American dream and have yet to reach it.

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