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,