Unity in Diversity (at Conferences)

Unity in Diversity (at Conferences)

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Today on Twitter I came across a blog post by Helen Lee arguing the case for diversity on the conference stage.

As she pointed out, this isn’t a new issue she’s bringing to light, but rather one she sees play out over and over again. Her post was an effort to explain what’s at stake if we in the Western Christian community continue to hear from only a homogeneous viewpoint, and what could be gained if we heard from a wider perspective.

“Maybe conference planners of these non-diverse events are thinking, ‘Well, these speakers we’ve invited are the people who have something to teach us all. They are the ones who sell books and whose names are known.’ It’s a market-driven, not mission-driven perspective.”

And: “The reality is that those in the dominant culture need voices from the margins way more than people of color need to experience voices from the majority culture, because we already do, all the time.”

Lee went on to give practical ideas for conference attendees, organizers and speakers who want to move the church forward in this direction.

It should be noted for readers outside the US that in America “diversity” used in this context of gatherings of believers mostly means differing skin tones. Others have written in the past about the dearth of headlining women at such events, but that wasn’t the focus of this particular article.

(By the way, many kudos to Helen Lee’s interactions in the comment section, which are truly winsome! A model of restraint and grace.)

I’m a sympathetic audience to such writing.

I’ve always taken a quick scan of an event’s speakers and wondered where the women were. Or cheered inwardly to see people from diverse backgrounds represented.

I’m thoroughly convinced that the Western world needs just such “voices from the margins” to call us out of our own cultural pride and correct us toward a culture of heaven. David Devenish is often repeating that it takes a witness from outside a particular culture to point out entrenched blind spots, and our own Mr. AM is excellent on that topic as well.

But what made reading this article particularly striking is that I’ve just come away from the most truly diverse conference I have ever attended.

Andrew Wilson wrote a glowing review of the recent gathering on the Think Theology blog, which you may have read. If his effusiveness seemed over the top, particularly coming from a Brit… well… it wasn’t!

Truly we tasted a glimpse of heaven on earth as we sang in various languages and in many musical styles. Prayers went up in Urdu, Russian, Albanian, Serbian… to name a few. A Turkish believing friend listened with rapt attention as an Armenian leader spoke from the main platform. “He’s just so endearing!” she whispered to me. I couldn’t stop smiling as Iranian and Iraqi musicians led us together in a 4-language electronica disco song “Come to Jesus.” If you know anything of the history between Iranians and Iraqis or Turks and Armenians, you’ll know such unity is beautiful in God’s eyes.

The thing that pointed to our true diversity was how natural it felt to worship together in different languages. Many nations, but the same Spirit. We had songs that fit right in where the Spirit led us, like an overstuffed toolbox. So when we headed into a time of praying for each other and prophesying we reached for a song just right for the moment – which happened to be in Arabic. And then we continued to a song in Turkish, which again was the perfect song for the moment. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was part of the worship team for the event. Participating was a highlight I won’t forget for a long, long time.)

I’ve been mulling over the event for the past few days, trying to put my finger on what made this conference so special. How did we get here?

Was that togetherness a product of gathering enough committed believers from pressured situations into one room? Was our experience a one-off? Is it possible to experience that kind of unity in diversity again?

  • The first truth is that actually, this conference wasn’t that different from previous years. Although there’s no doubt that God was doing something special, this was the next step on a path that started many years ago. It took intent to build toward a diverse gathering when it started in a small room of English speaking ex-pats many years ago. Since then we’ve been moving in this direction slowly but surely. The prior gathering marked a milestone when, for the first time, non-native speakers of English outnumbered native speakers. When the numbers get high enough, the power balance starts to shift.
  • When I looked around the room I saw one faithful story after another. Those stories play out in cross-cultural friendships cultivated year after year, overcoming miscommunication and prejudices. It’s a host of language learners who have put in the long, long hours to communicate from the heart in a non-native tongue. (And it’s no small thing to learn to worship in another language! You can read some of my own story here.) It’s one person added to a conference platform who says, “Yes, I’ll serve those people. Even if it means preaching to native speakers in my 3rd language.” (!!!) It takes worship leaders who lead songs in a minority language over the years as a prophetic declaration, even if it goes down like a bit of a lead balloon. Some eager for change get frustrated by what they see as tokenism – diversity in name only. But in my experience true togetherness has to start somewhere. It’s a road of faithful awkwardness until unity starts to ring true.
  • I’m not sure any of this is really possible without genuine relational bonds. I saw such genuine appreciation for each other – a culture of humble honoring of each other that makes unity possible. This culture comes from the top down, and we have been served so well by the example of our leaders.
  • A final point worth emphasizing is that we experienced a kind of diversity rare in the arena of Christians serving across different nations. Most conferences gather cross-cultural workers, or local leaders from several cultures, or those serving as senders. This conference gathers everyone into one place. It makes for the occasional awkward moment – like when an expat starts complaining about “local schools” without realizing that someone from that local culture is sitting right next to her – but it also makes a powerful statement. God’s grace is the great leveler. We don’t believe in a special class of superstars who cross cultures with the gospel. Rather we are all followers of the same Jesus, sent by Him into the world to point people to hope, joy and true peace.

So lets keep singing our awkward songs.

Let’s open our platforms to those who aren’t quite “up to our standards” with the knowledge that they bring something we ultimately need.

May we honor that which God honors, and in doing so get to experience a foretaste of heaven.

Grace Henry

Grace is the Editor of ToWinSome. She moved to the Middle East on a God-adventure with her husband and 2 kids in 2010, and is accumulating a long list of stories to tell her grand-kids one day, where God is the hero. Twitter: @bygracehenry

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