In a recent survey of 610 missiologists, a fair number of respondents wrote comments indicating they perceived missiology meetings as comprised of old, white, and male participants. The following are a few of these comments:

  • I attended a society meeting that was largely composed of older men, who did not interact with us younger participants. It was not in the least inviting.
  • We need to end the dominance of the “elders,” the older white Protestant professors of missiology that have been the wisdom figures for a long time. they set the terms of debate and many of us do not come from their world.
  • Missiology societies have little room for women and . . . are perceived as old boys clubs.
  • Every time I go to a missiology conference, most people are old, white, and male. There needs to be a critical mass of diversity, otherwise people who are not old, white, or male will show up, look around, and decide never to come back.

Of course the survey did not merely ask for opinions, it collected demographic data, which allows us to see whether such comments fairly describe actual realities.

While women historically have comprised a majority of missionaries, they make up only 10% of the members of the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS), and 14% of the members of the American Society of Missiology (ASM).  So the charge of being mostly male would seem largely correct.

As a discipline, missiology attempts to help Christians relate in healthy and effective ways across cultural, racial, and ethnic lines.  One might naturally expect missiology societies to exemplify diversity. But this is less the case than one might expect.  Non-hispanic whites are overrepresented in comparison to their population in the nation as a whole, while African Americans and Latinos/Hispanics are significantly underrepresented. The following provides the numbers.

Finally, youth have historically been central to mission movements. One might naturally expect missiology societies to be filled with young people. This is not the case.

Only 6% of missiology society members are under 35 years old, and  only 12%  are under 40.

Analyzing and Correcting the Problem

The Problem of Cost

The high financial cost of registration for missiology meetings puts marked constraints on the participation of students and other young people, and also of many Latinos or African Americans, and for that matter of anyone not already positioned in well-funded leadership roles in missiology. That is, the high financial cost of participation is one factor that contributes to meetings that are older, whiter, and more male.

Registration for the national meetings of the EMS, if registrants reside in the hotel (where rooms typically cost $100 or more per night), have recently been discounted at $350.  When hotel costs are included, and transportation, costs quickly spiral towards $800 and more.  Part of the reason for this is that the EMS national meetings are sponsored by Missio Nexus, an organization of mission agencies (formerly the IFMA and EFMA), which plans its annual meetings with mission executives in mind. On the positive side, this means missiologists rub shoulders with mission agency leaders. On the down side, these meetings are designed with mission agency executive budgets and expectations in mind, and consequently tend to be significantly less diverse ethnically and by age and gender, certainly than many regional EMS meetings, which are low budget affairs. The EMS has recently attempted to address costs for students by providing student rates and setting aside funds to help them attend. This has helped a relatively small number of students attend the national meetings, but does not address the financial problem as it relates to others.

Registration costs for the ASM ($150), in addition to food costs ($77), remains lower than for the EMS, with ASM accommodations also less than the cost of most hotels. And the ASM helps subsidize travel costs for ASM members who have to travel farthest to attend.

But, the ASM, until recently, indirectly added to travel costs for many. Since many missiologists are able to tap into institutional support for attending professional meetings ONLY IF they are presenters, the fact that the ASM historically was run as a conference with a single room, and a few presenters, there by invitation only, has meant that many missiologists were not able to draw on professional development funds that otherwise would have been available to them. Participation is thus often more costly for people who are not presenters.  Only recently, partially in response to the results of this survey, has the ASM begun to create space for more presentations. Rather than running the conference with slots for less than a dozen presenters, this year the ASM has slots for more than 45 presenters, and could easily revise the program in the future to accommodate 80 or more.

The Problem of Limited Participation

In the past, missiology gatherings have often been organized with a few senior notable presenters, presenting by invitation only, each given lengthy amounts of time (often 60 to 80 minutes), with everyone else expected to sit and listen. This contrasts markedly with the way the American Anthropology Association, for example, handles its conferences — where dozens of parallel sessions are going on simultaneously with no scholar having more than a fifteen minute slot, and where advanced doctoral students, junior faculty, and external scholars without academic appointments may equally apply to present the fruit of their research for consideration by peers. In the survey of 610 missiologists, one respondent wrote movingly of how he faithfully attended meetings of an unnamed missiology society for 25 years and was never given a chance to present his own work.  This simply does not happen at the American Anthropology Association, where the structure creates optimum opportunity for people to present.  Conferences with parallel sessions and short presentations enable participants more consistently to draw on institutional support to cover their costs of participation, and it increases the motivation of scholars to attend.  Scholars do not wish to attend professional meetings simply to listen to a few senior famous people . They want opportunities to present their own work, and network with others interested in their work. It is through presenting that doctoral students and junior scholars are able to get their work in front of those who might be planning to hire, or before editors looking for work to publish. But the older model simply asks young scholars to wait their turn until they are already well established and well known and are invited to present. This is not an optimum system for inclusion of younger and more diverse scholars. While a few famous presenters might be thought to provide presentations of interest to all, in fact parallel sessions with short presentations gives participants choices to attend what most interests them — and no one has to sit through a lengthy session they dislike because it is the only thing going. My prediction would be that as the ASM shifts to a more open system with a wide array of opportunities for scholars, at their own initiative, to apply to present, this will contribute to a numerical growth in the number of people who actually attend ASM conferences.

The Problem of Subject Focus

When senior missiologists — older, whiter, and more male — organize missiology programs around their own interests and work , the very subject focus becomes a barrier to interest and participation for many. Topics such as “short-term missions,” “children at risk,” or “sex trafficking” which might naturally tap into the energy and global interests of younger or female Christians, are simply not the topics which senior white male missiologists naturally gravitate towards. And yet these topics generate enormous interest for others. In January of this year, 42,000 Christian college students gathered in Atlanta for Passion 2012, where they reportedly contributed 3 million dollars to fight child exploitation and sex trafficking.

At my own seminary, when our doctoral program added a strong focus on ethnicity and race in America and an increasing focus on domestic missiology, we  began to have American ethnic minorities apply to our program.  The subject matters selected are part of what draws in the participation of others.  The ASM, especially, has recently begun to add foci intended to broaden its appeal to youth, women, and others.  It is hoped that this will draw in a new generation of missiologists to provide leadership in Christian mission.

The Need for Intentionality

While this posting has focused on missiology meetings, in fact a wide variety of institutionalized settings and practices have contributed to missiology being heavily male and white. Only as those in leadership become self-consciously intentional in all different settings about the need for change will we become the diverse missiology community most ideally positioned to help guide others in carrying out the mission of God in the world today.

As a final instance, I mention the PhD program in Intercultural Studies at Trinity.  Eleven years ago we discovered that in our prior history, only 3% of matriculants to our program had been female. After attempting to analyze the problem, we discovered that our rigid insistence that only the MDiv could serve as the prerequisite to our PhD program was part of the problem. Many missionary women had taken graduate theological degrees other than the MDiv, which was associated in some church traditions with male pastoral leadership. And so we intentionally adjusted our prerequisites to allow for other appropriate theological degrees, and relatively soon were matriculating nearly 20% women.

If we can all recognize that missiology will be a stronger discipline with the central presence of youth, of women, and of people from all ethnic communities that make up our nation and world, and if we can embrace the commitment and steps needed to make that happen, missiology will come to exemplify the very ideals we verbally affirm to others.