(Nashville, TN – 7/12/2011) Soong-Chan Rah challenged a General Assembly audience to break free from stagnation and captivity and recognize the “changing face of Christianity” in Tuesday’s “Be The Change” lecture at the General Assembly.
Rah, a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, pointed to dramatic demographic shifts and changes in American culture over the past 50 years to demonstrate that diversity is no longer a matter of choice. In 1950, Rah said, the “typical face of a Christian” was a white male from an affluent metropolitan suburb, but today’s Christian is likely to be a peasant in Nigeria, a teenager in Mexico City or a woman in South Korea.
Rah cited statistics illustrating a change from 1900, when more than 80% of Christians in the world were in Europe and North America, to a projected 29% on those same continents in 2050. America has seen similar shifts, Rah said, since the 1965 passage of the Immigration Reform Act. These trends are accelerated in the church, marking “one of the first times church is ahead of society.”
Christianity has an advantage over other large religions like Islam, he said, because of its adaptability to new cultural contexts, including language translations of sacred texts.
At the same time, mainline Christian denominations that are historically European and predominately white – such as the Lutheran and Episcopal traditions — are the ones facing sharp declines. Baptists and Pentecostals, by contrast, have been able to ride waves of the new multi-ethnic reality.
Energized, Rah painted a picture of a church at a crossroads – one that faces the “danger of becoming imprisoned by white Western culture, which has been more influential than the Bible itself,” citing historical individualism, materialism and racism.
Outlining Walter Brueggemann’s work, Rah contrasted those who operate under a context of celebration (typically those who already have good things) as opposed to those who have little and operate under a context of suffering.
Congregations who celebrate tend to focus on stewardship and being thankful to God, Rah said. They also prefer the status quo and think heaven is “more of the good things they already have.” Those who operate under the lens of suffering talk about survival and injustice, and hope heaven will be the opposite of their lives on earth.
Rather than operating under one of these distinct contexts, Rah went on, the church should find a way to learn from each context. He warned against exceptionalism and tokenism, which does not allow room to learn from those operating under the context of suffering.
“If you give someone a seat at the table and then expect them to act white,” Rah said, “that’s tokenism. If you give me a seat at the table, you’d better be ready to change your ways. Can you learn as much from me as I’ve had to learn from you?”
In closing, he challenged all Disciples to find at least one non-white mentor by the end of 2011, even if they started with just a book by a non-white author.
“If you are a missionary preparing to go overseas and you’ve never had a non-white mentor,” Rah said, “you are not a missionary, you are a colonialist.”
By: Richmond Williams