The Storyline conference was the brainchild of bestselling author Donald Miller. Together with a team of his friends, the author of popular books like Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years put together a conference to help people create plans for their life and live their best possible story. “Our story based process has lead thousands to discover lasting change and a life of meaning,” the Storyline website explains, and there are video testimonials on the page in case you’re not sure. Today is the second day of their annual conference held near Chicago.
Christian conferences are their own cottage industry. Storyline has been a great catalyst for so many people to think about their lives in a proactive way, but it has also regularly presented a lineup of almost entirely white speakers every year since its inception. Writers like Christena Cleveland have talked about the racism of the church. In a book review published by the Center for for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, Dr. Joy J. Moore, now a professor at Fuller Seminary, observed that “Even the best efforts among evangelical Christians have not overcome racial segregation during Sunday morning worship.” It’s not just Sunday morning worship we’re getting wrong, it turns out.
This year, the Storyline Conference features an all-white plenary speaker lineup, and breakout speakers who are almost all white as well. In light of Christianity’s racist history and millennial interest in racial justice, more and more people are raising questions about what an all-white speaker lineup says, and who it excludes. Jeff Chu, a journalist and a Christian, observed the racially exclusive dynamics at Storyline:
— Jeff Chu (@jeffchu) November 6, 2015
Is it a surprise that Chu’s observation was met with resistance from white Christians online? Critical responses abounded, mostly from white people who told Chu to either keep quiet or be positive:
— Amber Shirley (@notsonominal) November 6, 2015
— Maggie Bieritz (@stinkerbella) November 6, 2015
Public critique of a public event is not shaming, nor is it unloving or inappropriate. Our history as Christians is shamefully full of racial exclusion and outright racism, and the homogeneity of the church will be its death if nothing changes. “By 2040 the racial demographics of this country will no longer be predominantly white,” W. Anne Joh wrote in the New York Times. “If any church group, including U.S. evangelicals, wishes to stay apace with this momentous change, and welcome nonwhite members, its leaders and members must listen to the experiences of these new groups.”
Tim Schurrer, who calls himself “the right-hand man to Donald Miller,” responded to a tweet in October that was asking about the all-white lineup at Storyline.
@bpaulmessy nope. Reached out to several speakers and these were the folks that said yes. Gonna be a great conference!
— Tim Schurrer (@timschurrer) October 18, 2015
And I’m sure it is gonna be a great conference! The speakers they have are good people, worth listening to. But there are others out there who are living great stories and represent the wide swath of Christians who are not white. The thing that Storyline needs to do is keep looking, and keep asking. There are too many voices who are not being heard because we, all of us, do what is easy and comfortable. Our friends look like us, our churches look like us, and our conferences look like us. Looking like the Kingdom of God is the goal for any gathering of Christians, and it can happen. But it will take humility and honesty about where we have gone wrong.