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Why is the Emergent/Missional Church So White?: Soong-Chan Rah’s Next Evangelicalism and Why It Doesn’t Go Far Enough (in Exposing White Western Cultural Captivity)

3360The lack of diversity in the Missional Church (and for that matter the Emerging Church) is a main topic at this year’s Missional Learning Commons coming up here the first week of January in Ft. Wayne. On the Friday night, we’ll be discussing Soong Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism: a book that deals expressly with the problem of diversity in evangelicalism. The book has received a good bit of attention. I think it voices the consensus approach to the problem most often articulated among these same groups – evangelicals and emerging Christians. It’s worth a read for that reason alone.
Rah starts out the book with some compelling stories and statistics describing the changing global demographics of Christianity. The statistics are undeniable and virtually accepted since Phil Jenkins published his now famous book The Next Christendom. World Christianity has migrated in location and demographics from a largely white Western European-N American context to a multi-diverse Asia, Africa Latin American centered. Euro-NA is now 39% of world Christianity by population while the rest is 60%. (p. 13). The same dynamics are operating within the boundaries of N America (and for that matter Europe). Putting it bluntly, the white evangelical suburban church is shrinking massively, while ethic immigrant churches are exploding. These statistics, these realities, we are all aware of. They are compellingly presented by Prof. Rah. There should be no surprise here to any concerned church leader who has read anything in the last ten years.

Rah’s ‘beef’ however, and I am obviously summarizing to an excessive degree, is that the leadership and power structures of N. American evangelicalism remain largely white male. He lists the institutions, colleges, publishers, denominations, and protests how all of these institutions can be so white male? These leadership structures appear oblivious to the ongoing shifts that he rightfully argues are so obvious. Rah labels this the “white captivity” of the evangelical church.

From this point in the book, Rah goes on to outline how “WesternWhite Cultural Captivity” has bred a culture of individualism (ch. 1), consumerism and materialism (ch. 2), racism (ch. 3). He takes apart church growth principles (homogeneous unit principle), the emerging church and the imperialist assumption of Western global missions. Here some of Rah’s best work occurs in ch. 3 on racism and ch. 4 dissecting the mega church –church growth movements and the inherent racism and Western Enlightenment assumptions that undergird these movements. Racism is ensconced in the culture of the West and by virtue of the Western cultural captivity of evangelicalism, it is deeply ensconced in evangelicalism.

Having said all of this about Rah’s book, I seriously question whether we have answers here. In this regard I found the book disappointing. Rah proposes what he calls “proactive steps” (p. 201) like confessing of corporate sins, submitting of white leadership to spiritual authority of non-whites, and “unleashing the gospel.” There is nothing here that anyone I know in the white powers structures of evangelicalism would disagree with. Indeed, many (not all) of these leaders have tried to implement some of these practices for years. These ways forward are good and always bear repeating! Frankly, however, I think the problem goes much much deeper. I think Rah’s analysis, good in many parts, passes over the deeper cultural issues that lie at the basis of this Western cultural captivity. In fact, dare I suggest? Rah’s analysis itself is so deeply entwined with the White cultural captivity that it can offer little to deconstruct it and get us somewhere on this deeply troubling issue of racism, power, and the White cultural captivity of the N American church.

This is particularly obvious in the way Rah deals with the Emergent church in ch. 5. Frankly I find his analysis totally baffling. I have no desire to defend the Emergent church on this score and I want to include the Missional church in this indictment (I see the two as different but related). I affirm the obvious – THE MISSIONAL AND EMERGENT CHURCHES HAS BEEN AND CONTINUES TO BE PERSISTENTLY WHITE. I also agree that many of its gatekeepers could be blamed for the way they have managed leadership of the publishing and the more public faces of the movement. Yet, for the most part, I have always seen them as pursuing diversity more than the standard evangelical leadership. I think the questions go deeper.

It seems to me that the very things Rah says we must leave behind, individualism, materialism, consumerism, mega church business growth principles, ARE THE VERY THINGS EMERGENT/EMERGING CHURCH, AND ESPECIALLY MISSIONAL CHURCH PEOPLE LIKE MYSELF HAVE BEEN LEADING THE CHARGE AGAINST? But in many if not most cases, within the various ethnic groups I meet, and the many conversations I’ve had now over many years with black urban, Hispanic, and Asian churches (including Korean) – this often falls on deaf ears!! Many Asian, Hispanic churches are composed of immigrants who came to N.America for the express purpose to have the opportunities to achieve individual freedom and material success. I cannot say I blame them not listenimg! This means however that the very idea that we must somehow reject or even repent from materialism, individualism etc. is simply not on the radar in the same way. Yet it is this very Enlightenment rationality (individualist freedom, unlimited economic opportunity) which stands behind and provides the coding for racism and white power structures (I can’t go into deeper length on this now, sorry!). Many black urban churches I know cannot warm to the idea that after years of oppression and denial of economic opportunity by the white power structures, they should now be asked to not pursue this kind of success? Again, I cannot say I blame them. Rah himself acknowledges this very thing about his own immigrant church. On page 60 of his book, Rah talks about his own Korean immigrant church’s inability to provide a spiritual and theological corrective to the materialist narrative of the American culture. Rah’s summary (pg 60-61) of how American prosperity, individualism and the American dream become conflated with an evangelical Christianity among immigrant communities is telling. Yet it is to a large degree this same narrative of conflation that Missional and Emerging churches are critiquing.

This conflated message is not just located in Rah’s own immigrant community’s local community. Indeed most sociologists (see Peter Berger’s article here) would agree that the great majority of the spreading church in Asia, Latin America and Africa is driven by some version of prosperity gospel and charismatic experiential Christianity. It is a version of Christianity that I would argue is indisputably tied to the Western values of individualism, consumerism and materialism. And I would suggest that the inherent pride and “us against them” mentality that this ideology breeds, will soon be found in our various ethnic churches in N America. It is part of the same forces that breeds racism in our time. Do we need to ask, does Rah need to ask?  in what sense is the Western Cultural Captivity capturing the various ethnic groups, baptizing them into the same racism we white affluent evangelicals have become so shaped by? If this is true, can Rah or anyone help us in a way forward?

I say none of this to demean any ethnic or minority groups or to pardon white evangelicals from the host of our racial sins. My point is rather that all of these solutions that Rah has proposed, have been tried for years, getting us nowhere. And that the missional church/emerging church, is one of the few places WHERE WHITE EVANGELCIALS OR EX-EVANGELICALS ARE CRITIQUING WITH ALL OUR MIGHT THE VERY THINGS RAH POINTS HIS FINGER AT!! We have been engaging the issues of individualism, materialism, consumerism, the way we sell out to American corporatism and give up the way of life we have in Christ. Unfortunately, for many reasons which I totally understand, this message that resonates so well with white sons and daughters of an affluent white evangelicalism (because they have seen it and it has been found wanting), does not translate as well to many ethnicities that have never participated in the economic affluence of the white West. They say “we have been oppressed for years” (in the case of African Americans), or “we came here for economic opportunity” (Asian or Hispanic Immigrants) and now you tell us this? I understand this. And I think the largely white Missional and Emerging church folk need to listen and learn from this. I already have learned much from this. There is some flat out miss-timing, even injustice, in asking those we have exploited to now reject some of the things we European Americans have gorged ourselves on for the last century as Americans.

I’m not saying this to chew out Soong-Chan. I seriously ask Rah, what should we do, how should we go forward. Yes it’s all true, we humbly confess .. and we have more to do … But there are some deeper cultural issues here. We need more than what has become the standard account on this issue.

For my money, J Kameron Carter’s (Professor of Theology and Black Studies at Duke Divinity School) Race: A Theological Account is the best book on the issue of race and the development of Western White Christianity. To grotesquely oversimplify, Kameron helps us see (through Foucault and others) how “race” was constituted by the West once the Roman church separated itself from the Jews (and the nation of Israel) in the first three centuries. In other words, once the church’s identity was no longer seen as an extension of the ONE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL, chosen for Mission to the world, and became in essence separated from the church of Jerusalem, race became a constituting factor in the church and it was an invention of the Western church to create all sorts of fleshly power relationships. If we would escape the cycle of race, we must escape the Western culture that shapes us by this concept of race. Rah is right about this. It is encoded in our language, our culture and the ways we relate in the Western church. It is part of democracy and part of capitalism. This is how deep Rah’s White Cultural Captivity goes. The question is, to what extent have the various ethnic churches now coalescing in America and indeed around the world, by their buying into capitalism and the great United States, become grafted into this same racist account of the world? And how do we all get out of it. We must deconstruct race as a constituting encoding of our very language and the way we think. Has Rah accomplished this in his book? Or moved us deeper into the ways race defines us? I seriously don’t know.

To my knowledge, the only ethnic group in N America able to call the church into diversity and out of white cultural captivity with a critical distance to prosperity-driven-capitalism-endorsing-Christianity, ARE THE NATIVE AMERICAN CHRISTIAN indigenous groups and their leaders that Rah talks about in his book (see here for instance). I know some of the leaders as friends, and frankly they have a reserve for buying into the American economic system (for obvious reasons) and yet have a love for Jesus Christ. For my money, these are the ones we should be looking to for leadership on this issue … but will we all listen?

OK  I’m ready for backlash .. comments?

During this time of advent, I pray for peace, reconciliation and the unity of all nations under His one single Lordship. Amen.
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Are you interested in this topic and Rah’s book? Join us for the Missional Learning Commons in Ft Wayne. It’s low key, it’s for mutual edification and it’s FREE! A non/conference gathering of “missional co-conspirators.” Check out info on the missional commons website. If you’re going to show up let us know via the Facebook Page, or e-mail me at [email protected] No other registration needed

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