The Culture Clasher
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 (IVP), 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 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.
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 cultural 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 a new thing like emergent 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.
For more information about Soong-Chan Rah and The Next Evangelicalism, visit his website: www.profrah.com. Special thanks to Joshua Canada, Joel Hamernick, and Ariah Fine for their questions to Professor Rah.
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 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 websites 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 a 100 years and counting for the Cubs.