There is something wrong with much of American evangelicalism in its current form. Many churches are declining. We have moral scandals. Evangelicalism continues to splinter into weird offshoots like the emergent church and various other post-modern expressions. And many quarters of society hear the term and revile us (I say “us” because theologically this is where I would truly locate myself) because of our over-identification with conservative political stances and indeed for becoming a pawn of conservative interests.
Soong-chan Rah writes that it is not evangelicalism that is on the decline, but rather white evangelicalism that is culturally captive to Western cultural values. Not only is there rapid growth of churches taking place throughout the non-Western world, but because of the immigration of so many of these people groups to the West, they, in many cases, are bringing with them a vibrant evangelical faith, and the churches they are establishing are among the most rapidly growing.
The book consists of three parts. The first describes the captivity of the white church, observing our individualism that makes the gospel and the Bible all about me; our consumerism and materialism that Christianizes affluence; and our continuing racism evident even in Christian publishing circles. On this last, he tells the sad tale of a publisher of Vacation Bible School materials who themed one such set of materials “Rickshaw Rally”, using all sorts of stereotypical and demeaning Asian stereotypes. When criticized, the publishers responded that the Asians shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. In particular, there is the presumption in all this of white privilege–the propensity of whites in organizations and churches to simply consult other whites and do things without consideration or consultation with other cultural groups.
In the second part of this book, Soong-chan Rah explores how pervasive this captivity is as manifest in our church growth and megachurch strategies, the Emergent church, and in our cultural imperialism, our unthinking export of Western ways of doing things around the world. He praises Bill Hybels for his recognition that the Willow Creek model had failed to produce fully-orbed Christian disciples of Christ. And he scathingly criticizes the Emergent church movement as young whites dissatisfied with boomer evangelicalism who are simply creating young white churches reacting against the worst of the previous generation without engaging a broader cultural mix.
He goes on in the third part of the book to prescribe an alternative, which is that the white, culturally captive church needs to learn from and humble itself before the cultures from the Majority world and learn from them. He proposes that we learn a theology of suffering from the African- and Native American churches. He believes the immigrant church can teach us approaches to holistic evangelism from their experience of addressing comprehensively the needs of their own immigrants coming to the west. And he believes second generation people can serve as “bridge” persons between the West and the rest as those who in some ways are in both, and neither, of these cultures–the culture of their parents, and Western culture.
This is a challenging and blunt book which it needs to be. When, in one of his examples, a dying congregation accepts a bid by a white congregation for half the price being offered by a Korean congregation, one recognizes that niceness just won’t cut through the fog and the chains of the captivity he is describing. I believe Rah is spot on in his diagnosis of white evangelicalism and the way forward.
My only question as I read this book is whether the author and those leading the vanguard of this “next evangelicalism” are aware of the dangers of new forms of cultural captivity and privilege to which they could fall prey? Perhaps this is implicit in the incisive critique of these realities in white evangelicalism, but it was not stated. The truth is, these are human conditions present in every culture, not simply white conditions. Culture shapes every form of Christianity, either ordinately or inordinately. Ordinately, this is a thing of beauty as the mosaic of Christians from around the world come together to create a beautiful, God-composed work of art. Similarly, positions of power and influence may be used to effect great good and great service, yet also may be warped to new forms of privilege.
My own hope is to see the dawning of a multicultural evangelicalism where we learn from and humbly submit to each other (beginning with the submission of white churches), and guard each other from hubris and the pitfalls of cultural captivities of every sort and the temptation to privilege in all its forms. May we not simply exchange captivities but move to a greater freedom for all the children of God!