The Nines, a web based ‘conference’ is the brainchild of The Leadership Network and Catalyst. They asked church leaders on 09/09/09 to broadcast, via webcam, their message to the leaders of the church in just 9 minutes. These leaders – some well known, others lesser so – were watched by church leaders around the world all day long.
Last year, I watched several of the talks from The Nines – I found some of them insightful, gutsy, interesting and a fantastic format for this day and age. I am rather over conferences overall and so the ability to watch online without the cost of a big venue, travel or event was interesting, particularly for those of us that live outside of the USA and find travelling very expensive.
This year, The Nines stirred up some controversy because of the way that they asked people to nominate speakers. They posted a list of speakers, allowed others to nominate new ones and had a “like” and “dislike” button next to their names. Sadly, it was not well set up and at first glance, I agreed wholeheartedly with Skye Jethani’s plea for them to take down the list because it reflected the values of our culture (with the popularity contest) instead of the values of the Church. As their managing director later clarified, their heart was not to “rank” speakers but rather to have a more open-source method to hear new names, find out what worked and what didn’t and, of course, create a buzz around the project itself (ahem, mission accomplished).
I appreciated their poorly-executed attempt to flatten the hierarchy a bit. As we all know, this is the world 2.0, meaning that it is interactive and we are the people formerly known as the audience, viewing our individual voices and stories as equal and valuable. Also, as Bill Kinnon (a man that I really want to take out for coffee and just yak for a day or six) said, we are also the people formerly known as the congregation.
We are The People formerly known as The Congregation. We have not stopped loving the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor do we avoid “the assembling of the saints.” We just don’t assemble under your supposed leadership. We meet in coffee shops, around dinner tables, in the parks and on the streets. We connect virtually across space and time – engaged in generative conversations – teaching and being taught.
We live amongst our neighbours, in their homes and they in ours. We laugh and cry and really live – without the need to have you teach us how – by reading your ridiculous books or listening to your supercilious CDs or podcasts.
There are other questions to ponder like the sheer navel-gazing of the leadership movement over the past 50 years and whether even the idea of a leadership conference is anything more than self-congratulatory way to reinforce previously held, culturally conditioned beliefs by a select group.
But when I looked at the list, another thought struck me. Even beyond Mr. Jethani’s well-reasoned argument and my own distaste for this type of thing, is this:
Where are the women?
The entire speaker list is, as usual, overwhelmingly male. A woman doesn’t even appear until #34. There are only 10 women in the first 100 and they are the big names for the girls: Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer etc. By my count, which may not be right given my marks in Math 30, there were 37 women total. Even the female speakers that were highly ranked are traditionally on the women’s conference circuit. Meaning that they don’t teach men typically. And most of those where in the deep bowels of the list, where the total “votes” were in the single digits. You know, where Ed Young is located.
I don’t necessarily blame The Nines for this. The Nines has become almost iconic in my mind for being representative of our culture-church tension right now – between the “like” vs. “dislike” popularity contest among Christian brothers (and a few sisters) and now this, they are showing themselves to be more of the same both from a cultural standpoint and a church standpoint.
The pragmatic side of this is that the fact that almost all of the leadership in the church today – at least of the highly visible, teaching kind – is overwhelming male. Therefore, it makes sense that the leaders invited to speak at a church leadership conference are overwhelmingly male. They are well known, publish more books, get more speaking engagements and generally lead more prolifically.
It indicates the ongoing distaste that the church holds for women, the lack of respect for women in leadership, let alone the supreme lack of mentors that are raising up women as leaders.
The issue of women in leadership will not go away for the church. It will not go away for the institutional church and it will not go away for Christian families. Just like the issues of race and homosexuality, the church isn’t exactly representing God’s kingdom or heart for people by sticking their fingers in their ears and collectively humming loudly, hoping all of the feminists, gays, minorities and immigrants will go away.
The issue has been avoided or neutered in churches for too long. We hide behind platitudes and out-dated cultural roles, we hide behind one or two scriptures. We name women leaders as “directors” or “managers” instead of “pastor” and consider that progress. Women that are leading complex teams and organizations in the world or in their homes are rarely tapped to serve as elders and deacons or board members at churches.
This systemic refusal to see women as equals, to be able to receive from women, to celebrate women – not as “women leaders” but as just plain old leaders – grieves the heart of God, I imagine.
After reading The Atlantic’s recent piece about the rise of women’s influence and leadership in the world today (unfortunately titled “The End of Men”), it should be crytal clear to those in church leadership that women have something to bring to the table. And not in the stereotypical men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus way. There are gutsy, strong, intelligent women leading well.
So where are their voices in the church? And why aren’t they speaking to the leaders of the church? Not only about women’s issues and leadership but about the church as a whole? Instead, we welcome voices that teach a very conservative view of male-female relationships and demean women from the pulpit while ridiculing men who share household chores.
My current opinion (meaning it’s shifted often and likely will again – probably next week) is that reform is rather impossible from within at this stage. It’s been attempted, for instance, by those of us that have identified with the emerging church over the years, but has quickly been sat in the corner as a niche market at best and heretical architects of the destruction of the church at worst.
I can’t see the institutional church changing. I see them, as Julie Clawson so eloquently wrote, sailing this sinking ship until the bitter end.
They are so afraid of their cultural assumptions being challenged that they’ve lost sight that those assumptions are in fact cultural. While others will read this article and celebrate that women now have opportunities and then work hard at helping men and boys overcome years of false programming regarding what they were told a man had to be, some will continue to live in fear of the idea that God values and gifts women as well as men. That truth is finally being seen in society in major ways. The question remains if Christians find ways to help both men and women succeed, or will the church continue to fail men in its attempts to keep women down?
This is part of the Great Emergence, the major shift in the history of the church, the massive rummage sale that the church has every 1500 years or so, as Phyllis Tickle says, to get rid of the junk and clutter we’ve accumulated due to culture and other forces.
The culturally conditioned western evangelical mindset is over. It’s just that no one in there is listening to us say: We want to hear women.
We want to celebrate women’s history and voice. We want to see women on our boards and in our pulpits – and not just in a symbolic way. We want to stop denigrating men and creating false culture wars or perpetuating stereotypes of gender.
We want to be the voice of God in our culture, giving women and men honour.
It remains to be seen if the “leadership for the church,” like The Nines, will continue to perpetuate the status quo or take a bold step out towards embracing the voice of the other.
(Another item of note: where are the non-whites in that conference listing? In today’s overwhelmingly pluralistic and immigrant-driven culture, few of us work or live in an all-white neighbourhood, particularly those of us in the western world but evidently, the Christian leadership speaker circuit is primarily an upper middle-class all-white neighbourhood. In the world today, what was previously termed “a minority” is quickly becoming the norm (thank you, Jesus). And for those of us that are white (or in my case, incredibly, unbelievably white) few of us don’t interact with or have friends or family members that are non-white. I would hope that our churches and in particular our leadership would reflect our current state of affairs, welcoming the voice of “the other” to the discussion.)
(UPDATED TO ADD: Also, in the same line, here’s a follow-up on women working outside the home – comments are fantastic as usual. You guys are smartie pants.)