Theological conferences & inclusivity: A reply

How do you make conferences (and churches for that matter) diverse? How do you include people who, for a variety of reasons, feel excluded? That’s the issue that Hannah Mudge raised after thinking out loud about the THINK conference, a three-day event wrestling with the issues raised in 1 Corinthians.

As I understood there were five questions that need addressing:

  1. THINK is a theologically focussed event, can anyone other than pastors attend?
  2. THINK is coming from the Newfrontiers family of churches, ‘known for making complementarianism a distinctive’, so are women welcome?
  3. If women are welcome to attend, will they feel free to participate once there?
  4. As David Capener pointed out, it looked like not only was everyone male but everyone was white, so what about racial diversity?
  5. And even if all these questions were answered in the affirmative, is it likely that anything will ever change? Capener is sceptical, whereas I am more hopeful.

The first question is relatively straightforward. Hannah initially thought the event was off-limits for her as someone not in ‘formal church leadership’ and then was ‘intrigued to learn that as a small group leader, as someone who works for a Christian organisation, the conference would not have been off-limits to me.’

All events have a target audience, every event has the right in that sense to discriminate – to put out information that helps you discern whether something is ‘for you’ or ‘not for you’. A youthwork conference that advertises as such is saying this is aimed at youthworkers and not foodbank volunteers. THINK, because this is the conference in view, has aimed its sights on ‘leaders, pastors and teachers‘ with a bit more emphasis on pastors and teachers.

Here’s the key: you or someone else has to see you in the description, if that happens you think ‘for me’ otherwise you think ‘not for me’.

Which is exactly where it gets a little bit more complicated. There are issues around leadership that affect both gender and ethnicity. For example some cultures want to see leadership expressed in taking initiative, while in other cultures you wait for the invitation from established leaders. An event might be ‘for’ someone yet without the express invitation from an established leader it remains ‘not for’ them.

Likewise, with gender, women may not be as willing to put themselves forward as men and male leaders are typically more likely to recognise leadership in ‘masculine’ forms.

In the network where THINK primarily draws its audience from, Newfrontiers, pastors and teachers are mostly male. Even where events are genuinely open (as THINK seems to be), women who may have been aware of the conference and wanted to go may have filtered all the information and translated ‘for me’ to ‘not for me’ and with some justification.

So why am I hopeful, that the snapshot that we see now will not be the same in ten years? Here’s one example.

Five years ago, at the last Newfrontiers leadership conference in Brighton, David Stroud challenged the assembled thousands that their leadership teams should reflect the diversity of the apostle Paul’s in Romans 16 and if not then our thinking and theology was out of whack. This year one leadership training programme within Newfrontiers could say that at least half its students were female.

All this to say, that even within a complementarian framework efforts are being made to ensure that women leaders are being better identified, encouraged and equipped. The work of teaching, training and pastoring after all goes way beyond the question of simply who gets to speak on Sundays. As churches continue to work at this then the likelihood is that events like THINK which feed from the local churches they serve will change in their wake.

The same sort of things could be said about racial diversity, although solving that depends much more on context whereas opening training to men and women is a more equal-opportunity opportunity. When I was leading a church in Shrewsbury (98% white), racial diversity was extremely hard to achieve no matter how good our intentions.

By contrast in Stockholm, in a short space of time, from within a smaller group and without even really trying we have people from over ten nationalities from four continents and a leadership group from three nations. The opportunity to build a church that reflects the diversity of a kingdom which welcomes all tribes and tongues is much simply much easier here.

I am hopeful, that leaders in urban contexts aware of the need that to reach their community means crossing cultural and ethnic barriers are learning how to identify, encourage and equip leaders from a different group to their own but it’s not easy.

It is this cross-cultural aspect to leadership of all-kinds, including organising conferences, that requires some thought and deals with the issue of not just attendance but participation. As Hannah pointed out,

It’s all too easy for church leadership to remain homogeneous as people of influence  – unintentionally or otherwise – seek out and raise up others who are just like them.

It occurs to me that in terms of designing events that encourage participation from men and women, is like understanding two different cultures. The combative nature of these events is what appeals to me, and we design events, in part around what appeals to us – if we’re not interested why would anyone else be?

Yet, I think there is a willingness to listen and understand different cultures and cross divides for the sake of the gospel. This requires honest conversations but this has been done before and I’m hopeful will continue to be done and efforts made to find creative and positive ways forward.

So if THINK is still going in ten years time, do I think the photos would be 50% male and female? No. Do I think the photos will reflect the United Nations? No. But do I think it will still be all white and all male? No, I don’t.

Photo by estherase

Leave a Reply