how churches get embedded with values
I’ve just finished reading the new book by Soong-Chan Rah titled, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Rah reviews the biases in American history that have now been institutionalized not just in mainstream culture, but also unknowingly embedded in evangelical churches and evangelical theologies. (cf. here’s a video of me reading the book’s acknowledgements and introduction)
I consider Rah’s effort to be a great companion to a couple of other books I’ve recently read, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (by Shane Hipps, cf. the newer title Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith has very similar content, I’ve heard) and The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (by Skye Jethani).
The above 3 books make a valiant effort at cultural deconstruction and show just how greatly our mainstream American culture has been influenced by theology, technology, and consumerism. And not only that, the typical American evangelical church has been embedded with values that do not represent the Gospel well. To quote Tim Keller, “Every culture is dominated by idols that is not dominated by the glory of Christ.”
Sadly, in too many contexts, it is not safe to ask questions of our church culture and its embedded values. And even if those questions were to be asked, and discussed, to actually create change and transform an institution like the church is seemingly impossible.
So these (almost) prophetic truths are great to surface, expose, and discuss. Yet, could it be that we in the American church has been too enamoured with pragmatic results in church growth and evangelistic zeal? Could it be that by upholding values of excellence, efficiency, and effectiveness, we have lost sight of the more obviously Bibical values of justice, dignity, and diversity — God’s love of the whole world?
Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism has much more to say, and as others join the online conversation of the blogosphere, I’ll add more of my reactions to the book. [update 5/8 great discussion about Rah’s book over at julieclawson.com, including comments from the author; cf. Greg Boyd’s review “Only WHITE American Christianity Is Dying“; book review at Theological Grafitti; Soong-Chan Rah’s blog is scrah.xanga.com]
I’ll end this post with one lingering question: the power dynamics of “white cultural captivity” is way more difficult to tackle than a prophetic suggestion to lay down power. There’s no easy way to just lay down power– could you imagine a senior pastor or seminary president resigning and naming his successor as someone who is non-white? In most if not all organizations, the pastor or president wouldn’t have the power to do that anyways. And, wouldn’t the organization go into a tailspin without a duly diligent process to make that transition of power?
(my tentative thought at this moment is that it’d take a non-white leader who has the gifts and capacity to lead both white and non-white people to effect long-term institutional change)
“Sadly, in too many contexts, it is not safe to ask questions of our church culture and its embedded values.”
Why? What do you risk?
questions are perceived as questioning authority or lacking faith; and some don't wrestle with the complexities and uncertainties and mysteries of faith, choosing a
simplistic or dogmatic faith
Thanks for the post. I just finished Rah's book too, and I was taken by many of its claims and perspectives.
At the very least, I think we (as the western church) can notice our “blindspots” when Christians from other countries come and observe some of our theological presuppositions and church practices. I think it's safe to say that many Christians from outside America have keen insights into what may, or may not, look Biblical (such as racism, exorbitant and sometimes misguided use of wealth, etc).
We're (the western church) so immersed with what we're doing, that it's difficult to notice when we're adopting cultural values more than Biblical ones (hence the term blindspot). Therefore, I think we're (the western church) at a disadvantage from the start because it's hard to know which questions to ask ourselves, thereby settling for the sort of simplistic faith that dj refers to.
I do think that bridge-building is the next frontier, where global perspectives from non-western christians and leaders are taken into account (and in fact welcomed) by the western church.
Another book that's been kinda cool to read is Whose Religion is Christianity? by Lammin Sanneh. It describes some of the amazing ways Christianity has been exploding in regions of the world untouched by the west. Mike Keller recommended to me. Good stuff.
In terms of institutional change, I think it will take bridge-building leadership from the people in power.
An interesting sidenote, is that I believe many African-Americans are wondering about what the country will look like for African Americans post-Obama… I heard of a discussion from some African American leaders that some fear that people may be misguided into thinking that now that there's been an African American president, all is well and that access is equal for everyone. I think it's safe to say that as monumental as Obama's election was, there's still a long way to go in terms of empowering minority leaders.
DJ, lemme know where you'll be discussing Rah's book. I'd love to join the discussion!
Oh, OK. I wouldn't have perceived those problems as making your questions “not safe.” But I do understand what you mean now.
On a side note, can we work toward a more inclusive faith where it's OK to be at various stages of certainly concerning what God has taught us? I don't feel comfortable telling someone their faith is simplistic or dogmatic just because they have arrived at conclusions I don't yet understand or embrace. Just because I don't feel at peace with a certain issue should not mean nobody else can either.
Is it possible for Christians in other cultures to let their political resentments of Western society color their Christianity? Do we know examples of this?
Yes, I think this can definitely be the case. Each of us come with our own biases, and I think it's true for non-westerners as well as westerners who critique the Christianity emerging in other parts of the world.
I think the question is, am I willing to listen to some of the critiques? Hopefully the critiques are couched in love, though 🙂
Interestingly, I think that most non-western Christians have the same observations of American Christianity that they would have of America as a whole – materialism, bigger is better, etc. Most Christians I meet outside America offer their observations more as shock and surprise, rather than critique.
But yeah, I'm sure some political resentment can color their perspectives too, especially if one dubs the US a Christian nation without acknowledging the religious diversity here (which I think some theocratic countries would likely do).
In sum though, it's a really cool phenomenon that we can even have this conversation about global perspectives on Christianity. I'm glad that there are so many folks from around the world who are wrestling over what Biblical Christianity looks like!
Christ's call to 'come follow me' is a call to lay down one's (perceived) power. It's a call to accept His lordship. And to learn self-sacrifice. Who among today's leaders are answering that call? It may beg the redefining of leadership… toward a more biblical model.
If you haven't already read it, definitely pick of Vinoth Ramachandra's book, “Subverting Global Myths” or D. Fitch's “The Great Giveaway.” They are profound reads.
thanks for reply; so how could it be better written?
I wonder if the tyranny of the urgent and the over-prioritizing of the practical and short-term results has kept us from entering the much needed, and much absent, conversations that need to happen in a global multiethnic multicultural Christianity. The beautiful possibility of a multicultural Christian community is to have relationships that form a foundation for each of us to see more clearly beyond one's own cultural lenses. We all have blind spots, and we all have insights into other cultures, and together, we can uphold a richer Gospel.
Yes, that is a spiritual truth, indeed, to lay down our lives and to accept Christ's lordship and sacrifice. What does that really look like in the real world? Is there a perfect “biblical” model for every leader in every context?
Drew, great discussion on Rah's book over at Julie Clawson's blog http://julieclawson.com/2009/05/06/book-review-… – 29 comments already, let's jump in there. Soong-Chan himself chimes in there.
thanks, dj! i've posted a couple of comments already on her site. it's kinda fun getting involved in these online discussions.