The 2020 census shows a rise in multiracial and non-white Americans. This means white Americans will take up less than half of the population by 2045. Additionally, by 2060 the census projects that “whites will comprise only 36 percent of the under age 18 population, with Hispanics accounting for 32 percent.”
The future of America is not only more diverse but more blended. Commentators will quickly point out that it’s more complicated than just white Americans becoming a “minority.” It’s more like there will be no majority race in America.
A more multicultural and ethnically diverse America creates more opportunities for racial healing and will become a great source of strength for America.
It will offer immense challenges as well. One example is the dangerous, rising prevalence of the “Great Replacement” theory. The changing demographics put many churches under tension, especially predominantly white churches. This hardship reveals where the American church can grow.
Anticipating and observing these challenges, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah published The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity about thirteen years ago, and it continues to provide insight.
The Next Evangelism
This is a hard book to read, and it doesn’t shy away from offending. While I disagree with some points or the wording of certain ideas, Rah shares critically important insights for church leaders as demographics in America shift.
The main thrust of this book is that white, Western culture has made the gospel captive to its majority influence. This captivity in America hinders holistic evangelism, especially as America becomes more diverse. As the West becomes less and less religious, white American Christians must learn to move toward multiethnic churches and submit to spiritual leadership from non-white Christians.
Upfront, this book is not really about theology. While he discusses a few key biblical passages, people looking for a theology of race and culture will not find it here. It is a sociologically informed book about missions, evangelism, and church culture in a time when America is becoming more and more racially diverse. And Rah is qualified to speak on those issues.
So, what insights does Rah uncover?
Western culture is holding the gospel captive
Rah points to several non-biblical, cultural influences on the church from American culture that have infected it, such as individualism, consumerism and materialism, and racism.
He then connects these factors to the American church practice. For instance, American churches tend to measure success by the number of attendees and whether the budget is met. There is nothing wrong with measuring these factors. However, defining success based on them ignores the most important question: Are churches being faithful to their flocks? The balance sheet becomes an idol. Churches have moved too far from the face-to-face, in-the-thick-of-it kind of evangelism and moved too much toward “programs.”
He writes, “The danger of the Western, white captivity of the church is an excessive individualism and personalism that reflects the narcissism of American culture rather than the redemptive power of the gospel message.”
Rah also critiques the “health and wealth gospel,” the idea that faithfulness and generosity directly lead to better health and more wealth, and that success for Christians is defined by those ideals. He examines many engrained American church habits and the tendency of white Americans to view their way of doing it as the “best” way of doing things no matter what—especially if they have the numbers to back it.
As it becomes less culturally acceptable to follow Jesus, young people are leaving the church. On the other hand, the immigrant Christian population is growing in America and the West. A Guardian article from several years ago observed that immigrant church movements are “propping up” the Christian population in Europe, even as the rest of Europe becomes less Christian.
Another major indicator is that, for decades, thousands of missionaries from South Korea have come to the US to evangelize mostly white Americans.
God isn’t limited by the West
Even as Christianity seems to die out in the West, God is moving revivals all over the world in the East (for example, in Islamic countries). Rah’s point is not to insult or undermine white American evangelicals, but rather to issue a clarion call to refocus on the gospel itself. Then, we can consider how different ethnicities approach being Christian in America. From there, we will become more unified.
But to do that, we must get free from the shackles of white American evangelicalism. That means dealing with individualism, materialism, and racism.
While other cultures have their respective issues and barriers to following Jesus, Rah’s idea is that Christianity is uniquely “captive” to white American evangelicalism and Western culture. If it’s not a white, Republican, educated, American pastor, then it’s not really Christianity. For Rah, that’s how many people, unfortunately, perceive church in America.
American evangelicals will need to make sure their congregations look like their neighborhoods. And as those neighborhoods become more diverse, the church leadership needs to reflect that diversity. A great way to do this is by hiring people who have experience living a two-culture life, e.g., missionary kids, third-culture kids, second-generation immigrants, etc.
Sometimes, the sociological terms Rah uses seem unhelpful or contrary to how the gospel is lived out. It can also feel like an inwardly aimed attack, especially if you are a white, American evangelical. But, I genuinely believe he has a heart for the healing of evangelicalism and desires to see the church better follow Christ.
While this is not fair to the nuance Rah brings, from this book it would appear as though non-white cultures are without critique. Rah demonstrates that Western cultural captivity poisons the gospel—I readily agree with that. However, there is undoubtedly influence away from the true gospel originating in any culture that Christians must deconstruct. This reflects a similar conundrum facing Critical Race Theory.
In the end, his point that the white American “version” of Christianity is prevalent and taking the gospel captive is well taken.
Examples of change
It’s clear that, as a whole, our Christian witness has suffered immensely due to political affiliation, scandal, claims of greed, etc. Maybe, with a rise in diversity, we can go back to the roots of living like Christians first and foremost.
He writes, “Multiethnic churches that focus on racial justice and reconciliation can result in theologically driven church ministry, rather than economically and pragmatically driven ministry.”
Rah relates how immigrant churches differ from mainstream churches and how we can learn from them. “The holistic ministry of the immigrant church . . . provides a model of evangelism that moves beyond a cookie-cutter, secondary-system-driven evangelism.” He relates several examples of renewed churches that shift from mostly white to multiethnic due to changing demographics. But it doesn’t just go from mostly white to multiethnic; it can go from mostly ethnic to multiethnic.
Rah cites that New Life Church in Chicago was “initially composed of first-generation Puerto-Rican Americans.” It then “made an intentional effort to be a neighborhood church, even as their neighborhood was changing around them.” They are changed to reflect a very diverse portion of Chicago, which included Latino, African, African American, Asian, and Anglo people.
What began as a Puerto Rican church became a large, thriving, multiethnic church, a true reflection of Revelation 7:9 and the early church in Acts.
This is the bright future if we make the gospel central and remove ourselves from a place of pride.