To reform evangelicalism: Soong-Chan Rah’s hope for U.S. churches

The geographic center of Christianity has shifted, and U.S. Christians haven’t caught up.

That’s the message Soong-Chan Rah delivered at Seattle Pacific University’s 16th annual Day of Common Learning. Rah showed that Christians in the U.S. are following white, Western faith practices while failing to notice that the growing movement of Christianity in the U.S. is occurring among non-white, often immigrant churches. That’s why, he says, 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, evangelicalism needs to reform again, this time to better serve and prioritize the non-white, non-Western Christians who overwhelmingly comprise the global church.

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah speaking at SPU's Day of Common Learning

Overall, Christianity in the U.S. is on the decline, and the Christian populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America outnumber the U.S. by at least two to one, according to data from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Eight percent fewer Americans identified as Christian in 2014 than in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center report. Where the faith is growing, it mirrors global growth; evangelical and Pentecostal U.S. churches composed of ethnic minorities and immigrants are on the rise.

Rah has personal and scholarly experience with this shift. He is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church and an associate professor of church growth and evangelism at Chicago’s North Park Theological Seminary. At age 6, Rah moved to the U.S. from Korea, where his great-grandfather had co-founded Korea’s first Baptist church. He became a Christian in a Korean-American youth group and served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college. In 1996, he helped plant Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rah spoke with Response about the changing face of U.S. evangelicalism, how the American church needs to reform, and how American culture impacts the credibility of our Christian witness.

Reverend SoongResponseWhat does reform look like today, 500 years after the Protestant Reformation?

Rah: By grace alone, by scripture alone, by faith alone: these themes still resonate for us 500 years later. However, in the Reformation, we were dealing with a very different world — a fairly limited worldview that emerged out of the European context. The moment that we are in right now requires us to acknowledge and give credence to the impact and the role of the Reformation 500 years later, but to embrace another form of reformation around the changing demographics of global Christianity. We live in a world where there is globalization and a genuine understanding of the world as diverse. So much is happening in our world right now. The absence of reform, the absence of the consideration of these changes, would reveal a very profound deficiency in the church.

In this discussion of reform within evangelicalism, how should we think of the term “evangelical”?

In recent years, evangelical has become identified almost as a political marker. You are evangelical if you are a Republican, part of the religious right, and support certain candidates based on specific values.

For a more theological, more ecclesial definition, evangelicals are those who hold a high view of scripture, a high view of Christ, have an active faith, a spiritual conversion, and take a revivalist type of approach. Non-white evangelicals and immigrant churches align with this definition.

Do you see approaches to evangelism not having the desired effect?

That’s one of the more troubling aspects of Christianity in America right now: the unintended negative consequences of our actions. As a church, have we capsized our own witness because we are so adamant about maintaining political power? Are we so caught up in small insignificant battles that we are losing the war of the heart — of those who might come to faith? At the end of the day when we say we want to seek first the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom’s righteousness, then maybe we shouldn’t be seeking the empire’s power.

You’ve explored the ways lament is embodied in African-American traditions. It’s something that seems very meaningful for you, and in how you see American Christians moving forward.

That is the power of lament: even in the midst of suffering, still being able to speak to God. Lament will be an appropriate and an important part of our spirituality going forward. It might be the most appropriate spirituality in this transition period.

What are the challenges and rewards of growing as a community and journeying together?

I’m finding that the process is part of the joy. Can I find the joy throughout even the challenges of that? There are definitely challenges that are going to come along the way where the answers are not easy or simple but, again, it comes back to, “Is there an eschatology? Is there a hope and a possibility that God has in store?”

Reverend Rah laughs amound SPU's leadership members

It never excuses or justifies being lax, but it does point toward the possibility of a dynamic and hopeful future. Sometimes in persevering through difficult situations and circumstances you want to get these glimpses of the Kingdom that push you through. But we tend to have a triumphalist, exceptionalist mindset.

We think there is no process or no struggle. It’s okay to experience these moments of pain. We have a God who is willing to hear from us when we experience this pain. That’s why the lament psalms are so common. Lament is all over the Scriptures because God knew that we needed a language of it. It’s essential that we begin to think through how much we can be honest before God and allow God to actually work through that obstacle.

What Western influences impact our understanding of the gospel, but aren’t actually scriptural?

One of the things I write about in my book on Lamentations (Prophetic Lament, IVP Books, 2015) is specifically white American exceptionalism and triumphalism — the idea that white, Western ways of governance, thinking, perspectives and languages are superior to all other perspectives in the world. We tend to treat our efforts to preserve that white, Western world as critical and central, maybe even more central than the preservation of the Christian faith.

In many cases, the church in America is operating against its own growth. We are doing the very thing that would hinder that growth — such as not giving ourselves an opportunity to witness to Muslim neighbors and not giving ourselves an opportunity to build healthy and strong relationships with immigrant churches who are now the new growth edge of the church. The dysfunctional self-perception that we are an exceptional people has led to some ecclesial practices that, frankly, make no sense. They operate against the very thing we claim we want, which is the growth of the Kingdom of God. Instead, we trade that very high calling, to be those who live into the Kingdom of God, for the empire of the United States.

Reverend Soong-chan Rah greets a woman

What incorrect assumptions can Christians make if they don’t have intercultural relationships?

In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. B. Du Bois talks about a double consciousness that African-Americans have. This is the experience of being in two different worlds simultaneously — the majority culture and also the African-American community.

Du Bois described that as a burden, having to learn multiple cultures and adapt and transition between these different cultures. But more recently, scholars like Juan Flores and Miriam Jiménez Román have argued it might not be a curse, but a blessing. As a second-generation immigrant, I know what it’s like to try to adapt to a majority culture, but I also know that my experiences growing up in an immigrant church and now being in a multicultural setting have shaped and formed the way I interact with others.

Reverend Soong poses on a balcony overlooking Martin Square

Response: How can this put Christians at a disadvantage in ministry?

Those who have been steeped in one culture their entire lives are actually at a disadvantage because they don’t have that practice. They don’t have that experience. So that would be my challenge for those who have been steeped in one particular culture their entire lives: Where are the places that are going to fit you in with other cultures? Where are the places of intersection with other communities that would more profoundly deepen one’s experiences, one’s perspectives? Those are important experiences that many are missing.

One of the greatest joys I have is being in a diverse community. When I was a pastor in Cambridge, every Easter we would have a joint gathering of churches in our neighborhood. The church in Cambridge is an extraordinarily diverse community, and here were these believers worshiping together on Easter Sunday.

Those are the moments I want to hang on to — to say to God, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven — give us more glimpses of that kingdom.”

Next Steps

Response: For people who understand this intellectually, but don’t have as much experience or practice, what are practical next steps to take?

Rah: I would start with an inventory: “Where am I in my world experience right now? Who are the people I’ve surrounded myself with?” That would be asking questions like:

  • What are the last 10 books I’ve read and who authored those books?
  • Who are the last five people I’ve had over to my home?
  • Who are the last five people whose homes I’ve been into?
  • What are the last 10 worship songs I sang?
  • What are the last five small group meetings I attended?
  • What are the last five lunch meals that I’ve had?

If you are surrounded by a particular ethnic culture, then you’re probably sequestering yourself in a way that will hinder you.

Second, look at the gaps and say, “Do I know what it means to engage a culture not as a person of power, but as a person in submission?” Explore what it would mean to have a cultural mentor in your life, or to be the only person of a particular race and ethnicity at a church that is of a different cultural group.

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