RahNext 11-05-050

The Next Evangelicalism

Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity


Soong-Chan Rah

InterVarsity Press, 20009, 228 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8308-3360-3



Rah is a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.  Previously he planted a multi-ethnic church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  As a Korean who grew up in the U.S. he sees that American evangelicals have been assimilated into the culture and have Americanized Christianity.  White churches are in decline while immigrant, ethnic and multiethnic churches are flourishing.  The church must repent and prepare for the next stage, a nonwhite majority, multiethnic American Christianity.   


PART ONE - The Western White Cultural Captivity of the Church

1.  Individualism - The Heartbeat of Western, White Cultural Captivity

Individualism is the defining attribute of our nation's ethos.  It is also at the center of the theology and ecclesiology of the American church, reducing faith to a personal, private and individual faith, reflecting the narcissism of American culture.  Worship becomes an exercise of personal self-fulfillment.  Church life becomes a fulfillment of our individual needs and desires.  "Small groups become a place of support and counsel rather than a place where Scripture challenges the participants toward kingdom living." (37)


Following the cultural norm of individualism (vs. Scriptural norms), we reduce sin to a personal issue and fail to deal with corporate or structural social evils such as poverty, racism, and social injustice, and the expression of human fallenness they represent.    


2. Consumerism and Materialism - The Soul of Western, White Cultural Captivity

Materialism is the pursuit of individual gain at the expense of what is best for society.  An individual's worth is based on their possessions.  Social life is reduced to the exchange of goods and products.  It adds urgency to meeting our personal needs.  We begin to think we can solve spiritual problems with material goods. 


"American Christianity…is no longer distinguishable in its values and norms from the excessive materialism of American society." (51)  The church's value system is reflected in its expenditures.  We now build church buildings that look like and serve as shopping malls.  Spiritual life becomes shallow, reduced to a consumable product, a materialistic exchange of goods.  We more accurately reflect American culture than Scripture, attracting consumers with marketing techniques and finding it difficult to transition to a deeper level of commitment to Christ or his body.  The American dream becomes confused with biblical standards.  Material success deludes us into thinking rich white Christians have answers for the world's problems. 


"In the pursuit of the short-term benefit of material gain, the church has sacrificed the long-term benefits of being the kingdom of God, the body of Christ and the bride of Jesus." (62)  It has become essentially irrelevant in proclaiming and demonstrating kingdom principles of peace and justice.


3. Racism - The Residue of Western, White Cultural Captivity

"The category of race is a product of Western social history." (66) [? DLM]  It has dysfunctional and sinful origins.  "Racism…ends up creating social values and norms that become the way our culture conducts business. Racism is America's original and most deeply rooted sin." (68)  "We are quick to deal with the symptoms of sin in America, but often times are unwilling to deal with the original sin of America: namely, the kidnapping of Africans to use as slave labor, and usurping of lands belonging to Native Americans and subsequent genocide of indigenous peoples. … This original sin of racism has had significant and ongoing social and corporate implications for the church in America." (69) 


"Anyone that has benefited from America's original sin is guilty of that sin and bears the corporate shame of that sin." (70)  "When we claim that we are not complicit in the corporate sin of racism, we fail to grasp how being a beneficiary of an unjust system yields a culpability for those that benefit from that system. … The American economy was built upon free land stolen from the Native American community and free labor kidnapped from Africa." (71)  "Our corporate sin of racism and our corporate life as beneficiaries of a racist system require our corporate confession." (71)  "White privilege is the other side of racism.  White privilege is the system that places white culture in American society at the center with all other cultures on the fringes." (72)


"Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races should seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of reference."  (80)  "Racism is idolatry.  It is a decisive act of turning away from God to the creature.  It is the worship of the creature instead of the Creator."  (81) 


The US is rapidly becoming multi-ethnic.  We must plant and develop multiethnic churches in America.  "The twenty-first century must be the century of multiracial congregations." (85)  "Racial justice…must be the paradigm by which we build multiethnic churches.  …we must establish churches that honor the breadth of God's image found in a range of cultural expressions." (86) 


"If the American church is able to look toward the future with a hope and a promise, then the sin of racism must be confessed and racial justice and racial reconciliation become a theological priority over and above the priority of producing a pragmatic paradigm of church growth." (87) 


PART TWO - The Pervasiveness of the Western, White Captivity of the Church

4. The Church Growth Movement and Megachurches

The Church growth movement prioritizes the Great Commission over the Great Commandment and prioritizes an individualistic personal evangelism over the transformation of communities by the gospel.  It focuses on pragmatic planning, marketing, and mass production of preset programs to achieve numerical goals. 


The early church was a primary (tribal, personal, relational) culture where the church cared personally and conversions came relationally.  We now live in a secondary (impersonal, priority of objects, intermediated) culture and the church tends to operate this way.  "Have we overemphasized the personalized, verbal proclamation of the gospel while ignoring the public demonstration of the gospel--through racial reconciliation, social service, social action and justice?" (107) 


5. The Emergent Church's Captivity to Western, White Culture

Even though the emerging population is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, the emergent church is a young white western postmodern reaction to white western modern evangelicalism.  There is minimal acknowledgement of diversity and how nonwhite Christianity will shape American evangelicalism.  "One of the current failings of the emerging church is the failure to listen to other voices." (119)


Micah 4 predicts that after the wars and conflicts many nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord to receive teaching, reversing the tower of Babel.  God longs for his people to reflect unity in diversity.  We are nowhere close.


The real emerging church is in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  And in America, it is represented by the English-speaking Latino congregation, the second-generation Asian American church, the Haitian immigrant church, etc. 


6.  The Cultural Imperialism of the Western, White Captivity of the Church

"Globalization means that cultural exchange and influence can occur more frequently and on a much larger scale. … However, the reality…is that one culture, one nation or one worldview tends to dominate the world, and there is an imbalanced flow between cultures."  It is largely the spread of Americanization, "the imposition of the culture of the powerful upon the powerless." (128-29)  The Western, white captivity of the church is transmitted also, "resulting in a global Christianity that is just as captive to Western, white Christianity. … Because of an existing imbalance of power, the movement of the gospel message from Western culture to non-Western culture yields a system of dependence and results in a cultural hegemony." (129)  "The Western, white captivity of the church is not just an American evangelical phenomenon; it has now become a global phenomenon." (133) 


"The best way to understand the full complexity of the gospel message is to learn from others who are seeing the story from a different angle.  The necessity of mutual learning cannot be overstated." (136)  If an American church is planning to send 10 summer missionaries to Kenya, then it should be prepared to receive 10 summer missionaries from Kenya.  There is no excuse for sitting in only one seat in the stadium.  There is a powerful need for diverse voices to speak into global Christianity.


PART THREE - Freedom from the Western, White Captivity of the Church

7. Suffering and Celebration - Learning from the African American and Native American Communities

We often tend to assume that those with power and privilege will serve and lead the others who have little to offer.  Our theology is a theology of celebration, not suffering.  Our mobility allows us to disregard and disconnect from the suffering.  Upward mobility fragments American society and concentrates power.  There is limited opportunity to connect with those who are immobile, trapped in a system of survival and suffering.  The disconnect fosters a superior perspective of ourselves and a negative perception of others.  A proper understanding of power and privilege should lead us to a healthy intersection of celebration and suffering.  Our theology has only half the story.  "Just as Christ emptied himself and made his dwelling among us, we also ought to empty ourselves and make our dwelling among them." (152)   


The celebration theology focuses on stewardship of abundant resources.  The theology of suffering is a theology of the cross that focuses on the need for salvation and survival, God as deliverer, warrior and conqueror.  Fighting injustice becomes a central priority.  The movement of theology needs to move in both directions.


To break the captivity, there needs to be an intentional relinquishing of power and privilege.  Not confronting it is passively accepting it.


"If you are a white Christian wanting to be a missionary in this day and age, and you have never had a nonwhite mentor, then you will not be a missionary.  You will be a colonialist.  Instead of taking the gospel message into the world, you will take an Americanized version of the gospel." (162)


8. Holistic Evangelism - Learning from the Immigrant Church

The immigrant church is the most dynamic movement in the US and the model for the next evangelicalism.  Five characteristics of the Korean immigrant church:

  1. Worship in the heart language
  2. Maintenance of homeland culture
  3. Fellowship community life and social networking
  4. Providing social services
  5. Restoring social status  (167)


A large proportion of Korean immigrant congregations were not Christians in Korea.  The church was the only place in the US to meet their social needs.  Similarly in African American history, the church was family and community, the social network.  In both groups the pastor often served the dual role of spiritual leader and social worker.  Evangelism is the engagement of life on all levels. 


"Are we willing to acknowledge that the immigrant church that appears to be a people in need, might actually have something to teach us?" (179)


9. A Multicultural Worldview - Learning from the Second Generation

"In the next evangelicalism, the second generation (immigrants), with their unique ethos and strength, along with those in our churches who have crosscultural, luminal experiences, will be the ones best equipped to face the next stage of the church." (181)  Their stories and experiences can be a unifying and connecting experience, straddling different cultures and ethnicities.  "Multiethnic ministry cannot occur without the unique skills offered by bicultural Americans." (188)  However, we must view immigrants differently, embracing the alien and stranger among us. 


"The shift in global Christianity has already occurred.  The shift in American evangelicalism is well under way.  The white churches are in significant decline.  A seemingly God-ordained action in the last few decades has been the influx of immigrants to the shores of the United States to offset the decline of the white church in America.  Many of these immigrant communities have provided 'spiritual reinforcements' to a Christian community in the United States that had been noticeable decline.  Revivals in most urban centers occurred as a result of the growth of immigrant churches.  The church growth edge for urban centers is not affluent white churches, but poor, disenfranchised immigrant churches." (191) 


Second generation immigrants are uniquely poised to serve as leaders of the next generation.  Freedom from cultural captivity is needed to enter a new multiethnic phase for the American church.  But white Christians will need to submit to the authority and leadership of nonwhite Christians.  Will they?



Corporate confession begins with awareness.  And the captivity of the church can be overcome by the humble willingness to submit to the spiritual authority of nonwhites.