There has been a recent rise in the talk about Western individualism and other key tenets of Western society as of late in both Christian scholarship, Christian preaching, and even in the marketplace. CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria has a book called The Post-American World in which he details what it means to live in a world where the United States isn’t the primary superpower that it used to be and the increase of globalization which has changed the demographics of the US in the past century especially in US cities. Professor Soong-Chan Rah is professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. Professor Rah has written a book that is highly acclaimed by scholars such as Philip Jenkins, Harvey Cox, Scot McKnight, John Franke, and Eldin Villafane among others called The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. In his book, Professor Rah believes and writes in a rather prophetic sense that the Western church has become captive to Western individualistic philosophy (p. 29). In addition to this which he would likely claim is merely breaking the surface, the Western church is dominated by consumerism and materialism. I doubt that many would deny the claims that he presses, but he has a striking statement which cuts to the bare bones of Western evangelicalism when he says, “The individualistic philosophy that has shaped Western society, and consequently shaped the American church, reduces Christian faith to a personal, private and individual faith” (p. 30). This is the great problem that Professor Rah boldly proclaims in his very useful book and he moves to even the Emergent Church in his book as being a form of packaged postmodernism which is appealing to Western Christians. Professor Rah calls for the Western church to depart from it’s hold to Western philosophy within the bounds of the church and to embrace a multi-cultural fabric of church which he declares to be the biblical notion of church. Professor Rah makes a strong contrast in his little book between Western Christianity which is individualistic and biblical Christianity which is communal oriented. He claims that the individualization of the Christian faith will likely be the downfall of American Christianity, but by no means does he believe that it is the downfall of the church. He believes that the church in the West is thriving, but it is thriving more than ever within people groups who aren’t the traditional white-anglo-Americans that have been characteristic of American evangelicalism. He claims that as a result of urbanization and globalization, the urban centers are becoming the home to thriving Korean churches, African churches, Haitian churches, Latin-American churches, Indian churches, Russian churches, and many other churches which are not the typical Western individualistic evangelical church.
This can be hard medicine to swallow if you have been or currently are associated with a Western church that isn’t multi-cultural. In fact, when reading his book or hearing Professor Rah teach about the perils of Western philosophy and how American Christianity has become captive to it, one could almost get the sense that he doesn’t merely have an issue with Western individualistic Christianity, but he has an issue with white American evangelical Christians. I agree with Professor Rah, but I do think that he flirts with the danger of moving his problem with a philosophy that has tainted Western evangelicalism to painting white Americans as the “bad guys.” I encourage everyone to read his little book The Next Evangelicalism, it is a good one and he is a fellow GCTS alum. Regardless of the many problems that can be perceived with Western evangelicalism, Christianity is a global movement. We used to believe that the center of global Christianity was in the United States, but the landscape has changed in the US and abroad. In seminary, I learned in World Mission of the Church with Dr. Tennant, that the center of global Christianity has moved to South America and Africa. Christianity seems to be on a decline in the Western world, I was told, and Christianity has been booming in parts of Asia (Korea), Africa, and South America. South Korea has gone from well below 10% Christian in the past 100 years to over 50% Christian. Africa as a continent has gone from similar low numbers to over 50% Christian in the past 100 years. It should have been no surprise for me to go to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, then, to find a large number of the campus being from South Korea or being a generation or two removed from South Korea, but I was surprised.
There is an excitement at GCTS and everyone is all about this global Christian movement with the center of global Christianity not being in the US anymore. It is an interesting sort of phenomenon. I am not saying I am not excited that Christianity is spreading rapidly in South America, Asia, and Africa. However, the logical conclusion of this is that Christianity in the Western world is on the decline. I am excited, but also deeply desire to bring the Gospel back to the Western world. I believe along with Professor Rah that Americans need to embrace this fact that the center of Christianity is not in the US anymore and he would go as far as saying that it is dying in churches that are white evangelical churches while thriving in non-white churches in the US (I don’t exactly share his enthusiasm for the supposed death of Christianity in white evangelical churches in the Western world). I believe that this excitement that is focused outside the Western world, though truly healthy for individualists, lol, can be detrimental to the Western church.
If we simply state the problem in Western Christianity without solutions while looking at the good things going on in other parts of the world, that will do nothing for the Western church. We need to move toward a solution or as Professor Rah emphasizes clearly, we need to press for multi-cultural Christianity in our churches in America as opposed to churches that are overly accommodating for white-anglo-Americans. I believe this is a rather broad answer to a large problem, so I will try to give some specifics:
1. The preaching of the Gospel needs to be emphasized as opposed to moralism which is so readily embraced in American culture, but completely foreign to the Gospel.
2. Pastors and church leaders need to emphasize that the Christian faith is not something for white Americans, but part of the beauty of Christianity is that it does not distinguish between color of skin or socio-economic class.
3. Pastors need to be bolder in revealing the problems with American Christianity and how church is done while being sensitive to the Gospel and focused on a solution rather than complaining. People complain enough, and a heavy dose in the church without grace and truth, and without looking toward a solution/action is not redemptive.
4. American evangelicals need to start being more comfortable with different cultures and making a conscious effort to learn parts of different cultures. I benefited greatly from learning more about Korean culture at GCTS, and that will open the door for a familiarity with Korean culture so that when I encounter Koreans in a church I can connect with them on a level that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
5. American Christians need to learn about global Christianity, but not abandon the “mission field” on the home front. Urbanization is a great blessing because we don’t need to necessarily go to another country to bring the Gospel to different people groups. Also, how many evangelical churches exist and are thriving financially in a town or city where there is a low-income part of town everybody knows about, and yet, nothing is really being done about it? That should be a red flag that churches need to start caring for the “folks on the other side of town,” but not treating them as such because the Gospel doesn’t emphasize socio-economic classes.
6. The marriage of Christianity in America to politics needs to end. I know some might be grabbing things to throw at me from a distance now, but you know this is true. It is hard medicine for some. This doesn’t mean that we need to not focus on justice because God cares deeply about justice. This doesn’t mean we should not be concerned with political issues. It means we need to move beyond being a people who are characterized by what we are against and being a people characterized by the Gospel and grace.
7. The marriage of church to a building as opposed to people redeemed by the saving faith in Jesus Christ who are Spirit-filled, grace bound, and Kingdom driven needs to end. Yes, we need to label churches and labels are not evil, but when people throw ecclesiology out the window and identify church with merely a building something has gone wrong. The Body of Christ does not have walls, pews, media technology, and a funny building. The Body of Christ is the people of God who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and no longer live for themselves, but live for others.
I believe that these are some specifics that could really help treat the problem that Professor Rah identifies with the Western church. How does all of this create a multi-cultural environment? I don’t know that I have a great answer for that, but also feel that what the church does isn’t necessarily done by the people as much as it is fueled by the Spirit. I believe that these 7 specific strategies to be implemented are not going to automatically create a multi-cultural diverse people of God in a local church, but I believe these strategies will help de-individualize American Christianity and get American evangelical Christians to start thinking outside of themselves and outside of their local church. This will free up a lot of energy that is focused on saying what is bad or what new technology needs to be purchased, and help Christians to start living redemptive lives on mission in their communities and help drive Christians to parts of town they would be uncomfortable in.
This is not a perfect strategy and are merely some amateur musings on the global Christian movement and how Christians in the Western world can promote a global community in their churches as opposed to a church catered to white-anglo-Americans.
“In African culture, the way in which man can be man is within the family. The African culture knows no isolated individuals. Man is man because he belongs. He is part of a larger family, a clan or a tribe. Hence, John Mbiti says ‘I am because we are.‘” – Bishop David Gitari, Kenyan diocese of Mount Kenya East*
*(Quoted in The New Global Mission by Samuel Escobar, InterVarsity Press, 2003, 140.)