Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah is the Milton B. Engebretson associate professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and the author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP Books, 2009) and Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Moody, 2010). Read more from him at www.profrah.com.
Soong-Chan is formerly the founding senior pastor of the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church (CCFC)—a multiethnic, urban ministry-focused church committed to living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context. Soong-Chan has previously been part of a church planting team in the Washington, D.C. area, worked for a number of years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Boston (specifically at MIT), and mobilized CCFC to plant two additional churches. He currently serves on the boards of World Vision, Sojourners, the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), and the Catalyst Leadership Center.
He has extensive experience in cross-cultural preaching, especially on numerous college campuses. Soong-Chan was a plenary speaker at several conferences and gatherings: the 2003 Urbana Student Missions Conference, 2005 Summer Institute for Asian American Ministry and Theology, 2006 Congress on Urban Ministry, the 2007 Evangelical Covenant Church Midwinter Conference, 2007 Urban Youth Workers Institute Conference, 2008 CCDA National Conference, 2009 Cornerstone Festival, 2010 Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) National Preaching Conference, and 2011 Disciples of Christ General Assembly.
Soong-Chan received his bachelor’s in political science and history/sociology from Columbia University; his Master of Divinity degree from GCTS; his Master of Theology degree from Harvard University; and his Doctor of Ministry degree from GCTS. He’s currently in the doctor of theology program at Duke University.
Soong-Chan and his wife Sue, who teaches special education, live with their two children Annah and Elijah in Chicago.
Posts By This Author
Blinded By False Victories
AMERICAN CHRISTIAN exceptionalism focuses on a narrative of success and victory. When suffering occurs, it’s considered a hindrance to the work of God in the world. The narratives of suffering communities, therefore, are ignored or removed from the dominant narrative of triumph. Stories of successful church plants and growing megachurches with huge budgets are front and center in how we tell the story of American evangelicalism.
Spanish-speaking storefront churches embody a profound, faithful spirituality in the midst of suffering. However, for many white evangelicals looking for the next magic formula to grow their churches, these churches may be deemed too small and even “illegal.”
Lament Is a Necessary Step Toward Healing
The assumed exceptionalism and excessive triumphalism of the American church conflicts with the biblical call for humility as evidenced by lament. The practice of lament in the Bible confronts our American Christian assumptions. Biblical lament calls for honesty and truth-telling about the broken state of society and the individual. As such, the excessive triumphalism of American society has nearly quashed a necessary countercultural practice.
A Lament for Our Nation
7 Our ancestors sinned the great sin of instituting slavery; they are no more—but we bear their shame.
8 The system of slavery and institutionalized racism ruled over us,
and there is no one to free us from their hands.
9 We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the guns on the streets.
No Easy Road to Freedom
THE KILLING OF 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year and the events that followed sparked protests by the community in the St. Louis area asserting that black lives matter and ignited a discussion on race relations in the United States.
On the heels of non-indictments in the slaying of Brown and other black men, our nation focused its attention on the drastic inconsistencies inherent in our judicial system. To many observers, black lives had less standing in our nation than white lives.
Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and the churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., are part of a long list of black victims of violence. They are victims of an American narrative that devalues black souls, black lives, black bodies, and black minds. In response to these tragic events, particularly since the non-indictment of the police officers who killed Brown and Garner, many evangelicals have been calling for a biblical practice that is often absent in American Christianity—the call to lament.
On one level I am thrilled that evangelicals are discovering the importance of lament in dealing with racial injustice. However, I am concerned that the way lament is being used by some white evangelicals is a watered-down, weak lament that is no lament at all.
Lament is not simply feeling bad that Brown won’t be able to go to college. Lament is not simply feeling sad that Garner’s kids no longer have a father. Lament is not asserting your right to confront the police because, as a white person, you won’t be treated in the same way that a black protester may be treated. Lament is not the passive acceptance of tragedy. Lament is not weakly assenting to the status quo. Lament is not simply the expression of sorrow in order to assuage feelings of guilt and the burden of responsibility.
A Call for a National Lament
Lament is not a passive act. Many Christians may hear the word lament and assume that feeling bad about suffering is the purpose of lament. How sad that people died. How sad that the shooter had a mental illness. But lament moves beyond bad feelings for the privileged. Lament is subversive and an act of protest. The powerful and the privileged have no problem being heard. It is the marginalized that need to be heard. The voiceless speak through lament. They cry out that things aren’t right. They are not the way things are supposed to be. Lament voices the prayers of the suffering and therefore serves as an act of protest against the powers.
Lament and the Call to Advocacy
The work of the prophet is to stand as an advocate for others. The advocate role is an important role in the ministry of justice. Many American Christians hold a position of privilege in American society. As the privileged, there is an important voice that can be raised on behalf of the marginalized. American Christians can advocate for the rights of the unborn, the poor, and the oppressed of our society. Part of our strength would not be to effect change that would further our privilege and affluence, but to advocate for change that would benefit the very least of our brothers and sisters. The role of the geber is to advocate for the suffering in Jerusalem and offer a lament on behalf of the suffering.
The American Church's Absence of Lament
When we consider the typical church worship service in the United States, we discover certain trends. Lament and stories of suffering are conspicuously absent. In Hurting with God, Glenn Pemberton notes that laments constitute 40 percent of the Psalms, but in the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, laments make up 13 percent, the Presbyterian hymnal 19 percent, and the Baptist hymnal 13 percent.
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches for the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are employed by local churches, and its list of the top 100 worship songs as of August 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would qualify as a lament. Most of the songs reflect themes of celebratory praise: “Here I Am to Worship,” “Happy Day,” “Indescribable,” “Friend of God,” “Glorious Day,” “Marvelous Light,” and “Victory in Jesus.”
How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.
A Time to Mourn
This morning I began preparing for a trip to Canada. I pulled out my grey North Park University hoodie to pack for the colder nights. Last year, a few days after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, North Park sponsored a justice conference. I wore that hoodie during my talk.
In retrospect, it feels like an empty gesture — an attempt to empathize with an experience that I, as a Korean-American, could never fully understand. In light of the Zimmerman verdict, I’ve been stunned into silence. I’m reeling from a deep disappointment in the American justice system and maybe even more distraught by the response of many in the white evangelical community that wants to argue the minutia of the law rather than trying to understand our brothers and sisters who are expressing a deep sense of lament.
The tragedy of Trayvon Martin requires an ongoing lament, which may be why it has been so difficult for evangelicals to engage on this issue.
If I Had a Million Dollars ...
Play along with me. If you had $1 million to spend to help stimulate the economy, what would you do? What would I do?
Give the money to a billionaire, in the blind hope that the billionaire will pass along that million to his employees in some form. Or that he’ll spend it on a nice luxury product that (hopefully) will be an American product. Or that he won’t exercise the many loopholes that still exist and he’ll give that whole amount back to the U.S. government to spend. And of course, pray that the money won’t go into an offshore investment account somewhere in the Caribbean or Switzerland.
But what would Jesus do? What investments would Jesus make that I would want to make as well?
'The Line,' the 47 Percent, and the Food Stamp Professor
When I was a 17-year-old senior in high school, I was in several Advanced Placement courses. As the school year drew to a close, I wanted to take the AP test that would allow me to attain college credit. The AP tests, however, were very, very expensive. I went to my guidance counselor. She said that they could waive the fees for the exams if I qualified for the school’s free lunch program.
I had avoided the free lunch program for years. I had been on the free lunch program in elementary school and middle school but was always embarrassed by it. So when I got to high school, I didn’t apply for it. I picked up a part-time job so I could pay for my own lunch. But now, I wouldn’t be able to take my AP exams if I didn’t fill out the free lunch program form.
So I agreed to fill out the form. Later that day, my guidance counselor sent a student aide with the form to my social studies class room, where in front of the entire class, she declared that I needed to fill out the free lunch form. I remember the shame of not only my classmates laughing at me that day, but my high school teacher bursting out in laughter as well.
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