I am reading Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009). I enjoy it. Although much of Rah’s book targets an American audience, I think it is also relevant to the Australian church (and some Asian churches).
In the following I want to cite some comments made by Rah about how Christians measure success. I think his critique is worth considering.
But before that I want to say that the Bible, in my view, does not talk much about how successful we should be. Rather, the Scripture is much more interested in whether we are faithful.
I also want to make it very clear that I am not against mega-churches. I care about the health of the local church, not its size. The size of the church is not the issue. The issue is the value system by what Christians measure success.
Here are some excerpts from Rah’s book.
I made it a point to ask … about the successful churches in the area. Without fail, I will be directed toward the church with the largest attendance in the region. A typical answer will be: “You’ve got to visit ______ Church. They draw over ten thousand worshipers.” (page 56)
How do we measure “success” in the typical American church—by the standards of Scripture or by the standards of the American consumer value system? … We measure success in the church with standards as worldly as the most secular Fortune 500 company. (page 56)
The pastor that fulfils and American definition of success becomes a leader in the evangelical community. If you pastor a megachurch or have authored a New York Times bestseller, then you now have the capacity and wisdom to save entire nations and continents. If you are successful in the United States in developing and marketing your church, then your ideas are applicable in nearly every setting. If you can make it here, then you’ll make it anywhere. (page 56)
I have to say that many Christians in Australia (members of both large and small churches) do not have this kind of attitude. But I do find people thinking this way—perhaps more often than I would like.
As someone who worked in the aid and development sector for years, I am especially interested in Rah’s comments below.
Material success in the United States means that your systems, ideas and values can be duplicated and transmitted to a poor, starving, war-torn nation with the same level of material success. Material success in the West means that you will make the cover of a major Christian publication, a white face surrounded by the faces of happy black kids because you have come to save their continent. Material success in the West means that your bestseller author status gives you the ability to know what’s best for the complexities of confronting poverty in a foreign country. (page 57)
As someone who has experienced a degree of poverty in Asia, I have to admit that this type of thinking concerns me greatly. (I have not lived in extreme poverty. But compared with most people in Australia, I have experienced material poverty more than many.)
Material success does not give us credibility. A cruciform life does.