A Theological Reflection on Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah has written an excellent work on race relations and evangelicalism entitled The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.  I would like to thank Tommy Lee from incontextradio and profrah.com for my free copy of this work.

The issue is that American evangelicalism has yet to escape from being captivated from white cultural norms; rather than being defined by Scripture, American evangelicals choose to conform to social norms dictated by white Americans. This is all done at the expense of those who have been historically other-ed–nonwhite evangelical Christians.

His thesis is: Seminaries and theological schools set the theological agenda for churches; the domination of white leadership who perpetuate white culture in evangelicalism goes unjustified in being considered the representatives of the evangelical community; the next evangelicalism must seek its inspiration from nonwhite Christian communities (21-22).

Individualism, consumerism along with materialism, and racism seem to be the primary barriers to racial reconciliation, church growth, and evangelism according to Soong-Chan Rah. Rah claims that evangelical soteriology derives from a particular view of harmiotology where sin is viewed as purely individual and private and therefore we need a personal relationship with Jesus in order to save us from our sins. The difficulty in addressing social issues as an evangelical for Rah we see once more (see Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture) is that evangelicals consider all efforts towards social justice as part and parcel to liberal Protestant projects that deny the original sinfulness of humanity and the need for a savior with divine origin. This individualism is evidenced in evangelical churches that have small groups meetings where therapy sessions happen rather than discipleship and where corporate confession is missing from the liturgy. Consumerism and materialism are problems because evangelical Christians view the local church in terms of consumer choices, preferring congregations where their friends go rather than picking churches according to their denomination. Church buildings are made to look like malls or movie theatres as they provide sources of entertainment, sustenance such as Starbucks and McDonalds, as the American dream distorts the biblical narrative’s portrayal of real communities of faith. Lastly, the construct of race does real damage when one race continues to dominate others, especially in church settings. White privilege goes unnamed; white leaders are assumed to be the appropriate spokespersons for evangelicals while occasionally at conferences, token minorities may once in a while be allowed to have a voice. Norms are set by whites and whatever they set up is normative; the creation of the Other is part in parcel to white evangelical claims to authority over, say, immigrant churches that are thriving. Church growth movements such as the Willow Creek community avoided fighting racial injustice in the name of evangelism and church growth (84). Evangelical churches make themselves distinct not by a common geographic or doctrine but by universalizing and imitating ministries they deem successful by white cultural standards (93-94).

Throughout the book, Rah considers rebuttals to his arguments. The most clear case is his case to understand sin as a social disease and that it is the Christian duty to struggle for social justice. He refers to Scripture, passages such as Micah 4 and Revelation 7, the highest religious authority in evangelicalism, to make his case.

Rah’s work helped me to clarify the histories of evangelicalism and fundamentalism; Rah acknowledges that evangelicals have their roots in fundamentalism of the early 20th century as George Marsden claimed. It also affirmed my position that anyone who wants to be a missionary nowadays must have a mentor of color, otherwise they are just transferring imperialism (162).

As far as I know, from my personal experience, what Rah is saying is true. Many of the truth claims that he made from his experience resonated with me. I would accept the book as it is, but not without a few additions. I wish that he had delved deeper into the segregation issue with congregations. He does not address the racial exclusiveness of denominational practices or worship practices. Another blind-spot in the book is that it seems as if Dr. Rah is preaching to the choir at times; I can agree with him about this and that racial exclusion because I know of it first hand, but for people who do not have that experience, they are left with insufficient evidence that institutional racism is something that we are still struggling with. As someone who knows the arguments about how “racism is not the problem” or being accused of being a racism myself for bringing up the issue, there are few rebuttals against these sorts of fallacious arguments. Also, what makes white rugged individualism different from that of racial minorities? Individualism pervades all cultures now. It is not restricted to one culture or group. It is almost transcendent. Individualisms vary but they remain problematic nonetheless.

Truth and Peace,

Rod

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16 thoughts on “A Theological Reflection on Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism

  1. Pingback: Rah on The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity « Christ, My Righteousness

  2. Re: Individualism

    I think Rah is arguing that individualism, because it is a dominant aspect of Western culture, is a strong cultural characteristic of the evangelical church in America precisely because the evangelical church in American has been co-opted by Western culture, rather than being distinct because of its biblical characteristics. I’m not so sure individualism dominates the culture of churches in non-Western nations to the extent that it does here. Unless, as Rah warns, missionaries who are blind to their own Western cultural captivity have unknowingly and invisibly transmitted individualism as part-and-parcel with the Gospel. This is the benefit of having nonwhite mentors: they are more likely to identify, expose, and correct Western culture captivity in white ministers before they preach it as Gospel to non-Westerners.

    • I discovered that there is someone else on facebook with the same name as mine. he is a native of india, and a Christian. On his fb account was a link to the newspaper he reads. It’s an evangelical one, produced in india, and has more white faces than brown, and reads like any other evangelical newspaper in the west. The issues were the same, the comments, the doctrinal answers. it was simply western evangelicalism transplanted into india. I can only assume that the cultural norms have also been transplanted into a non-western setting. it was quite a depressing prospect.
      Similarly, i read the account of a pastor who came to the UK from the West indies in the 50s, and the racism she faced. it was almost unbelievable what white christians did to caribbean christians. the result is we have two streams of evangelical xty here, now supplemented by separate african churches too.
      Yet sadly, they have bought into the western individualist materialist dream.
      Unfortunately, i would guess that any attempt to introduce a garvey doctrine in black majority churches would be seen in the wrong light.

      • Marcus Garvey was not a Christian, and he made Africa the continent a little more than a fetish for his economic greed. I did my last project on evangelicalism and its response to harlem radicalism. Garveyism was really a conservative, individualistic, pull-yourself-by the-boot straps movement for black people, and going back to Africa was just a ploy. Hubert Harrison, a cohort of Garvey’s recognized that.

        • I bow to your greater knowledge Rod. It was in the context of black mentoring, which can come across as separatism to some eyes, even when it isn’t. What a day when a black or a white cold be mentored by the other, and it not matter!

    • I think that all individualisms will look different, depending on the culture. But the problem is with Rah’s assessment is that he does not give us a healthier view of the individual, only suggesting the opposite, a corporatism. I think there needs to be a balance of both. corporatism and communalism can be just as unhealthy, stifling the growth of the individual.

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