On Monday morning, my online world erupted when Efrem Smith, an author, consultant and regional leader for the Evangelical Covenant Church tweeted “Until Youth Worker Journal does more to honor youth ministry experts of color and in the urban context, I won't be reading.” He posted a similar sentiment on Facebook, where he also posted an ad for Youth Worker Journal entitled “The company we keep” that featured photos of 20 youth ministry “experts” – 16 male and four female, all of whom were white. Without a doubt, Efrem's statements have created quite a stir over two things: Expertise and diversity.
In his Facebook post, Efrem said, “Youth Worker Journal has an ad in their latest issue featuring Youth Ministry experts, according to their opinion.” Through this statement, Efrem raises an important question: Who determines who the experts in youth ministry are? Unlike other fields, being a youth worker does not require a certain degree or the passing of a test. There are few, if any, standards or metrics used to determine expertise. Without such things, expertise is largely subjective.
Even so, what's interesting to me is that I know few in the youth ministry world who would question the expertise of the twenty people featured in this ad. Most are veteran youth workers, with more than 20 years of youth ministry experience. Many are highly educated and several have prominent roles in academia themselves. Most are authors. By any number of measurements, those featured in this ad are undeniably experts in the youth ministry world.
That said, like Efrem, it pains me that there is not more diversity featured in this panel of experts. As a lifelong learner, diversity is important to me. It's also important to me because as a female in youth ministry, I, too, am still a minority in the world of professional youth ministry. In fact, there are churches that still will not hire me, not because I lack certain qualifications, but simply because I am a woman. Moreover, diversity's important to me because I am committed to the gospel – a gospel that I believe advocates unity amongst diversity and professes we are all one in Christ. Believe me when I say, when it comes to the experts in youth ministry, I'm among those who wish
- There was more ethnic diversity
- There were more women
- There were prominent voices advocating not just suburban and urban ministry, but rural ministry as well
- There was more theological diversity from leaders from diverse denominational backgrounds.
If my wishes were to come true, I wholeheartedly believe youth ministry would be stronger and far more effective in ministering to students of all kinds with the Gospel of Christ than it is now.
Even so, despite how much I long to see more diversity of all kinds in the youth ministry world, I also know this is not yet the reality in which we live. Right now, in the world of American youth ministry – especially in the world of evangelical American youth ministry - many of our experts are, in fact, white males. A white man's race and gender should no more exclude him from being considered an expert than a woman's gender or a person of color's race should disqualify them from such positions.
This, of course, brings us to what seems to be Efrem's primary concern with Youth Worker Journal: It's lack of diversity.
To be clear, until this ad showed up on my Facebook feed, I'd never seen it. But I have and do write for Youth Worker Journal. Many of the experts featured in the questionable ad are ones I've interviewed for Youth Worker Journal's roundtables. (Interestingly, Efrem was part of my roundtable for Youth Worker Journal on urban ministry.) For this reason, each time Efrem's post popped up in my newsfeed, I felt as though I was being unfairly attacked even though in my experience with these roundtables, I've consistently seen diversity valued. (Now mind you, my experience is limited to them and does not, in anyway, speak to to how the magazine is compiled as a whole).
Recognizing that we learn from people who are different than us, my editor and I always sought to feature a diverse panel of experts in the roundtables. What's more, to form these panels we looked beyond the company we keep (though my company is, in fact, diverse in many ways) to recommendations from others, to authors of new and forthcoming books, and to the world of academia. We did so in order to present a diverse panel of experts beyond our limited body of knowledge. Sometimes this diversity manifested itself in terms of ethnicity and at other times, it did so in terms of gender. Unfortunately, I admit there are also times when we probably failed to do either, something that breaks my heart because my commitment to diversity is deeply personal.
For five years, I served as the youth pastor at a multi-ethnic church in a community in which I was most decidedly the minority. Though I often struggled with all that came with being in the minority, today, I'm extraordinarily grateful for the time I spent in this community. My experience as a minority gave me a new lens through which to see the world, Scripture, Jesus, and my faith. In particular, it challenged me to distinguish cultural values from Biblical ones. It also caused me to read Scripture differently. In the process, it radically altered my faith, helping me to become the person and youth worker I am today.
That said, I encountered numerous challenges in being the minority in this multi-ethnic environment. For instance, I'm pretty sure I got my job at this church because I was a white woman and the church's leadership knew it's staff had to reflect the diversity it wanted to achieve church-wide. During times when I was the only white person on staff, I frequently gave announcements in worship so that those not in the majority culture would see someone like them and feel more welcome.
To some extent, this strategy worked. The more visibly diversified our staff and leadership became, the more diversified our church became. Our parishioners were pan-Asian, African American, Latino, and white. We had diversity – at least superficially. Yet, we often lacked unity in the midst of this diversity, failing to truly understand and value the cultures that powerfully shaped each of us. As a result, conflicts arose over cultural differences that were all too frequently brushed aside for the sake of becoming “one in Christ”.
That experience no doubt colors the lens through which I've seen Efrem's statements. In the days since this conversation first erupted, I've found myself wondering, how do we truly find ways to unify the larger church, while at the same time recognizing and honoring the cultures that uniquely shape us? How can we navigate the difficulty and complexity of cross-cultural relationships in a way that builds up rather than tears down the church? And how can we do so in a way that pushes us toward true equality rather than token representation?
After all, having been the “token” too many times to count, I'd argue that oftentimes, token representation strips people of their dignity and moves us farther from rather than toward equality. Whenever I've been the token ________ (Take your pick: Woman, liberal, traditionalist, mainliner), I've felt used, as though I've only been invited into the conversation for my ability to make the group appear diverse; Not for my wisdom, experience, creativity, or expertise on a particular subject. This kind of token representation fosters superficial integration, not equality.
And let's be honest. I want more than superficial anything for myself, my family, and my students. I want real integration and equality – the kind that values people as God values each of us; The kind that takes time, effort, endurance, intentionality, and hard work but that flourishes in relationships; The kind that challenges us to grow as individuals and people of faith, pushes us toward community, and powerfully communicates the gospel – to each other and the surrounding world.
So how do we get there?
I admit I don't know.
What I do know is truly honoring people's culture and ethnicities takes a willingness to engage with those who are different than us in order to to learn from and about all kinds of people – regardless of their race or gender. It requires us to to intentionally choose to live in tension with one another and to relentlessly pursue deep community, even in the midst of conflict. Truly honoring people's culture and ethnicity requires us to dig beyond superficiality in order to learn not just about each other, but about the God whose image we each uniquely reflect.
In light of that, my prayer is this: No matter what firestorms erupt around us, may we be people of hope who seek to truly honor one another's expertise, culture, and ethnicity by living in the reality of the kingdom of God, a kingdom which is simultaneously here now and not yet fulfilled.