The Next Evangelicalism

I have listened to Prof. Soong Chan Rah of North Park College and Seminary for about two years.  He has spoken most often on the topic of this new book, published by IVP.  The first time I got a recording from my young staff, it created a sensation of sorts.

He had asserted that “If you plan to be a missionary and you enter another culture to carry the gospel but you have not ever had a non-white mentor or spiritual leader you will not be a missionary but rather a colonialist”  (my approximation).  Strong stuff!

This new book builds on themes that are in my estimation undeniable.  First, that the growth within Evangelicalism in the present and future is largely within minority, poor and immigrant communities.  Citing statistics based in the Boston area, I think this assessment has proven to be quite accurate.

If the overall argument of the book is that (a) the US evang. church is changing demographically and (b) that the leadership and primary influence of the church is held tightly in the grasp of white evangelicals, then I think it is hard to dispute.  Next, Rah critiques the central weaknesses of the cultural realities of a white/western dominated evangelicalism; namely materialism, individualism and racism. Finally, the author asserts that those who make up the future of this church have exceptionally important perspective and value to add but are too often marginalized.

The central value to this book is in its description of the coming reality of the future of Evangelicalism and the cogent articulation of the unique weaknesses of the church especially as explored through the immigrant/non-white perspective.  These twin ideas that the future of the church is non-white, and from a non-white perspective the evident weaknesses in our church are strategically and relationally insightful.

A perhaps secondary but I think great contribution to literature available to white churches and church leaders is the description of the role of the ethnic minority or immigrant church. Rah’s telling of his own story and lacing in the role the church played in his life and that of his friends was captivating.  It’s almost like I knew my brothers in the Korean church played a unique role within US society but I couldn’t tell the story (of course!).  This is just a beautiful chapter and made me want to more closely identify with the role of the outsider to US culture that our immigrant believer brothers and sisters play.

As someone that lives as a minority in my community and church, this really resonated with me.  For about 10 years I was in a denomination that had a huge Korean presence (PCA).  My current reality has changed the way I reflect on the reality of my former denomination.  I hope my brothers in the white church that seem to “humor” the Korean presbyterians will read this and gain a new admiration for our korean brothers!

The weakness in the book, in my mind is the too often repeated phrase “white western captivity of the evangelical church”.   As I read the book I realized that Rah regards himself in the role of a prophet rather that “bridge builder” per se.  In other words he’s not concerned with those who may be offended.  That’s what prophets do.  The downside to prophets, however, is that they don’t make very good teachers, which is where I think Rah is actually strongest.  I think he wants to be both but can that work?  Will he actually persuade someone who doesn’t basically agree with him already?  I’m not sure.

One last point:  Rah partially unfolded an expansion of his thinking (which builds on the work of Walter Bruggeman in Peace) about the differing perspectives on the culture of “suffering” vs. the culture of “celebration”.  This too needed further development. .  needs. . . I should say.  I hope he writes more about it in the future.

All in all, a strongly recommended book. . .  but with my own bent toward bridge building vs. prophesying  I would just caution the reader, don’t let the use of the phrase “white western captivity” distract you from hearing the substance behind the provocative wording.