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Emerging, missional — and white

5 February 2009

One of the things that has struck me about the emerging/missional church movement is that it seems to have attracted mostly white people.

Some people have noticed it and commented on it, but few have sought to explain it. Yesterday, however I came across a blog that not only commented on it, but also tried to explain it. David Fitch of Chicago, USA, in his Reclaiming the mission blog, notes:

I think it is fairly well accepted that the emerging movement/ missional movement is populated largely with young white people of both genders. There are older white people like myself involved. And there is say 10 to 20% of the movement populated with various ethnicities. But by and large, the overwhelmingly large proportion of the missional and emerging movements is white and young (somewhere around 35 and under).

And it seems to be the same in South Africa. An Australian commentator (outside the movement) observed that it was not only largely white, but also largely male. In South African gatherings I’ve attended the balance between the sexes appeared to be fairly even (I wouldn’t presume to judge the genders) but in the emerging blogosphere in South Africa pale males seem to predominate.

David Fitch not only observes the phenomenon, but tries to account for it.

He notes that young middle-class white Americans who have grown up in an affluent society are attracted to the ideal of voluntary poverty, but that most black Americans have grown up in involuntary poverty, and tend to see God as calling them out of poverty. One can trace a similar desire for a simpler lifestyle back to the beat generation of the 1950s, and beyond that to people like Francis of Assisi. Some of us discussed this theme last year in a synchroblog on poverty (Notes from underground: Holy Poverty), and another on foolishness (Notes from underground: Blessed are the foolish — foolish are the blessed). Fitch says

The majority of African Americans as well as first and second generation ethnic groups (especially Hispanics but also Asian to some degree) of N America are arriving into modernity just as young whites are throwing their hands up at it. The sons and daughter of evangelicalism are fed up with modernity (individualism and rationalism apart from a way of life), capitulation to capitalism as an organizing principle in the church (money and poverty are private issues) and a Christianity separated from engagement of the wholistic gospel for the whole world. These people are largely white and young. Meanwhile, the African American church and Hspanic church have been in poverty, are enamored with the hope of capitalism and the American dream. They have been struggling for years with poverty and America and God offers the hope to finally escape and achieve comfort and financial stability. The prosperity gospel drives these contexts. Indeed many of these ethnicities have not yet gone through the loss of community that the stark society of excess affluence and modernity brings.

I see this as one issue that separates the missional/emerging church types from the other demographic groups. A core calling of missional life for me is the call to live beneath our means to thereby have more time and funnel more of our blessings (excess wealth) into the Mission of God. Perhaps this is what keeps the missional movement from diversity? I don’t necessarily know. But I sure would like to ask others what their observations are.

If that is what it is like in North America, what about Africa?

If the West is emerging from modernity into postmodernity, much of Africa is emerging from premodernity into modernity. In the 19th century Western missionaries brought Christianity to sub-Saharan Africa, but the Christianity they brought had generally been “contextualised” into modernity in Western Europe and North America. Many of the missionaries saw their mission as a civilising one as well as a Christianising one. Before Africans could be Christianised they had to be civilised. Civilisation was a 19th-century word for modernity. Western Christianity had been contextualised to solve modern problems, so Africans had to be given modern problems first, in order that the modern God could solve them. The modern God could not solve the premodern problems that Africans had — like worries about being bewitched. They needed to exchange their premodern problems for modern ones in order that the modern Christian solution could work. So civilisation must precede Christianisation.

On result of this was the formation of dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of African Independent Churches (AICs), which recontextualised the Christian gospel for a premodern society. One factor that facilitated this process was the predilection of many Protestant missionaries for translating the Bible into local languages. The Bible is a thoroughly premodern book, and was far less culturally alien than the “civilised” missionaries.

Now, however, modernity is becoming indigenised, and there is a new breed of African independent churches, neoevangelical and neopentecostal denominations preaching the prosperity gospel and building on the megachurch model, and people in the old-style AICs are getting quite worried about the growth of these groups. Instead of the blue, green and white robes of the Zionist prophets, they have pastors wearing three-piece suits. Instead of gathering under a tree, there is a hypermarket-style building with a perspex lectern. Instead of cow-hide drums, there is a band with electric amplifiers (one pastor, from the Congo, insisted in a conversation that Africans could not possibly worship without amplifiers — according to him they were an essential part of African culture).

There are some interesting parallels with the European emergence from premodernity to modernity. One that I have noted elsewhere is the increase in the number and severity of witchhunts, and this seems to have spread to the new neopentecostal churches, though it was rare, if not absent altogether in the old AICs.

Obviously not all Christians in Africa belong to these neeopentecostal groups, but their propserity message seems to have a far more ready hearing than that of the emerging church with its desire for a simpler lifestyle, which has little appeal to people who think that their lifestyle is far too simple as it is.

So perhaps the emerging/missional church should have made it on to the pages of Stuff White People Like, though a search reveals that the author has not discovered it yet.

Another thing, which may be related to the above, is that I first learnt about the emerging church movement in the blogosphere, and people I knew who did not have or read blogs, including many missiologists, had never heard of it. As I have also noted elsewhere, there are very few black bloggers in South Africa. News and information about the emerging church is mainly disseminated through the blogosphere, and the blogosphere is mostly white. So most black Christians in South Africa have probably never heard of it.

Well, David Fitch asked for others to say what their observations are, and those are mine, for what they are worth. I think that what he saw as applying to North America probably applies even more in Africa. But when the current generation of black yuppies’ kids grow up, who knows what will happen? Perhaps the complexion of the emerging church movement, or whatever replaces it, will change.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Clark permalink
    5 February 2009 3:49 pm

    I would also add that

    1) Participating in the “emerging” dialogue requires an economic surplus to buy books, participate in conferences, own computers, have good internet access, blog, etc… This, on the whole discriminates against non-whites
    2) Participating in the “emerging” dialogue requires time to read books and the activities mentioned above. Most non-whites spend the bulk of their time trying to survive to really be over-concerned with Caputo’s Augustinian reading of Derrida.
    3) “Emerging” seems to thrive from a disenchantment with historical reformed evangelicalism and/or charismatic evangelicalism, themselves mainly white dominated movements.
    4) White Christians in the west talk in terms of postmodernism and emerging church. When similar concerns are expressed in the non-Western world the term “post-colonial” is often used.

  2. 7 February 2009 12:07 pm


    Yes, I think that is so.

    And so there is a danger that the emerging movement will prove to be out on a limb, because it is a twig that has sprung from a bigger branch, but is not really going anywhere unless it reconnects to the trunk, to extent the metaphor.

    But the neopentecostals appear to be growing rapidly in Africa, and appeal to different social/economic groups, so even though some are becoming disillusioned, others are become illusioned, as it were.

    And the older AICs, which were often far more effective missionally than any of the others, are feeling a bit threatened by that, at least from what I’ve heard.

  3. Joy permalink
    2 August 2013 11:12 am

    Almost five years later…I attended a conference recently in Cape Town, and it seems the ‘missional’ movement is all the rage. The attendees were almost all White, hip, cool people and to be honest as a young, black woman I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a place for me in this whole missional thing…I would like to see the gospel preached normally, without all the buzzwords and catchphrases. I think then we’ll see the diversity we long for…

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