McLaren Weighs in on Emergent's Whiteness

Brian McLaren, whom I tongue-in-cheekedly referred to as the White Crayon in Chief last week, has stepped into the fray over all of the Sojo posts (and my own) regarding Sojourners Magazine’s latest cover article:

In my view, reports of the conversation’s demise are greatly exaggerated. In some cases, they represent wishful thinking; in other cases, a limited frame of reference. From my perspective, Chapter 1 of the conversation may be ending, but there are many new and even better episodes to come. Or better put, what we call “the emergent conversation” may in fact be chapter 3 or 7 or 123 of a much longer storyline. That larger story is nowhere close to being over, and in fact, I don’t think its most important work has even begun.

The real future, as I see it, isn’t an intramural conversation among Evangelicals (as many think), or even among Western Christians (as others think), but rather an expanding conversation among progressive evangelicals, missional mainline Protestants, progressive Catholics, and postcolonial Christians from around the world. Its future may or may not still use words like emergent, emerging, etc., but the cat is out of the bag. Deep questions are being raised, and when that happens, you can take two predictions to the bank, one of them being that you can’t get the questions back in the bag, and the second being that some people will try.

via on emergent – Brian McLaren

Now, let me say something a bit McLarenesque, and something that didn’t come through as loudly as it should have in my previous posts: I am thankful for Soong-Chan Rah and Lisa Sharon Harper and Gabriel Salguero and Calvin Chen. They are asking important questions of me and everyone else in the EC, and I am listening.

And I look forward to all of us getting to know one another better.

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  • Tom

    I’ve thought about the “whiteness” of emergent, and of course it is true, and not surprising. Even in this day, with all the progress we have made (an African-American in the White House!!!) it is still true that white men control access to power and resources. So it is not surprising that white men are in the forefront of the emergent church. The key is in becoming inclusive as fast as possible, as McLaren rightly points out.

  • As a white anti-racist activist finally getting involved in the EC conversation, I am thrilled to read these critiques and dialogues, and look forward to the coming (and continuing) work. Christ be with us all! 🙂

  • I never understood what the hoopla was all about in the first place. Maybe it’s because I’m a white male and don’t have enough racial sensitivity to understand in the first place where all the criticism and emotion about lack of multiracial representation was coming from.

    But seriously, unless someone could prove intentionality in excluding certain voices, there is absolutely nothing to bicker about. Either sex, color, race, gender are irrelevant in the kingdom of God or we’re going to politicize the whole thing and start looking at some type of emergent affirmative action and quotas that have to be filled.

    If the discussion is about influence, where should that influence ideally be coming from? Should it be coming from the strength of truth in an argument made that resonates throughout the body of Christ (which makes the source irrelevant) or is it through strengths in numbers and who is able to use media and multiplication most to his or her advantage? If it’s the latter, then we’re already way off track and have started thinking about power and influence in terms of a different kingdom than the one we profess to pursue!

  • Here are two web resources for negotiating the “hoopla.” I’ve found them useful, as was The Heart of Racial Justice, by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson.

    Peggy Mackintosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

    The WCC’s Central Committee paper: Being church and overcoming racism: It’s time for transformative justice.

  • Racheal, I’m not denying the reality of white privilege (and that I am unconsciously benefitting from it every single day) and the deeply troubling racist attitudes within the local church as well. It’s caused me a lot of pain every time I have run into antisemitism, prejudice against blacks and muslims, attempts to suppress female leadership in the church etc. and my attempts to talk people out of it, usually with very little success.

    But how exactly does that apply to the emergent conversation? There is no formal organization (beyond a council of volunteers) or a hierarchical structure in place that facilitates or promotes any of these attitudes. And I don’t see why the lack of participation from some would be automatically reflective of some unconscious oppressive behavior of those who have chosen to participate. It honestly doesn’t make any sense to me.

    If I examine myself, the people I’m most prone to exclude, have prejudices and be intolerant against are fundamentalists, racists, ultra-calvinists and prosperity preachers. Yes, I do have a real problem loving those kind of enemies and to even feel any incling to remedy that situation. It’s just funny that I seldom hear any encouragement in that direction. Instead it seems more prudent and popular these days to start targeting those who are already largely on the same side. Again, what the sheol is going on? Who is built up and helped by this mutual tearing down and questioning of motives? Women and minorities? I sincerely doubt it!

  • Calvin Chen

    Thanks Tony for graciously acknowledging that you have something to learn from my anger. I do hope for continued acknowledgment on your part that active minority voices are integral to the conversation. I’m honored to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Soong-Chan, Lisa, and Gabriel — especially since I’ve contributed far less to the conversation. SO… to ameliorate that:

    I do agree with your response to Lisa Sharon Harper that structural change can’t be the goal because the EC has no structures. Everyone seems to recognize that Emergent Village’s Council is not indicative at all of EC’s leadership… and that fulfilling some sort of quota on it does nothing. But doesn’t the fact that EV’s council and its ethnic/gender makeup has little bearing on power within EC confirm Sojo/Soong-Chan/Jason’s critique? I hope most in the conversation recognize that EC’s audience is still predominantly (sometimes glaringly) white… and that its narrative is still generally one of emerging from white evangelicalism. As some previous commenters have pointed out, the narrative in and of itself isn’t a bad thing at all — it’s probably much needed and proceeding from that narrative and need isn’t something to apologize for. If anything it’s one that needs to be owned up to.

    The change, then, has to be paradigmatic, within the already anointed leadership of EC, which is already predominantly white male. And as Soong-Chan points out… a paradigmatic shift proceeding from but moving out of that white narrative and its dominantly white audience-focus is necessary for EC’s witness and continued relevance.

    As you and others have pointed out, EC seems to have listened to women and much of the dialogue and even culture, goals, and direction of EC has been influenced.

    For a fairly obvious example that I believe is somewhat of an elephant in the room — most minority Christians, including those in the “multi-racial Church movement” hold to a less “generous orthodoxy” than EC. I believe we also define “missional” very differently — and at least in the case of the Asian Americans, even the “liberal” mainline Protestants among us place high value on evangelism. EC’s flirtation with pluralism and “deeds not creeds” says to us: “you or your parents were fools for risking disownership, personal physical harm, and shame to their families for converting to Christianity.” EC’s ethnic and cultural homogeneity — however inadvertent — says to us “this conversation is for us, and we’re not willing to make our places of worship or styles more attractive for you and you’re still an outsider here, in this country, and in this faith.” EC’s on-again, off-again relationship with social and especially racial justice says “I care… when it’s convenient… but I can retreat back to my white middle class world whenever I want.. and we have other things to worry about… like our ongoing whites only conversation about emerging from white evangelicalism.”

    Of course none of these are intentionally conveyed… but they all are implicitly — and now that you know — to passively ignore it is rejecting change (ha — sound like a familiar apologetic often rejected… and with good reason, by the EC?)

    It’s not about finding a minority — any minority voice. Many minorities — especially Asian Americans — have not gone through an ethnic identity journey because their environments have either been unassimilated or hyper-assimilated. Many are not prepared to function as an “emissary” or “advocate” (to borrow secular racial reconciliation language)… or hate being tokenized. Still others’ voices simply may not be loud, distinct, insightful, prophetic, or self-aware enough to contribute meaningfully to the conversation.

    What needs to happen is that EC’s white, male leadership needs to be willing enough to enter into the journeys of ethnic minorities. No, not “having a black friend.” Finding Black, Latino, Asian American, and/or First Nations friends who are willing and able to function as emissaries and teachers of their experience… and even advocates for their communities. To the extent that the EC conversation begins to reflect their narratives and objectives.

    Minorities aren’t off the hook — but those of us who are part of a conversation like this are part of a cross-cultural journey like that every single day.

    @ Josh Mueller – your first comment reflects an ignorant (and very unbiblical!) color-blind narrative. Race, gender, color, and sex are NOT irrelevant to the kingdom of God! A statement like that automatically reflects assumptions of white male normativity… either that or our ethnicities and genders all must be a horrible accident by God. A source is never irrelevant because it is in and of itself part of the message and affects how loudly it is heard. Your “unless that is intentionality in excluding voices” is an almost comically stereotypical example of passive racism, and your “empathy defense” on the following comment really doesn’t help, either.

    Let me just reiterate that for me… homogeneity of the audience and (shrinking!) homogeneity of the speakers within EC isn’t the problem. It’s the narrowness of its message in terms of the voices and perspectives represented — and I mean narrowness in a very different sense than the narrowness EC usually critiques.

  • Sharon Tan

    I track with Calvin Chen. I don’t call myself emergent because when I was looking for a church about 5 years ago and visited a famous emergent church I did not see a single person who looked like me (Asian female immigrant) or was interested in what I had to say, not many who looked at me, but many who looked at my shoes. So, even though I was interested in the movement and liked the theology, we looked elsewhere for a church.
    I read Dr. Rah not as criticizing the emergent church per se, but in criticizing the larger church’s response to this movement in contrast with its response to the greater growth in non-white churches and the global south. That the subsequent debate has become about the emergent church itself is and indication of the narcissim that imbues the Western white church.

  • Melissa Mitchell


    After reading Brian McLaren’s column today at, I came back to see whatever happened with the discussion here. I must say that I am impressed and hopeful after reading your post that McLaren linked to: Emergent’s White Problem. I very much appreciated that one of your suggestions to Emerging Church leaders was to ‘examine white privilege.’

    At one point (in that second post), you had asked what the difference was between EC & other groups who have predominantly white leadership. For me, this honest awareness & acknowledgement of white cultural blindness was the difference.

    People say race doesn’t matter, or that we shouldn’t talk about racial issues because it’s in the past. But as a person with some melanin in my skin, it does matter. Everyday it does. Even moreso, as a biracial person (Native American & white), I do not have the ‘privilege’ of forgetting, of it not playing a factor into all my interactions. I can navigate white culture and am incredibly familiar with it. Yet at the same time, I also see all the things that white culture takes for granted as normative and default. They are neither, but instead they are the arbitrary choices of white culture, which happens to be the dominant culture in American society. And I feel that my whole life is banging my head against this wall with my white friends. It is extra frustrating when it is with fellow Christians, and especially when it is with fellow Christians who have been somewhat enlightened to social justice issues.

    Recently, after a conversation at a (white, evangelical) church group where I shared my experience of race, one of my very good friends turned to me and said “I forgot that you’re not all white. You’re just Melissa.” And she meant this as a compliment! But inside it was a deep blow. Because it means that she does not see all of me. Whatever I have tried to share with her about my non-Anglo side has not connected. Or maybe it is my own fault for ‘passsing’ so well.

    And that comes back to the difference in relating with a white person who has investigated not only white privilege, but the cultures of their fellow Americans, Christians, emergents, versus relating with a white person who merely wants to invite non-Anglos into white culture. I have experienced that fuller acceptance (of all my racial identity & experience) at Sojourners and CCDA. A main reason being that they spend time talking about race & its related issues.

    I will grant that I have not been part of the emergent conversation, and therefore am speaking as an outsider. But as I said in a previous comment, it was for this very reason that I kept myself outside. I had exchanged a couple emails with Anthony Smith about my hesitance a couple years ago. He encouraged me to still try, that in the emergent movement I might find people more willing to listen. I admit that I did not follow through, partly because I have already been engaging in this conversation (though apparently not enough!) with my local (evangelical & predominantly white) church. Progress is happening there, and I am overjoyed to see evidence that it is happening in the emergent movement as well.

    Here’s to the new table of all of “us” that McLaren spoke of in his post. 🙂


  • Thanks, Tony. I look forward to getting to know you better, too. Well call soon. ~ Lisa

  • Oops… “Will” call soon ;p.

  • Way to be McLarenesque, Tony 😉

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