In this episode of As In Heaven, hosts Jim Davis and Mike Aitcheson welcome Soong-Chan Rah to discuss reclaiming the church from cultural captivity and the specific ways that Western attitudes of individualism have crept into our modern ministry philosophies. Rah shares insights regarding the ethics of the kingdom and paints a picture of hopes and dreams for the future. Rah focuses on positive gospel opportunities in addressing race and justice with kingdom ethics.
- An introduction to Soong-Chan Rah (0:58)
- Cultural shifts in objections to the gospel (2:54)
- The significance of minority leadership in this shift (9:43)
- The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity (13:27)
- “Captivity” in the conversation (17:11)
- Advice for church leadership in these conversations (21:14)
- “Aren’t we past this now?” (28:10)
- How important it is for the church to get this cultural moment right (33:55)
- What happens when churches dismiss these cultural conversations (37:59)
- The church’s two-minute drill (42:44)
- Hopeful realism (49:21)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of race.
- What are some biblical truths that you see churches failing to obey?
- What does it mean that we should embrace “the full biblical narrative”? In the arc of that narrative, which parts do you latch on to more easily?
- How have some churches have gone into “captivity” to Western values? Where have you seen this in our Bible reading? In our community life? In Christian engagement with social issues?
- What are ways we can remember the sins of our past corporately in regard to how the church has engaged with minority racial groups? What gospel hope does Jesus offer in our remembering?
- What are your hopes for the future of the Western church? How do you hope to see the church embrace values that are biblical, rather than cultural? What would that look like for your local church?
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Soong-Chan Rah: The cultural captivity of the church means that when we preach the Bible on Sunday, we don’t preach it like it was written to community. We read it like people who are captive to Western philosophy, purely for the individual. And that is a Western cultural captivity, where the Western value of individualism is more important or drives us more than the biblical value of community, which again, you see over and over again throughout scripture, the call to God’s people, the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, not to just an individual.
Matt Kenyon: You’re listening to As In Heaven, a Christian conversation on race and justice. Today’s interview is with Dr. Soong Chan-Rah. He talks about what it looks like to reclaim the church from cultural captivity and the specific ways that Western attitudes of individualism have crept into our modern ministry philosophies. Dr. Soong Chan-Rah has studied these topics for years and brings a wealth of insight and knowledge to the table in this conversation. Jim Davis and Mike Aitcheson are your hosts, Mike Graham is the executive producer. My name is Matt Kenyon. I’m the technical producer. And now please enjoy this episode of As In Heaven with Dr. Soong Chan-Rah.
Jim Davis: Welcome to As In Heaven season two. Our season finale here. I’m Jim Davis, joined with my cohost Mike Aitcheson, and we are very privileged today to be joined by Dr. Soong Chan-Rah, professor Soong Chan-Rah from Chicago, Illinois. I’m looking at your background, and it really is neat, just the diversity of background. You have two degrees from Gordon-Conwell seminary, you have a degree from Harvard, a degree from Columbia. You worked with InterVarsity for a season at MIT, if I’m not mistaken, or you interacted with MIT, you were the founding pastor for a multi-ethnic urban ministry, a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you’ve authored at least five books that I have been blessed by. And we’re going to talk specifically about The Next evangelicalism: Releasing the Church From Western Culture Captivity. And now you are currently the professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. Thank you so much for joining us.
Soong-Chan Rah: My pleasure, glad to be with you.
Mike Aitcheson: Thanks so much for joining us today, Dr. Rah, especially related to your most recent book. I’ve gotten some text messages from my intern, and listen, I’m so blessed by what I’ve engaged, and you speak a language that all of us need to learn. So thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to being blessed by you.
Soong-Chan Rah: Thank you. That’s very high praise. Thank you.
Jim Davis: Well I’m going to give you a little context here at [inaudible 00:02:58] Ministry in Orlando, Florida, and Orlando has just seen an unbelievable shift in the past 10 years. So in the past 10 years, probably 15% of our population have left the church. There are now more … if you combine de-churched and unchurched together, there are more of them than there are churched people in our city. And what’s interesting is the objections to the gospel have changed as well. So what we used to really encounter were more intellectual objections about evil, the existence of evil in the Bible, et cetera, apologetics. Now we’re really faced with more ethical and moral objections to Christianity. Is it good? Do we contribute to human flourishing? Do we care about issues of racism and sexual abuse? And I’m not limiting our conversation to Orlando in any way. You’ve lived in Northeast, you’re in Chicago, you have a 30,000 foot view, but I would love to ask you how you process this cultural shift in the objections that we’re hearing from the unchurched and de-churched people.
Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah, I don’t see this as a kind of epochal change, as in we had one era and then another era we entered into. I see this as kind of an ongoing continuation of some of the challenges that the church has been facing. And so some of the intellectual challenges have bled into or have kind of seemed into some of the ethical challenges. And so I don’t see that as kind of we were doing one thing in one era, and then we shifted to another thing in a different era. I think what we are seeing though, is that some of the intellectual propositions that we have claimed as Christians, we didn’t live up to them. We have claimed that God is love and God is just and God cares for those who are outside the walls of faith.
Soong-Chan Rah: And we’ve kind of made some really important and strong propositional assertions that I think are valid and needed to be affirmed and clarified and communicated clearly, but I think what you’re alluding to now is that we didn’t really live up to those assertions. And so our orthodoxy, we thought we had gotten it right and we thought that’s what we were responding to in the world around us to kind of assert the truth of the gospel, which I hold to, it’s more that we didn’t live out the truth of the gospel. And the world now, frankly, is calling us on our hypocrisy, that we claimed that out of our scripture, out of our faith, there is an understanding of God as God’s expression of love, mercy, justice, and truth, and yet our lives and the life of the church even has not reflected that. So it’s a continuation of that. At the same time, I do think that there are some significant changes in our culture that kind of exasperated what’s going on. So our claims have been pretty common and it’s been standard and it’s been the same, yet we haven’t lived into those claims. And then on top of that, the culture and society has changed around us so that these claims don’t seem to have the same impact that it did maybe a generation earlier.
Jim Davis: So that’s a really good answer. We both, I think, minister to people who see the changes around us and it produces fear, and some maybe rightly placed fear, some wrongly placed fear. And of course the job of a pastor is to walk with people in their fear and their loss, point them to Jesus, who understands that better than anybody. But what opportunities do you see, missional opportunities in this cultural shift, ethical or not?
Soong-Chan Rah: Sure. I think the cultural opportunities are to embrace the full narrative of scripture. And the full narrative of scripture includes both a triumphant victory that Jesus will reign, but also the suffering of Jesus on the cross, and that both are a part of the reality of the Christian life. So the previous generations probably witnessed more of the triumphant victory. The previous generation, the boomers and to some extent, the gen X-ers, they built churches that got big really fast, they built churches that had huge budgets, and we had these kind of superstar, mega churches that were seeming to kind of pop up everywhere and they seemed to be influencing the culture and influencing society. So that kind of victorious, triumphant Christianity is something that the current generation has had a taste of, and yet it doesn’t seem to settle well with the younger generation. And so that’s kind of one of those changes where we acknowledge that, yeah, that’s a part of the scripture, the victory and triumph the church, but the suffering and the struggle and the pain of the church is also part of the biblical story. And so that’s where we are making some of this disconnect. We had time periods in American church history and in more recent history where we were flourishing and everything was going well and we thought the church would keep growing and keep growing, but we’re at a time period where the church is struggling, where the church is viewed maybe not in the positive light, but in a more negative light. Both of those realities have to be dealt with, and both of those, I would say, are good opportunities. In fact, I would say it’s an opportunity to engage the part of scripture that we don’t know as well, because we didn’t have to engage, lament or stories of suffering or people who were struggling, because our churches were doing so well we didn’t think we had to deal with that.
Soong-Chan Rah: Now we’re coming to the realization that the gospel is not just about winning all the time. Sometimes the gospel is about struggle and pain, and that’s why we need to be more attentive to the stories of, as the scripture talks testify, the alien and the immigrant among us, to the very least of our brothers and our sisters, to those who are the crippled, the lame, the blind, and the sick, those who have been marginalized by society. It’s time to listen to those stories, because we’ve only heard the other side of the story is we should always be victorious. We should always be winning. We should always be growing. We should always be at the top of our game. It’s a different era. And I think it’s a way that God challenges us to read the whole canon of scripture and not just pick out the verses that we like.
Mike Aitcheson: Dr. Rah, well said. You were moving in a direction that resonates with me deeply, and I’m wondering if you could take us down the road a little bit further in terms of what is the significance of minority leadership in this massive change, this shift, this era of concern that we are seeing and how might the changing demographic of our nation in particular be in need of minority leadership? And then, what might the historic African-American narrative bring to bear on this present moment in light of the things you just said?
Soong-Chan Rah: That’s a fantastic question. And particularly related to my research … I think I forgot to mention, I actually have a doctorate from Duke. I just completed that fairly recently. And my dissertation was on the black church, and specifically on African-American evangelicals and their very critical role in evangelicalism in the 1960s and 1970s. And one of the lessons that I learned was how important it is to listen to the voices that have typically been on the margins of our faith or margins of our society, that those voices that we didn’t consider to be the power for the central ones, which by and large tended to be white evangelical churches were kind of at the center and black churches, African-American churches, were kind of on the margins or on the borders. When actually now in the midst of suffering that is in our world, the voices of the marginalized actually need to be brought front and center, because those narratives of people that have gone through suffering, like the black church … the black church went through an incredible time period of suffering after suffering; slavery, the slave trade, the Jim Crow laws, just the long history of oppression of African-Americans.
And it was the black church that was able to pastor and shepherd this community towards a spiritual vitality and health. That is really an amazing testimony. And if we’re saying that we’re at a place where there’s great suffering in our society, such as COVID-19, such as racial unrest, such as on the cusp of economic depression, these are major, major challenges. I want to learn from those who’ve gone through these kinds of challenges before and who’ve emerged out of that still praising God and loving God. And that’s where I look towards the black church to say, if you want to read the history and know the story of people who have gone through every pressure and stress and difficulty imaginable, it’s the African-American community. And yet, after all of that, the black church still stands up and worships God. Now that’s the lesson we need to learn, instead of saying, “Hey, we’re going to fix this problem for ourselves. Oh, we’re going to do whatever we want to do.”
No. There was this incredible spiritual depth in the black church, in the midst of crisis and conflict and tremendous opposition even, and tremendous suffering that I think right now, those lessons are very critical. And I would say with the demographic changes, it becomes even more critical, because we need to hear the voices in the margins as this country moves from a majority white population to a majority nonwhite population, both in society at large. As you’re probably seeing in Orlando, you’re probably seeing these drastic demographic changes in Orlando. We’re seeing it nationally, but what’s interesting is that change is happening in the church first. The churches are becoming more diverse than society around us.
Jim Davis: That is interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. That makes a lot of sense. So you write about this in a big way in your book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity. It’s a strong book and it’s very compelling, and I would love for you to briefly explain to this audience, if they’re not familiar with the book, what is your main thesis and the points that support this main thesis in your book?
Soong-Chan Rah: Sure. So I wrote this book actually about 10 plus years ago now. And it’s interesting, because I’m not predicting things. I’m just saying this is probably going to happen. This is –
I’m not predicting things. I’m just saying this is probably going to happen. This is probably the trends we’re seeing. And the things that I said, the trend following the trends, pretty much every one of them has turned out to be. And one of those trends that’s one of the major themes in the book, is that American society is changing very dramatically in its demographics, and that the church is actually going to experience those changes at a faster rate. In other words, the prediction was that by 2042 or in the decade of the 2040s, that the majority of… There will be no ethnic majority in the United States. White Americans will make up less than 50%. The rest of America that used to be the minority group will actually make a more than 50%. That projection is still on its right trajectory, that we’re on track to hit that number.
What I said was, the church will probably experience that level of diversity, 50%, 50%, way before actually the society experiences that diversity. And it actually has turned out to be true. In 2018, PRRI did a research project that showed that 17% of the American population identify as white evangelical and 16% of America identifies as non-white evangelical. So we’re already, if not two years later, we might have passed that. We’re already very close to that 50/50 number where the number of evangelicals that are people of color versus white evangelicals, they’re about 50/50, and this is 2020. So about 20 years before society has experienced this kind of leveling of the demographics, the church has already experienced it. So my first assertion was, this demographic change is happening, whether we like it or not, it is happening.
It’s not due to immigration. It’s actually due to birth rates. These demographic changes are already here. And especially if they’re happening faster in the church, we’ve got to deal with these demographic changes. The other side of that of course was, why is it so hard for the church to deal with these demographic changes? Why is there opposition? Why is there even negative language around non-white Christianity? Why is it an opposition, it seems? And a couple of things I pointed out is that there are narratives, worldviews, imagination, thread lines within American evangelicalism that prevents us from entering into this diversity that’s already here. So even though we have a demographic diversity right now, we don’t have leadership diversity, we don’t have cultural diversity. We don’t have diversity in so many different areas. We still have a captivity to Western culture, which is still seen as central and primary. And so my assertion was that if we’re going to actually go into the future ready to address this demographic change and this increasing diversity, we’re going to have to examine the cultural captivity that we are steeped in, because that will prevent us from, in a healthy, gospel, biblical way, engaging the diversity that is already here.
Jim Davis: So you chose the word captivity. And I know authors, especially professors, you choose your words carefully. What made you want to go with that word?
Soong-Chan Rah: Well, captivity in historical theology has been used quite frequently. So one of the first times we heard about this… I mean, it’s been a lot of places, but one of the more major places that it came up was what Luther called the Babylonian captivity of the church, and stated that that iteration of the Catholic church in particular, with its high view high, high emphasis on indulgences and a loss of sense of understanding of scripture and grace. So Luther stood against the Babylonian captivity of the church. And the word captivity, meaning that a church had become captive to the culture and to the society around it, rather than to the word of God itself. And different people have used that. The phrase suburban captivity of the church was used in the 1960s and 1970s. There was some folks who were calling it the American captivity of the church during some of the mission eras. Pelagian captivity of the church was another theologian usage of that.
So the idea is that there are certain cultural values that the church becomes enamored to and captivated and captured by that is actually undermining the biblical value system, so that the cultural values, which we are captive to, become more central to our ecclesiology than the biblical values. So one of the examples that I use is that the value of individualism is not a biblical value. It’s actually a secular value, and more specifically a Western secular philosophy value. So if you study Western history like I’ve done in my work, you see over and over again, the sensuality, the centering of the individual in Western philosophy and thought. Western sociology, Western philosophy, Western thought is primarily about the individual, the individual’s rights, the individual assertions and identity. Now, I’m not saying that’s wrong or right. I’m saying that’s much more cultural, Western culture, than it is biblical.
So the example that I use is, well, in the Bible, you have 66 books, and 63 of them are clearly written to communities. And three of them maybe are written to individuals, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, which very few people actually read. So you’ve got three books of the Bible that are written to individuals, but the cultural captivity of the church means that when we preach the Bible on Sunday, we don’t preach it like it was written to community. We re read it like people who are captive to Western philosophy, purely for the individual. And that is a Western cultural captivity where the Western value of individualism is more important or drives us more than the biblical value of community. Which again, you see over and over again throughout scripture, the call to God’s people, the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, not to just an individual.
So when we talk about, God knows the plans he has for you. We always interpret that as God has a plan for me, the individual. God has a plan for John, and God has a plan for Matt, and God has a plan for Mary. Actually though, you, as many of us know, it’s plural, it’s plural. But our Western captive mind always translates that you into the singular and we have misinterpreted scripture to make it seem like what’s more important is you, the individual, gets blessed rather than actually God’s talking to the whole community. And so that will be a reflection of a captivity to a Western value and a Western philosophy more than to actually the words of scripture themselves.
Jim Davis: Yeah, it’s really interesting. My understanding of the evolution of the English language, the word you that we have is actually the plural word. We dropped the singular somewhere. And then, we made the plural the singular word. And in the South, they adopted y’all and they actually now have two words that mean you, plural. So here’s a really personal question for me. Both you and Mike Aitchison, a piece of how you’re working towards addressing this is to start a legitimate multi-cultural church. That has not been my journey. And I’ve loved walking with brothers and sisters who have been a part of that. My church is largely white, people who care deeply. Really, I mean, there’s nobody here who doesn’t want the best for everyone. So if you were to come in and spend a lunch with, let’s just even say our leadership, the elders, the deacon, staff, key stakeholders, what advice do you have for us in these changes?
Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah, there are some who say that every church should be multi-ethnic. I don’t think that’s actually true. I don’t think that’s necessary. I think more churches should be multi-ethnic because if the numbers are true then about 10% of the churches in America, maybe right in that threshold, are considered a multiethnic. Using the most generous categories of multi-ethnic you can say, if you had 80% of one group, 20% of another, you’re considered officially multiethnic, and only about 10% of the churches in the US qualify for that. That feels low. Now, can we get from 10% to a hundred percent? I’m not sure that that’s the goal. So I would say that there is a legitimate space where there should be certain churches, especially geographic reasons, cultural reasons, where there can be places where there are single ethnic churches. So I would argue that there are certain places where the black church, with it’s specific ethnic and cultural identity and racial identity, is a necessity.
Soong-Chan Rah: I would say that the Spanish speaking congregation with their specific linguistic and cultural identity is a place of necessity. Korean churches, Chinese churches, churches, especially language-based churches, I think there are places where we need those kinds of spaces. So I believe it’s a both/and model. Again, statistically, if it’s only 10%, that number feels low. I’m not trying to say let’s move that number from 10% to a hundred percent and force churches to merge together because within two years, those churches will split apart anyway. So we’re not talking about just this haphazard throwing together and forming multi-ethnic churches. I do believe however that there can be intentionality in our communities to move towards a macro multi-ethnicity. Micro multi-ethnicity is needed as in local churches that are diverse, but we really need this also in the macro level. And that it’s a both/and type of strategy.
On the macro level, one of the best things that I think we can do is if a community is not ready to become a multi-ethnic church, or that’s not necessarily within the next 10 years, it’s not in their view, begin to develop the strategies to strengthen those communities in a way that even if they’re not multi-ethnic can deal diversity and multi ethnicity. So I’ll use this illustration that I once said. I thought it was a really, really powerful one. Imagine God in front of a mirror. I know it’s a quirky illustration, but the Bible says that we are the image of God. Human beings of the image of God, and the image is a reflection of who God is. It mirrors who God is.
Imagine God in front of a mirror. And the reflection in the mirror is humanity. When sin enters into the world and sin breaks that image, the pieces of the mirror fall to the ground. They’re broken. And two things happen. One, you get thousands of different pieces of the mirror, but you also get, because they fell on the floor and they’re fallen, the pieces of the mirror get dirty. And I think there are two ways we want to restore humanity to the image of God. One would be, we need people to clean off their piece of the mirror. That piece of the mirror, if it’s dirty, it’s not best fully reflect the image of God. It needs to be cleaned off. And then the other part is to actually be the adhesive or glue that brings the broken pieces of the mirror together. Both are important.
And I think, what Michael and I did is try to be the adhesive and the glue that brings the pieces of the mirror together. Now, I should warn you, if that’s your calling, when you play at the edges of glass, you’re going to get cut. And those of us who’ve been a multi-ethnic ministry, we know what it’s like to be on the edges and get cut. But I also want to value those who are cleaning up their piece of the mirror so that the mirror, when restored, can fully reflect the image of God. This is actually an illustration from Stan [inaudible 00:26:16], a Japanese American theologian out in California. I thought it was a brilliant illustration about how multi-ethnic churches and single ethnic churches can actually work together side by side. So I would say that one of the goals of a church that is predominantly white, and may be in a neighborhood or whatever so it might not be possible, is to clean up that piece of the mirror.
And that includes purging the community of racism. That includes preparing the children for a multi-ethnic future, because that is a reality. So those of us who are 50 and over, we’ve lived in ethnic bubbles, and that’s been our normal reality. Maybe we grew up in ethnic bubbles, and our churches were ethnically specific and not cross-cultural or multiethnic, but our children are not growing up in that context at all. They’ve already experienced multicultural, multi-ethnicity in their schools. Because most schools, the statistic was that most schools are six times more diverse than the local church. The local school is six times more diverse.
So it is likely that our children are experiencing diversity ahead of time. Now, if they’re getting a message in the secular culture, that diversity can be handled this way, and they’re not getting anything from the church, where the church says respect one another, not because the law tells you to too, but respect each other, because the image of God is found in every single human being. Respect one another because it is the call of God to love one another as Christ has loved us. Now, that feels like a really powerful role of the church and that kind of teaching, that kind of leading of, especially young people, to understand the depth of scripture so that it prepares them to be-
Soong-Chan Rah: … scripture so that it prepares them to be better Christians in the world. That can be done, whether you’re in a multi-ethnic church or a single-ethnic church.
Mike Aitcheson: A lot of times I get questions from predominantly white churches, brothers and sisters well meaning, that want to move the ball down the field. They recognize that they are not a reflection, as best a reflection of the kingdom from a demographic standpoint, as they can be. And in the recent conversations, there’s been a lot of pushback about how much do we need to continue reflecting on history? How much do we need to talk about the past? One of the common things I get is why do we even need to talk about this? Aren’t we pass this now?
Mike Aitcheson: Can you talk about the significance of established dominant culture institutions, and churches doing a robust and serious history lesson that investigates how they got to the point of where they are now before moving forward to pursue diversity, and the dangers of not doing that?
Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah, I turn to scripture here, and when I look at the scripture, one of the most common commands in the Old Testament, if not the most upfront command is the phrase, “Remember, remember, remember.” I can’t think of, especially someone with a background in history, I can’t think of a more precise and clear admonition for history than the idea of remember, remember.
Soong-Chan Rah: Now some of that is remember the good things that God has done for you, but also some of it is remember when you were slaves in Egypt. So it’s a both/and. It is remember that God saved you out of your depth and cares for you, and loves you, and is on your side; but also remember the depths out of which you have arisen, remember the places that you used to dwell in. And so that’s why I think it’s good to remember the history, both the good and the bad.
And I think this is where the cultural captivity piece comes in again. If we are captive to an American narrative that is seeped in exceptionalism, triumphalism, a captivity of hyperindividualism, a captivity to consumerism, a captivity to the assumption of one people group being superior to the other.
If these are the narratives that are deeply embedded into our society, but also embedded in the church, the process of remembering allows us to confront these dysfunctional theological narratives and stories.
So truth is essential in shining a light on falsehood. And so that’s why history is important, because if we understand the truth of history, it shines a light on our reality. So if we say, “Oh, there’s no such thing as corporate sin of racism, there’s no such thing as bad things that have to African Americans, or to native Americans,” no, remember the truth of your history. Remember the truth of your story. These things are not fabricated. These things are actually documented.
It takes a lot of work to become a historian. It takes a lot of work to study these things. I know, I have multiple degrees that I had to get so that I can learn these things. It takes a lot of work. And so let’s do that work, but just because we’re afraid of the truth, doesn’t mean the truth isn’t still there.
And so I believe that the telling of the truth, which is a very biblical gospel telling. So let me put it another way, if I think about, and I’m a professor of evangelism, so I try to teach my students how to evangelize and communicate the gospel. Now, one of the things I think we do in our gospel communication is what? We establish human brokenness. The human need for God is because of our fallenness, and because of our sinful nature, and because of our sinful acts.
That’s a very important thing to do because if you jump to, “Oh, you’re okay now,” well, what am I okay from? And if there was nothing I’m okay from, no bad thing that I’m okay from, then why do I need Jesus? If I’m okay without having sin as kind of the truth behind it, then what’s the point of Jesus? I’m okay without Jesus, because I’m okay, because I don’t have sin in my background.
So if we’re thinking about that for the individual, we’ve got to think about that for communities as well. And to say, “Oh we don’t want to deal with our sinful past. We don’t want to deal with our broken history. We don’t… That’s, that’s too hard for us to deal with. It’s too difficult for us to talk about those things.”
Well frankly, for an individual, it’s tough to talk about sin. Frankly, for individuals, nobody wants to talk about how broken and sinful they are, and how much they need Jesus.
So why are we giving a pass to those who don’t want to talk about a broken sinful history, when God says, “Remember,” and not only remember, but recognize in that history of brokenness and sinfulness, our answer then becomes Jesus. And we understand how much we need Jesus, how much we need the church, how much we need each other, because we are acknowledging how broken we really are.
Jim Davis: Man, it makes me think like Daniel chapter nine, where he’s not just remembering, he is actually in some way repenting of the sins of his forefathers. And you also had me going back over every sermon I can think of thinking, Did I address it corporately enough?”
And we have a number of episodes in this series just dedicated to history, and being around people like you, and Ligon Duncan, and Colin Hansen, you made me want to do more heavy lifting, and more readings. So thank you for what you’ve done on that front.
I wonder if you could help us understand what really is at stake in this moment for the evangelical church, in this unique cultural moment, how important is it that whatever getting it right is, that we get it right?
Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah, this is a multi-layered complex issue. So let me take the first layer for me in terms of my writing. The first layer is, again, going back to the demographic change, the white evangelical church is on a pretty precipitous decline, and it’s very noted and well-documented.
It started first and kind of the mainline churches, the more Protestant liberal churches, and they were hemorrhaging about 25% of its membership every four years, which is horrid. I mean, that’s just unbelievable loss in membership. The evangelicals were not doing as bad as the mainline churches, except if you took out the numbers of immigrants, number of ethnic minorities, number multi-ethnic churches, then actually the evangelical church is doing just as bad as the mainline churches.
So demographically speaking, when you have an older population that is declining, as well as a younger population that is leaving the church, and I’m talking about white churches, how are you going to survive?
And the only way it’s surviving is the counter prevailing notion of immigrant churches, ethnic churches, multi-ethnic churches, they’re on the increase. And so the only way these evangelical institutions are going to survive, frankly, Christian colleges, and denominations, and churches, is recognizing that the demographics of American society are changing.
So one of the ways that this has to be addressed then, and the way the culture [inaudible 00:35:46] speaks against it, is the recognition that the boomers and the Gen X-ers, especially the boomers who are majority white, who have these kinds of large white evangelical institutions, their survival is going to depend on passing that on not to their children and grandchildren who frankly, many of them have left the church, they’re going to pass it on to second generation Asian Americans. They’re going to pass it on to African-American churches, pass it on to second generation Latinos and Hispanics.
We’re talking about a pretty major shift in that the previous generation, the majority was white, middle-class, suburban, and the next generation might not be those characteristics. And so one of the key factors is, is the survival of the church is going to depend on figuring out how this is going to work. And the future of the church depends on that.
The other part of it is the decline within the white community. So the millennials and the zoomers who are leaving the church in huge numbers, and we alluded to this a little bit earlier, they’re leaving because the church is not living up to what it has always preached on. It preached on, “God is love, Christ loves you, Christ offers hope for the world. The community of believers loves one another. And that’s how Jesus would know us by our love.”
All these things we preached on, we have not lived. And so what’s at stake is the gospel for the next generation as well. Not just people of color, but young white Christians leaving the church in droves because they are seeing a church that has preached a certain message, but have not lived that certain message, not demonstrated, proclaimed it, but not demonstrated it.
So what is at stake is the gospel itself, where we have clung to the truths of scripture and proclaimed it with vigor and energy, but we have not lived it. Therefore the next generation is justifiably walking away. And even with that happening, the next generation is going to be multicolored. And there is not an awareness of how that important reality is going to play itself out.
Jim Davis: There are some churches that are openly, either defensive, dismissive, or fight against conversations in the racial justice, multi-ethnic church realm, some pastored, frankly, by men that I respect and have blessed me in many other ways. And it frankly makes me a little sad to see those positions, it makes me sad, not a little, it makes me sad. What do you think happens to churches who take these kinds of defensive, dismissive, or fighting postures?
Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah, let me use a kind of a backdoor to that question. And the backdoor is what happened with COVID-19. So I did a lot of consulting and Zoom calls with denominations and churches about how they were going to handle COVID-19, especially evangelism and what churches were going to do. And what I caught on very quickly after a lot of phone calls with church leaders and denominational leaders, is that the churches that have been preparing, not specifically for a virus, but had been preparing for different challenges that were going to come up, and nobody really knew what form was going to be, but we knew that the world was changing and we’re going to have to figure out kind of a flexibility, being nimble, even kind of transforming the way we think about church. Those are the churches, at least what I’m seeing, they’re doing okay during COVID-19.
By all metrics of like, are they getting attendance? Actually some are telling me they’re getting more people on their Zoom and Facebook than they were on church services on Sunday. Some are telling me giving has actually gone up because they actually had planned, or were prepared and recognized, “Some kind of change is coming, we need to create an ability to deal with these changing.”
The churches that are struggling and are actually saying, “Well, we to have in-person services because we don’t know anything else. We have to force people to come into potentially a super spreader situation, because we don’t know what else to do,” those are the churches that are going to really struggle. And I would say the same thing about the race situation.
So what I saw was people who had been having these conversations for quite some time now, even if it wasn’t every day or every week, they knew something like this was on the horizon, that this kind of powder keg, this kind of like boiling pot of water, you couldn’t keep a lid on it for too long. And that there was going to be a need to address the situation before it got too problematic.
And they had been having these conversations, and they had been reading the books, and having conversations, and sermon series, and leadership conversations, and they were preparing. And they were the ones that were ready when this hit full force in our society.
So when George Floyd, we saw these horrific images of Ahmad Avery, George Floyd, the churches that had been having these conversations for a while, they were the ones that were out there ministering in the community in ways that I think will bode well for 10, 15 years. Because these were the churches, and I know in fact, a good friend of mine is a pastor in Minneapolis, right in the neighborhood where George Floyd was killed, and they’ve been out there day one, giving water and food, and they were actually doing baptisms there. They were ready because they had had these conversations and recognize, this is not a issue out there, this is an issue for us as our church.
So those are the kinds of responses that were appropriate and necessary. And I think to prepare yourself for that, in fact it might even be too late at this point to try to do remedial education now, it might be too late. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying that you got some catching up to do here if you’re just starting to have these conversations. But that’s the reality. If you’re not preparing yourself and being aware of the truths and the realities that are there, reading the books now and having those conversations-
… realities that are there reading the books now and having those conversations now, when the crisis actually hits, it will be too late. What I’m saying is the crisis already hit, but also other crises or other challenges are going to continue to arise such as a changing demographic that we’re no longer going to be able to suppress that’s going to happen no matter what. If churches aren’t ready for it, to get ready for it, after it happens, it will be too late at that point.
Mike Aitcheson: Okay. Dr. Rah. You went down the avenue that is of particular interest to me. I’m a bit of an optimist and I’m working on hopeful realism, if you will.
Soong-Chan Rah: Amen.
Mike Aitcheson: I played football in college and we had several time progressions that we thought through on our drives. We had clock control. We had the four minute offense, which is typically, I mean, that’s kind of like football nerd talk. All right. Then we had the two minute drill, which many people are familiar with, the two minute drill. Okay. Right now, I suspect that we are in the two minute drill mode right now. What does that look like right now for the church in America to say, “Hey, look at the scoreboard.” It’s time to call the, we call it the hurry up offense or the K gun from Jim Kelly or the two minute drill. Then on the other side of that, I’m going to ask you a follow-up ahead of time. A lot of people remember the big catch from Montana to Clark.
Soong-Chan Rah: Oh yeah.
Mike Aitcheson: They’re not very familiar with the defensive stop that had to happen on the other side. What does the two minute drill look like right now for the church? What does the appropriate defensive stop look like right now?
Soong-Chan Rah: That’s a great question. A great illustration too, by the way. In contrast to you, who actually played football in college, my college was the worst football team in the entire nation when I was a student. We actually made the cover of sports illustrated because we had the longest division one losing streak. I went to Columbia and we didn’t win a single football game until my senior year. For three years we were, zero and 11. Then finally, my senior year, we won our first football game in four years. The cafeteria opened up, they brought all the food out and the whole campus was excited cause we had won the first game in four years. I have a slightly different story around football. When you lose games 48 to nothing, there is no need for two minute drill on either side of the offense, we were losing bad.
Actually let’s take that illustration and say for some, the two-minute drill’s important. For some, we’re losing 28 to nothing at halftime. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. There’s need for awareness of where we are in this game. If we’re kind of at halftime, the coach has got to come in and say, “We’re losing 20 to nothing. We’re going to have to change things up.” That’s probably where we’re more at, at this moment, to kind of realize how far behind we are and how far we have to do to catch up, including education, training, all this stuff that if we’re down that far, we’re going to have to make some drastic changes. That will be kind of one aspect of it. Yeah. In terms of the two minute drive, I love that illustration because what happens?
You don’t have time to go to the sidelines or even go into a huddle to talk this out. You’ve got to act almost out of the preparation you had previously. I’ll put another illustration out there. My son and I, our favorite activity is watching movies and we love critiquing movies and especially good actors. Now, if you know some of the best actors, I think it’s called method acting or character acting where they get into the character so much that you say, even if like De Niro, even if he’s not on camera, if he’s doing method acting, don’t talk to him. If he’s playing a mobster, he’ll talk to you like a mobster even when he’s having a lunch on the side because he’s so deeply embodied that character.
Anytime you see him, he’s acting out of that character until the movie wraps up. I would say now is that we’re at a place where we’re trying to embody a character and we act reflexively out of that character. In the middle of a two minute drill is not the time I am to say, “Oh, let me give you a whole new playbook now.” No, you got to go with the playbook you’ve got, and you’ve got to go with what’s already ingrained and embedded did out of the muscle memory and react out of that. I would say it’s kind of that time when we react out of our muscle memory or react out of our character, the embedded character. That’s, I think maybe the most important thing right now. How deeply embedded is the good character, the moral character, the justice love mercy character that when these things come up, that’s the reflex we come out of.
That’s why cultural captivity is so problematic, because we have embedded a character that is not the scriptural it’s cultural. For our first response to someone dying on the streets and being kind of a video lynching is really what it came down to is, “Well, I don’t think that was all that bad.” Hold on a second. There’s something in the character there that we’ve got to address. A character of concern for the person that is hurting the character. At that moment, what you’ve done is become the Pharisee that walked into the other side of the street. Instead of the Samaritan who went down and tried to for the poor, for the hurting. We have got to re examine our internal moral character and say, “The reflexes we’ve demonstrated are not the best right now. Instinctual kind of improvisation that we are showing is not the best.”
Soong-Chan Rah: We’re going to have to deepen our character, especially our biblical character to say, “Why are people responding more out of a desire for American greatness, rather than a desire for mercy and justice and compassion for the poor?” Which is the biblical value? Why are people reflexively acting out of individual rights versus care for the community and care for the very least of our brothers and her sister?” Again, I asked, which is the biblical value. If people are responding in a way that does not seem to reflect biblical character, we’ve got to go back and say, “Hey, this is biblical character to care for the poor, to care for those who are the marginalized in our society, to show love mercy and compassion, to walk humbly with our God to walk carefully, but also to show justice and love mercy.” These are the biblical characters that we seem to have lost because if I’m seeing some of the impulsive improvised reflexive action, I don’t see biblical character. I see secular character.
Jim Davis: Well, my last question. You’ve kind of been answering all along during our time together, but if you could, as concisely as you know how, thinking what’d you say, hopeful realism, Mike? Hopeful, realism. Paint us a picture of what are your hopes and dreams for the Western church the rest of this century?
Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. I look at it as there’s a momentum that goes in a particular way, and this is kind of a social, cultural, anthropological study. Cultures have momentum moving one direction. My hope is that the church presents a counter momentum. If in the world we’re seeing, a dehumanizing and in the world, we’re seeing a devaluing. Then the church demonstrates the opposite. We recognize that in scriptures, there is a value given to human life. That there’s a value given to those who are made in the image of God. All of humanity made in the image of God has a value. Therefore we provide these alternative narratives to the broken narratives that are in the world. That’s the hope that I have. That the church can and has been and can be again, the expression of God’s heart for the world. Right now, I’m not sure that that’s what’s happening. I’m seeing is kind of a selfishness. I’m seeing kind of into the hyper individualism.
I’m kind of seeing, “I’ll do this because it’s good for me.” The church has been, can be in, should be the place where those kinds of values are being expressed. That would be my hope that the church really is the church. The expression of God’s hope. God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s love and God’s…
Jim Davis: That is a great answer. I just can’t thank you enough for your time today. To our audience, we commend all of your materials. We have it on our website and we encourage everybody to interact with the books you’ve written in the books you will write. Just thank you so much for the time you’ve given us.
Soong-Chan Rah: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.