Book Review: The Next Evangelicalism
The book explores three themes; individualism, materialism and racism, and each is defined, examined in the wild, and contrasted with what freedom might look like. In the process, he assays the state of the American Evangelical church and points out the things it neglects to consider, perhaps cannot consider, that voices from outside see clearly. In this way the book is a success, and I anticipate it stirring up great discussion. His call for white leaders to displace themselves and yield power and position to others is prophetic. The real punch of the book is its restatement of just how ignored minority and immigrant churches are in evangelicalism.
Of particular interest to me are the chapters detailing the church growth movement and primary/secondary cultures. In an interesting genealogy, Rah outlines how founder Donald MacGavran was “seeking to scientifically quantify the factors of church growth through a social scientific approach,” deriving principles from 19c missionary work in overcoming language and caste barriers together with Peter Wagner (p.94). These principles were later grasped, marketed and believed by evangelicals as scientific absolutes. Rah paints the commoditization and marketing of growth principles outside of their original context as the real problem and not their original use. It is an interesting history, but it seems like a missed opportunity. He doesn’t then examine evangelical belief systems and consider the powerful ways the scientific metanarrative obscures the Gospel in the west, assuming as evangelicals do, that that religious truth is dictated by an empirical worldview (Historical criticism, intelligent design, etc.).
It’s this missed opportunity to examine evangelical assumptions more closely that makes for a philosophically muddled book. He knocks the “science” of church growth but professes an evangelical commitment to recapturing “biblical” community, never considering how evangelical confidence in scientific exegesis might lead to the very problems he is speaking against. The scientific, empirical assumptions he inherits as an evangelical are not questioned. Similarly, he contrasts (presumably) white mega churches with small Korean congregations that connect more deeply with one another, but I was left scratching my head thinking of the huge Asian American churches I see every day from the freeways of Orange County, in contrast to the many white congregations of less than 150 people nearby. Of course, we have plenty of white mega churches, too, but it is not clear enough which model is better in Rah’s mind and his point is lost on me. On the one hand, it is the growth of the non-white church in the US that is a positive example, but on the other, his main point seems to denounce the materialism of church growth. So which is it? I know what the evangelical opinion is…
This is a snapshot of the problem with the book: in challenging whiteness but clinging to evangelicalism, Rah inadvertently supports western theological values without posing any real alternative. He can denounce white church growth but present immigrant growth as the answer, but either way, growth is still the issue. Again, the book denounces the materialism of the US, but doesn’t offer an alternative to address the number of Korean adults that arrive for a seminary class, each in a nice Mercedes, BMW, or the odd Lexus near my desk. Rah admits this, but because everyone’s materialism is not critiqued in quite the same way, it’s hard to suss out precisely where he lands on the issue. Is the materialism of these Asian American churches a western feature? Is it different from the materialism of the west? It is confusing that the book at once offers minority and immigrant churches as an ostensibly more biblical vision of Christianity but lauds how they “win” at the same church game as white evangelicals.
Similarly, the book exhibits an evangelical tendency to ignore denomination and difference all together, as if the Evangelical description of faith is the assumed way to live in the Kingdom of God. This is particularly problematic if Rah is indeed trying to speak against this same tendency of the western evangelical church with respect to minorities. Perhaps a simple appeal to scripture would be more effective and consonant with the church worldview he is espousing. Ironically, in an attempt to address the ills of the evangelical world with a “new” evangelicalism, Rah demonstrates how captive his own thinking is to it, appealing to evangelical commitments that limit the answers available to him. I wonder if he might be better served simply expounding how immigrant and minority churches have too long been ignored in popular white Christian culture and denied influence and resource? The one cursory and potentially incorrect citation of Barth’s Imago Dei does nothing to shake this impression.
These flaws are philosophical though, and I suspect they will no detract from the book to the target audience. It’s a book written by evangelicals for evangelicals, and its value lies chiefly in its ability to make the discussion visible. It’s a difficult book to review: I agree wholeheartedly with his basic theses, but not with the evangelical framework. I pray it provides professor Rah with a platform to increase the talking points between minority churches and the enfranchised white. I am glad IVP and Rah had the fortitude to print such a challenging book and look forward to further development of the critiques begun, especially if it means reconsidering the nature of the evangelical project.