The Faces on the Stage

“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”

So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference.  The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.”  Praise God for such a vision!  And praise God for the organizers of this event.  Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event.  Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”

The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids.  Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference.  These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music.  They will surge and sing.  They will cry and commit.  And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).

The faces on the stage matter.  If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band.  These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.

They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy.  It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was).  The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone.  The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.

Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse?  Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material?  Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?

Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves.  Call it FUBU for White people.

The truth is, the faces do matter.  And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think.  Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters.  Think I’m wrong?  Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself.  You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important.  Call it the incarnation experience.  You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.  That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.

It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.

Author: elderj

I was born the fourth child and third son of godly parents in Nashville Tennessee. After leaving home for college I got involved with InterVarsity, then graduated with a degree in finance. After that I got a masters in history. Nowadays I spend too much time reading, writing, thinking, and occasionally doing my job.

32 thoughts on “The Faces on the Stage”

  1. Did you just say, “FUBU for White people?!”


    Nice line in a GREAT post. ABSOLUTELY the faces on the stage matter, and the biggest reason why it’s easy for someone in the Passion conference movement to say that they don’t is because their faces are represented.


  2. I agree with this, except for the line “White Evangelicals….increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further”. Their actions may be isolating them, but that is not what they are seeking. I do believe that they are seeking Jesus, but they are unaware of some of the unintended consequences of their actions.

  3. Oft referenced white theologian Karl Barth said “we must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” In my experience, White Evangelicals likewise feel that they are exegeting culture in the structure of events like Passion 2010 through incorporating ‘edgy’ speakers and concepts. The problem that you so deftly identified is that they look at themselves, the church, faith, and God through a lens so monocultural, they do not realize the picture is incomplete. The isolation, while perhaps not intentional as Greg J stated, becomes even more disturbing. If what is naturally seen by this influential group as “Christian” is also “white”, then the two become conflated, and any voice not representative of white majority culture is somehow seen as “less Christian”. I agree with your conclusion: Christians must be leaders in representing the Kingdom of God intentionally through the “faces on the stage”, through the theologians we read and sermons we preach, through the images of God and God’s people we share with our communities.

    Thanks for your writing Elder J, as always, great challenge, and great faithfulness.

  4. Elder J, great thoughts for us to consider. Hopefully, it won’t only be the minorities who are considering this but the White Evangelicals. It seems to me that whenever we minorities talk about race, that the MAN gets upset and starts pulling out a “get out of race card”.

    I do hope that people who put on Passion 2010 will care more than the white suburban teenager and how they (white people) can go and save the (minority) filled world.


  5. i’ve never been to a white evangelical conference…i will tell you that i was deeply influenced by my pastor who spent most of his youth and adult life in africa…there was no sense of western mentality…i’m not interested in conferences, but i am interested in community. i’m white and evangelical…i probably know more asian people than you do…

  6. Folks need to read my book: The Next Evangelicalism (IVP Books, 2009). Sorry elderj. I haven’t been able to plug my book in a long while. Thought I’ll get back to it. 🙂

      1. Josh, you really need to read Prof Rah’s book… if you haven’t by Urbana I’ll bug you about it or something.

  7. I’m sort of a mess. I make careless and crappy decisions. I don’t pray as often as I should. I have to repent… a LOT.

    I’m also a white evangelical.

    I’d like to go on the record and say that I am convinced that there are many truths that you ElderJ know and believe, that I don’t, that you are right about and I am not. I’ve lived in my own skin long enough to know I don’t have all the answers, and I should often be suspicious of the ones I do have.

    I guess I wanted to say that stuff because I want you to know that I am far from perfect and I have a lot to learn. I truly believe this.

    In spite of all that I have a dissenting opinion about your blog post here. Not the message, the delivery. I think you can be right, but wrong at the top of your voice. It came across to me as a bit hostile and self righteous. And off-putting. I put up walls just reading it and I forced myself to re-read it a second time in a softer, quieter voice.

    As a white Evangelical who wants to grow and be a better person tomorrow than I am today I would like to ask that you stay on mission but instead of being a prophet, be a rabbi. Teach me and guide me. Meet me half way.

    You lament that white Evangelicals do not learn the minority language and culture. You lament that because of it we sacrifice influence. But then you appear, in this blog post anyway, to commit the same crime. Instead of using what you know of us and our culture to speak our language and guide us out of wrong thinking… you create what appears to me to be an Internet rant.

    I want you to stay on mission. I want white Evangelicals to be cognizant of cultural and racial issues so as to be deliberate and effective ambassadors for Jesus. But a rant on the Internet is only going to reinforce the wall you’re trying to tear down.

    These are just opinions.

    peace | dewde

    1. Firstly, thank you for dropping in. I don’t take any commentary for granted and appreciate thoughtful ones like yours and those of others who have commented.

      Secondly, I concur with your initial self assessment and echo it as being true of my own life, save one thing. I am more than “sorta” a mess; I’m a complete screw-up! So there we begin with common ground.

      Now to the heart of your comment. The tone of my post was intentionally edgy, which is not my preferred tone. Indeed I rather consider myself a “rabbi” than a “prophet” to borrow your phraseology, and most assuredly prefer not to ruffle feathers unnecessarily. My comments praising God for the Passion conference, for the organizers and for the outcome of what is sure to be a wonderful event are sincere.

      Nevertheless, I believe that our community, by which I mean evangelicals, are backsliding in our efforts to keep at bay the incessant and unrelenting hounds of ethnocentrism that so insidiously work their way into the structures, language, program, and thought process of our institutions and conferences. I’m glad you gave the post a second read and that you were able to discern the message beneath the initially off putting rhetoric, but please don’t ignore the tone. It is meant to be provocative because I am provoked and we (Christians) should be provoked into seeing what we so easily fail to see: the faces matter. They matter all the time in every possible way.

      It is not something I think of often, but it is quite the thing to remember growing up and feeling because of the steady diet of media, that nothing in American society was made for me or was concerned about me. The levels of mental strength needed to overcome the quite pervasive “White as normal” cultural milieu of American society cannot be overstated. But this is no problem. What is a problem is that we in the church, we who are inheritors of a global faith and who more than once have been smacked in the head by brothers and sisters in sometimes loving and sometimes harsh rebuke, steadfastly continue to operate with the same assumptions and blinders, and then dare to ask, as you have done, to be taught.

      Honestly, it is tiring. And though I am committed to the mission and committed to my brothers and sisters of every ethnicity and culture, please know that while many White evangelicals can approach this as optional and retreat, I cannot.

    2. Dewde,

      Thank you for engaging in the on-line conversations. I’ve been watching several threads, and it is getting ugly out there. I appreciate your tone, as difficult as that is to convey in this medium.

      I have to say that I don’t think what ElderJ is doing here is the committing the same crime at all. White Evangelicals come from a place of privilege which does not require learning the minority language. Minorities, however, have to learn the majority language.

      This isn’t always in the literal sense. That is why many of us Asian Americans will hear things like, “Do you speak English?!” or “Wow, where did you learn to speak English?”

      My grandmother who immigrated to the US more than 30 years ago still does not speak fluent English. However, she understands American culture better than the vast majority of white Americans understand about her culture. ElderJ and other non-White Evangelicals/Christians who have written about DV are using the same venue – a public one – and our ability to speak bi-culturally. I can “speak” white Evangelical more fluently than you can speak “Asian American” Evangelical because the majority language is what is assumed standard.

      I will agree with your point about rants reinforcing walls. If you hop over to Eugene Cho’s blog you’ll see comment after comment of DV supporters demanding Eugene and I invite the DV authors to speak at our churches, seminaries, conferences and asking that we contribute financially to restore their platforms and ministries. There have been no comments from DV supporters that I’ve been able to find that suggest that DV supporters should pick up a few books that might help them understand the racial/ethnic divisions that already exist or invite us to help them learn about such things.

      I believe you, Dewde, when you write that you want ElderJ (and I believe you would say this me and others) to stay on mission. Posts like this are part of what will keep us connected and on point. Perhaps what feels like a rant is actually voices that have been silenced or ignored finally being heard?

      Peace be with you also.

      1. Hi Kathy :-).

        “White Evangelicals come from a place of privilege which does not require learning the minority language. Minorities, however, have to learn the majority language.”

        Considering the skin color and background of the largest group of unreached earthlings, I’d say most of us should desire to learn more languages. Minority and otherwise.

        “This isn’t always in the literal sense. That is why many of us Asian Americans will hear things like, “Do you speak English?!” or “Wow, where did you learn to speak English?””

        I went to high school and college in deeeep south Georgia. I am well aware of what gets said in public, and behind closed doors, about non-whites. For the record, I’m just the sort of guy that calls people out in public when they make those remarks. And not usually in a Christianly manner. I do not understand people that want all Americans to sound the same. I am proud that we all do not.

        “I will agree with your point about rants reinforcing walls. If you hop over to Eugene Cho’s blog you’ll see”

        What’s happening over on Eugene’s blog is, quite literally, breaking my heart. First and foremost because Pastor Eugene has been a freaking rockstar through all this. Out of everyone in both camps, I feel like he has paved the way towards the most understanding and peace. So when I read the comments I’m like WTF people?!?

        It’s an interesting study in social media. Professor Rah (admittedly) censors his commentorship. So you get a different vibe. You actually get the vibe that Professor Rah creates through floodgating. I’m speculating based on what I have read, but think many of the commenters on Eugene’s blog didn’t find a voice on Professor Rah’s blog. And since Eugene has a more open commenting policy, he got the lion’s share of the negativity.

        “There have been no comments from DV supporters that I’ve been able to find that suggest that DV supporters should pick up a few books that might help them understand the racial/ethnic divisions that already exist or invite us to help them learn about such things.”

        This is a striking observation that completely escaped me. Thank you!

        “Perhaps what feels like a rant is actually voices that have been silenced or ignored finally being heard?”

        My point to ElderJ was that perception is reality and “a rant” and a “heard voice” are mutually exclusive. I saw a cool quote yesterday from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.”

        It’s tough, this blog commenting thing. It’s so easy to point out everyone else’s splinters and ignore our own 2x4s. I’m not trying to do that here. Trust me, my 2×4’s are barking at me daily.

        peace | dewde

  8. great piece, elderj. i am not an elder, but i echo your sentiments. in fact, as i reflect on such classics as My Friend, The Enemy by Bill Pannell or Your God is Too White by Columbus Salley and Ronald Biem, it appears that this battle of helping our European American brothers understand how they use their privilege for their own merit. I know and believe they really do love and seek to please the Lord, I must believe this, but I shudder that they continue to be completely unaware of how insulting they have been, and without remorse.

    when can we announce we have authentic reconciliation? we are certainly not in a post racial age, otherwise things like this wouldn’t matter.

  9. Ironically, it would have been better for Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite if they had been objectified in the Deadly Viper controversy, but it appears they were mistakenly made the subject of the discussion.

    If I understand all this correctly (and for the record, I am an ancillary vested person in this story, click here to read my own post re: all this), they touched a very sensitive nerve that (not only) the Asian American community has experienced in a “white captivity” culture—one that they have been grappling to put words to.

    The tragedy is that rather than making the subject a conversation around cultivating sensitivity to humanizing all people regardless of race, culture or ethnicity, the tone and the target of these wounds were aimed at two guys who were actually contributing to a conversation towards integrity, character and the affirmation of human dignity for all persons.

    I am a huge fan of Prof Rah and think his message needs to get out further to provoke a more grounded sense of our Christian identity as it relates to the shifting (actually, shifted) demographic in the mosaic of who actually makes up our Christian majority. But I am also a huge fan of what the Deadly Viper project was advocating for, not only in its content, but how the message of integrity, character and grace was embodied in the lives of Mike and Jud. It is sad how two important messages collided and the fallout that has been an unintended consequence of this collision.

    Let’s hope that everyone who made hurtful or accusatory statements about Mike and Jud, reconsider the content and tone of those unfair allegations. Much of the content I’ve read in the comment sections on blogs regarding all this has been unhelpful assumptions. These assumptions have only aggravated a sensitive conversation that needs to be played out. However, this important conversation should be held around more harmful eruptions of cultural insensitivity (i.e. the “Rickshaw Rally”) that somehow are left immune to the controversy Deadly Vipers unintentionally invited.

    Let’s also remember that Mike and Jud should not be the targets of this dialogue. If people want to pick fights here, there are plenty of other legitimate instances of racial insensitivity that are more important and appropriate instances that can be focused on.

    A positive outcome from all this would be an overwhelming level of support for Mike and Jud as the move away from the packaging of Deadly Vipers to their People of a Second Chance movement. A platform they have created for others that now needs to be extended to them, especially by those who have been so accusatory in the ways they’ve dismantled an important voice of renewal for our shared humanity.

    The essence of how I hope all this comes across speaks to the crucial need to humanize all people—the Asian American community and Mike and Jud. I think there’s a way that Prof Rah’s (and other’s) concerns can be, and need to be validated, but not at the expense of Mike and Jud—otherwise, the same thing that Deadly Vipers has been accused of will be done to them by those who are most concerned.

    Overall, I believe this has been a sad eruption of anger around an important issue that seems to have been misdirected at two guys who have given themselves to a much-needed message of hope. I think resistance to “white captivity,” or the imposition of any dominant consciousness of our Christian expression needs to be fought against, but not at the expense of the reputation and content of men whose message resonates with this struggle from a different perspective.

    *If you’d like to discuss this or comment on these thoughts please leave them here (*

  10. hey ElderJ, great post. I find I’m thinking a whole lot more now that I’ve picked back up on reading yall’s blogs (you, DPark, Kathy K, Eugene Cho).

    I wanted to just clarify that bit on Passion, so that perhaps you can hone your point a bit more. I think that instead of Passion rounding up a lot of big-name folks, it actually may be that the big-name folks got their name from Passion (not counting folks like John Piper or Beth Moore, of course). To be specific, Louie Giglio is the leader of the Passion movement, so he kinda comes with the package (i.e. there was no recruiting him). Louie was friends with David Crowder as far back as their college ministry at Baylor; DCB, as well as Chris Tomlin (and maybe other worship leaders) got their kickstart from touring with Passion (their records were under Passion’s record label for a while).

    I’ll vouch for Passion because they have played a part in changing my life for the glory of God, but I can also see your point, because sitting in the arena at Passion ’06 I did see that the majority of attendees were white, and could afford to pay the fees and travel to come to the conference. Though I will say that I’ve noticed a growing population of Asian-American students making their way to Passion events…you know, the ones that couldn’t make it to Hillsong Conference 😛

    By the way, my friend and I were wondering the other day: do Passion and Intervarsity need to meet each other? Passion begins right when Urbana ends this year. They draw from the same student body. It doesn’t quite work so well schedule-wise…didn’t know if you had any insight on that.

  11. I have been following the DV stuff fairly intently, and I appreciate what you have to say here…

    So here is the million dollar question?

    What should happen?

    Should Passion simply have Prof. Rah, Dr. Perkins, and others come and speak?

    Only invite people from urban, ethnic churches to come?

    Nececitamos cantar en Espanol?

    Same question on a local level (I am pastoring an urban church plant). How does our community address this?

    Do we just put people in leadership because of the color of their skin? (Rhetorical) Do we just import minority speakers and musicians from other churches (actually know of Churches who do this)?

    Our church is fortunate in this area, we are quite multi-ethnic, but what is the way forward for the church as a whole?

    A big question I have is, how do we include other voices if we have serious disagreements about what they are saying?

    For example, a large swath of the African-American Christian community has a real problem with the uncritical acceptance of the prosperity gospel, this affects spiritual formation in profound ways. I don’t know too many African-American voices who are saying anything remotely like (for example) what Dallas Willard is saying…

    How does a local congregation give voice to this? We need the voices of those people, but they have also embraced a heresy that we must reject?

    (I know I am speaking in generality here, so please, cut me some slack, try to understand where I am coming from, not what my words actually say!)

    This is a real difficulty for me personally!

    In fact, I have pursued diverse voices in my reading, but have simply only ever found minority voices that talk about race. Where is Prof. Rah’s book on spiritual formation? or church planting? I need that book, perhaps even more than I need Prof. Rah on race!!!

    Because hearing him talk about race, while important, still leaves a void in my theology that he could fill in if he would actually address topics other than race yet from his point of view.

    I am sure these voices are out there, I just don’t really know where I can go to find them!

    (Although, I have found your blog! ;-))

    1. Excellent questions Steven and ones that all of us need to be engaged in. It is important for you to know that I really don’t have any problem per se with the Passion conference or any particular conference. I simply think it is important for movements and institutions to be self critical in those areas wherein there have been historical blindspots: ie race. It is not really true or fair to say that “the faces on the stage” don’t matter. They do matter. They matter a lot and to say that they don’t is to indulge in a subtle bit of evangelical false humility that pretends not to take notice of the celebrity culture of evangelicalism while all the time participating and perpetrating it. Additionally, the faces matter for those to whom the event is marketed and for whom it isn’t.

      As to your more substantive point, I agree that it isn’t an easy thing to broaden ones exposure and horizons in terms of speakers and influences, and while I disagree with your assessment of the African-American church I understand your point. (The biggest progenitors of the prosperity gospel are Whites and even though parts of that thinking have influenced the Black church, is it really that different from ye olde ‘Protestant work ethic’ which encouraged sobriety, hard work and thrift and saw the inheritance of the North American continent as God’s gracious beneficence for his faithful elect?)

      I think the difficulty you find in your reading is because as minorities two things are true. 1) Our lives are inseparable intertwined with racial dynamics in such a way that it is nearly impossible to speak without being thought of as speaking in a ‘racial’ way even when that is not the intent. 2) Whites generally get to define the metric by which acceptable discourse is measured or normality is assumed, for example a White church with perhaps 10% minority population is considered multiethnic but the converse is not true.

      There is a third related point though is that is that Blacks especially are not educated in “White evangelical” seminaries in any large numbers. Historically more liberal seminaries were much more intentional (and still are) in their outreach to minorities. Thus we are developed theologically in two different worlds. Many Blacks who are educated in evangelical schools run the risk of being marginalized in the Black community if they are too much associated with White evangelicalism. This is not yet the case with Asian-Americans, though that conversation is ongoing.

  12. So what would you hope for?

    What do you see as a real, practical, way forward?

    Is it just something that won’t see real progress in less than a generation or two? Call me an idealist, but I don’t think it should be that way…

    I guess I have other questions as well.

    In our church we are still small, but we are pretty diverse. I would say that we trend towards educated (although not completely), and that we are almost completely under 40. But quite diverse ethnically, and culturally. Probably 1/3 caucasian, and the rest is a complete mix, African-American, Kenyan, Rwandan, Malaysian, Korean, Asian-American, Latino, Native American, Haitian…

    So we are doing something right.

    The initial planting team was 3 white people. The leadership team is now developing and reflects the diversity of the whole community (which also generally reflects the demographics of our neighborhood). We have people who are exercising some level of leadership, and some ‘spotlight’ time, who are of differing backgrounds and ethnicity.

    But we don’t talk about race hardly at all. It comes up in Scripture of course. I just finished Ephesians about a month ago, and racial reconciliation jumps off the page in some places. We are in Acts now, and will soon be addressing multi-cultural issues again. But we don’t ask questions about it as a community. Don’t read books about it, etc.

    Again, we are obviously doing some things right, but should there be more? And what should be the way forward for the whole church?

    And back to the issue of voices again. I am fine with you correcting my assessment of the AA Church, it was not so much intended as a truism, but as a generalization to make a point (thanks for not cutting me slack ;-)), but it still is a real problem that I have a hard time finding diverse voices who are saying things I am comfortable passing on to others…

    To reuse Dallas Willard. I am not okay just tossing out his work. The same goes for other very influential authors and leaders, who are all white. There is diversity in country of origin, and tremendous diversity in denomination and theological background, but none in terms of ethnicity. But I would love to be able to hand people books, or to point out resources, that aren’t all white people.

    Perhaps, you could suggest some authors?

  13. Two more thoughts:

    I don’t want to come across saying “I don’t wanna hear about race anymore, so shut up.” I have no problem with minorities talking about race, there is still a need for it, and I appreciate it. What is a problem, is that I have a hard time finding anything else. Perhaps this is a result of what you are talking about, and I need to listen better? Again, perhaps you could point me towards some authors, leaders?

    The larger problem, if, as you say, African-American Christian leaders are largely educated in institutions that simply don’t have a value for what are (to me) essentials, how am I supposed to let them influence me, much less my community?

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