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Book Review: The Next Evangelicalism

2009 May 6

I am a little nervous writing a review of this book. On one hand there is a lot I like about Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism, but the book also raised some serious questions for me. But I’m white, and this is a book about identifying and moving beyond the white Western captivity of the church. Plus in the Introduction, the author dismisses any disagreement by saying his words flow simply from a love for Jesus and a desire to see the church healed. So I have a sad feeling that I could get into a lot of trouble if I speak my mind about this book. But I want to anyway – because even though there are aspects of the book that I have serious issues with, I think its overall message is absolutely necessary for the church to hear. I think some of those issues might get in the way of that message being heard by a wider audience, so I think they need to be addressed upfront and dealt with – even if I take some heat for doing so.

The basic premise of the book is that the future of the church is in its global non-white manifestations, but that the church is currently being held back by its captivity to white Western systems of thought. While some are lamenting the decline of Christianity in America, they fail to realize that it is only in white America that it is in decline. Minority populations are on the rise. By 2050 it is predicted that the majority of U.S. residents will be non-white, and most of them are Christians with strong churches and faith traditions. If the church is to survive, those who hold power must recognize and give up the ways white Western culture has influenced the church and instead look to other cultural expressions of faith for leadership, church structure, and healing for the church.

I found the first part of the book to be a fair exploration of how white Western culture has co-opted Christianity and the harm that it has caused. It is true that the church often reflects more of Western individualism than the values of community found in scripture. The author blames this lack of focus on community for the church’s failure to respond to social problems, and the overemphasis on personal sin and guilt for the lack of corporate shame for similarly sinful actions. This focus on individual sin is what has allowed corporate sins like racism to go unchecked in the church for so long – there is no communal structure for dealing with communal sin. Similarly the author writes on how the American dream has become confused with biblical standards. This has led to consumer churches and materialism as a measure of success in the church. The church growth movement and megachurches are given as the prime example of how far churches have sold themselves out to this white Western worldview.

The author argues that having the church held captive to this worldview not only hurts the church by promoting non-biblical values, but it promotes a cultural imperialism masquerading as biblical theology. When Western forms of the faith are presented as the only valid form of faith, then the gospel fails to be contextualized into ways other cultures can truly understand it. They are forced instead to adopt white Western culture in order to be Christian. People also fail to realize the diversity of the church – focus on the decline of white Christianity while ignoring the growth of Christianity worldwide. We miss out on the multitude of expressions of church and theology that have much to offer and teach all people of faith. The author says that we cannot truly learn from those just like us.

To break this captivity and heal the church from the harm caused by Western dominance the author insists that people must submit to learning from those different than them. For too long white people have had the “privilege” to ignore the others, and to have our theology and experience lifted up as primary. This privilege must be confronted and whites lay down all of our power for the status quo to ever change. If we do not give up that power and learn from other cultures then we are not missionaries for Christ, but simply cultural colonialists. To that end the author provides example of the ways ethnic churches function as ideals to emulate. He stresses living in community – giving aid to each other, celebrating with each other, and sharing true sorrows together. He also suggests that second-generation English-speaking immigrants like himself are the best choice to led the church of tomorrow. People like him straddle two worlds and have had the liminal journeying experience that can help transition the church away from its captivity to a more holistic perspective. The book concludes with the three-fold action plan of the church needing to confess its sin of white Western captivity and imperialism, submit itself to the spiritual authority of non-whites, and then finally live into the diverse community the Bible speaks of.

So for the most part I agree with the author. The church has been held captive and has caused serious harm because of that. All Christians should recognize that and those who have propagated and benefited from it repent. The diversity of the church should be recognized and white people should make the effort to learn from and to submit to people of other races. The racism in the church cannot be healed unless power is truly shared and whites stop trying to “reach-out” or “serve” the Other, but instead submit to the Other. I agree with all that and think that message is why this book is important for all Christians to read.

But I have my issues as well. The most basic being that I disagree with the author’s assumption that all cultures deserve respect and a voice – expect white Western culture. He spends a long time discussing why white Western culture is bad, but gives very little reason why other cultures should be accepted excepting the fact that they are not white or Western. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn’t think that white Western culture is the only culture that has let cultural setting influence its worldview and interpretation of the bible. But at times I wasn’t so sure since white Western culture was always presented as captive and evil, and all other cultures as free and good. I think this book is going to be ignored or condemned simply for that assumption of the author’s. No matter how evil or misguided a culture has been, to write them off as utterly unworthy of respect (when they are your target audience) is not going to do much for advancing your cause. I understand the need to be harsh and to make readers uncomfortable, but to dismiss an entire race isn’t fair.

Similarly I really wish more time had been given to exploring the positive ways other cultures contribute to Christian identity. The main example that he gave, that of a Korean immigrant church, did little to capture my imagination as a reader. I am sold on his idea that we need multiethnic churches and that we need to learn from all voices. But then his example was of a single-language, single-culture church that separates itself from the outside world to keep its cultural identity strong. The community he describes in that church is wonderful – but I’ve seen the same thing in emerging or even rural Southern (generally racist) churches. If the church he was describing was all white and existed to keep that identity strong he would have (rightly) labeled it racist and imperialist. And while I understand the need for minority voices to preserve identity amidst a majority culture, his example didn’t persuade me of his message. At the end of the day I wanted a little more than “because they are not white” as reason why listening to and learning from ethnic Christian voices is a good thing. Like I said, I agree with the author’s conclusions, but he might face trouble with other readers with such weak examples.

Then there was my issue with his take on the emerging church. It was really bad timing that I read this book during my EVDC09 trip where I got to witness the diversity and community of the emerging church. While the author generally was kind and thoughtful in his critique of the white Western church, when it came to his take on emerging Christianity, his tone changed dramatically. He became angry and accusatory, calling our very existence offensive. He claimed our use of the term “emerging’ is offensive since ethnic churches are the only ones truly emerging these days. He was appalled by the number of emerging books published since there are by far more Korean churches out there than emerging churches and there are far fewer books on Korean Christianity. He was offended that a book he contributed to wasn’t featured on the Emergent Village website. And after stating over and over again that the failing of the Western church is its individuality, he criticizes the emerging church because it is communal and local which leads to all its members looking alike. He claims that all of us disgruntled evangelicals when we left our churches should not have continued the white Western captivity of the church by starting the emerging church, but should simply have joined ethnic churches instead. That statement really bothered me because it turned his argument into less of a call for diversity and embracing many voices, and more of a hatred of all things white. I am just as uncomfortable in the captive church world he describes as he is, but he can’t get past the color of my skin to allow that my disagreements with churches and my affinity to the emerging church might be about ideology more than race. But what really disturbed me was the author’s use of a blog post a friend of mine wrote from which he concludes that leaders in the emerging church don’t care enough to discuss racial issues. If he had bothered to get the full story behind that post and explore the context it was written in and responded to, he would have perhaps not so erroneously misrepresented the emerging church. But he didn’t bother to do that research and now has made very false claims about me and my friends (not by name, but I recall the post in question very well). Perhaps the angry anti-emerging undertone to the book is based on the “outsider” feeling I wrote about recently. Perhaps those of us emerging insiders aren’t doing all that we can to give up power and learn from others. But we are trying, and in truth agree with much of what is in this book. I just wish the author wasn’t so eager to condemn us (his potential supporters and allies) and write us off simply because some of us are white.

Okay so this turned out to be an insanely long review. At least from that, you can probably tell that this book is engaging and contains a lot to chew on. Even with my issues with it, I highly recommend others read it. It deals with issues that the church has to address. It is harsh and it is uncomfortable (sometimes extremely and needlessly so in my opinion), but that discomfort can lead to change. The church needs change – it must change if it truly wants to represent the Kingdom. The Next Evangelicalism is a good wake-up call for how we need change. I just hope that the message can be heard within this sometimes angry and extreme vessel.

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72 Responses leave one →
  1. May 13, 2009

    Karl,

    I think that conversation of race and class is so difficult so I appreciate you sharing all that. I wonder if part of the so-called “white, western” mindset is to be able to only handle one part of that complexity at one time — narrowing the conversation to one issue. You are either poor or rich, white or nonwhite, not realizing as you have indicated that we are often a mixture of several different categories.

  2. May 14, 2009

    mike, if any of these charismatic emergents you know have blogs or books i’d love some links.

    the folks I’m thinking about specifically are not authors, but just friends in the conversation: people like Makeesha and Dave Fisher, Sarah and Ryan Notton, Rusty and Stephanie St. Cyr, etc… All folks who have come to the conversation from Pentecostal backgrounds, and though they’ve perhaps moved beyond some of the abuses of that tradition, as far as I know, have not rejected the basic idea of charismatic faith. Indeed, as I’ve seen it, many emergents, myself included, could be considered “charismatic” in that we believe in and are open to the power of the Spirit in healings, spiritual gifts, etc. For many of us, opening ourselves up to this has been part of our emerging journey.

    For myself personally, I consider myself a “non-practicing” charismatic, insofar as I am open to the “miraculous” gifts, but also recognize that I myself have not personally been gifted with the more dramatic ones (and I am not Pentecostal insofar as I don’t believe that every Christian has to manifests miraculous gifts like speaking in tongues), nor am I temperamentally suited to the usual style of “charismatic” worship. I’m all for it, it’s just that personally I can only handle it in small doses.

    Another place to look for charismatic emergents would be among Vineyard folks like Rich and Rose Swetman, Jim Henderson, and Todd Hunter, among many others who have long been friendly to and a part of the emerging conversation. In fact, Vineyard folk in general tend to be more “emerging” than most denominations.

    Oh yeah, and there’s also John O’Hara’s AGmergent group, which blogs over at Emerging Pentecostal.

    on my blog we talk about all those things in addition to things emerging/ent.

    Well, then you yourself would be an example of exactly what you’re looking for. :)

    The emerging church is not something “out there”. The emerging church is all of us, including you. If you don’t think your particular type of voice (whether charismatic, or non-white, or whatever) is represented well-enough, then all you have to do is add it. Stop waiting for someone else to fix the problem and just be the change you want to see.

  3. May 14, 2009

    thanks mike. i am familiar with most of the people you’ve mentioned but i did take a second look at their blogs. ’emerging pentacostal’ looked the most promising but hasn’t been updated in over a year. the others aren’t really talking about charismatic things much, at least not the things i mentioned earlier. interestingly, todd hunter is now anglican. i do need to look up jim henderson again. he seems like a cool guy.

    i’m not really a charismatic or pentecostal per se, and never have been, but skipped those phases and went straight to post-charismatic. the vineyard is where i fit best, but sadly the emerging vineyard plant i was a part of folded quite awhile ago. i am “being the change” as best as i know how…it just gets a bit lonely at times.

    most charismatics/pentecostals probably wouldn’t consider themselves emerging/ent because they still do ministry in very modern ways, especially seeing church as a “performance” with a “celebrity” pastor up front. to their credit they do focus on similar issues like social justice, have women pastors, and are more diverse, but they go about it generally in a very different fashion than a church in the emerging conversation would. hopefully, this will change in time though. :)

  4. Karl permalink
    May 14, 2009

    linda, there are quite a few Anglican churches, especially those associated with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA,) that combine charismatic worship with a service that isn’t nearly as much in the “modern performance” paradigm. What I have appreciated about the Anglican church is that it has been the best fit for me, for addressing many of those types of concerns that Mike and others would characteriize as “emerging.” A desire for a richer, less shallow, more God-focused worship experience, a desire for making ministry to the least among us an important facet of faith instead of looking at it suspiciously, a willingness to “agree to disagree” on a pretty large range of nonessentials, more openness to women exercising spiritual gifts and leadership than is found in most evangelical settings, etc. Of course most AMiA churches will be fairly conservative on what have historically been considered the “essentials” of Christian belief and maybe even on some nonessentials. Not all are strongly charismatic and not all are equally as concerned about ministry to the poor – YMMV. But the Anglican ethos and theology can be a good fit for a lot of people with “emerging” concerns and impulses, particularly if they remain relatively conservative in their theology on the historic essentials (i.e. still within the umbrella of “evangelical” but on the progressive end of that spectrum). Ironically, I am attracted to the Anglican church for all the above reasons but the particular Anglican church we are in, is much closer to a the typical low-church evangelical protestant praise music attractional seeker church than I would choose.

  5. May 20, 2009

    Hey posters. Just wanted to squeeze some thoughts in here. As a second-generation Chinese American who experienced strong spiritual formation in both a Chinese American house church and a second-generation Korean-American church, and then left to be part of an missions internship in the inner city (which has placed me in a mostly-white team context amongst a largely latino and black comunity), I have definitely given some of these issues a fair amount of thought. I recently greatly enjoyed TNE as well, despite my own misgivings (some of which, like Julie and Mike’s, include a concern about turning a blind eye toward the problems of the immigrant/second-gen church). Additionally, I have previously self-identified as ’emerging’ before (though now I’m realizing that labels just don’t do much for me – they all carry so much baggage!).

    Anyhow, I post specifically to address the questions raised by Mike about the conservative theology within ethno-specific churches. This is an issue I have had many personal struggles with. I was quietly ’emerging’ while my head pastor was still genuinely concerned with the idea, and I find myself much theologically less-mainstream (Anabaptist, two of my spiritual heroes are Rich Mullins and Shane Claiborne) than much of my old Korean-American home church. To be honest, I think part of the reason I looked to outward service opportunities was to get a chance to share community with people who shared many of my more ‘progressive’ values. In God’s grace, I ended up in a class of would-be ministers to the poor with mostly white people (whom I love greatly). I think one of the things that has come out of my time here, however, has been a realization that previously (when I was at my K-A church), I hadn’t understood so many of the strengths that the AA church had brought to the table (strengths like submission, community, and hospitality). These are strengths that I cherish so much more having been away from that community, while at the same time I have been very blessed by much of what I have learned from walking with this community.

    Anyway, the long and short of it is, I want you to hear from someone who has both loved and struggled with the ethnic church, that there are many gospel-minded Christians in ethnic churches out there and many ethnic churches are more and more open to issues like racial reconciliation, justice, etc.(some are even leading the way among evangelicals!). Perhaps what I’m trying to say is, despite our human fallenness and flaws, by God’s grace people in every cultural group can be empowered to live by Jesus’ teachings and incorporate the good in their own cultures while redeeming the bad. I hope that we (and I’m including myself here) realize that there are many critical voices to listen to that are not emergent, emerging, reformed, white, asian american, rich, poor, [like us], etc.

    blessings,
    jeff

  6. May 20, 2009

    Wow.

    As a Korean-American pastor I’ve vacillated on this issue between an extreme polemical stance to compliantly accepting the role of the “model minority”. On the one hand I’m selling out, on the other hand, I’m frightening people away.

    But what Rah is doing is breaking out of the “coy asian” mode and thank God someone is doing it. He’s leading the way for a new social engagement amongst Asian-American Christians and he’s kicking it off with a shout. Sometimes a strong corrective is needed to shake things up a bit.

  7. May 20, 2009

    I think it’s interesting how things get interpreted based upon one’s RACIAL experience. I say RACIAL because the conversation does seem to have a subtle divide between white and nonwhite epxierences and theologies. I appreciate Julie’s honesty and willingness to bare some of her concerns. I wonder how the book would’ve have been written differently or received differently had it been written by a white person. I think the underlining issue with espcially American society is that people who benefit from being a part of the dominant culture (ie. white western) don’t really self reflect as much because they don’t have to. Racial issue is not something people choose to focus on, like someone in a previous comment mentioned, it’s always in the faces of those who are not accepted by the dominant culture and members of that culture. I am dissapointed that Rah’s book has been casted in the light of “an angry Asian”. But to his defense, I think white folks really need to think about your context and history (of being white, and being AMerican) before you claim any sort of innocence and saying that Rah’s book is offensive. As long as this nation has not dealt with its earliest forms and structures of oppression (ie. oppression of Native people, stealing their land etc etc), we can never have an honest conversation. And to say that theology trumps race is absolute nonsense because EVERYONE’s theology is informed by their culture. NOBODY’s theology is free of culture, good and bad. So, please don’t make claims saying that focusing on theology is more important than race issues because your theology is informed and influenced by the racialized culture of the United States, whether you want to acknowledge it or not.

    I am a bit dishearten by Mike’s comment about how his church cannot focus on just race issue but must be broader because I feel that Mike is totally missing the point. For those of us who live as nonwhites in this country, race isn’t just an “issue” we can talk about once in a while, it’s not a switch that can be flipped on or off. It’s our reality, day in and day out. One thing I try to tell my white friends is to be mindful of the fact that nonwhite people in this country are constantly living cross cultural lives. They have to adopt to the “normal” way of doing things and I think white folks don’t have quite the appreciate for how exhausting that can be. And therefore, race isn’t just ONE issue that cannot consume your church but race is something that consumes this nation, this culture. So as long as you are a church, a community of believers in a racialized United States, race and white captivity isn’t an “issue”, it is a reality that touches every aspect of our communial life as the Church.

  8. May 21, 2009

    “If you don’t think your particular type of voice (whether charismatic, or non-white, or whatever) is represented well-enough, then all you have to do is add it. Stop waiting for someone else to fix the problem and just be the change you want to see.”

    Mike Clawson: I feel you since several comments back. But I would point out that just adding our voice to the mix is not that easy. Sure you can say “come over to our table and join the discussion” but then you’ve already made the statement that its your table.

  9. JMorrow permalink
    May 21, 2009

    I’m really interested in reading Soong-Chan’s book and I must say the conversation here is thought-provoking. What stuck out to me was Julie’s comment,

    “One other question I have that has be gnawing at me in this discussion. Should race trump theology? Should submitting to the spiritual leadership of other races be more important than the theology one believes?”

    Julie, does your comment pertain more to this specific issue, or have you been wrestling with this in other contexts as well? I must say it feels like a false dichotomy to me. So many of our theological stances can’t be neatly separated from social and cultural issues. Issue driven agendas shouldn’t have to supplant relationships across social boundaries or dictate their limits. It’s alittle like asking, should we have spirituality or social justice? Should we be progressive or conservative? Should we pray or work? Should we do outreach or inreach? The emerging answer to me has always been: Both/And. But don’t get me wrong I don’t want to underestimate how hard this is to put in action.

    I’ve found that even when we think “conservative” or “progressive” are the prevailing ideologies in ethnic minority churches, there are always stories of persons and communities who go against the grain of our assumptions and present counter testimonies. It helps as well to closely study Church history and ethnic histories to catch on to those counter testimonies. Typically minority churches have to find unique/alternative ways of dealing with traditional theological divides as they are understood in the majority culture. One example comes to mind from the Civil Rights movement in which eastern educated black clergy (like MLK) who were introduced to the kind of biblical criticism and theologies that would be considered “progressive” for their day. They returned to pulpits having to form a community with many who would be considered biblicists by today’s standards. It’s not that there weren’t stark differences between them, but the racial climate of the culture forced these two sides to work together. There were few ideological sanctuaries to flee to. Many of the strategies and feats of that came from that movement were the result of a synthesis between biblicist and progressive views. It’s from that kind of cauldron that we’ll find examples of people on the margins producing fruit worthy of our consideration and even emulation.

    My hunch is that teachers like Soong-Chan are trying to encourage us to look for these kinds of examples throughout the global church. But to do so we have to look with a very different set of eyes, realizing that emerging may not exactly look, sound, or feel the same in other cultural contexts as in our own. Nonetheless it’s still there and waiting for us.

  10. May 21, 2009

    Sure you can say “come over to our table and join the discussion” but then you’ve already made the statement that its your table.

    No, that definitely NOT what I said. What I specifically said was

    “The emerging church is all of us, including you.”

    In other words, I’m saying it’s our table. All of ours. No one owns it. We’re creating it together.

  11. May 21, 2009

    So, please don’t make claims saying that focusing on theology is more important than race issues

    Not sure if you were addressing me with this (since your next paragraph does, I’ll assume you were). But let me just clarify that I didn’t say theology was “more important”. What I said is that I’d really like to have BOTH racial and theological diversity. Not (as you accused me of) focusing on racial diversity only sometimes, and theology the rest of the times, but BOTH of them ALL of the time.

    I apologize if I gave the impression that I was saying something different. I thought I was pretty clear when I said in comment #23:

    I guess I’m just worried that racial/ethnic diversity doesn’t always go hand in hand with theological diversity, and I’d really, really like to have both.

    …but perhaps I was not.

  12. May 28, 2009

    I just noticed that I was mentioned here. I still consider myself “charismatic” although certainly not in the way I did before. Also, if you had been at the Emergent gathering in DC where 24 of us gathered to attempt to discern a course for the future of Emergent Village you might have been surprised by how many pentecostals were present.

    I’m not really sure what the point of that whole conversation was as I just noticed my name and figured I better respond but there you go. There are indeed charismatics in the EC, lots of Vineyard folks in fact and quite a few Assemblies of God.

  13. May 29, 2009

    Helpful review, I am interested in multicultural church, it sounds like this isnt it!

  14. June 4, 2009

    This post is old, I know, but I hadn’t checked in for several weeks. Good conversations still going.

    SYC and JMarrow are on point. Everyone’s cultural impacts their theology. So Julie’s question of “does race trump theology” is a mute point. Racial reconciliation is intertwined in the theology of most ethnic minority churches and Christians. They cannot be separated. It is Jesus and living him.

    I think, really, that many people who are captive to white western culture (whether white themselves or not) simply will not get it until they invest, truly dive in and commit long-term, to an ethnic minority church as SCR suggests. Because most ethnic minority churches are aware of the captivity and are throwing it off piece by piece.

    As far as whether ethnic churches are “emergent”…I think SCR’s point is that if people are really saying, “sure, we all are emergent, emergent is me, emergent is you…”, than why is the focus on white emergents? Saying “we are in this new movement” is saying that they haven’t been already fighting mainstream white captivity to western theology for decades.

  15. Keenan permalink
    July 4, 2013

    I am kind of fascinated to see what this book is all about now. After four years of Canadian university, I have been bludgeoned to death with the idea of post-colonial oppression. Seemingly much like this book, it has opened my eyes to structures of power I had never thought existed. It also makes communicating with people from ‘ethnic’ cultures much easier, as you gain a cursory acquaintance with many of them.

    However, the ugly side is a deep-rooted unwillingness to embrace or praise those things ‘western’ (note ‘western’ and ‘ethnic’ as terms are equally problematic). No culture is wholly good, wholly bad, wholly the answer, wholly the problem.

    It would have been interesting had Soong-Chan Rah visited any of the more established non-denominational or generally evangelical Vancouver churches. The one in particular I’m thinking about is probably about 50% ethnic, with both a white-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian pastor. The majority of its recently graduated interns are Chinese and Korean. Yet it is very comfortable. The only racial behaviour I’ve noticed is the Chinese and Koreans seem to form their own ‘ethnic’ homegroups where they can.

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