Church via the White Man (a collateral damage issue)

Kent Shaffer —  November 20, 2009

The majority of church leaders influencing other Church leaders (particularly in the Western hemisphere) through writing books, speaking at conferences, and doing the whole digital media thing are white men. Statistically, I expect this to change by the end of this century because of the demographic shift of Hispanics in the Western hemisphere and the growth of Christianity in the Eastern hemisphere.

But for now, it is the white man’s world… so to speak. And unfortunately, unanticipated collateral damage can happen because of it.

UPDATE: To clarify, I am not saying that whites make up the majority of ministers globally. I am saying that whites make up the majority of church influencers with global platforms.

The problem with the majority of Church influencers being white men is that there is too much majority and not enough diversity. We need more diverse influential thought leaders in order to truly cater to the unique church methodology needs of each culture. Although white men can study other cultures, it is very, very difficult for a white man to understand as well as a woman what it is like to be a woman. It is difficult to understand perfectly what it is like to be Asian unless you are an Asian. And the same is true for blacks, Hispanics, Latinos, and all other races. In fact, many white men may not even realize there is a difference between Hispanics and Latinos.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLES OF WHITE MAN COLLATERAL DAMAGE

#1 :: Deadly Viper
Mike Foster of Ethur and Jud Wilhite of Central Christian Church (Las Vegas, NV) put together an incredible resource called Deadly Viper that discusses the subtle yet deadly leadership pitfalls that can ruin one’s ministry. Its presentation was a mashup of Asian cultures, Kung Fu movie humor, and gorgeous aesthetic design skills. As a white man artist and marketer, I fell in love with the outstanding creativity of its delivery, and its content challenged me to grow as a leader.

However, in my ignorance of knowing what it is like for some to be an Asian, I and many others did not see how this “fun” and creative presentation could be offensive, shameful, or hurtful to some Asians. NOW before you take sides and jump to conclusions, realize that the nature of Asian culture is typically one of high reverence for its ancestors, culture, and heritage. Also, realize that many Asians and Asian-Americans have had to live their lives with stereotypes and jokes (like chinky eyes) that get old and hurtful over time and can put them in a “box” professionally and socially. And for Asian Americans, some have grown up noticing how anti-Asian hostilities during and after WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam War have affected their fathers and grandfathers.

Growing up as an Ohio-born white boy, I didn’t have to experience that, but I did go to summer camp in Oklahoma where my perceived “New Yorker” accent was severely made fun of. I was fine with the teasing for the first hours, but it hurt after several days. I can’t imagine experiencing such “harmless” teasing my whole life.

With Deadly Viper, much of the objections have been over there not being enough care, tact, and reverence in the use of Asian cultures. Astonishingly, Zondervan, Mike, and Jud decided to pull the plug on the whole thing out of respect.  DJ Chuang has a great debriefing on the whole Deadly Viper situation. And Eugene Cho speaks responsibly and passionately on the subject here, here, and here.

#2 Training for the Wrong Culture

What works for an upper middle class white man’s church that reaches upper middle class white people may very likely not work for a Hispanic church in the heart of Los Angeles. At a recent conference, a team member from a Hispanic church asked me how they should implement the techniques taught at that conference into a Hispanic culture that didn’t seem like a good fit. My answer was that they shouldn’t use those techniques. It wasn’t a good fit. Collateral damage occurs when you try to solve one culture’s problem by copying another culture’s solutions. It is like trying to fix a Lexus with BMW parts. Not everything will fit. We need platforms for more diverse church methodology training.

#3  The Bad Side of Short Term Missions
On a previous post discussing the effects of short term missions, a long term missionary shared the following comment:

At a large convention in 1989, I was introduced as a speaker and the leader said, ‘David has lived with us for nearly ten years now. Hhe speaks our language. He understands and respects our culture. We have been sick, and he has cared for us. He has been sick, and we have cared for him. He has now earned the right to be listened to by us with attentiveness.’

When called by three paramount chiefs to a special meeting (the subject of the meeting was not communicated in advance). One chief after another asked the same question. ‘What is wrong with the Churches overseas when they send young people to Africa for two weeks? They arrive here and cannot communicate with us. They take photographs of our abject poverty. They eat the food of hungry people. They form friendships with a few people often of questionable character but who do speak English and translate for them, and then they leave with waves, smiles and promises, and we never hear from them again! What has happened to our Churches back in the West who once sacrificed and sent us their sons and daughters who came on a one way ticket, learned our language, identified with us in our lives and through perseverance, prayer, preaching and example taught us a better way to live!’

They requested that I communicate this strong feeling to the overseas Church. This is a growing feeling across the world that short term missions teams are now walking well worn paths of other short term missions teams in many countries, but that they never stop in the area long enough to make a difference.

THE SOLUTION?

If you want to reduce you ministry’s collateral damage, you need to understand culture, meaning all cultures and not just the ones you are trying to reach. Ministry in a wired world has an added level of responsibility to be mindful of potential collateral damage. And if you do cause some damage, it is well worth looking at the gutsy and admirable way that Zondervan, Mike Foster, and Jud Wilhite handled Deadly Viper.

This is true regardless of what race, gender, social class, subculture, or generation you are. White men aren’t the only ones causing collateral damage. We’re just an easy target.

Kent Shaffer

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I live in an RV with my wife and 2 kids and work with OpenChurch.com to help Christians collaborate and build a global Church library of free, open content.

12 responses to Church via the White Man (a collateral damage issue)

  1. The majority of church leaders in the west are.. white.

    The majority of church leaders in the east are… asian. it’s an asian-man’s world in the east.

    The End.

  2. Instead of different cultures focusing on the fact that there are many “white” church leaders in the West, they should focus on studying and becoming a leader in their own culture to better their people the way they can be reached the best. It’s true every culture is very different, even different regions of the US are very different so RISE UP and take action where God is leading you to make a difference, forget color and learn quickly that God created us all equally! Love your neighbor as yourself and put yourself in their place before you make statements that could even POSSIBLY hurt another person.

  3. The problem I find is that whether you agree or not, America or the Americas or Westerners in general don’t make up the entire world’s populous. Most all ministers in Asia are Asian. Most ministers in Africa are African, most ministers in Russia are Russian.

    However, where you might be getting most of your opinion from is the possibility that most TV evangelists are white. But this can’t be the extent of your “research” or opinion, you must look into other countries far great in population than ours, for example, China (or even more, Asia). Most of their ministers are underground ministers, but just because we don’t see them on TV doesn’t mean they don’t exist in great numbers.

  4. @Skylar
    To clarify, I am not saying that whites make up the majority of ministers globally. I am saying that whites make up the majority of church influencers with global platforms.

  5. Thanks Kent for having the courage to hit this subject. I have been on a quest to learn more about my web design skills, video production skills, creative thinking etc. I have had discussions with my wife about the fact that it seems all of the cool fun innovative stuff is happening with the “white” folks. They got it goin on! I have searched and searched and cannot find many out of the box African Americans designers that are in ministry. Yes we have the ones who are with the televangelist but sometimes their stuff is copied between each other. I’m praying that more minorities open themselves up to the gospel, let their gifts be used for the kingdom purposes. I didn’t think I was crazy ;-)

    Peace, Prayer and Love
    RWR

  6. Good article, Kent. I think I understand where you’re coming from, but I’m not entirely sure that it’s correct. Assuming it is, do you think churchrelevance.com is a “platform for more diverse church methodology training”? I’m just wondering what would be an example of that. Moreover, I often hear this kind of critique of short-term missions: “you need to understand culture, meaning all cultures and not just the ones you are trying to reach”, but where is this in Scripture? I agree with your point about Zondervan and Deadly Vipers and think they did the right thing. I learned a lot thru that incident, as well. Not trying to pick a fight. Just had some questions. Thanks for this post.

  7. @Jeff

    Good questions.

    (1) do you think churchrelevance.com is a “platform for more diverse church methodology training”?

    I write about a broad scope of topics and highlight research to help us understand more about a diverse range of cultures, but my perspective is still limited by what I know, am, and have experienced – white, millennial, male, designer, marketer, children’s minister, missionary’s kid, megachurches, etc. I try to experience new cultures, but I am certainly no expert at how to run a cell church, reach inner city Latinos, do a church plant, etc.

    (2) I often hear this kind of critique of short-term missions: “you need to understand culture, meaning all cultures and not just the ones you are trying to reach”, but where is this in Scripture?

    It is really an unachievable ideal that we should strive towards (much like the goal of being like Christ). In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul explains the importance of trying to adapt to cultures to reach more people, yet it should also be understood that you can never truly be everything to everyone because the complexity of diverse cultures often contradict each other. The New Testament also stresses the importance of trying to avoid offending someone or being a stumbling block.

    Especially in today’s wired world where thousands of cultures are colliding, the reality is that our efforts will likely upset some culture. However, we should do our best to be mindful of major issues that might cause offense and avoid those if at all possible.

    Unfortunately, one man’s calling may even undermine another man’s calling… just look at how Craig Gross’ XXXchurch is trying to heal the collateral damage with gays caused by the mission of Ron Luce’s BattleCry.

    It is a complex issue with no easy answers other than:
    Just try to do your best with the love of Christ.

  8. Kent,

    Good it begin with “white’ Christian leaders simply inviting other ethnic groups to participate on an equal footing. You are correct in our American context, the landscape is dominated by men who look like you. I can even look at the major church planting organizations and it is the same picture; they do not look like me. Also I think it is an issue of focus. For groups other than white, here in America, many are leading their churches from a standpoint of achieving an equal footing in America. So instead of joining hands, we segregate ourselves.

    There has to be a willingness to see the Church as one man united in Christ and we should push that for all to see.

    Thanks for the post.

    Phillip

  9. @Phillip

    I see two factors necessary for big impact:
    (1) More non-white leaders need to start leveraging Internet platforms, which allow them to bypass traditional gatekeepers.
    (2) The gatekeepers (whether white or not) to conferences, broadcast media, and publishing must intentionally give platforms to more diverse leaders.

  10. Thanks, Kent. That was a well-thought answer. Appreciate it.

  11. As it relates to the statement that “…whites make up the majority of church influencers with global platforms…” – I would have to slightly disagree.

    I serve as a content editor for perhaps one of the largest faith broadcasting platforms in the world, and nearly 73% of the churches who are utilizing it are that of predominately African-American congregations.

    I think the term ‘global platforms’ may have to be dissected a bit before we can draw up such a conclusion. While I will agree with Kent that more of my white brothers are leveraging the ‘digital media thing’ much more effectively, one can argue that as it relate to broadcasting through internet platforms, non-whites may actually be leading in that charge.

    However, when it comes to successfully building platforms centered on community and engagement, they lag far behind their brothers (and sisters) in the faith.

    Great post just the same though Kent.