Dr. Soong-Chan Rah of North Park Theological Seminary speaking at chapel of Fuller Theological Seminary on “The Next Evangelicalism: Appreciating the Multicultural Church” (November 7, 2012). Dr. Rah uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as a model for understanding “a world that is becoming increasingly multicultural and how the church responds to this very dynamic time in our nation’s, as well as our world’s, church history”.
The following is my summary and notes from his lecture.
The drastic change affecting the council in Acts 15 is the change from Christianity as primarily a Jewish sect, or a faith dominated by the Jewish community and Jewish Christians, to being largely Gentile.
This cultural change is “old news”, as it occurred at the infancy of the Church, but a similar change has been happening over the last 100-150 years as Christianity has become less focal as a European/European-descendent faith and grown in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. (The most accessible book chronicling this shift is Philip Jenkin’s The Next Christendom.)
Rah shares an anecdote, that if you were to picture an “Evangelical” 50 years ago, you would likely imagine a white male, around 50 years old, living in an upper middle-class home in a suburb of the American midwest. To imagine a Christian (by extension, I assume Rah means evangelical) in the 21st century, you will see “a peasant woman living in Nigeria, a teenager in Mexico City, or a university student in Seoul, South Korea”.
These changing demographics reflect the growth of Christianity in the non-Western world and also the decline of Christianity within white, English-speaking, Europe and North America.
Rah quotes sociologist Steve Warner who said that the increase in diversity in the United States does not mean the “de-Christianization of America, but the de-Europeanization of the Christian faith.”
This diversity exists and will continue to become a more prevalent reality. In the city of Boston, where Rah has had pastoral experience, the majority of new churches are within the immigrant, multi-cultural, and ethnic communities– a sign of the health and vitality of the church in the region, despite the concern of decline of white, traditional mainline denominations.
Depending on one’s perspective, the growth and decline can be a positive or negative development. He turns to Acts 15 to see a negative response to the growth of the church among a new cultural group.
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1; 5)
From a desire to hold on to the privilege and power of being the cultural group in authority, the believers told the outsiders that they must become like them to gain acceptance. This is the earliest example of the cultural captivity of the church.
Rah pivots at this point to demonstrate the Western cultural captivity of the church. Using a particularly “evangelical” emphasis, he posits that the church values the culture more than the directive of scripture. As westerners uncritically interpret scripture through a western lens, the priority of the culture is reinforced over biblical revelation.
Rah tells that in his reading of the Bible, he has never come across any notion of the “right to bear arms”. Yet as he had been listening to Christian radio stations during the American presidential election, the primary issues they emphasized to Christian voters were 1. Abortion limits, and 2. Enshrining the right to bear arms. (To our readers outside the United States, the second amendment of the US Constitution grants citizens the “right to bear arms” in revolution against tyranny of government in a post-colonial context, but has been applied to mean a privilege to purchase and use weapons that have a multiplied deathly affect.) Lost in the cultural captivity are scriptural recurrences of caring for the immigrant and alien among us, and that interpretation would inform “Christian” political associations.
The challenge which Rah puts to his audience is to provide leadership of the church that embraces the multi-cultural reality of the North American and World Church rather than reinforcing the cultural captivity.
If you are going to be leader in this new, multi-cultural reality, you need to have non-white mentors. This is how to be an effective missionary rather than a colonialist. Otherwise, you will carry your particular brand of white evangelicalism because that is all you have known. (“White”, in this usage, implies Eurocentric assumptions, not necessarily skin color.)
The new (old?) model–shown in Acts 15–is mutual leadership.
He also speaks of the transition from a language of hospitality to a motif of family. (Rather than summarizing his anecdote, I recommend listening beginning at the 22:45 mark).
His final question, one which should question the perspective of North American evangelical Christians simply stands at the end of this message with no supplied answer:
“So what does it mean for the people of God to be family, to be reliant and dependent upon each other, to see each other as co-laborers in Christ, rather than through the lens of cultural captivity?”
The answer to this question, I believe is the pursuit of the Church into the coming decades and centuries and one that I hope this blog site is able to find fruitful points of expression and collaboration.
(My gratitude goes out to School of Intercultural Studies of Fuller Theological Seminary for hosting Dr. Soong-Chan Rah in the Missiology Lecture Series and making video of his message available online.)