The Next Evangelicalism: Interview with Soong-Chan Rah, Part 2
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You offer a blistering critique of the emerging church movement, suggesting that it is overhyped and lacks diversity. Is diversity possible in the "emerging" or "emergent" churches? It seems as if Christians involved in that movement are extremely culturally bound, even more so than "mainstream" evangelical Christianity.
Yes, there is always hope. Any organization can change and adapt if they desire, and if they are willing to pay the price. There is also the importance of self-awareness. I think when there is a new thing that comes up, its advocates should exercise enough self-reflection to say, "We're saying some really exciting things, but what are the unintended negative consequences of what we are saying? What are our blind spots and the areas that we need to grow in?"
What challenges or exhortations would you issue to the young "justice and reconciliation" minded folks, particularly those that are part of the "emergent" or "new monastic" crowds?
I think it is critical that we are willing to hear the stories and receive input from various points of view. I think even new things like emergents or new monastics can get stuck in a vacuum and not recognize that there are divergent voices that can contribute to the dialogue. I would encourage any new movements to consider and hear from disparate -- and even oppositional -- voices.
If you were a mentor to one of these young "justice and reconciliation" Christians and they asked for specific, clear advice on what type of church to attend and how to engage "the Next Evangelicalism," what would you say?
First of all, I would encourage them to broaden their reading list. I would begin with works of fiction. I find that works of fiction tend to communicate the best insight about a culture. There's a variety of novels that I'd recommend: Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease; Chang Rae Lee's Native Speaker; Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake; Khalid Hosseini's The Kite Runner; Mario Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. There also are a number of nonfiction works that provide insight into different cultures: Eldin Villafane's The Liberating Spirit; One Church, Many Tribes by Richard Twiss; Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum; Yellow by Frank Wu.
I would look for places of interaction across cultures. Many of us may find these opportunities at our place of work or in our neighborhood -- it's probably our church and Christian world that is more likely to be segregated. I would encourage the building and deepening of healthy cross-cultural relationships in your current context. My recommendation has been to seek out mentors or spiritual leaders from a different ethnic/cultural background. There will be different contexts (single-ethnic churches that are of a different ethnic background from you, or multi-ethnic churches with a diverse staff) where you may be able to find cross-cultural mentors. These relationships should not be forced, but it really needs to have the foundation of a genuine relationship and commitment. In other words, there are no quick solutions, and it'll take time to build the relationships and connections that will broaden your world.
It seems that often the conversation is how white churches can become more diverse, which can come off as an expression of white dominance or perpetuate the phenomenon of "white guilt" as a motivator. Would you suggest that some white and minority churches serving in the same neighborhood merge rather than having white churches glibly trying to be diverse?
The idea of a "merger" is a lofty concept that is very difficult to pull off. It is very hard to pull off the equality of power, or even an understanding of how power dynamics work, in the different cultural contexts required for a successful merger.
I think there needs to be a clear understanding of the reality of power distribution before engaging in talks about a merger. One of the most ignored aspects of any discussion on multi-ethnicity is the aspect of power. Those who have the power are oftentimes the ones who are unwilling to discuss the issue of power and dominance. Part of white privilege means the capacity and ability to not talk about the issue of power and the wielding of that power. I think one of the great things that a majority culture church can do in preparing for multi-ethnicity and diversity is to become more aware of white privilege. Instead of taking the lead and trying to fix the problem and create diversity, it might be better to be in a place of listening and preparation -- particularly in the practice of yielding power.
1.) How do predominately white organizations (Christian colleges and seminaries, Christian magazines, etc.) become multicultural without somehow developing the sense that they -- white Christianity -- are the impetus for multiculturalism?
2.) How willing do you think evangelical seminaries are to embrace both contemporary and historical ethnic minority theologians and scholars? Will these theologians be in the primary fold of essential theologians, or will it be a tag on (i.e., solely having a course on African-American theology rather than adding these theologians to the basic theology courses)?
Great questions. Again, the main issue is the issue of power. Are white institutions willing to yield decision-making power, theology-shaping power, curriculum-shaping power, culture-shaping power to non-whites? Will predominantly white organizations be willing to share power -- and initially that will require a yielding of power -- with non-whites? Any discussion about diversity will need to engage in a discussion about power. Otherwise, we reduce our efforts to tokenism.
Edward 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.
What led you to leave Boston for Chicago?
Soong-Chan Rah: Leaving Boston was a very difficult decision, one of the most difficult decisions in my life, and it was certainly the most difficult decision that we faced as a family. We had a great community in Cambridge, and our family has always been committed to incarnational and local expressions of ministry. The church in Cambridge was a church that I planted, and it still holds a very special place in my heart. Aside from my family, I think planting the church is the best thing I've been able to do on earth so far. I also had deep and meaningful relationships with peers and mentors throughout the city who were some of the most formative mentors in ministry.
A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to join the faculty at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. It meant a significant change: moving from the East Coast to the Midwest, shifting from being a local church pastor to a seminary professor. I was beginning to sense God's calling into a ministry that connected the academy to the local church. Being on the faculty of my denominational seminary would strengthen my ability to integrate my academic interests and study with my experience and heart for the local church. While it was an extremely difficult decision, I felt that the church was at a place where a new lead pastor would be a good opportunity and that God was calling our family to be part of a new venture at North Park Seminary.
What church do you currently attend?
Our family has always believed in neighborhood churches. I really don't like the idea of driving a great distance to attend church (bad for the environment and bad for the family). We attend Immanuel Covenant Church on the north side of Chicago, about three blocks from our home (which is about three blocks from the seminary where I teach). Our home, my place of work, our kids' school, and our church are all in the 60625 zip code of Chicago, which is one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. We were told that our kids' school has over 50 languages and over 70 different nationalities.
Our church reflects that diversity. The church at one point had been a Swedish immigrant congregation. Less than a decade ago, the church was overwhelmingly white. Now it's home to 15 different first generation immigrant groups -- including Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, etc. There is no clear majority at the church. Furthermore, we have a joint worship with a Filipino congregation adding to the diversity. There is great diversity in the church and that creates many challenges. But we have loved the community at this church and appreciate the genuine effort by the church to reflect the diversity of our neighborhood.
Are you still a Boston sports fan, or have you transitioned over to Chicago teams? If so, Cubs or White Sox?
I'm very loyal to my sports teams. I grew up in the inner-city of Baltimore, so I've been an Orioles fan since I was about 8 years old and haven't changed my loyalties in over 30 years. I still follow the Orioles via fan Web sites and online games. While I was in Boston, I developed an affinity for the Red Sox (especially since they gave me a free clergy pass to the regular season games). I'm thoroughly convinced that it was the prayers of the clergy members who received free tickets to Red Sox games that led to Boston's breaking of the curse and their winning two World Series championships. In contrast, when we moved to Chicago, I wrote to the Cubs asking if they had a clergy-pass program. They replied that they didn't. So it's 100 years and counting for the Cubs.