The Common Good

The Next Evangelicalism: Interview with Soong-Chan Rah, Part 1

The Next EvangelicalismYou can't do church in the 21st century without a vision for cultural diversity, says author and theologian Soong-Chan Rah.

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If spiritual renewal breaks out in a forest and no American Christians are around to witness it, does that mean it never happened?

Pardon the paraphrase of the old philosophical riddle, but this probably sums up the thinking of many in the evangelical community in years past. But the times are a-changin'. According to Soong-Chan Rah, author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (and a member of Sojourners board of directors), if the American church is going to be a relevant participant in the future of global Christianity, it had better recognize the church's new multicultural reality. And the future is now.

Today African, Asian, and Latin American believers make up 60 percent of the world's Christian population. According to researchers, the United States and Europe will soon no longer be the center of evangelical activity in the world. With this in mind, Rah calls the North American church to break free of its de facto allegiance to a Western, Eurocentric, and white American mindset and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is global, diverse, and multiethnic.

Soong-Chan Rah is a pastor, theologian, and activist who has (how to put this lightly?) ruffled a lot of feathers over the years by calling attention to issues of racism and cultural insensitivity in the evangelical community. Those familiar with the Rickshaw Rally incident and the Zondervan/Youth Specialties controversy, both covered in his book, will know exactly what we're talking about. But his passion for reform is surpassed by his compassion and concern for the health of the church.

For years Rah led Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, an urban, multiethnic, post-modern congregation in the Boston area. Now a professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, he has inspired many a spirited discussion among Christians with The Next Evangelicalism, a book he confesses is intended to provoke its readers. One Christian radio station abruptly canceled its interview with Rah on the day of the broadcast after the host took a closer look at the book.

Rah doesn't pull any punches in his critiques of the evangelical movement, but he hopes any discomfort he creates will motivate his readers to pursue positive change. He recently responded to questions from UrbanFaith.com readers.

How do you respond to those who suggest that your challenges to the church do more harm than good?

Soong-Chan Rah: I understand that this is a challenging topic for American Christians, and I know that I can come across sometimes as pretty intense about these issues. I am concerned that some folks will dismiss my book as an angry rant or will consider it to be excessively critical. I state early on that my intention is the reform of the church, rather than the downfall of the church. My hope is that we would bring out into the open the issue of race and racism in the American church -- particularly given the changes in the demographics of American Christianity.

Practically speaking, do you think the strong tone and language of your book will change the mind of someone who isn't already passionate about diversity in the church?

One of the questions I often grapple with as a pastor and as a professor is, how do people change? How do they grow? Particularly when I teach a course on discipleship, this question seems to emerge repeatedly. My theory on spiritual growth is that growth does not occur without the combination of two factors: the creation of a safe place coupled with the introduction of discomfort. Having just one of the two factors is not sufficient for growth. If you only create a safe place, you can become too comfortable and feel no need to change and grow. If you only have the presence of discomfort, you generate too much stress to allow for growth. Both a safe place and discomfort must exist to move towards growth. My book is an attempt to introduce a bit of discomfort to the overly comfortable culture of American evangelicalism.

Won't ethnic-specific churches suffer from becoming multicultural, particularly those that serve immigrant populations?

I don't hold the position that all churches in the United States have to be multiethnic. I believe that there is still a place for ethnic-specific churches, particularly among the immigrant communities. The need for language-specific churches still exists. Racism in America still necessitates the existence of the African-American church. We are still many years away from multiethnic churches being the norm in American Christianity. We don't want to mandate that the church enter into an era that we are not prepared for. I would want the church in America to be prepared and moving towards that multiethnic reality. I think, however, that we need to take a hard look at what we are doing and what cultural captivity we need to break off in order to enter into this multiethnic reality.

On the local church level, how will minority and immigrant groups maintain the kind of close-knit community that gives them encouragement and empowerment?

Part of the success of the immigrant church in America is the ability to develop a strong community in the context of suffering and difficulty. Throughout the book, I talk about the "language of primary culture," which is the type of personal relationships that many ethnic churches develop and maintain. I think the ethnic churches will benefit from interacting with secondary cultural dynamics (usually Western cultures), as long as their primary culture is not obliterated by coming into contact with secondary culture. Maintaining the positive primary cultural dynamic of ethnic and immigrant churches is more likely to happen if we understand these dynamics to be an issue of relationships and power rather than simply an issue of culture.

You seem to suggest a connection between the Korean/Korean-American church and the African-American church. Where does this come from, and why do you establish such a connection?

Actually, I'm not the first to make this connection. Theologian James Cone makes this assertion in the commonality of suffering that is found in the black church experience and the experience of the Korean community. As a Korean American, I do think there is a powerful common thread in both the Korean and black communities in the stories of tremendous victory amidst great suffering and persecution. Both communities have experienced oppression (slavery, Jim Crow laws, racism, conquest, persecution, etc.), but both communities have experienced God in very deep ways in the context of great suffering. I talk about the contrast between the theology of celebration and theology of suffering in chapter seven. I think both communities have experienced the theology of suffering, and we have embraced an ecclesiology that reflects that suffering.

How do ethnic minorities begin a conversation amongst themselves about reaching out to other racial and ethnic groups?

I feel that dialogue across the races and ethnic groups is an absolutely necessary element of the Next Evangelicalism. Part of freeing the church from Western cultural captivity is the ability to move beyond a conversation that puts Western cultural values at the center or considers Western expressions of faith as normative. One of the ways we can facilitate this dialogue is by having a stronger sense of identity for every ethnic group. For example, it may be difficult for African Americans to relate to Asian Americans if Asian Americans are simply parroting the values of majority culture. Part of engaging in an authentically cross-cultural dialogue is the ability to define one's own identity in the context of others. In other words, we need to know who we are if we are to truly talk to one another and move the conversation further along.

As I wrote the book, I realized that my style of writing might surprise some who had a particular assumption about the Asian American community. I felt that it was necessary to assert a strong identity that would provide a strong voice in the dialogue about what the next evangelicalism could look like. I hope that my book offers an encouragement to many non-white voices to assert a strong identity and voice in the dialogue -- an identity that God delights in rather than seeks to wipe out.

[to be continued...]

portrait-edward-gilbreathEdward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.

For more information about Soong-Chan Rah and The Next Evangelicalism, visit his Web site: www.profrah.com. Special thanks to Joshua Canada, Joel Hamernick, and Ariah Fine for their questions to Professor Rah.

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