In a meeting with two local pastors in 2016, our discussion turned to politics. Both church leaders passionately defended their decisions to vote for Donald Trump and encourage their congregations to do so as well. While they acknowledged embarrassment at his language, immorality, racist tendencies, ethnocentrism and abrasive lifestyle, for them the Republican candidate embraced basic evangelical principles the Democratic candidate did not.
And so they, like 80 percent of evangelical Americans, proved a key factor in Trump’s election. These Christians are mostly white, less educated, live mostly in the South and identify as Republicans. Many go to church every week. And while that base of white evangelicals has slipped some in recent polls, they still represent the backbone of the president’s support.
Evangelicals constitute about 25 percent of America’s religious landscape. In an important article titled, “What Is An Evangelical?” (Christianity Today, Nov. 19, 2015), based on 1,000 surveyed evangelicals by LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals, researchers determined four theological tenets of an evangelical:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what they believe.
- It is very important for each personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that can remove the penalty of sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
“Identity, belief and behavior are three different things when it comes to being an evangelical,” LifeWay’s Scott McConnell said. Most African-American Christians embrace this definition of evangelical Christianity but don’t like the term “born-again,” used more by white evangelicals. Protestant Hispanics, however, tend to embrace the term.
Enter Soong-Chan Rah, a Korean-born Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, prophetic voice of challenge to the current evangelical culture in America. His book, “The New Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity,” brings pointed analysis to the limitations of American Christianity and shows how captivity to Western individualism, consumerism, racism and materialism has played out in megachurches and emergent churches alike.
“Many white churches are in crisis and ill-equipped to minister to new cultural realities, but immigrant, ethnic and multiethnic churches are succeeding and flourishing,” he says. In today’s culturally diverse nation, the impact of white churches is diminishing, yet few are facing up to these harsh realities.
Rah, who speaks at Mission Waco’s annual banquet on Feb. 20, embraces a new evangelicalism diverse and multiethnic, not trapped by exclusive paradigms. As a pastor, author, scholar and speaker, he embraces evangelical beliefs but challenges the triumphalistic nature of evangelical churches that have not engaged for the poor and marginalized or lamented their plight.
The concept of lament “is a missing, essential component of Christian faith,” Rah writes in “Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times,” published in 2015. “Lament recognizes struggles and suffering, that the world is not as it ought to be. Lament challenges the status quo and cries out for justice against existing injustices.”
Rah calls the contemporary evangelical church to emerge from behind its walls and spill into the streets to address challenges in its communities. And while some Christians will continue to defend insular thinking, whitewashed with non-biblical syncretism , others are beginning to listen to a non-white, politically independent and activist-oriented call to bring good news to our culture and cities beyond old biases and societal captivity. With so many self-proclaimed evangelicals in our own community, one must ask what it will take to separate a transforming message from self-centered individualism in order to fully participate in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.