September 2011 on Duke Divinity School’s Faith and Leadership Blog. I did an interview on The Next Evangelicalism. Originally posted on: http://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/soong-chan-rah-freeing-the-captive-church.
This is part I of that interview.
Our nation’s growing diversity represents more to the church than a pool of potential new members. Even more, it’s an opportunity for the church in America to begin to live out a richer, more biblically authentic form of Christianity, Soong-Chan Rah said.
“Often, Western white culture has been so dominant in the church that we have trouble distinguishing it from biblical Christianity,” Rah said. “As the demographics of America change, how do we understand church not just through a Western lens of Christianity but also other lenses?”
The question for the church in America is not, “Is there diversity?” but, “What do we do about it?” said Rah, the Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.
If the goal is hospitality, then the church must decide what kind of hospitality it is willing to extend — traditional Western hospitality or a more demanding, biblical form of hospitality.
“It’s not just a Western host saying, ‘Hey, come on in. We have room for you,’” Rah said. “It’s the church saying, ‘We are now coming into the fullness of what Christ originally intended.’”
Rah is the author of “The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity” and “Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church.” He was the founding pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Mass., a multiethnic, urban church committed to racial reconciliation and social justice.
Rah was a faculty member for the 2011 Summer Institute at Duke Divinity School and spoke with Faith & Leadership about diversity, church growth and freeing the church from cultural captivity. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: You’re an associate professor of church growth and evangelism and you write about race, ethnicity and culture. What’s the connection between those? Are race and ethnicity keys to church growth?
When we look at evangelism and church growth and America’s changing demographics, we have to consider issues like multicultural and multiethnic ministry. In my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the two have gone hand in hand. Diversity has been a big factor in our growth.
Twenty years ago, the Evangelical Covenant Church was overwhelmingly white and Swedish, because it was a Swedish immigrant church. But in the last 15 years, it has become 20 to 25 percent nonwhite and has been one of the fastest growing denominations. It’s a place where we see a denomination’s growth parallel its growing diversity.
Q: Tell us about your first book, “The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.”
I look first at how Christianity has changed globally and in America. The assumption has been that Christianity in America is on the decline, but because of immigration, we’re actually seeing American Christianity, if not increasing, then certainly leveling off. We can be thankful that immigration and changing demographics are contributing to the church’s growth in the United States.
But given that demographic reality, what elements of American Christianity are still beholden to systems and structures from a previous time when it was dominated by Western white culture? And what do we need to think through in light of the changing demographics?
So where does our Christianity look more cultural than scriptural? Where do we go from here as we become more ethnically diverse? What is our theological and biblical understanding of culture? How do we start looking at multicultural communities? How can we build cross-cultural relationships?
Every expression of Christianity has cultural baggage, both good and bad. All Christianity has cultural relevance to a particular context. Churches need to do that. But at what point does it become captivity rather than relevance?
Often, Western white culture has been so dominant in the church that we have trouble distinguishing it from biblical Christianity. As the demographics of America change, how do we understand church not just through a Western lens of Christianity but also other lenses?
Q: What are the most obvious signs of the church’s captivity to Western culture?
One is the individualism of Western culture. We see this very strongly in evangelicalism, which tends to be highly individualistic. Is that really a biblical approach, or is it acquiescence to American culture? If Western culture is individualistic, then the Western church had to develop patterns of church life that parallel that individualism. But at what point does that become not just relevance but captivity?
Another is how we worship. Does our preaching reflect more the values of individualism than biblical values of community life? Western culture is very much about the individual, but is that what the Bible talks about when it talks about church? Do we need to move out from Western cultural captivity to see other models of community and church? How do African and Asian churches do church life? In what ways might they reflect a more communal spirit rather than the individualism of Western culture?
Captivity doesn’t allow us to see that. Captivity forces us into a particular worldview that says, “This is the way we do church.” But if we’re freed from that, we can see other expressions of church life.