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Season 1 - Episode 4: Soong-Chan Rah

soong-chan and daughter, anna rah

Soong-Chan Rah is the Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary. Soong-Chan received his BA from Columbia University; his MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; his ThM from Harvard University; his DMin from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; and his ThD from Duke University.

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah enjoys helping students find answers to difficult questions. "Working in ministry, you start to ask good questions that you don't have easy answers to. The questions you're asking are deep, important questions. At North Park, you'll examine real-life scenarios that people encounter, allowing for theological engagement of practical ministry," says Dr. Rah.

As an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, Dr. Rah has seen firsthand the denomination's significant growth in urban areas, and an increasing need for intercultural ministry. He was founding senior pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, Cambridge, Mass., a multi-ethnic, urban ministry-focused church committed to living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context.


Sara Barton: Hello. My name is Sara Barton. I'm the university chaplain at Pepperdine University. Welcome to Pepperdine Spiritual Life podcast, a podcast about how people in our community along with our friends and guests are finding and joining God's good work in the world. Jesus said, "Seek and you shall find." I will be talking to people who are doing just that. Let's get started. Today, my guest is Soong-Chan Rah from North Park University. Reverend Dr. Rah is a professor and ordained minister, the author of The Next Evangelicalism, Prophetic Lament and too many other books to list just right now. Dr. Rah is a Pepperdine dad whose daughter, Anna, is a first year saver and college student. Welcome to the podcast and welcome to the Pepperdine family.

Soong-Chan Rah: Very glad to be here. Thank you.

Sara Barton: Well, first of all, I want to say thank you for speaking in chapel just a few minutes ago. Your message about lament was meaningful. It was timely. I especially appreciated your prayer for our community at the end of your talk. Thank you for speaking at chapel.

Soong-Chan Rah: My pleasure. It was a real joy to be able to do that.

Sara Barton: We sang happy birthday ...

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: ... to Anna, which was very fun for the whole crowd and I hope fun for Anna.

Soong-Chan Rah: My daughter just turned 18. She looked petrified at first and then she started smiling when-

Sara Barton: She enjoyed it.

Soong-Chan Rah: She did at the end.

Sara Barton: She enjoyed this for long. Happy birthday to her again. First, I would just ask you, tell us a little bit about yourself. I gave a very truncated bio. Who are you as a Christian, as an academic, as a dad?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. I've been teaching, now, at North Park for about 13 years but before that, I was a pastor. I served at different congregations, but the main focus of my work was working in urban centers and working in Inner City Ministries. I actually grew up in inner city Baltimore, a poor neighborhood, a rough neighborhood. That was my background. I went through different education in college and seminary and graduate school, but really maintained a hard to work among marginalized and disenfranchised communities. I was a church planner for a number of years, a pastor, lead pastor, associate pastor, but now, for the last several years, I've been doing work in the academic world and especially at North Park. My wife and I, we live in Chicago and our two kids. Anna, who is now a first year student at Pepperdine and Elijah who is a sophomore in high school.

Sara Barton: Well, thank you for sharing this time and sharing yourself with us. I'm curious, as an academic and a church leader, have those two ever come into conflict with one another? How do you balance? That's a balance that we have to find in academics.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's a great question. I found it interesting because when I was a pastor in the Boston area, I pastored and ministered to a lot of academic types. We were actually in Cambridge, Massachusetts which is right in between MIT and Harvard. I was a campus minister at MIT for a number of years. There is Boston University, Wellesley College, Tufts University. Boston has a lot of colleges. It's a very university town. We drew a lot of college students. It was interesting because we were able to integrate an academic thought process, intellectual process with our spiritual life. It was almost a necessity because the students who were engaging intellectually on all different levels, one of their spirituality to engage intellectually as well.

Soong-Chan Rah: I always tell the story about one of my Harvard students who was a linguistics major and would go on to PhD studies and linguistics. I made up an exegetical error in terms of a case of a particular word in Greek. Now, nobody knows this. Nobody cares.

Sara Barton: Yeah.

Soong-Chan Rah: However, this young man knew the exact case and said, "Well, you translate in the pluperfect what was actually in the perfect." Now, again, nobody would know this, but it would keep me on my toes that you had-

Sara Barton: You have to be on your toes ...

Soong-Chan Rah: You have to be.

Sara Barton: ... in a unique and special way.

Soong-Chan Rah: Exactly. Again, this doesn't typically happen, but it helped me to think and realize that if I'm speaking to this community of bright, articulate intellectuals, I'm going to have topped my game and be able to speak to that group.

Sara Barton: How did that go the other way as well when you're in a church of people who don't really care a lot about academics? How did you stay connected with the life of the church and make sure that you didn't become too ... Well, somehow we can quote Brueggemann just a little too much.

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. That's true.

Sara Barton: What was that like?

Soong-Chan Rah: Well, that was the challenge because one of the visions of the church was to integrate or connect these wonderful bright students at Harvard and MIT. Well, the inner city neighborhood where the church was at. It was as different set of conversations, yet, it was the same God. It was the same Jesus. It was the same passion for wanting truth and experience of God. That was the line that we were walking, that when I'm preaching and when I'm teaching and when I'm interacting with students who were at MIT and Harvard, I had to speak in a language that made sense to them, but also help them to understand that spirituality is not just in the head that connecting with the community. Those who may not have that level of education and may never have access to any education, but who had profound deep spiritual lives.

Soong-Chan Rah: For me, as a pastor of a community like this where there were, clearly, those who had intellectual capacity at these well-known schools and yet, also, in the inner city neighborhood where you had a different set of expectations about education.

Sara Barton: Yeah. Some people don't care about the pluperfect ever.

Soong-Chan Rah: Exactly. Exactly. It neither have been just the one guy anyway.

Sara Barton: Yeah. Yeah.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Those are the conversations that were fun to have too. That was, maybe, the most exciting dynamic part of the church that I pastored, which was to see the students who had, in some sense, everything going for them. They had every opportunity. They had every privilege. They had every advantage in life as attendees of these schools, yet, finding their spirituality not only in their intellectual knowledge but in the young child who was having trouble in school and the family that was struggling because of financial grains when a teenager in a neighborhood got involved in gangs and when there was a drive-by shooting in their neighborhood that needed pastoral care. Those were the challenges that I really like seeing our students who were in college engaged with the community in a very deep way.

Sara Barton: Well, of course, it does my heart good to know that you are now a seminary professor. You're working with people who are going into ministry. Sometimes seminary can become a bit of a time of deconstruction that takes place, sometimes, purposefully but that I think construction or that connection to the church is so important as we're thinking of all these lofty theological ideas.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. I think that's very critical to formation for ministry. For example, I probably had about 30 interns during my years as a pastor. I've obviously seen hundreds of hundreds of seminary students over the last decade or so. I don't think I ever said to any of them, "You don't know what you're doing." I don't ever remember saying, "You need a little more knowledge in this area." Or "You need to get your increase in awareness of intellectual awareness." I don't ever remember chastise to someone for not having enough knowledge. I do remember wondering that this man or woman have the right heart. It's not that you don't have the head for it. I want to make sure that your heart is in the right place.

Soong-Chan Rah: I think ministries should be a combination. It should be an intellectual and well-thought out reason and rationale approach to serving others, but I certainly hope the heart is never lost in that. That was actually one of the joys for me in ministry, seeing these extraordinary bright people get a heart for ministry to actually not just intellectualize the ministry that they were doing and the work that they were doing, but to really feel a heart of compassion for those who are certain.

Sara Barton: Of course, we're talking about the seminary setting, but even in a university setting with undergraduate Christian students, it's my hope that Pepperdine students, undergraduate and our graduate students, will be in their churches as resources that what they experience here at Pepperdine will help prepare them for the work of the church. I think the sum of the same principles that we're talking about, helping them stay engaged, stay engaged with communities, stay engaged with service is important for undergrads.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: For undergraduate students as well.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right. Well, that's why I'm so excited to have my daughter as a first year student here. That's my expectation. That she will not only grow knowledge and she's enjoying her classes. She's going to do a double major. She said, "Dad, I might even do a double minor in addition to a double major." I said, "Okay, maybe, slow down a little bit."

Sara Barton: I got to tell you, that's the Pepperdine one.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's what I keep hearing.

Sara Barton: Yeah.

Soong-Chan Rah: I'm thrilled that she's going to be pursuing intellectual knowledge and all the good things that college should be, but I also want her heart to grow. Heart for whether she's a pastor or not. I want her heart for other people and heart for God's work and God's kingdom to grow. I think I look back and the years that I worked in working with campus ministry in college students and still working in an academic setting, I know that these years in college, for whatever reason, 18 to 22 is one of the most formative years in a person's life. I look back many, many years later, many decades later, and I look back in my college years and say, "So much of what I believe in, my value system, my heart's desires, my longing for God's Kingdom," a lot of that was formed in college during those four years.

Soong-Chan Rah: It wasn't just an intellectual development. I really appreciate the education that I got, but it was living in New York City where I went to college and seeing poverty and violence and racism, and having God's heart for these social problems. I think those value formation in those early years of emotional and spiritual formation are very critical. That's why places of higher education are so critical because the values you learned in these four years are the values you take with from the reset of your life.

Sara Barton: Yeah. In community ...

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: ... we have a special ... I love working, obviously, in the lives of the spiritual formation of young people.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah.

Sara Barton: To get to be a part of that with them and for it to be in community or something that, I think, is really important, but I'll switch again a little bit to another topic just for a moment and head on into some of my questions for you.

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure.

Sara Barton: Throughout Judeo-Christian scripture and history, we see people talking about how they are seeking to find God. We can read the bible and we see, these are people who really believed that God is that, that God is doing things in the world and in history and is acting. How do you see yourself and ... The work that you're doing in your church, in your university work, how do you see yourself doing that today? Do you believe that, that God is working in history and are you a part? Are you joining that?

Soong-Chan Rah: One of my degrees is in history. Part of that has been the appreciation of both the good and bad in history, right? If you take a hard look at history, you feel like "Wow, God really moves through the church. God really moves through history." Then the other part is, "Oh, man. There are some places where I wish we didn't have to talk about."

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: I'm really thankful and faithful, believing in the faithfulness of God that God has been moving and will continue to move through history and throughout every generation that his faithfulness extends from this generation to the next generation. My personal conviction is that, how can I best find ways to continue to connect to God? Now, that has changed for me over the years. One of the challenges for me, especially in the West and if you travel outside the West, it's a little bit different, but in the West, particularly maybe in North America and the United States, there's a real strong strain of maybe the idolatry of success ...

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: ... or the idolatry of triumph. Not to say the bible doesn't speak about triumph.

Sara Barton: Triumphalism.

Soong-Chan Rah: A triumphalism. I've written about this, but triumphalism that we're going to fix the world's problems. We're going to find all the answers and all the solutions. That was something I really clung to when I was younger, the college students or graduate students, a seminary student. I was thinking, "Yeah, I'm going to go and fix the world. I'm going to go out and change the world single handedly as the heroic individual is the Davy Crockett's and the-

Sara Barton: The Henry Ford's.

Soong-Chan Rah: The Henry Ford's, the iconic-

Sara Barton: All these people you write.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. The entrepreneurs and individuals who change the world. Then I realized, "That's not necessarily the narrative in the bible."

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: Because Jesus is the soon and coming king, but he's also the suffering servant. The Psalms are filled with praises for what God has done, but they also tell stories of pain and suffering. For me, these days, it's actually being able to see God not only in the triumphs and successes. I want to rejoice in them.

Sara Barton: Right. Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: I never want to be ungraceful, ungrateful or ungracious person when it comes to the way God has blessed me, but also to say, "Can I see God in suffering and in difficult circumstances?" That's one of the reasons I wrote a book on lament because I felt like so many of our Christian spirituality in the West and particularly in the US is focused on this. "I'm going to fix the world. I got everything together. I've got everything figured out." Versus, "No, I'm a broken vessel and I really need God to move in my life as much as anybody else's."

Sara Barton: Well, you write about a church plant where you were working and God guided you to preach from lamentation.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: That does not sound very seeker-friendly. How did that go? Is that advice you give to your seminary students today ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Yes.

Sara Barton: ... or to us? Would you tell us, "Yeah, what you need to do is, do a series on lamentations next week"?

Soong-Chan Rah: I teach classes in church planning in the seminary. I give the example of what I plan at the church back in 1996. I plan at the church among intellectuals, Harvard, MIT students and a lot of young adults who are very accomplished. I remember looking around the table and everybody had a master's degree and two or three adaptor degrees. That was the norm in our culture of the church, but what I realized early on and lamentation is the first full sermon series that I did was that this group had this self-perception of exceptionalism and triumphalism. They had been steeped in success all of their lives. They had succeeded in everything. They were always the big fish in the small pond. That's why they got into these schools in the first place. They always got perfect scores. They never really faced the adversity that I think is very formative.

Soong-Chan Rah: Part of that was the wake up call to say, "Life doesn't always work that way." Life isn't always everything works out for you and everything is perfect for you. You get into the school of your choice all the time. You get the job of your choice all the time. That's not the way the world always is. This narrative of celebration that was such a part of young adult culture or college student culture, narrative of triumphalism, exceptionalism that's such ingrained within the intellectual community and wanted to address a counter narrative, which is also in the bible which is the narrative of lament. That's why I did a six-part sermon series on lamentations. I was very pleasantly surprised at the positive response. What I discovered was that they just want the truth. They were tired of the glossy, high tech, high presentation value, this triumphalistic narrative of going to fix the world with their own wisdom and knowledge. They just want the truth to be told to them.

Soong-Chan Rah: When lamentations was preached to them, they realized, "Yeah, that's a part of truth I haven't heard before." There was actually a thirst and hunger to that truth.

Sara Barton: I also sense that thirst and hunger in our community, that hunger and thirst that you're describing for what's real, for authenticity, but when the time comes and we gather for worship, we are so used to singing songs of praise and celebration that it's awkward when you introduce lament or you invite people to lament. We can try, but we don't know how.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Yeah.

Sara Barton: What advice do you have for people who do want to learn how to ... Honestly, we know how to go away and cry in the closet and cry our eyes out or maybe with one friend, but communally to really be authentic and real like that is difficult. What advice do you have for how we might worship together and include lament?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. One of the things you're alluding to is the absence of lament in our especially songs and hymns and songs that we sing. It's part of the research from my book on lament. One of the things I looked at was the use of lament in typical worship settings and found that a Christian hymnals really over represent praise songs and under represent lament songs. Now, that's just what's in the hymnals. It was like 80% praise, 20% lament. If you compare that to the bible, the songs, which is the worship life of Israel, you'll find 60% celebration hymns and 40% lament. We are under representing in our hymnals what worship life is more reflected. The other part of that, of course, is that it's not just that it's less representing for the hymnals. Even the ones that are in the hymnals aren't really sung, right?

Sara Barton: We don't know those songs.

Soong-Chan Rah: We don't know those songs. It is when we skip over. I did a similar study to CCLI, which tracks the use of contemporary worship songs. I looked at the top 100 most popular contemporary worship songs and found maybe five of those songs or songs of lament. The popular songs are the Yes Lords. "We're going to go out and conquer the world. Yeah, life is great, God has saved us." All of that. Which is true, but it's disproportionate. We don't talk about lament enough. I think, one of the things is that, younger song writers and diverse song writers tend to engage stories of suffering a little bit differently. For me, my experience of worship cross-culturally has helped me to see other forms of worship such as lament. For example, in the African-American community as I've been a part of black churches and preach the black churches and serve the black churches, what I hear is lament more from that community because of the experience of the black church.

Soong-Chan Rah: As we do cross-cultural worship and ministry and cross-culture relationships, I think that's one of the ways that themes that are not present in one culture are present in another and then we get the whole gospel by being in community with others.

Sara Barton: Well, that makes me think of some of your themes in your book, The Next Evangelicalism. We'll get back to that, I think, as we come around, but some people would say that the church in America is in decline or do you think about that? In your experience, is the church growing or is the church declining? Then we'll get, maybe, back around to ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure. Sure.
Sara Barton: ... multi-ethnic experiences in a moment. Yeah.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. We have to look at the larger trends and definitely the largest trend in terms of Christianity in the world is that Christianity is no longer a Western religion at all.

Sara Barton: That's surprising to a lot of people.

Soong-Chan Rah: It is. It shouldn't be because the numbers are not even close. If you look at the 10 largest churches in the world, the largest church in the US doesn't even come close to the 10 largest. Three are in Korea, another one is in Asia, three are in Africa, and three are in Latin America and the largest is in the US that either sniff to top 10 because the growth of the church has been global. The projection is that in the next 20, 30 years is about 80% of all Christians in the world would be of non-European descent. Now, that's a complete flip from 150 years ago. In the year 1900, 80% of the Christians in the world were viewed a pre-descent. 150 years from that, the numbers flipped over. We're right in the middle of this massive transition from-

Sara Barton: A huge shift.

Soong-Chan Rah: A huge shift where Christianity is no longer Eurocentric, North American-centric. It is much more Latin America, Africa, and Asia. That's where the big churches are. That's where the move of God is. That's the larger global trend. We have to see Christianity is no longer defined by European and North American Christianity. Well, my research has been, how was that changing North American Christianity, particularly US Christianity.

Sara Barton: I'm curious. How do we feel about that? Does it make us nervous and ring our hands in the Western church?

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. Right.

Sara Barton: Or do we rejoice that Christianity is growing in other places?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Well, the first reaction is none because people don't know that story. Most people do not know how dramatic of a change we've had over the last 50 plus years where the majority of Christians now of non-European descent and the overwhelming majority, 80%, will be of non-European descent in 20, 30 years. Most people don't know that. People still think, "Oh yeah, the US is still the center of Christian life and Europe is the center of Christian life." That's clearly not the case anymore. One is ignorance. People don't respond to it because they're ingrained about that truth. The other is anxiety around, well, what's going to happen to Christianity if it moves away from European, North-American control? What happens to theology when theology-

Sara Barton: Power and control, yeah.

Soong-Chan Rah: Power and control.

Sara Barton: Power and control is coming up.

Soong-Chan Rah: Some of that is funding, right?

Sara Barton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Soong-Chan Rah: Who controls the power? Who controls the funding? When actually, and the most amazing theological works are coming from global south. We don't really engage that because there's a suspicion, but that's the majority of Christians in the world right now. Most of our education, theological education, religious education, Christian education in the US is still very Western-centric with actually, a lot of the theology that is intriguing and dynamic is coming from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. There's a little bit of, I would say, suspicion or maybe anxiety on the fact that the center of Christianity shifted to a different part of the world.

Sara Barton: Let me tell you my anxiety.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah.

Sara Barton: I'll be honest.

Soong-Chan Rah: Okay.

Sara Barton: What does this mean for women? We can engender conversations in the church. We can talk about the main line church is dying.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yes. Yes.

Sara Barton: Yet, these are the churches ordaining women. This is a very selfish question in one way ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure. Sure.

Sara Barton: ... that I'm asking, but what is the place of women in the global south, and then the church is even within the United States that are multi-ethnic. Do women have, generally, a place of leadership or does it seem we could be taking some steps backwards for women?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Well, this is my concern around the trends of this. If you look, though, at the history of the churches when the dynamic growth occurs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Let's set Korea as an example. Most people know about the largest church in the world, which is a full gospel, Pentecostal church, most people recognize that the pastor of that church, Yonggi Cho, is the one that was the dynamic leader. The back story is that he was led to Christ and he was discipled and mentored. The real power and move behind Yonggi Cho was his mother-in-law.

Sara Barton: Derived power.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Yeah, the person who pray. The person who was the spiritual force and really positive way shaped Yonggi Cho's ministry. It was the grandmother, essentially. Those are narratives you see repeated quite often. I talk quite a bit about my mom's influence in terms of, she's now in her 80s, but her prayer life shaping me as a believer and as a follower of Jesus and even as a pastor and as a teacher, without her prayers, my spiritual life would not be what it is. It was her prayers and it was her example that set that. You dig underneath a surface and get the back story. You realize how significant women are in this narrative. Now, unfortunately, what happens is that as these communities grow, some of those voices get lost. Some of that is a combination of things. (1) It's the patriarchy of some of these cultures, but it's also some of the Western influences that come in.

Sara Barton: That's what I wondered. Yeah.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. It's combination.

Sara Barton: When you become a successful church with a lot of people then you need a male senior pastor to run it like-

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. Like a CEO of a big company.

Sara Barton: Yes.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. That's what I call culture captivity where the way we do things in Western culture has become the norm for places. Some of the natural growth that occurred that was rooted in women leadership, women's influences, women's voices, women's prayers, some of that got lost when we started to build empires.

Sara Barton: We're in hierarchy.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Yeah.

Sara Barton: It becomes a part of what started as a ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. Right.

Sara Barton: ... with a lack of hierarchy, perhaps.

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. You saw them in the US as well, but you're seeing that now in non-Western culture as well. That's one of those places that's very ... it's saddening on one level. Maybe, God continues to move in ways that surprise us and raise up different types of leaders. I'm thinking, now, even in the US as we're seeing a lot of the collapse of certain branches of Christianity in the United States. There's a high level of anxiety around this, but sometimes, maybe, God is still in the middle of it. We're creating new structures. We're creating new narratives and new stories. Can we, in those new narratives and the stories of the church in the US, actually make room for those voices that have been previously silenced? My hope is that, it's the venue through which we create more voices for women, more voices for disenfranchised voices in the past, ethnic minorities and women of color. That's the hope.

Sara Barton: Well, tell me just a little bit about when we think of who are the thought leaders, the theologians, the missiology leaders in the world today, we will tend to think of Western writers, people who are published, people who are influencing our seminaries. Who should we be reading? Who are the leaders we should be looking to in terms of global Christianity? Is it people who are publishing or speaking? Or is that a misnomer in the first place? We should just be looking more in local communities. How do we know who leaders are?

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure. I think some of that does require an effort. I tell the story often about my friend who is in a cross-cultural adoption. It was a white couple adopting a black baby. They made the couple do an exercise where they take a clear ball and they put colored marbles into the ball based upon what they surrounded their lives with. What are the TV shows you watch? Who are the leads in them? The movies you watch, the music you listen to, or the people you have over to your house, the artwork around your house. Essentially, what you've surrounded yourself with you start putting in. He said he ended up with a bowl of 50 white marbles because that's the world that he lived in, the books that he read, the music he listened to, the people he interacted with, and then you take the black marble, the child you're about to adopt, and you put it in that white world.

Soong-Chan Rah: There has to be some intentionality to be able to say, "I need to go out and seek this out." I would say that there's a growing effort to do that. Some publishers are beginning to recognize. There's a couple of series. I think one and one University Press that are trying to look at non-Western theologians. I've been really influenced by Western theologians who are of a different race and ethnicity. One of my mentors is Emmanuel Katongole who is a Catholic priest that's a great work and reconciliation in Rwanda.

Sara Barton: Rwanda.

Soong-Chan Rah: He was my mentor. Willie Jennings, an African-American theologian. Jay Carter. Andrea Smith.

Sara Barton: You had the best.

Soong-Chan Rah: I had some of the best.

Sara Barton: You had the best.

Soong-Chan Rah: I did.

Sara Barton: That's great.

Soong-Chan Rah: Andrea Smith is a native American scholar. There are just folks whose voices that we need to take some time to listen to. I have a book project coming out that was a collection of essays on unconventional witnesses to the gospel. I did a chapter in Richard Twiss who is a native American activist Evangelical. It was exciting to tell those stories. Some of them takes a little bit of work. I think if you're looking at specific names of David Zac Niringiye is a phenomenal theologian. Ruth Padilla DeBorst is one of my favorite theologians. I'm blanking on pronunciation of some of these names, but some of that is just unearthing some of these narratives that are out there. Vince Bantu is doing some amazing work in St. Louis on early African Christianity. The authors are there, and then you can go back to some of the ones that have been ignored in the past. The James Cone, Oscar Romero. There are these stories that have not been told well that we need to go back and unearth as well.

Sara Barton: Because we know that there are so many Christians, congregations who are in almost completely white rural areas.

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. Right.

Sara Barton: People might want to, that their opportunity might be through a book ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Yeah.

Sara Barton: ... and through engagement through something that they might read or something they might watch online.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. For one, YouTube and Google gives us access to almost anything. Not only the good, obviously ...

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: ... but if you were to look for teachings. Many seminaries and places of higher education are looking for these voices. I know I've been part of several conferences that we're trying to engage non-Western voices. There's an effort to do that.

Sara Barton: There is that effort if you're looking.

Soong-Chan Rah: You have to look for it. Yeah.

Sara Barton: Well, as an institution of higher education, especially, one, associated with a Christian heritage, we often do set a theological agenda for the American church. That has been traditionally. Well, we'll see if it continues to stay true.

Soong-Chan Rah: Right.

Sara Barton: What advice do you have for people like me or others at Pepperdine in regard to our role in the church? What could we do to lead in some of the conversations we're just talking about or even in regard to lament, we were talking about a few minutes ago?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think we both know that any change in the academic institutions or institutions of this size and history and longevity, it's a slow move, right?

Sara Barton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Soong-Chan Rah: It's a huge ship that you're trying to move. At the same time, the currents are changing so rapidly that if you don't move, you'll probably hit the shore some time soon. It's tough because the easiest thing is to run away and hide. I've talked about that this morning about the temptation to run away and hide and the temptation to thinking about-

Sara Barton: It's true on so many levels. In your own life, in the academic world, in the church world.

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. Right. Especially now, the church. People are saying, "Yeah, why keep going. We might as well abandon this." I think there's a faithfulness that those of us who are in the academic world are called to, realizing that this is a place of influence. The reason, of course, is to influence the next generation.

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: That, to me, is maybe the silver lining in all of this. That we got a chance to influence the next generation and these academic institutions even if they are rooted in history in a good way. Maybe in a dysfunctional way also, rooted in traditions in a good way but also in a dysfunctional way. The joy of that is that, to use the biblical illustration, fresh wine keeps coming in.

Sara Barton: That's right.

Soong-Chan Rah: New wine keeps coming in. How do we-

Sara Barton: We have to know one another.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: We have to be intergenerational ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Right.

Sara Barton: ... and we know each other.

Soong-Chan Rah: How do we create new wine-skins is the other part of it. I think those of us who are wanting to stick around and wanting to stay on this place of influence especially for the sake of the next generation, maybe it's time for us to talk about what those new wine-skins begin to look like.

Sara Barton: Well, that makes me think of, I don't know how you're experiencing this, but a lot of young people that I'm working with are experiencing religious deconstruction in regard to faith.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Yeah.

Sara Barton: What is deconstruction as you hear that and think about it and can deconstruction actually help us find God ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure.

Sara Barton: ... or do you find it to be dangerous?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Deconstruction is multiple layers. It was originally used in linguistics and some of the postmodern philosophers like [Darry Dobb 00:32:44] were using these phrases and there's linguistics philosophers who were looking at ways to find ways to deconstruct meaning and to try to find new meaning. I don't think it's dangerous in the sense of, if our-

Sara Barton: Parents can find it dangerous.

Soong-Chan Rah: I can understand that.

Sara Barton: I'm speaking as a parent.

Soong-Chan Rah: No, no. I can understand that. Yeah.

Sara Barton: Or as we see someone going through this, asking these difficult questions about the faith system that they've been given ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Right. Right.

Sara Barton: ... critiquing, it can seem dangerous.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. In one level again as a parent, I can echo that concern. I was actually very thrilled that my daughter chose to come to a Christian college. Part of that was, I want her to do the deconstructing and I want her to do that in a place where that could be nurtured well. That, to me, is one of the new benefits of a Christian college. Not that we protect people like the Noah's Ark from deconstruction, but we actually give them the skills to do it well thoughtfully and do it in a way that actually strengthens their faith. What I believe is that there was a long time period, a long period, where we're terrified of the outside world. We said, well they're doing things that actually reshape our Christian faith. We kept people out of secular colleges because we felt like they're going to go to secular college and lose their faith.

Soong-Chan Rah: I went to a secular college. What I found was my faith strengthened by that process of deconstruction. It was deepened. Even as I am walking through that with my kids, the 15-year old and 18-year-old, I want to be there when they do that. I want to be there and I want Pepperdine to give them the tools to do that well. I'm not sure I want to be afraid of that. I don't want to react to that out of fear. I want to-

Sara Barton: It seems like one of the worst reactions we can have as you try to force young people to believe the same things exactly as we believe them before.

Soong-Chan Rah: Exactly. Exactly. I do this exercise with immigrant families, immigrant churches. The exercise is a generational dynamic. One of the things we do is, I get the oldest couple to come out there to build a house of dominoes. They're just going to build a house and then I come. This was actually taught to me by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier in Philadelphia. You come and you bang on the table. You tear down the house. You keep doing that to the house. You bang on the table every time they build it. After a while, the older couples starts getting nervous and they start protecting that house, and then I introduce another element and they're marbles. I said, these are your kids. What are you going to do. I throw the marbles on the table. Now, the only way to keep the marbles from falling off the table is actually building a corral that make me sure that the marbles are surrounded and protected around these boundaries. That's usually the way we look at the next generation.

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: We got to corral them and protect them and keep them in this place. Some of that is our experience of having our faith challenged and the struggles that we have in our faith. We want to protect our children from that, but the next thing we can do is say, "Actually, the next generation might have tools that we don't have." That generation get Legos. Now, you've got Legos. You've got dominoes. You've got marbles and you can build a whole new thing. It doesn't have to look like a typical house made out of dominoes. It can look like something completely different.

Sara Barton: It's empowering to the younger generation ...

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: ... that they have ...

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: ... expertise to bring to this mission ...

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: ... that we have together.

Soong-Chan Rah: Deconstruction can lead to a positive construction and an identity of missional thinking can come out of that deconstruction because some of the old paradigms were not necessarily good. Some of the paradigms were not necessarily healthy.

Sara Barton: It is good that many people, it's not only young people.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: Many people are asking hard questions about the church, the way we've been functioning.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: That can be a very good thing.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's what lament is.

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: To bring that back.

Sara Barton: Yeah. Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: Lament is the active deconstruction. What comes after lament though is a praise that moves to its construction.

Sara Barton: Right. Well, what is the difference do you think between that lament that can be healthy and cynicism? Because cynicism is the temptation. Have you experienced what you would consider religious cynicism?

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure. Sure.

Sara Barton: If so, what happened? How did you deal with it?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. Cynicism is pretty common characteristic among the younger generation, I would say. I would say, I fall into that category as well.

Sara Barton: I think, yeah, it's for all ages.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's true. Yeah.

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: That comes out of, maybe I would say, not being led well in lament, right?

Soong-Chan Rah: Lament shouldn't lead to cynicism. Cynicism might be a part of lament as in you are questioning ...

Sara Barton: It's part of the-

Soong-Chan Rah: ... and you were asking the right questions around lament, but lament should lead to a greater trust in the sovereignty of God. That was the intention of lament in the bible. That's what you see in the book of lamentation. Now, it doesn't mean it's all fixed and resolved at that moment, but there is a greater dependence upon God. My commentary in lamentations, I note that the fifth chapter lamentation is the most powerful for me because that's when the people began to actually pray for themselves. They're not just crying out of lament. They're actually addressing God and saying, "God, the only way out of this is you." Whereas, in the first few chapters, it really is a series of complaints. If you stop there, that, of course, opens the way for cynicism, but if lament is done well, it should lead to greater dependence and greater crying on to God. That's what happens in the book of lamentations.

Sara Barton: Right. I hear a saying that as we seek God and seek to join God, lament, even though it might feel like ...

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: ... we're taking the wrong path, lament could be the very path ...

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: ... that could help us in this journey.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. It's the disruption into some dysfunctional stories that are out there. It's the truth telling that we're looking to to see. It's the turn around.

Sara Barton: Right. That's what we want. We want that truth and authenticity.

Soong-Chan Rah: That's right.

Sara Barton: What I want to do is, something I'm trying to do is to read scripture with the guest who are here with us on campus. Imagine that kind of crazy idea. I want to read from Isiah 58, and then I'll just ask you a couple of questions ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure.

Sara Barton: ... about what's happening in this passage, not only in the context in Isiah, but also for us. People of faith have done this practice together for century. We will read our sacred text and ask God to guide us through the words. I want to pray before we read it. Let's pray. God, we pray that you will speak to us and the community of people who may listen to us through the reading of your word. In Jesus name. Amen.

Soong-Chan Rah: Amen.

Sara Barton: From Isiah 58, "Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways as if they were a nation that practice righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of me, righteous judgements. They delight to draw near to God. Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice? Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high is such the fast that I choose a day to humble oneself. Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie and sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast a day acceptable to the Lord?" How does this passage inform our search for God?

Soong-Chan Rah: I'm really moved by, maybe, the assumptions that what we are doing, we're assuming that that's what God is wanting.

Sara Barton: Right.

Soong-Chan Rah: I think there are many places in our spiritual life where we do what we want, but maybe not necessarily what God wants from us. For me, the challenge here is, how do we think about ways to honor God rather than ourselves. That's an ongoing challenge. That's not just a short-term challenge. It's an ongoing challenge to say, how is God honored in my worship, in my spiritual life. We have ways that truly is directed towards him rather than towards myself.

Sara Barton: Whether we want to admit it or not when we worship God, it feels, often, that the temptation is, if I don't like the way this goes, I'm disappointed and yet, that's so much about ourselves instead about God.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. That's right.

Sara Barton: Well, if you could take one image from this text with you for the rest of the week, what could we hold on to as we seek after God this week?

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. I do think that there is an image of humility that is necessary. Not the false humility that is alluded in the text but a genuine humility before God. The idea of bowing your head before God as this passage is being read and that you're bowing your head because you're convicted of what's happening. Again, a form of lament to bow your head before God in submission to him but also the acknowledgement of your sin.

Sara Barton: That's a good word. As we're closing our conversation today, what is one hope that you would have for our community based on this conversation we've had ...

Soong-Chan Rah: Sure.

Sara Barton: ... that's gone all over the place?

Soong-Chan Rah: I would hope that the tough questions will continue to be asked and the truth will continue to be sought out.

Sara Barton: Okay.

Soong-Chan Rah: When the tough question are asked and when truth is sought out, sometimes the inevitable response is lament. Don't jump too quickly to the easy, quick resolutions because that's a worldly approach. Well, let's fix this.

Sara Barton: That's what we want.

Soong-Chan Rah: Yeah. We want the quick and easy answers, but lament calls us to stay in the pain a little bit longer. Let's learn more about the suffering that people are enduring. I think greater empathy can come with lament. I would hope that that's something that ... Man, wouldn't it be great if Christians were known by our love and Christians were known by the ...

Sara Barton: Compassion.

Soong-Chan Rah: ... compassion and empathy as an expression of our love. I would hope that that would be a part of our spirit as things going forward.

Sara Barton: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time to visit with me, to speak to our students in chapel. It's been a rich conversation you have blessed us being here with us today. I'm grateful that we had this conversation.

Soong-Chan Rah: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

Sara Barton: Thank you.