Reflecting on Soong-Chan Rah’s Seminar at Justice Conference

I love half of what Soong-Chan Rah says and I loathe the other half ;) Part of his “brand” is being a prophetic type which is needed in the Church and throughout our world. So I love him as a brother in the Lord but if he’s not careful, I’m going to look into trading him for a different prophet. I think Craigslist lets you do that now and if I understand Dr. Rah right, this is how he knows he’d doing his job.

I first heard Dr. Rah speak at a Youth Specialties Conference a few years ago. I remember nodding my head along to seeing the need for the Church to think more globally, more as the full body of Christ, not just the Western one. Then I read his well celebrated The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.   To brutally summarize, I agreed with the main idea, would debate some of the finer nuances, but I admit I was distracted by the angry rhetoric. That line between passion/righteous anger/ and anger is thin.

BUT I can’t stay away from him – he feels like a needed voice in my life. I was excited to see that he was presenting at The Justice Conference. I liked  his material was new and since I called attention to the use of anger, his demeanor was cool, passionate at times (in the good way) and I’d say, he came across to me as pastoral. But still, I only agreed with half of what he said.

Here are some of the notes I took:

Name of seminar was “Lamenting our Story”

What is it about American Christianity that desires to focus on success that actually diminishes Christianity’s theology of sacrifice?
Story of hearing a mega-church pastor talking like a Christian motivational speaker and saying stuff like this in sermons, “The sky is the limit, reach for the stars!”
Triumph narrative of Christianity instead of the Christian narrative of suffering and sacrifice.
3 Potential Responses
1. Disengage with surrounding culture
2. Idolatry (magic formulas)
3. Lament (Yahweh’s sovereignty)

“Arkitecture” illustration – my iPhone picture didn’t turn out but he showed a picture of a gothic church santuary that was turned upside down.  When seen this way, the domed ceilings resemble the bottom or a boat – an ark, a Biblical symbol of God’s rescue and deliverance. (It was clever – I’ve never saw that before).

Then, Dr. Rah said this:
Something happens when you move all the churches out of the city to the suburbs.
We call this “upward mobility” and it’s part of the suburban narrative.
The evangelical suburban church takes on a triumph narrative and like above, it’s void of the nature of sacrifice and suffering.
When you build a church in the burbs, you get a church built on triumph, success, control and materialism.

I was all good up until this point. Then he told a story I’ll abbreviate here. It was about 2 young church planters who were moving into a city neighborhood. A local African-American pastor approached them and said I hear you’re planting in my neighborhood, why? Unsatisfied with any of their token answers, he told them there was already a church radiating Christ in the neighborhood. And that’s pretty much how the story ended.

So let me process out loud here and work my way backward. I cannot agree more that it reeks of arrogance and snobbery for a suburban church (whether it is primarily Anglo or truly multicultural) to plant in a city neighborhood without connecting with the churches already at work there. So much to be said but it seems two things could have happened easily. One is suburban church may have realized they needed to plant somewhere else and two, they could have crated a true friendship (and if this is in fact a true story, I hope they do) and served the neighborhood together.

But what if these two guys do contact the local, neighborhood churches, attempt to forge sincere friendships and then receive the cold-shoulder, are they not to plant in the city? Should they stay in the suburbs? This is where I feel the suburban church critique lacks a sincere solution. If they stay in the suburbs and offer financial assistance, then they are seen as “simply writing a check” and not willing to living “incarnationally.”  If they move in, then its invasion or gentrification. If they don’t do anything, they are labeled as self-absorbed in the suburbs.  If every move they make is critiqued as wrong, well, that seems unfair and we must examine the integrity of the critiques and “critiquers” themselves.

To me, it’s always felt situational. It’s far too complicated to make such broad statements of whether or not a church community should move here or there. I’ll never forget this story I heard while at Biblical Seminary. We had different cohorts and among them was the Urban Cohort program. Our cohorts got to combine and take a few classes together and one lead pastor shared his church was moving out of Philly’s city limits and into a significant larger facility in the suburbs. It was a sizable congregation and a lot of opinions were expressed, among them was one he said haunted him, “Are we selling out by moving to the suburbs?” It was only 5 miles further but you don’t have to live in the city to understand that’s actually far. He would later say, through much prayer and discussion, he and the elders felt they were making the move because it was better for their church and believed they could impact their community, including the original one from 5 miles away.

It would be interesting to hear his thoughts now a couple years later.   A lot can be said here, or assumed, and criticized but I’m not sure how much is warranted.  The themes of God’s calling and our faithfulness are crucial here.  If our theologians and anthropologists have it all figured out, then why bother relying on the Holy Spirit, why pray?  Sorry I got spiritual there, I’ve been backsliding this Lenten season. Truth is we need the academy, we need the social sciences, and much more, but it all hinges on the Lord’s leading.

Now, if you know me, you know that I have levied some very strong critiques against attitudes found in the Church in general and because I’ve mainly attended/served/serving in suburban churches, these criticism have included “country-club mentality,” “consumeristic”, “apathetic,” “materialistic,” “self-absorbed” and more. I do feel that we can make similar critiques about many other types of churches/institutions, and I feel that we can make these critiques about ourselves as well. But we always have to be careful of creating “strawmen” or by defining something only by its weak spots – it’s only part of the picture.

To allow such labels to accurately define a congregation or worse, “all suburban churches” is unjust, untrue and judgmental. Again having attended/served/serving in suburban churches there are many sides. Like other churches, many in our the suburban church are hurting. They are filled with people limping through our doors. If you can look closely, there is an enormous amount of suffering in the suburban church. They (and we) are coming into the ark as Dr. Rah beautifully described earlier and they are praying for God’s rescue and deliverance from the storms of life.

Second, there is a significant population of servants in our suburban churches. There are many who do sacrifice, labor, care and love within the church community and beyond the church community. We wish there was more, but there is a great deal of sacrifice that happens in which we will never know about because among the reasons, it’s unChristian to brag about our good works.

So I would push back against the idea that the suburban church does not have the narrative of suffering and sacrifice. Further, I kept raising my hand to ask, “But Dr. Rah there is a triumph narrative in Christianity – the resurrection of course.” Of course he knows this. Now perhaps I misheard but it feels like what’s really saying is that the Church prefers the Christian themes of Triumph and Life than Sacrifice and Suffering. I can’t agree more, but that’s not a suburban preference, that’s a human one.

Now for the sake of self-awareness, I think Dr. Rah is a valuable gift to the church and I hope I have not misquoted. Listening to him, reflecting on all this and pushing back has been good for me in a number of ways and his seminar was yet another set of points that followed me out the doors of the Justice Conference.

More to come from this seminar  but these posts have been so long – thanks for reading/sharing – feel free to engage at any point.


  1. […] You can read my previous post on Dr. Soong Chan Rah seminar at the Justice Conference in Philly (link below). In short, I was critiquing his main point when the Evangelical Church moves out of the city and into the suburbs, it trades its suffering and sacrifice narrative for one of triumphalism. I argue this is only a half true – as there is still much suffering and sacrifice in the Subur…. […]

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