T4G Debrief: Where Were All the African Americans?
A couple days ago, David Murray posted a second reflection on T4G where he asked, “Where were all the African Americans?” Murray expressed some timidity raising the question for fear of saying something offensive or incorrect. We’ve all had enough hand-slapping when it comes to reaching into the “race” and ethnicity cookie jar. I appreciate the courage to press into the issue. As far as I’m concerned (and who am I to offer an opinion?), it’s okay to ask the question, even though something feels “off” with the question.
For anyone interested, here are my quick responses:
1. Murray guesses that African Americans made up about 1-2 percent of the crowd. That might be correct. But here’s the question for me: What percentage of the Reformed Christian world do African Americans comprise? I’d think we’re not much more than 1-2 percent–tops! The Reformed world is small and the African-American Reformed even smaller. Perhaps this is what seems “off” about the post to me. On a percentage basis, I wouldn’t be all that concerned even though I’d love all my kinsmen according to the flesh to adopt this robust, God-exalting, and biblical theological world and life view.
2. Murray mentions that the Man Up! conference was happening at the same time and might have attracted some who otherwise would have attended. That might be true. I know a couple guys who opted for Man Up! over T4G. And I think they made the correct decision. Here’s why. Man Up! represents an important movement with more application to the African-American community and more popular appeal among young African Americans than does T4G. Don’t forget that T4G is unashamedly a pastors’ conference. Though many are welcome to come, the conference has always had as its aim to primarily address and encourage pastors and aspiring pastors in their role. If you’re a young African American Man Up! likely seems more relevant and important a theme and topic. Would I rather they attend a conference with one panel on complementarianism and no specific reference to African-American applications or attend an entire conference contextualized on the theme of manhood for African Americans? No brainer. The fact that some might choose a unique conference like Man Up! is no indication that we’re not together.
3. R.C. Sproul and John MacArther are probably the T4G speakers that Reformed African Americans most often identify with. Sproul and MacArthur are the human means the Lord used to introduce many of us to Reformed theology. Just check the appendix of Tony Carter’s Glory Road for an indication of their influence. In retrospect, I’m guessing Sproul’s and MacArthur’s inability to be with us must have weakened interest among some African Americans (and not just African Americans). I’ve already written about how I personally missed them. I’m guessing I’m not so weird that I’m alone in that. We were without the two Christian radio ministry leaders that many African Americans would know. There’s far less familiarity with the rest of us as speakers.
4. My impression is that in absolute numbers the attendance of African Americans seemed stable. I can’t say I noticed a big drop off over the years. There weren’t a ton in 2006, 2008, or 2010. However, the venues and the audiences were smaller in each of those gatherings. In social psychological terms, what we might have here is a case of “the visibility hypothesis” at work. The visibility hypothesis is simply the notion that the smaller a group is in the general population the more noticeable they are and the more attention they attract. The attendance grew over the years, the absolute numbers of African Americans remained relatively constant, and so the visibility went up for some.
5. The speaker rostrum at T4G, unlike most other conferences, is built on friendships. I noticed in the comments of Murray’s post that some speculated that a more diverse representation of speakers might help attendance. It might. But speaking invitations aren’t “managed” that way. At the heart of the conference are four friends with like passion for the gospel. Over the years, they’ve invited 3-5 other friends to participate with them. Everything that happens with the conference–from speaking invitations to meals with the speakers to retreats before and after–is aimed at deepening friendship. That’s not to say any of the men lack close friendships with people of other ethnic backgrounds. They all have many. It’s simply to say, as far as I’m aware, though everyone would like to see greater diversity, such diversity is not the main strategy for organizing the conference and speakers. The main goal or strategy is to rally around the Good News. Would we ultimately have it any other way?
In all of this, one thing seems abundantly clear to me: The greatest ability to strengthen and diversify friendship in the gospel probably comes not from the speaker panel’s ethnic make-up but from whether or not we attenders intentionally invite and reach out in our own circles of influence. We could ask ourselves: How many African Americans (Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc.) did I invite to come to the conference (any conference) this year? If we didn’t invite anyone not like us, then at best we have the same blind spots or limitations we assume conference organizers to have. One result of past conferences is that we’d regularly hear from people that they came alone the first time and committed to bringing others the next time (usually staff or elders or young guys from the congregation). I think that’s great. Maybe we should modify that commitment just a little to ask: What brother from a different mother has the Lord placed in my sphere of influence to invite the next time?
Maybe that makes things a little more diverse? Maybe it helps our friendships? Maybe not. Either way, we still have the gospel of our Lord and the Lord offered in the gospel.