Breaking Free of American Evangelicalism

Katherine Britton | News & Culture Editor | Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Breaking Free of American Evangelicalism

Sunday morning church services have often earned the title of "most segregated hour in America." As America's demographics change, however, the American church unknowingly retains the pitfalls of racism and white privilege. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah argues that the American evangelical church faces a beleaguered future unless it can reach out and learn from the growing number of racially-, ethnically-, and culturally-diverse churches springing up in America. Writing out of his experiences as a second-generation Korean immigrant and American pastor, Dr. Rah challenges white evangelicals to consider the future of the American church in terms of The Next Evangelism. He recently talked with about the challenges, impediments and hope for creating a more diverse North American church.

CW: Explain for your audience a little of how and why you came to write this book.

Rah: The book arises out of my experience as a pastor, a professor, and as a participant/observer of American culture and the evangelical subculture.  I also write out of my experience as an immigrant and as someone who has grown up in the context of the immigrant church and also steeped in the evangelical culture.  My motivation is out of a deep concern and love for Christ's church and to see the church prepared for the next stage of Christianity in the West.

In the past 100 years, Christianity has shifted rapidly from a Western, white dominant Christianity to a much more global Christianity.  In the same way, American evangelicalism is seeing a change in its demographics - American Christianity is becoming less white and more multiethnic.  Yet, many of the systems and assumptions of evangelicalism are still rooted in Western, white culture.  A greater awareness of the obstacles to a multiethnic church (an increasingly popular topic of discussion) is needed.  American evangelicalism is held captive to Western, white culture - in its worship, ministry style, philosophy of ministry, social and political involvement, etc. - preventing the church from being prepared to tackle the challenges of 21st Christianity.

CW: The American Religious Identification Survey that came out last year seems to show that American Christianity has had its day, even leading Newsweek magazine to announce "The End of Christian America." What did you think about that study?

Rah: I think the ARIS study along with the Pew Foundation study the previous year did a good job of documenting changing perspectives among white evangelicals but does not delve deeply enough into the changing face of American Christianity.  The studies and articles tend to reveal the decline of white evangelicals, but do not fully reflect the growing number of non-white churches. 

For example, the Pew study separated the black churches from the category of evangelicals - leaving out a significant number of Christians.  These studies tend to have an underlying bias towards white evangelicals and, therefore, don't fully reflect the changing face of American evangelicalism.

This bias was very evident in the Newsweek article.  The opening paragraphs of the Newsweek article cites Al Mohler's concern about "losing" the northeast to secularization.  I document in the introduction to my book studies that reveal a very robust Christian community in the Boston area.  Churches are being planted and are growing - among the African-American, immigrant, and non-white ethnic communities.  But the media - even the Christian media - tends to focus on the decline of white Christianity and is oftentimes blind to the growth of the church among ethnic minorities.

CW: You use quite a strong term in the book - the "white cultural captivity" of the church. Why do you say the church is "captive"? What does that mean?

I am aware that the phrase may cause some discomfort.  I believe that the creation of discomfort is a necessary component of growth and change.  We don't change (i.e. - we don't have the motivation to change) unless we are presented with a level of discomfort.  Sometimes strong, prophetic language is needed to shake us out of our compliancy and our tendency to maintain the status quo. 

The use of the term "captivity" is drawn from historical usage in the church.  Luther used the term "Babylonian Captivity", others have used phrases such as suburban captivity, Constantinian captivity, etc.  In short, I use the term captivity to describe the dominance of a particular culture over Christianity that is over and above the centrality of Scripture.

I think it is important to make a distinction between the need for the church to be relevant to the culture versus the church's captivity to the culture.  It is appropriate for churches to be relevant to the surrounding culture.  We see this not only in the West, but also in other parts of the world, presenting the gospel in a relevant and effective way.  I believe, however, that there is a line that we cross when we move from being relevant to the culture to being captive to the culture.  I believe we crossed that line in American evangelicalism.

CW: So what is the "Next Evangelicalism"?

Rah: I'm going on the assumption that there is something about evangelicalism that is worth taking to the next stage.  Some are writing about the decline, demise, collapse of evangelicalism.  Many are seeing this as a good thing.  I think, however, that there are aspects of evangelicalism that are worth redeeming and building upon.  I have personally been blessed by evangelicalism's focus on Scripture and its high Christology.  Evangelicalism offers a sense of community and cultural relevance that I think are worth sustaining. 

I think many of us are disgruntled with aspects of evangelicalism that don't feel very Christian.  Such as a political involvement that feels more partisan rather than reflecting the pursuit of God's justice; a method of doing evangelism rather than expressing God's love towards others; and a preservation of American materialism and militarism over and above the tenets of Scripture.  In other words, many evangelicals have become disgruntled with the Western, white captivity of the American church.

The "next" part of the title refers to the reality that the face of American evangelicalism is changing.  It is becoming more multiracial, multicultural, and multiethnic.  This is not a far off, sometime-in-the-next-century possibility.  It is the very real, current state of American Christianity.  The title of the book is drawn from Philip Jenkins' work, "The Next Christendom," which documents the changing face of global Christianity and the implication for the future of Christianity.  In a similar way, my book attempts to understand the changing face of American Christianity and how we might better minister in this multiethnic reality.

CW: Your book hits hard at racism in the church, while most people I go to church with would say, "What? Racism in the church is mostly dead, I'm not racist!" You would say that individual attitude is missing the point. How so?

Rah: American Christians have an almost exclusively individualistic view of racism.  This view on race and racism is based not upon Biblical norms, but upon the perspective of a highly individualistic and personalized Western society and culture.  A common retort to the question of racism is, "I'm not a racist.  I've never owned a slave and I've never taken land away from a Native American.  I don't think racist thoughts and I don't say racist things."  This narrow interpretation reflects a highly individualized and personalized point of view. 

In Scripture, however, I see a greater sense of corporate responsibility.  I see Jeremiah taking a corporate responsibility for the sins of Israel, even if he personally was not directly responsible for that sin.  We tend to focus on the individual, personal guilt we feel about racism, rather than dealing with the corporate shame of racism.

Another aspect of racism that we ignore is the issue of white privilege. I would assert that white privilege - the other side of the coin when it comes to racism - is more insidious and more easily hidden.  White privilege places white expressions of culture and faith at the center.  Privilege is power and the power of privilege is to create a world where one's one identity, race, and culture rest at the center of the society.  Evangelicals tend to emphasize an individual expression of racism hindering our discussion and preventing us from understanding concepts like corporate sin and white privilege.

CW: Two-thirds of the book focuses on the shortcomings of the Western church, which might lead some to think you're advocating the total submission - or even denial - of Western culture in America's churches. Are you?

Rah: Absolutely not.  I try to make clear how much of a debt I personally owe to the Western, North American church through my personal testimony.  My faith in Christ has been formed by Western forms and expressions of faith.   I am grateful for the way that the Western church - historically, culturally, theologically - has shaped my relationship with Christ and Christian faith.  I am trying, however, to help us face a changing future.  The changing face of American Christianity needs to address cultural captivity.  We need to recognize the shortcomings of our human attempts at faith and examine the ways that we are not genuinely reflecting the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In order to break out of a cultural captivity, some hard truths need to be faced.  I am trying to help us deal with these changes and to deal with these challenges.  In some sense, I'm trying to swing the pendulum in the other direction, since so much of our Western Christian expression has been pulled in the direction of the glorification of Western, white culture.

CW: So how do we work towards balance, ways we can enrich each other's theology without swinging too far on any cultural extremes?

Rah: That is an important thing to consider.  There is the possibility of denying and demonizing Western culture and canonizing non-Western culture. But I'm not sure that's where we are at right now. 

I think we should recognize that most of our worldview as American Christians is dominated and biased towards Western culture.  Because we are held captive to Western, white culture, we need to work towards a balance and appreciation of non-Western culture and we need to take a more critical look at our own biases and captivity.  As we encounter different cultural expressions of the Christian faith, we should not be paralyzed by fear.  We need to recognize that all expressions of theology and ecclesiology have a degree of cultural bias.  When we encounter different cultural expressions, we are able to deepen our faith with a broader understanding of our faith through a breadth and depth of cultural expressions. 

We should be cautious about swinging too far on any cultural extreme, but should be more fearful of cultural captivity that prevents us from experiencing anything of our own cultural experience.  We should recognize that God is sovereign in the ultimate expression of how He will be worshipped.  I am reminded of Acts 5:38,39 "For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men."  I trust in God's faithfulness to the church that will separate the wheat from the chaff.

CW: What kind of response from pastors have you seen since the book was published in May 2009? Do you find the church at large receptive to these ideas?

Generally speaking, the response has been good.  Many see the book as a needed challenge to many of the assumptions we have about Christianity.  I think most understand my genuine desire to serve the church and to deepen and broaden our faith as American Christians.  Many see the demographic and spiritual changes that are taking place in our culture and are asking the tough questions about how we can deal with these changes.  I am thankful for the many e-mails and responses from those who see the need for this book in order to awaken us to the changes that are needed in American evangelicalism.  It also helps that there have been a few recent reports talking about the demise, decline, collapse of evangelicalism and I offer an analysis of this collapse but also offer the possibility that we may not completely understand this collapse.  The changes in American evangelicalism are actually a blessing.

Some have expressed concern that my rhetoric and approach may be too confrontational.  I think that in order to break us out of our stagnation and captivity, we need to hear hard truths. I hope that readers will see the issues that need to be confronted and work towards an understanding of cultural captivity in order to better understand and positively deal with the Next Evangelicalism.