How White Is the Emerging Church?

How White Is the Emerging Church? May 8, 2012

Pretty white, as it turns out. I asked Todd Ferguson of Baylor University to run crosstabs on the data that I collected in 2005. During my dissertation research, I collected 2,020 surveys from eight ECM congregations. You can read about my research and see some of the data in my book, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement.

Since then, I’ve let several researchers have my data for their own work. Todd is among them, and I asked him to correct a glaring oversight in my book — I neglected to offer this snapshot of the racial profile of the eight congregations I surveyed.

93% of emergents are white, according to my research. This is not generalizable across the movement — my research methods were not set up in that way. This is, as I said, a snapshot of eight congregations on a single Sunday in 2005. The most diverse church in the study was Cedar Ridge Community Church, at which Brian McLaren was the pastor at the time. Here’s a graphic:

The racial make-up of the emerging church movement.

Years ago, Soon-Chang Rah asked in Sojourners Magazine whether the emerging church movement is “for whites only.” I responded by asking whether Sojourners is for straight only, because it seems to me that we face the same problem: we’d like to be broader than we are, but that’s as tough as getting white and black students to sit next to each other in a public high school cafeteria.

In other words, it’s easy to criticize our movement or Sojo or North Park University (where Rah teaches) or the Evangelical Covenant Church (the denomination with which North Park is affiliated) for being too white. Yes, we’re all too white. The real question is, How do we diversify a movement that is purposefully non-evangelistic?

That is, the ECM is about a particular people trying to solve particular problem. If our solution isn’t interesting to everyone, is that a weakness that we should correct?

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  • Wouldn’t you diversify by diversifying? Giving power away, inviting others to the core of the conversations, being intentional, and so on? Maybe that’s oversimplifying. Time and again when I come across this question, I have to wonder if the criteria for participation i.e. Cost of participation, theological biases, quality control, are in part the very elements that prevent diversity..

    • DJ, we had a church planters academy last week that was $95 and was held in MSP, one of the least expensive cities to fly in to and visit. The event was theologically agnostic — it was about starting new churches. Does that address your concerns?

      • taco

        How does one have a theologically agnostic event around Church Planting?

      • Thanks for reply, knew of the church planters academy event. I don’t have so much a concern as some ideas for how to tackle the how-to-diversify question.

        Reality is, diversity isn’t as easy as saying “everyone is welcome.”

        So for an event like that, how diverse was the speakers lineup, and how diverse was the planning team? And, did the planning team actively connect with networks of diverse church leaders that would have been interested in that event? Answers to questions like this could make noticeable difference in diversity.

  • I’m not too surprised, but something I realized about a year ago in a Systematics class is how similar the emerging church movement is to many liberation theology movements of the past century: the subversive challenges of authority, the understanding that different Christians have different experiences, emphasis on the Kingdom of God on earth rather than going to Heaven when you die, etc. Those are all primarily one ethnicity, too, so I might be willing to argue that the emerging church is basically white liberation theology, rejecting our own oppressive culture/race.

    • Brian P.

      Never thought of it this way. Will have to think through this…

    • I agree. Though I’d change “rejecting our own oppressive culture” with “rejecting our own oppressing culture”.

  • Frank

    It’s the non evangelistic belief that prevents you from actually being a faith that reaches all people instead of the privileged few. Should be a wake up call to reevaluate your beliefs.

    You will be known by your fruit.

    • Charles

      Evangelistic = zealously advocating a cause. So NOT ECM!

      Frank, what color is the sky in your universe?

      • Frank

        Yes we wouldn’t want to be passionate about sharing Christ would we? Lets just keep it to ourselves and enjoy our own little comfortable Christian club. Thats way better! Let everyone else go to hell! Oh wait a minute you guys don’t believe in hell right?

        • Charles

          At the risk of another back and forth with Frank… I’m not a ECM guy. I’ve attended a fringe EMC gathering once or twice. I’m a Christian Church – Disciples of Christ guy (moderator of the ministry council in fact). The ECM is too conservative for me. And your right, Frank; there is not a PLACE called hell. It’s not just ECM folks that have a different outlook/theology about our relationship with The Creator of All.

          • Scot Miller

            Now I know why I like Charles’ comments….

          • Frank

            Charles you make a point of saying there is not a PLACE called hell. Why the emphasis on place? Can you clarify?

  • Dan Hauge

    If the ECM is genuinely content to see itself as one particular group’s expression to the problem, then maybe it doesn’t need to ‘correct’ anything. However, in years past I’ve gotten the impression that the ECM had more far-reaching desires: to be a kind of central conversation around which diverse communities of Christians could coalesce and move into the 21st century, and to address head-on issues of national and global injustice. Perhaps those are not as true anymore (indeed, it seems some of the rhetoric the early 2000s has been toned down quite a bit, back when it seemed like many emergents did seem to see this particular movement as the vanguard the next 500 year phase of worldwide Christianity). And maybe ECM is more content to be a “minority report” (I’m thinking about what you talked about, Tony, toward the end of your Homebrewed Christianity podcast last June, where you were talking about the possibilities of ECM going forward).

    However, I for one would really like the ECM to be more a part of a multi-cultural conversation about faith moving forward in our day. But I think this could be framed differently, not so much as “Can we make the ECM more diverse?” as “How can the ECM continue to move forward in mutually respectful dialogue with Christians of other cultures and colors who are addressing many of the same overall problems we are, but in different ways that we could learn from?” I would say that it’s a matter of actively learning how other people, other communities of color, are contextualizing the gospel in their own post-colonial situations, and then asking how the ECM could offer it’s own contributions, but as one conversation partner of many. And an essential part of this would be a commitment to addressing the still-present issue of white privilege in the nation, church, and world.

  • Ryan

    These are great thoughts. I myself have wondered about the racial diversity within the movement, as well. And I think your question back to Rah is a fair one. However, I think we should be careful not to simply suggest that the reason this movement is particularly “white” is because the solutions just aren’t interesting to “non-whites.” I think such a generalization hinders us from exploring further why the movement is so “white.” I think there could be myriad reasons why “non-whites” aren’t a part of the movement – reasons other than they are just not interested.

  • Carla

    I’m curious how those numbers compare to Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian or Methodist numbers? I mean, this has been an issue for churches long before there was anything called the Emerging church. Not that it shouldn’t continue to be a concern, but I’m not sure it’s a particular problem in this movement as much as more generalized problem in the larger church itself.

    Also, I have to take issue with your statement that getting more diversity in churches is as hard as getting white and black students to sit together in the cafeteria. That’s not actually an issue in the schools my kids attend–not at all. Which makes me wonder if there’s something to be learned from your analogy. Their schools are this way because there’s no self-selection process in which like finds like. If you live in this part of town, this is your school. But church doesn’t work that way anymore. People find their ideological tribe and that’s that. But in school, you hang out with the people you have classes with or meet through activities. My high schooler eats lunch at a table with kids of different ethnicities, different religions, and different socio-economic backgrounds. Their friendships, like most friendships, are the result of sharing an experience and discovering that they like being together.

    In my experience, people end up in emerging churches because someone they know is connected to that church. So maybe the problem isn’t an institutional one as much as an individual one. Maybe those of us who start and participate in these communities need to cultivate friendships that extend beyond our ideological and cultural tribes, not just because it makes the movement better, but because it makes us better, too.

  • I’m not surprised by the racial demographics of the movement, judging from the contact with it that I’ve had. Any information on the age of those involved, Tony?

    • Yes, Fred. See the appendix in my book, The Church Is Flat.

  • Eric

    Is it possible that the problem here has more to with the cultural identity of people involved with emerging church then about race? What I mean is this, I have friends who belong to various ethnic denominations/churches and they have vented similar frustrations as I have heard from white suburban people. Here is the difference though: My friends would never leave their church communities because their church is part of who they are. Cultural and ethnic identities are often ignored when it comes to issues of worship style but they are extremely significant. Most of my white friends are not as cultural invested in their local congregations and the worship culture are never considered inherently ethnic. Quite a few of them have visited several churches but when it comes to making a commitment to do life together it doesn’t often happen, which sometimes is their fault or the church’s fault. This typically is their one problem with churches that they find is that the identity promoted is not holistic or leads to community, which I think is what the emergent church offers people like my friends. Out of the two or three people who I have met who id themselves as emergent, this desire to have their identity formed by a church community that has unique cultural identifiers that they did not see in their original churches seems to be the dominant trait.

  • Dan Ra

    I think the ECM needs to accept its “white”-ness, be aware of it (along with its white privilege and dominant majority worldview), and make more effort to carry that self-awareness into non-White religious environments, where the ECM seems to be rather irrelevant.

    I think the ECM asks really good questions that are, in fact, universally important. But for all the conferences, gatherings, book tours, and roadshows I’ve been to, the reach-out only seems to be to progressive evangelical or mainline churches, which are overwhelmingly white. Birds of a feather flock together.

  • Donald Buck

    As a newbie to the “ECM,” why is it intentionally non-evangelistic?

    • Curtis

      ECM tends to talk more about what they are, not what they aren’t. Do you have a reference for where they claim to be non-evangelistic? Many participants in the ECM consider themselves Evangelical, but wouldn’t consider Evangelical to be an either/or proposition.

    • ben w.

      Curtis, Tony says in his post that the ECM is “purposefully non-evangelistic”. That struck me as a surprise too. I’d like to hear Tony or someone give a full explanation of what this means and the reasons for it.

      • Curtis

        Sorry, I was so taken by the pretty graphic that I didn’t read the last sentence. In that context, I take Tony to mean “does not emphasis the religious conversion of others”. Which I think is a fair thing to say about ECM. I imagine Tony could find a better way to say what he meant, but I won’t put words in Tony’s mouth.

      • What I mean is, we’re not trying to convince others to become emergent.

    • taco

      What does the ECM think Jesus did?

      • Curtis

        What’s your point? Jesus did a lot. The point of a Christian church is to explore and live what Jesus did. It can’t be expressed in one paragraph; it can be expressed in a lifelong journey to follow Jesus.

  • According to, 44% of the student population at North Park are minorities (stats here: I didn’t go to North Park, so I’m not particularly invested either way, but it seems like they are doing quite a bit better than the Emergent Church. But I think the way forward to sustained change, would be shared leadership with minorities. Likely this would alter the DNA of the Emergent church but the way to diversity is not to tell minorities, “You are welcome to be part of what we’re doing, and make the necessary changes and cultural adjustments so you can participate with us.” The way of diversity comes with divestiture of status and willingness to make change.

    • Dan Hauge

      I really think this hits the nail on the head, James. ECM is welcome to be particular in how we frame the problems, and frame our responses to them, but we need to be fully aware that they are culturally specific responses to those problems. If we want to be part of a wider conversation we need to be more open to different cultural responses to those problems, and be willing to share leadership and share how the questions and responses are framed, as you say.

  • This is Gustavo Frederico. I’m very sympathetic with the emerging ‘movement’. I’m from Brazil. I’m not sure how you want to classify me. Maybe “almost-white”, considering my great-grandparents were Portuguese, African, Brazilian Natives, German and Italian.
    If you raise the question I think it’s a very good start. I would ask: is the emerging movement as diverse ethnically as the American culture at large? I think at the current context it has to be *more* ethnically diverse.
    I think the question is not ‘ How do we diversify a movement that is purposefully non-evangelistic?’ It is a matter of circles and identities. I know that emergents are very open to bringing down barriers of ‘ins’ and ‘outs’. We are speaking about these barriers. No other group has a better recipe for that. It’s a matter of will more than anything.

  • Bill

    Though my city is 86 percent Caucasian, our ’emergent’ tribe is 60 percent Caucasian. That is partly due to the fact that my marriage is bi-racial. Also, the black, Asian, and Hispanic folks among us have either grown up in other countries or have lived abroad. Their world views are more ‘open’. They do not place their ‘hope’ in a narrow, culturally formed worldview. They’ve learned how to appreciate and grow from listening to other points of view. Their security is in the Infinite One rather than in finite and static notions. Here in the south (Franklin TN) we do not attract many Caucasians either – again because of ‘worldview’. I don’t think this is something we can change by better ‘evangelism’, but by education over several more generations. A cultural shift is happening on its own which, I think, in the future will play out better. In other words, this is clearly not about race. It is about culture. Anyone, Caucasian or otherwise, who places their hope in their culture rather than in God will never be open to ‘something better’ or feel secure enough to try on something different. Unfortunately Christianity has generally hidden the safety net of grace and led folks to trust in their own local church notions of ‘right’.

  • i haven’t done any such studies, my conclusions are based only on my own observations….and my observation is that not only is it primarily white, it’s primarily upper middle class……there seems to be a certainly snobbery at work here…….not sure it’s quite what christ had in mind

    • ME

      I doubt it’s snobbery. People tend to hang out with people they are similar to.

      That said, I interpret the commandment to love your neighbor as having the implication to make yourself lowly in order that you present yourself as an equal to all others. If one does that you probably end up hanging out with a more diversified group.

  • dfreric

    Isn’t it worth asking the question “who cares?”? I mean, really, why does it matter whether the movement’s white or not? That is, unless the group is actively seeking to remain white; that would be a problem. But it’s not doing that, as evinced by your questions.

    • Curtis

      I think one reason to care is that ECM often trumpets the value of “pluralism”. A claim of pluralism loses much of its credibility when the group making the claim is all-white.

  • Curtis

    Has anyone considered the possibility that some non-white churches were emergent before ECM was emergent? What I mean is, in terms of theology and practice, many non-white religious traditions in the U.S. have a long history of participatory worship and music, social justice and activism, and multi-ethnic pluralism — values that ECM often uses to distinguish itself from existing church bodies. Maybe the question is not so much why the ECM is white, but what can ECM learn from the many “emergent-like” movements that preceded them? Also, what outreach can be done to graft the ECM into like-minded movements of other ethnicities, some of which have been in place for hundreds of years before anyone talked about the ECM?

  • Guest

    I live in Mississippi even in 2013 Sunday is the most sergated day of the week