Multiplication Center

Do White Churches Hold Others in Cultural Captivity?

June 11, 2009

    In the year 1900, Europe and North America comprised 82% of the world's Christian population.
    In the year 2000, Europe and North America comprised 39% of the world's Christian population.
    (60% are now in Africa, Asia and Latin America)
Cover That's quite a change! Historian Philip Jenkins describes the shift in a landmark 2002 book, The Next Christendom. Now pastor and theologian Soong-Chan Rah talks about the implications for North America in a book called The Next Evangelicalism (IVP, May 2009), a title designed to play off of the Jenkins book. Rah points to the often underreported health and growth of immigrant and ethnic minority churches in the United States, and forecasts the day when we'll experience a nonwhite majority, multi-ethnic American Christianity here.
I'm white, and it's somewhat of a challenge for my brain to imagine the day when the majority of Christians in North America will be nonwhite, matching the rest of global Christianity. But I think he's right.
What's even harder for me to imagine is Rah's main point: that “white” culture has dominated and shaped Christianity in the United States in a way that is a “great detriment of the spread of the gospel” (page 22). The white-majority “captivity” shows up in the individualism, consumerism, materialism, and other Western cultural values that haveKorea-worship-Sarang1-blog become enmeshed in the typical American church, including through the opinion leaders who write books, blog, Twitter, and speak at pastor's conferences.  
Rah's book devotes more space to describing the problem than in offering practical solutions, but it still gave me a lot to think about. It may lack the seminal impact of the Jenkins study, but Rah's greatest contribution is in being very specific to the U.S. context. He makes many good points — such as questioning why the emergent church movement is so disproportionately white or asking why the American Society for Church Growth is so predominantly white.
My “homework” from the book will be to continue to meet and learn from nonwhite church leaders here in the United States. Rah offers a recommeded reading list of about 40 titles, some of which I'll read. I also asked him by email what pastor conferences he recommends that will give me good interaction with non-white church leaders. He suggested Christian Community Development Association, Urban Youth Workers Institute and the Ethnic America Conference. Maybe I'll see you there at one of them? You can also read Rah's blog at:
Here at Leadership Network in 2008 we launched an Asian American leadership community (and I just spent a week in Korea); in 2009 we're partnering with more African-American pastors than at any previous point in our history; and in 2009-2010 we're slated to play an encourager role with the young National Latino Megachurch Pastors group. Our research on megachurches says they are the most racially mixed size of church (31% of megachurches claim to have a 20% or more minority presence in their congregations, see Beyond Megachurch Myths, page 140). So at least we're headed in the right direction, but I'm sure there is much more we can do and learn.
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.

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