Christian conferences exist to serve and edify the church. They provide an opportunity for believers to have community with each other and to learn from each other’s faith and experiences. They also provide platforms to leaders and visionaries who then shape how Christians think about and practice their faith.
Christian conferences are a powerful tool. They can be used to engage, include, and challenge all Christians. They can also hurt and exclude believers who are already marginalized in US society and in the Christian family. And, they can confirm the conscious or unconscious biases and attitudes of the more powerful group.
As a Latina, I have been hurt by how the church excludes those who look like me from the leadership and theology of Christian conferences. And as a woman, I have been hurt by the laughable gender stereotypes at the center of men’s and women’s events in the US, and by the lack of representation of women as conference speakers and leaders. So let us unpack how these events stereotype and exclude fellow members of the body of Christ, and ask how we can all do better.
1. They lack representation.
If you’ve never noticed the lack of diversity in Christian conference speaker rosters or believed it to be a problem, it might be because the stories sound like yours and the people think like you. So if you’re a man and you’ve never seen an all-male conference lineup and thought, that’s problematic, you might want to think deeply about why you don’t notice the absence of women speakers in Christian contexts.
Likewise, when conferences are filled with monochromatic panels, speakers, writers, and worship teams, it’s highly unlikely that the conference will feel welcoming or relevant to people of color. As a Latina, I can confirm this. When people of color are invited to pay to attend a Christian conference that doesn’t actively work to include their experience, we notice. We’re very aware that these events have not been planned, designed, and marketed to us, and that hurts.
For example, at the recent Festival of Faith and Writing, many attendees of color lamented that writers, activists, and speakers of color were still very much the minority. The number of books at the conference by women of color authors was also shockingly low. And even though the intent was to make greater space for women of color at the top, women of color shared that the remaining gap was still painful and exhausting.
And, when women aren’t represented at all levels of Christian conference leadership, the implication is that being a man makes you an expert on how Christians should worship, preach, write, and speak. This is nothing more than arrogance and confirmation bias. We need to open our eyes to how lack of representation excludes our brothers and sisters in Christ and their crucial theological insights.
2. They promote gender stereotypes.
Gender stereotypes are simplistic, and they’re so often unsupported by what we see in the real, complex men and women around us. These stereotypes limit humanity by attempting to place us in neat categories that fit our preconceived ideas about males and females. Many men’s and women’s conferences are built on this sort of narrow-minded, box-sorting theology of gender.
Lately, we’ve seen a re-emergence of men’s conferences centered on hyper-masculinity and male dominance and conferences that encourage submission from women/wives. These men’s conferences hang on a cultural caricature of masculinity rather than what the Bible communicates about manhood. By contrast, typical women’s conference messaging often robs women of their courageous, assertive spirits, and reignites the false idea that women are to be soft, quiet, and submissive.
These men’s and women’s conferences ignore that God creates each of us with unique personalities and gifts that manifest in our interests, tendencies, and preferences. All men don’t enjoy hunting, MMA fights, and beer and all women don’t love wine nights and Pinterest projects. All men aren’t natural leaders and women are certainly not just natural followers. It’s wrong to fall back on gender stereotypes instead of working to include and serve all men and women.
These stereotypes start when we’re young. It’s why many girls are steered away from becoming leaders in the church or in their professions. Assertiveness is considered a male trait, so a woman who is confident and assertive is often shunned.
In reverse, a man who is nurturing and kind is devalued. I recently went to a church where a fellow (egalitarian!) colleague said, “He is a ‘man’s man,’ and he does not easily cry.” It made me so sad because his words told all the men in that church that expressing emotion and being vulnerable with others isn’t “manly.”
In the church, we don’t always want to explore how our unconscious bias shapes our theology and the messaging of the church, which then shows up in the marketing for Christian events. We’re not always great at discerning how we unintentionally support and encourage racial, gender, and class stereotypes.
We think in black and white, pink and blue, and strong and weak. And in the process, we erode the humanity of the men and women we’re trying to minister to. We need to go deeper. Because every time we fall back on stereotypes in planning our Christian conferences and events, we disregard the unique, God-designed personhood of the men and women in our congregations.
3. They exclude people of color.
Men and women are hurt when we rely on gender stereotypes to minister to and understand each other. But box-thinking falls short in so many other ways. The experiences of my fellow Latinas, and my African, African-American, Asian, and Native sisters are too often excluded from the Christian narrative at these events. Even gender stereotypes specific to white women (still unacceptable) have the added insult of celebrating everything women of color are not, and reaffirming everything we’re not able to embody.
In the church, we can be oblivious to the stories and experiences of women of color. But we can no longer pretend that one group’s social experience is everyone’s social experience, or that one group’s theology is everyone’s theology. We can no longer stay silent about the injustice done to women and people of color, either in or outside the church.
Stereotypes are painful for women of color. We can do better. We can challenge what and who our conferences have traditionally elevated. We can assert that the experiences, stories, culture, and theological traditions of people of color are essential to the church.
4. They aren’t financially possible for many people.
Christian conferences aren’t always an option for those experiencing poverty or financial difficulties. Those of us who are fortunate to have disposable income can sometimes carelessly go through doors and fail to hold them open for others.
Christian conferences are becoming more and more expensive and exclusive. This means that those Jesus invited and elevated—the poor—are excluded. And maybe even more importantly, it means that those who have done well financially don’t learn from the theological perspectives of those Jesus called blessed.
I’m thrilled that so many conferences offer scholarships for students and others who can’t afford to attend on their own, and I understand that many organizations have financial limitations too. But it’s important to make every possible effort to make our conferences spaces that welcome and honor those experiencing poverty or struggling with financial difficulties. It’s important to acknowledge that we haven’t all been privileged with the same financial resources and freedom, but that doesn’t mean our conferences shouldn’t actively seek out those who have been forced to walk a different path.
More often than not in the West, Christian conferences elevate the opinions and experiences of white men, and marginalize the faith stories and insights of women, people of color, and those facing economic challenges. They serve as an echo chamber, repeating the ideas and theology of the group that dominates church leadership and ignoring or undermining the voices of those on the margins.
That should not be. We shouldn’t be forced to attend conferences built on gender stereotypes or accept speaker line-ups that have few to no women or people of color. If Christian conferences mean to reflect the diverse makeup of the church, they will have to do better. They will have to move beyond confirmation bias and stereotypes.
CBE is committed to ensuring our conferences reflect the diverse makeup of the church and we also offer scholarships to make our conferences affordable for new, emerging leaders. We invite you to join us this summer for our 2019 conference in Houston. Check out our speaker lineup here or sign up for conference updates including scholarship application opportunities here.