Book Review: Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, by Soong-Chan Rah
I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural diversity in the local church these days. Since I’m a young, Chinese Texan who has spent the past four years living on the East Coast and am currently pastoring an older, Caucasian congregation in the Pacific Northwest, I find the topic to be quite relevant.
So it was with great interest that I read Soong-Chan Rah’s Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, in which he proposes a way forward for churches dealing with the challenges of cultural diversity.
MOST USEFUL PART: CATEGORIES FOR CULTURAL DIFFERENCES
Perhaps the most useful part of this book is the section where Rah provides categories for understanding the spectrum of cultural differences. Here, he lists ways in which cultures might have differing views on identity, communication, wrongdoing, authority, and more, and the impact these differences can have.
Rah also shows how these various differences tend to group in certain ways, and he challenges churches to consider their culture, in order that there might be greater awareness and sensitivity to others.
TWO NOTABLE WEAKNESSES
However, this book has two notable weaknesses.
Fails to Grapple with the Reality of Sin
First, it fails to adequately grapple with the reality of sin as it manifests itself within different cultural expressions.
This book rightly claims that culture, with all its attendant diversity, is part of God’s good plan for his creation: “Cultures… are not inherently evil, but rather are an expression by fallen humanity to live into the high calling of the Imago Dei…Our goal in cultural intelligence, therefore, is not to erase cultural differences but rather to seek ways to honor the presence of God in different cultures” (29). True enough. And yet, we must remember that it is fallen humanity that is giving expression to culture. To talk about differing cultural views of identity (individual vs. community) without addressing how sinful human nature can pervert those views (selfishness vs. abdication) is to fail to recognize the overriding reality of our sinful nature.
This point is made particularly clear in some of the stories Rah gives to illustrate these differences. In one story, a worship leader grows impatient at the tardiness of one of the vocalists (89). In another, a group of Westerners on a short-term mission trip vent their frustrations in a heated exchange (96). Are these simply morally neutral, cultural expressions of identity and communication? Or is there sin involved? If we deal with such incidents merely as cultural differences, then we miss the deeper problem of sin. At the end of the day, we understand ourselves best not by knowing culture, but by knowing what God has revealed about us in his Word.
Fails to Show how the Gospel Affects Cultural Differences within the Church
Second, this book fails to show how the gospel affects our cultural differences within the church.
For a book on unity within the church, there is little sustained meditation on the unifying work of Christ. Rather, mixed in with Bible passages are frequent references to sociology and business.
And what is the main solution that Rah advocates? Equality of cultural expression. “We want to create a culture where all the notes on the scale are accepted and welcomed… [a church culture] that develops an ability to encompass the full spectrum of culture” (108). Only by having “a visible and explicit expression of the range/spectrum of cultural expressions” will those from differing cultural contexts feel welcome (88).
But is the unity of the church of Jesus Christ to be based on our ability to give balanced cultural expression? Or does the gospel have something more to say about our unity?
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, having just described how Christ has united Jew and Gentile (talk about differing cultures!) in the local church, Paul goes on to describe how they are to live together in humility and love, keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-3). But how is this possible? Only the glorious truths of what God has accomplished through the gospel: bringing all of us into one body, with one Spirit, uniting us under one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6).
The unity of the local church is something that cannot be imitated by the world, because it flows from the supernatural work of the gospel. We also see this when Paul encourages Christians to “consider others better than yourselves” and to look “to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). In other words, we should be delighted when cultural barriers are removed for the sake of others’ spiritual good, even if that means we have to bear the burden of adapting to a different culture. Such counter-cultural love and humility is only possible as we embrace the saving work of Christ and follow his example. There, we see One who did not fight for his rights, but came into our world in order to give himself for us (Phil. 2:5-11). Having been saved and transformed by such love, we are no longer driven by our preferences, but by sacrificial love.
To put it in a nutshell, worldly unity is found by giving everyone an equal shot at self-expression. Assure the crowd, in other words, that everyone will get a chance to speak. We can all be equally selfish here. Gospel unity, on the other hand, is found by calling everyone to sacrifice their preferences. Assure the crowd that everyone will get to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Ironically, both methods might produce similar temporary results in terms of what a church looks like and sounds like when you walk through the door (the songs we sing; the clothes we wear). But how different those methods are, and what different long term results will follow.
Many Colors can be a helpful tool for pastors as they seek to understand the cultural makeup of their own churches. But ultimately, its usefulness is limited by how little it focuses on what Christ has done. We have a much more powerful tool for pursuing unity in our congregations than mere celebration of diversity, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only as our lives are transformed and united by the gospel will our churches become a display of the wisdom of God to the watching universe (Eph. 3:10).
In the last weeks of his life, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was cut off from all contact with his friends. Yet in the Gestapo prison, Bonhoeffer found joyful fellowship with other Christians, “men and women of many nationalities, Russians, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians, and Germans.” As Bonhoeffer found, we see the essence of Christian community not in our various cultural expressions, but in our mutual faith in and union with Christ:
One is a brother to another only through Jesus Christ. I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him . . . Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 13.
 Ibid., 25.