The Elephant in the Room at T4G

Although commentary abounds about last week’s T4G (pros and cons, highlights and disappointments, etc), one question I have not seen raised is, “Where were all our black brothers (and sisters)?”

Kim Shay has blogged about what it was like to be one of the small minority of women at the conference. But there was an even smaller minority of African Americans. It looked to me to be about 1-2%, maybe.

In one way I’m very reluctant to raise the question because I’ve discovered to my cost that it’s almost impossible to question or comment about anything race-related in the USA without being accused of being a racist! I’ve waited to see if some of the more culturally sensitive commentators/bloggers would address this “elephant in the room.” So far, silence.

So let me break the silence by saying that I was hugely disappointed by the largely mono-cultural make-up of T4G (the few non-WASPS I did get to speak to were from outside of the USA!). Others, quietly, said the same to me.

TGC Contrast
It was quite different at The Gospel Coalition conferences I’ve attended in Chicago, where there was a much better representation of different cultures and races (not yet representative of society, but much closer). Coming from a fairly mono-cultural church in Grand Rapids, it was one of the great blessings of attending TGC to get to know and fellowship with people from different backgrounds – challenging, but edifying, and some of these relationships endure. I’d hoped for more of this at T4G.

Given the massive and admirable effort people like John Piper, Mark Dever, and Thabiti Anyabwile, have put into challenging racism and expanding the “New Reformed” movement’s racial and cultural diversity, it must have been so disappointing for them to look out on an almost unbroken sea of white faces.

Conference clash?
Why did this happen? What are the reasons? One African American brother I wanted to meet at the conference told me that he would be at the Man up 2012 conference in Atlanta the following week. Maybe that conference clash explained many other absentees. In some ways I hope so, because it would be a real pity if, after all the barrier-breaking, bridge-building work, we all retreated into our ghettos again.

(And if I’ve used any wrong or insensitive language here, I sincerely apologize in advance).


Well, the racist charge came as expected. Sigh! Where does one begin?

1. I loved T4G. Listen to this week’s podcast with Tim Challies if you’re not convinced. It was a privilege to be there and I look forward to going back. It was superbly organized and the speakers did a great job. Met lots of fantastic people and came back supercharged. I loved T4G.

2. The leaders and organizers T4G are not racist. I did not accuse them of such and I would never dare to do such. As I said in my post, I know these men have done a huge amount to try to build bridges and break down barriers. I’m sure that they were as disappointed as me that we were not as “Together for the Gospel” as we could be.

3. And that’s really my point. And I’m sure it’s the ultimate aim of T4G as well – to be TOGETHER for the Gospel, for such conferences to truly reflect the beautiful diversity of Christ’s kingdom on earth. My post was to highlight the lack of diversity, ask why, and initiate a conversation about how that can be better accomplished in the future. The cause certainly isn’t helped by closing our eyes, shutting down conversation, and throwing accusations of racism around. The lack of “togetherness” was not intentional but we need to be intentional if we want to change it.

4. This is not just about how to get more cultural and racial diversity at “our” conferences. What about ourselves attending conferences where we might be the minority? As well as giving us a sense of what it’s like to be in a minority, that might do more than anything to show to the world the way that the Gospel can unite. I’d love to see it in our churches, but conferences would be a good start. Anyone got any good suggestions?

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CK Short: Conferences

Fresh off the heels of T4G, Tim Challies addresses the topic of Conferences. A partial transcript is below or you can listen in to hear the two of us interact. Download here.

I have had the privilege of attending an awful lot of conferences over the past few years. At first I went as a liveblogger, sitting through each session and tapping out a summary of what the speaker said. More recently I have gone as an attender or sometimes even as a speaker. I suppose this means that I’ve seen conferences from just about every angle.

I like conferences and I believe in their value. Of course, like every other good thing in life, they demand moderation. I have met genuine conference groupies, people who follow conferences like Deadheads follow the Grateful Dead. I have met pastors whose churches allow them to attend five major conferences each year. I can’t imagine how that can be healthy or financially-sustainable! But a conference or two a year can offer times of learning, refreshment and relationship that can benefit any Christian, whether a layperson or a pastor.

I believe there are several different ways you can benefit from a conference.

Teaching Value
The most obvious benefit of a conference is in the teaching. In the Christian world in general, and in this segment of the Christian world in particular, we have no shortage of great conferences featuring wonderful speakers. There are the usual suspects: Ligonier, Shepherd’s, Desiring God, Together for the Gospel, Gospel Coalition, and many others. Each one of them draws well-known, highly-skilled teachers and many thousands of attendees. Then there are, literally, hundreds of smaller events. There is no doubt: We are well-served by conferences.

I believe in the teaching value of conferences, and particularly so when the event has a well-defined theme. Hearing several people teach on a common subject, moving from the beginning to end of a topic, can be powerful and effective. I don’t think I will ever forget the Desiring God conference that looked at Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. That teaching genuinely changed me. I definitely won’t ever forget R.C. Sproul’s message at the 2008 Together for the Gospel conference where he looked at the curse motif of the Old Testament. Thousands of people sat transfixed as he led us to the cross and to the curse that was laid upon Jesus. It was an intensely powerful moment. I am hearing similar stories from David Platt’s message at this year’s Together for the Gospel.

I believe in conferences for their value in teaching. If teaching is high on your list, consider Together for the Gospel or Gospel Coalition to sit under the teaching of some of today’s most popular preachers. If you prefer an event that sticks closely to a theme, consider Ligonier Ministries or Desiring God’s annual general conferences. And, of course, be sure to look for events that may come to your local area.

People Value
Conferences also have great people value and, in my experience, this may be the greatest and most lasting benefit. Teaching is wonderful, of course, but what I love about conferences is the way they bring people together. In the midst of a digital world, conferences provide one of the only sources of real connectivity that most of us experience. I have emailed with Brian Croft a hundred times, but at last week’s Together for the Gospel I was finally able to meet him, to put a face to the name, to share a meal with him. The Internet gives us the ability to form relationships with more people and often we form these relationships based on common interests. Conferences take people of common interest and give them a good reason to be together in a common space.

When I attend a conference I love to meet new people and form real-world relationships with them. I also love to meet up with people I’ve met before. There are actually plenty of people—friends even—that I’ve only ever been face-to-face with at a conference. These events offer a great opportunity to be with people. So when you go to a conference, be sure that you set aside some time to be with people even if this has to come at the expense of some of the teaching.

If the people value of an event is high on your list, be sure to consider Shepherd’s Conference or The Basics Conference; both of these events offer a relaxed schedule and plenty of opportunities to spend time with people.

Excitement Value
Finally, conferences have a unique ability to get you excited, to get you pumped up about things that interest you. This can be either a great benefit or a great drawback; there are many people who go to a conference and come back pumped up about something that will soon fade away again. But for many more, a conference will renew and refresh. It will refresh them physically or mentally, allowing the teacher to receive some teaching or the busy mom to take a couple of days to get away from the normal routines. The excitement of a conference serves to stir up old feelings, to renew things long forgotten or neglected. They offer a different context or a different way of hearing things and this can be very powerful.
Tim Challies 

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