Book Review: Soong-Chan Rah. Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church. Chicago: Moody, 2010. 208pp. $14.99.

[1] The U.S. is changing.  The racial and ethnic composition of the US is becoming more diverse—many estimate that by 2030 there will be no single racial or ethnic group that is a numeric majority.  The Christian churches in the US have been experiencing a similar transformation.  As Soong-Chan Rah points out, “What had once been a religion made up largely by those of European decent is transforming into a faith community that has become multiracial and multiethnic at a faster rate than American society at large” (116).

[2] Nevertheless, local churches in the US historically have been racially segregated and often ethnically homogenous.  Christian church polities—outside of the Black Church—have been governed primarily by whites and therefore have embodied the cultural and religious sensibilities of various European ethnic groups.  Their internal cultures, styles of worship and ways of “doing church” were rarely questioned.  In the last few decades, however, multiracial and multiethnic congregations have been on the rise.  Their number remains small, but their presence is much more visible as they have begun to multiply. The majority of Christian congregations in 2014 remain relatively homogenous, but more and more are being challenged by the diversity knocking at their doors.

[3] This raises an important pastoral question: how do churches respond?  What do we do?  How do churches reconfigure themselves to fully embrace and authentically embody an emergent multiculturalism?  Soong-Chan Rah provides a timely and insightful engagement with this question in Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church.  Currently, Rah is the Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois.  Before North Park, he was a founding pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, a multiethnic, urban church focused on racial reconciliation and social justice in Massachusetts. He uses his experiences as pastor, member and observer in congregations intentionally committed to being multicultural and multiracial as his resource and reference point for this book.

[4] As Rah points out, “In Many Colors, we are focusing on developing cultural intelligence that applies to the development of multicultural churches specifically in a North American context.  The unique aspect of American society is the wide range of cultures and ethnicities that have gathered together.  This level of diversity raises the stakes and the level of competency necessary for cultural intelligence” (41).  The last two words in that overview are important.  Rah’s purpose in this book is to point towards “cultural intelligence” as a basis for continuing to build the church. 

[5] Rah’s book is divided into three sections.  Section One is dedicated to defining and understanding “culture.”  Here, Rah focuses on the collective nature of “culture” (in opposition to individualism) and describes culture as the entirety of a group’s way of life.  Oftentimes, this refers exclusively to the dominant group in society, and thus Rah contextualizes “culture” within the history of American Christianity.  This history includes both moments of joy and the widespread horrors of the violation of human dignity such as genocide, slavery and pervasive inequality. Rah points out that the centuries of white domination in church and society have generated countless experiences of innocent suffering that must be acknowledged. This means that the practice of remembering is central for opening space to encounter the historical narratives of non-dominant social groups.  Rah then moves on to a discussion of the problem of the relationship between church and culture.

[6] Section Two is very perceptive.  These three chapters provide timely and important discussions about how to understand a congregation’s internal culture.  Rah discusses a paradigm through which to understand the internal cultural norms and subtle power dynamics at play in church congregations.  He offers practical tools for pastors and ministers to assess the cultural norms of their congregations.  This is important because in order to engage in the messy work of building a diverse body, Rah argues that everyone must become culturally self-aware.  Without this self-awareness, no further work is possible.  Rah then provides an insightful and accessible discussion of power dynamics and privilege that are always at play in congregations.  He asserts, “In a Christian context, we often do not discuss power dynamics.  But by not talking about the dynamics of power in cross-cultural relationships, we unwittingly continue to perpetuate the systems of power that are at work” (114). 

[7] Section Three, the strongest part of the book, provides suggestions for how to enact “cultural intelligence” and attempt to build an authentically multicultural congregation.  Rah focuses on four topics: storytelling, experiential learning, hospitality and engaging in “systems thinking” as opposed to linear thinking.  Rah asserts that storytelling is the most powerful way to build relationships and understand other people and offers practical steps for how church members can share stories with one another.  He highlights the importance of shared experiential learning as a multicultural community in order to understand diverse contexts.  He uses the programs “Sankofa” and “Journey to Mosaic” as examples to show the power and importance of cross-cultural experiential learning.  Each program is characterized by immersion trips to visit a series of places of historical significance within a particular non-dominant cultural group in the US.  The point is not only to build community but also to unearth, challenge and dismantle deformed thoughts and attitudes towards another culture.  The point is not tourism but transformation. 

[8] In the penultimate chapter, Rah provides a concrete and insightful discussion of how (and how not) to practice true hospitality within a diverse congregation.  He explains the importance of food and language in creating cultural intelligence and then addresses one of the primary problems for many evangelical churches – how to create a worship style and practice that truly reflects the congregation’s diversity.  He explores the positive potential and the perils of trying to create space for authentic expressions of worship for each of the various cultures represented in a congregation.  His concluding chapter is focused on a philosophy of governance for a congregation, a move from what he calls linear, “Hegelian” thinking to complex, “systems” thinking.  The latter is what Rah advocates for when embarking upon this precarious journey of building “cultural intelligence” within US churches.

[9] Two concepts that Rah offers for describing what such cultural intelligence entails are “multiple consciousness” and the creation of a “third space.”  The former refers to one’s ability to be aware of the confluence of cultures already existing within the church and then to intentionally engage each culture on its own terms.  He writes, “[M]ultiple consciousness requires a lifetime of learning and developing a cultural intelligence and sensitivity that allows an individual and church to speak multiple cultural languages” (110). 

[10] The latter refers to the creation of a new cultural space in which all the others can authentically participate.  This is a space comprised of threads of all the various cultures but ultimately beholden to no one single culture. Rah is not naïve enough to think that this is a simple process that is bereft of cultural domination.  He showed in Chapter 6 that power and privilege—and in the context of the US, white privilege—are always present and fighting for control.  But he argues that the presence of power is not the problem.  Rather, it is the love of power and privilege that is the true problem, along with the inability or unwillingness to relinquish and share power with others.  Often in a multiethnic setting, this means that the white ministers and traditional decision-makers must be self-aware of their position of relative power and privilege and be fully prepared to give up the role of shaping the character of a church to others.  In this way, Rah does indeed believe that the creation of a third space of a multicultural church is possible (but neither guaranteed nor inevitable). 

[11] There are two weaknesses to point out briefly.  First, Rah, like many others, does not provide a precise distinction between race and culture.  To be fair, the weight of this problem does not fall upon Rah’s shoulders.  In both the popular and academic mind, these terms tend to be used interchangeably.  Also, a precise distinction and discussion of these terms is not part of Rah’s purpose here.  This distinction matters because multiple "subcultures" often coexist within what is called a "racial group."  Using race and culture interchangeably can imply that a racial group is homogenous in its cultural practices and sensibilities.  This assumption can add an additional layer of difficulty to the work of building a truly diverse congregation.

[12] Second, in the last several paragraphs of the book, Rah suddenly asserts that the stated goal of the book, “cultural intelligence,” is not sufficient.  He states that the true goal is “cultural intuition” which is a more authentic form of cultural intelligence.  So why dedicate the entire book to discussing “cultural intelligence?”  In his defense, Rah is making an important point. The term “intelligence,” in his opinion, is much too connected to the idea of a technical skill that one must master in order to complete a task.  Rah proposes “intuition” because it is a more thorough understanding of what is needed.  Rah is clear (and correct) that the work of building diverse congregations is a way of life rather than a perfected skillset.  It is a mode of being more so than knowing.  Nevertheless, Rah could have clarified his end goal by making this assertion at the outset.  This is important because, as Rah points out:

Developing cultural intuition requires changing the system.  It is not an individual activity…As we move toward cultural intelligence and intuition, we recognize that the entire system must be considered when reflecting on the health of a multiethnic church.  How do we generate a culturally intelligent system in the church?  By moving toward a church system that has sensitivity to all the different cultural expressions in the body of Christ.  As difficult as it may be to implement, it is not only individuals who need to gain cultural intelligence—it may be that the entirety of the system must be changed (192-193).

[13] Finally, one observation may be helpful to the readership of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Although Rah’s insights and his overall discussion are extremely useful for all facets of American Christianity—for example, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Pentecostals—his focus and primary concern is American evangelicals.  It also is important to point out that Rah’s theological sensibilities reflect this evangelical background as opposed to a mainline Protestant background.  True to this tradition, and although he wholeheartedly accepts and engages with contemporary sociology (including luminaries such as Clifford Geertz and Peter Berger), mainline Protestant theologians (such as H. Richard Niebuhr), and the work of historian-theologian Albert Raboteau, Rah always demonstrates his claims are deeply and authentically rooted in Scripture.

[14] Many Colors is a clearly written, highly readable book that arrives at the right time.  Rah is attempting to engage a wide audience in order to suggest tools for churches to pursue cultural intelligence. He succeeds in this task, and I would highly recommend this book to pastors, teachers, and all women and men involved in church ministry.  The demographic landscape of the US is undergoing a monumental flux. The future is multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic and now many Christian churches are scrambling to catch up.  Many Colors provides a useful tool for doing so.


Kevin Considine is Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, Indiana.  His dissertation focused upon salvation, intercultural dialogue, and the potential influence of minjung theology and Korean-American theologies of Han and upon western Roman Catholic theologies of salvation.


© March 2014
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 14, Issue 3