The demographics of Christianity are changing in the United States and around the world. An increase in minorities, especially Hispanic and Asian populations, is seen in most facets of American life, including church and conference attendance. Worldwide, the population center of Christianity has moved from Europe and North America to the Global South (South America, Africa and Asia).
David Empson, executive director of International Conference on Missions, shares two examples as evidence of the globalization of Christianity: More Christians are worshipping in China than America on any given Sunday, and Palestine, South Korea and Singapore send out a higher percentage of missionaries from their church-member populations than the United States does.
Appealing to a broader audience, no matter where it may be, requires knowing who its members are. “Be a student of your organization and gain an understanding of who your organization represents,” advises Laurie Seay, event director for the Evangelical Free Church of America One Conference. “Demographics, ethnicities, cultures—find out everything you can so you can best plan meetings that represent who you truly are.” EFCA’s initiative to embrace multiculturalism goes beyond the makeup of its churches. Its mission is to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people. Seay emphasizes the phrase “all people” when she explains the principle of the association.
“Over the past decade, there has been a commitment and intentionality in this area. It’s permeating leadership decisions in tangible ways,” she says, pointing to Immigrant Hope, an outreach for immigrants; peer-to-peer learning communities for leaders in urban and ethnic ministry; and Gateway, an alternative theological course for leaders who lack time and resources for seminary education.
This summer, the issue was highlighted at EFCA One Conference, the biennial gathering of EFCA church leaders and pastors. A day-long, pre-conference session and a three-session track during the main conference trained leaders to extend the issue beyond being multiethnic.
“We, in the EFCA, are taking a concerted look at all the lines that can separate us and serve as obstacles to authentic, deep transformation,” writes Dr. Alejandro Mandes about the discussions at the conference. “Far more than multiethnic issues, we’re addressing multilingual, multinational, multigenerational—multi everything, even touching on issues tied to gender and ability or disability.”
The Justice Conference also has made diverse representation resonate from the heart of its mission. “Commit to say, ‘This is a value that we’re going to aim for because it matters,’” says Ken Wytsma, the conference’s founder. “How we reflect this says something about what we believe and shapes our audience’s view.”
That belief is most evident in how the conference planner chooses speakers. Diversity of content, fields the speakers come from, tone and representation from various walks of life are as important as ethnicity and gender. These factors are viewed as an application of the very issue of justice the conference is about.
“The best way we can introduce justice at a conference is not necessarily in talking about justice, but in how we represent diversity on the main stage, challenge conference leaders in thinking about ethnic and gender, and give opportunities to men and women to speak who might not otherwise have them,” Wytsma says. “Diversity means we’re letting different ethnicities and genders have a teaching platform. Saying they’re a leading voice in communicating matters of what the conference is about, not just topics like reconciliation. It starts with the value of honoring a diverse group of voices, and then it becomes a reality.”
Empson knew he couldn’t alter the look of the 65-year-old ICOM (previously National Missionary Convention) overnight, so he started with his leadership. The shift in global Christianity was reason enough for the international organization to adapt.
“We’ve tried to emulate [the global] shift by including folks as our president and on our stage in the main sessions to show and include national leaders from around the world,” Empson explains. Every other year, the organization’s president is from a country outside the United States. This year, Jair Castillo is the organization’s first Hispanic president and, for the first time, leaders from Canada and Africa will lead in 2015 and 2017. Empson says it isn’t hard to find leaders doing great things in other countries.
The conference content and theme is driven by the leader’s culture. For the mid-November convention in Kansas City, the theme is “Glorifying God Globally” from David Platt’s book “Radical.” And in honor of Castillo’s home country of Mexico, the opening reception will have a mariachi band, Latin food and entertainment. “I feel there is no more festive culture than Latin America, so we’re trying to pull traits of the culture that also lift up the message of what were trying to do,” Empson says. ICOM unites the conference theme and emphasis on international culture by supporting a Hispanic church plant in Kansas City both financially and with additional resources.
IJM’s Global Prayer Gathering takes a slightly different approach. Constance Padmore, the organization’s director of prayer mobilization, says it uses internal speakers, but ensures every one of its 17 international field offices is represented. The conference gives the organization’s prayer partners an opportunity to hear directly from the field office directors and spend the weekend in prayer for issues they are facing around the world.
One of IJM’s core pillars is its reliance on prayer, so attendees connecting to the needs or region they are praying for is an important part of planning. Padmore and her team work with field office directors to create prayer rooms with music or artifacts from the region and encourage attendees to pray with such fervor as if they were in the situation themselves. Each attendee receives a journal with inspirational notes, encouraging scriptures and stories of answered prayers written in the native language of field staff and interpreted in English to further drive home the connection. The journal helps guide the attendee year-round in praying for IJM.
ICOM uses little touches to remind attendees of its global message as well. This year, attendees will receive a bookmark that looks like a Mexican blanket. In the past, Empson has tapped into his membership for programming that highlights other cultures, like having a Burmese Chin choir perform or offering service projects that benefit Native American communities. Seay also has used music to make attendees feel comfortable. At EFCA One, a multiethnic band led worship in multiple dialects, including sign language.
“It takes extra time and extra effort in the planning process, but the payoff far exceeds any additional complexity that process has,” Seay says.
The essential elements of inclusivity require attention from the early planning stages in order to design a successful experience for the entire group. Creating a welcoming conference is as much at the heart of meetings as it is for organizations.