Lecture Notes: Soong-Chan Rah on Lament in a Diversifying Evangelicalism
Regent College hosted free public lectures throughout the summer, and this is the one I looked forward to the most. Having begun to think carefully about multi-ethnic Christian community after an inspiring encounter with Willie Jennings, I had been doing some asking around about who else to read and was sent in the direction of Soong-Chan Rah, Associate Professor at North Park Theological Seminary. So when he was slated to speak on “Tears of Hope and Change: The Need for Lament in a Multicultural World” I was very interested to listen and learn.
The first half of Soong-Chan Rah’s lecture was comprised of statistical analyses and projections about American church attendance and population demographics–all designed to show us that the face of Western Christianity had changed, and was only changing more. For my part, he spent far too much time on these stats. The part of the city I drove in from is made up of over 57% immigrants, the highest proportion in Canada–and the audience demographic reflected this. In other words, the bar-graphs were hardly news.
To be fair, Soong-Chan Rah’s point probably needed hearing: The fact that I know far better the thought of John Piper than Soong-Chan Rah indicates a lagging diversity of Western evangelical voices compared to on-the-ground realities. Soong-Chan Rah had a few stories to illustrate the disconnect between perception and reality in this regard. When he was told how secular Boston was, he was surprised to move there and discover that it was booming with vibrant new Christian churches. True, the standard Euro-American churches were in severe decline, but what the warnings were missing was that other ethnic churches had moved in and were flourishing.
Somewhat provocatively, Soong-Chan Rah then drew a correlation between the decline of Euro-American Christianity and the growth in Global Christianity, citing the words of Revelation 18 to suggest that God could be calling Christianity to “come out from her” (i.e., from the presumptions and powers of Western “civilization”).
Once the social commentary and statistics were over, Soong-Chan turned his attention to the topic of lamentation, and whetted our appetites for what I wish he’d left himself more time to talk about. Having observed that we do not see as much lament in evangelical worship as we do in the Psalms, he suggested that this is because of our obsession with success, which has given us an overly triumphalistic spirituality.
As a matter of fact, if we’re going to open up space for previously marginalized voices and discover a more multi-ethnic church, perhaps we need to recapture the place of lamentation in worship, incorporating prayers that bring us together in both celebration and suffering. This may enable a diversified communion in Christ and help us shed the blinders of our relatively homogeneity.
Turning to Jeremiah, Soong-Chan Rah noted that when the exiles were uprooted from their place of privilege they found in lamentation a means of hearing the guidance of God. In chapter 29, those exiled from Jerusalem were told not to disengage but to seek the peace and prosperity of the cities and lands where God relocated them. At the same time, they were warned to ditch their idolatrous self-talk for genuine interaction with God on their new frontiers. Lamentation, it was suggested, may be something of an antidote to our self-absorbed cultural idolatries.
When confronted with the new and difficult, idolatry applies workable formulas according to prior successes, whereas lament addresses the living God and listens for a response–thereby opening to something new. On the changing global landscape and in congregations with an ever-increasing awareness of difference, then, the posture of lamentation may be just what we need. In this kind of corporate worship we are more free to get over ourselves and to hear the voices of those others God has joined us to in Christ. (Others whom–even in the most multi-cultural and pluralistic of cities–we may have yet to really meet and understand.)
It was with this posture of prayerful openness to one another that Soong-Chan Rah suggested we enter the next evangelicalism–and for him this makes a surer rallying-point for diversified Christian community than the mere tweaking of the church-growth strategies born out of majority-Western capitalism’s market forces.
As is often the case, one of the highlights came during the Q&A, when someone asked how we should look at Church Tradition if we note that much of what we have received comes from the Western world’s mental and political frameworks. After acknowledging it was an excellent question, Soong-Chan Rah recommended that we not diminish our attention to the traditions of Western Theology, but that we at least call it what it is (i.e. Western) rather than granting it a prefix-less authority and only adding adjectives (such as “Black,” “Liberation,” “Min-jung,” and “Feminist”) to everything else. I must say, I’d certainly like to hear Soong-Chan Rah on this topic some more.