Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 21, 2012

The Real Emergent Church: What we stand to learn from non-Western Christians.

The book I have been reading with my Portland pastors group this month is titled, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the church from Western cultural captivity, by Soong-Chan Rah.

Scot MicKnight summed it up well in his review on the back cover. He writes, “Sit down, open this book, and get ready to duck!” Indeed, this book has a lot of ideas that jolted me out of my white Western perspective. Rah’s main argument is that the center of gravity in Christianity is moving from the West to the South and East. By 2050 it is estimated that 71 percent of the world Christian population will be African, Asian and Latin American. The same trend is taking place in America. One of the fastest rising demographics in American evangelicalism is the immigrant church. The rising immigrant population is changing the face of American evangelicalism.

What troubles Rah is that this trend has largely gone unnoticed by our white Western church. In our subculture there have been thousands of books written about the so-called “emergent church,” which is a movement that deals with predominantly white evangelicals in my generation (20’s / early 30’s). Rah has a funny quote from Publishers Weekly, which characterizes books written within the emergent movement like this – “What it increasingly means is this: The following book was written by a protestant male under the age of 40. He probably has a goatee. He definitely wears eyeglasses that are much cooler than yours.” Rah explains that statistically this movement is made up of very few people compared to the explosive growth of the immigrant church in America. He argues that we have totally ignored the real emergent church, which is taking place outside of our cultural sphere.

Rah suggests that this demographic shift within Christianity offers a lot of hope for the church. He argues that the emphases within the immigrant churches in America have the potential to free us from our Western cultural captivity. In the first part of the book Rah explains how the Western church has often been influenced by the cultural values of materialism, consumerism and individualism. The immigrant church, by contrast, provides us with important insights into community, holistic evangelism, and a theology of suffering.

The biggest take away for me was Rah’s call to humility. For a long time, Western Christians have been the ones with influence and power. Rah argues that we ought to humble ourselves enough to learn from other cultures instead of simply imposing our cultural ideas on others. Rah gives a sad example of his visit to a poor Eastern European community that had been influenced by the Western “prosperity gospel.” These people who were dealing with extreme poverty were given an incoherent Westernized version of Christianity that made no sense to them. They were told that faith lead to health and wealth, yet they were living in extreme poverty. How much better it would have been if the missionaries from the West had learned from these courageous people how to find God in the midst of suffering. This, after all, is much more in line with Jesus’ teaching on following the way of the cross. Instead, Western missionaries simply imported a non-biblical Westernized version of the Gospel.

Rah ended his book with a rather controversial quote. He writes, “if you are a white Christian wanting to be a missionary in this day and age, and you have never had a nonwhite mentor, then you will not be a missionary. You will be a colonialist. Instead of taking the gospel message into the world, you will take an Americanized version of the gospel.” Rah argues that the Western church needs to have the humility to learn from those of different culture.

At my last church we stopped doing mission trips and started doing “vision trips.” This was an important change in semantics. The purpose of our trip was not to drop in and impose our ideas on a foreign culture. Instead we went to learn from grass roots leaders that were doing full time mission. The goal of the trip was to learn how to engage a cultural context and figure out how we can take those lessons home with us. We went there to celebrate the local leaders and seek to learn from them. Perhaps this is one way we can make some changes in our interaction with other cultures.

The book challenged me to be more attentive to the insights of leaders that are outside of my cultural context. This should probably begin by making sure my reading list includes some non-western authors!

How might we learn from Christians in other cultures? This is a particularly pertinent question in our very homogenous community here in Longview.

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