Soong-Chan Rah writes, “As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the twenty-first century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways.”
In The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Rah posits that mainstream evangelicalism in the United States has been too monocultural in its worldview–“white” and “Western,” he says. It has been “taken captive” by individualism, consumerism and materialism, and racism. This captivity is pervasive, he writes, as seen in the megachurch movement, the emerging church movement (which Rah rightly argues pays too much attention to just white voices), and through cultural imperialism. Looking at Native American, African American, immigrant, and multicultural communities, Rah offers hopeful alternatives for evangelicalism’s future.
Every evangelical Christian should read this book. Rah has the courage to say hard things the church needs to hear. His excellent treatment of racism, especially, should be preached from the pulpits and studied in small groups.
However, there are at least two key points where I take issue with Rah.
First, a distraction is Rah’s equating “white” with “Western” as he discusses the church’s captivity. But these two are not always synonymous words, and sometimes when the author uses “white” he really means (or should mean) “Western” instead. Rah mentions T.D. Jakes as a megachurch pastor who is emblematic of the church’s captivity to (“white”) numerical pragmatism. But Jakes is “Western” and not “white.” And there are non-white sectors of the Western church deserving of Rah’s critique (for example, Creflo Dollar and other “health and wealth gospel” African American pastors should be included in Rah’s critique of Western consumerism and materialism). Rah’s arguments would have more force (and been more accurate) if he simply had referred to “Western cultural captivity.”
Second, I struggled to accept some final remarks: “The shift in American evangelicalism is well under way. The white churches are in significant decline.” I will grant the first assertion. But as to the second, Rah does not define further what he means by “decline” and provides barely any evidence of it that I could see. In fact, if he means numerical decline, he is using a standard previously rejected in his book. (Church health ought to be measured not by buildings built or number of attendees alone, he notes, but by taking the spiritual pulse of the congregation.) Is a Church feeding the poor? Welcoming visitors? Caring for the sick? (Etc.?) If so, Rah would say, it is a healthy church. By this standard, the predominantly “white” church at which I recently served as youth minister, for example, is very healthy. Members of that church, and of many others I know that are like it, might read lines like this and ask, “What decline?”
Even so, I don’t want to overly fault Rah for those objections. As a reader I do not demand that Rah say everything perfectly before I accept the force and truth of his overarching claims. All in all, The Next Evangelicalism issues a clarion call to the church to end racism, embrace the growing ethnic diversity of the body of Christ, hear voices that have been overlooked and marginalized, and more accurately reflect the church the Bible calls us to be.