Back in 2007, I was asked to write a paper for a South East Asian Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Pastors’ Conference. I wrote a paper titled, “Challenges Facing Asian Churches in North America”. Some recent discussions made me pulled out this paper again and I find that it still has relevance, both to Asian churches and non-Asian ones. Besides being a challenge to immigrant Asian churches, it also serves as an introduction to issues of culture and mission for the church. It sets up for a mini-series of posts on the “missional” church (Probably 2 or 3 posts on it.) So, here’s my revised 2007 paper:
CHALLENGES FACING ASIAN CHURCHES IN NORTH AMERICA
I am a 1st generation immigrant to Canada but prior to my journey to Canada, I was already a 2nd generation immigrant back in Malaysia. My father was an immigrant from China to Malaysia, where I was born and raised. And my current vocation as a university campus minister gives me a window into the younger generations of various ethnicities. It is out of this background that I pose the following reflections (none of which is groundbreaking news) on challenges facing the Asian churches in North America. Other ethnic immigrant churches may resonate with these points. I perceive, at least, four challenges:
#1: East (Asian) vs. West (North American) or Established Culture vs. Emerging Culture
An obvious challenge is the clash of cultures that comes with being an immigrant church in a different dominant culture. The clash between first generation Asian immigrant parents and their second generation children often manifests itself into a clash between East and West. This cultural clash spills over from home into church, manifesting itself in various other clashes – worship styles, leadership styles, roles of women, language of worship, etc. Often, the sad result of these clashes is the “silent exodus” from the churches of the second and even of the 1.5 generations.1
Most Asian churches have attempted to stem this tide by creating English-speaking worship services for their second generation members; in essence, establishing a congregation within a congregation. This strategy’s success depends highly on the extent the English-speaking congregation is independent of the first generation congregation and also led by younger generation leaders.
#2: Mono-cultural vs. Multi-cultural
Having an English-speaking service, however, does not fully address the second major challenge. Second and 1.5 generation Asians are not only more comfortable in English language and Western contexts they also increasingly study, work, play and even marry within multi-cultural urban contexts. Yet their parents’ Asian churches are still largely mono-cultural.
Furthermore, the younger generations benefit from, at least, two different cultures, giving them unique perspectives that neither their first generation parents nor the dominant Anglo groups share. Thus they may feel lost in either mono-cultural Asian immigrant or Anglo churches. An English-speaking all-Chinese congregation/service does not fully address this second tension. Planting new multi-cultural churches may be the best way to reach these generations. These younger generation Asians increasingly view mono-cultural churches as inauthentic ethnic enclaves.This is due to a different paradigm of church.
#3: Immigrant Church vs. Missional Church
Younger generation Asians have three popular images of the immigrant church experience:
1. Art Museum, where people come to show off or brag of their own or their children’s achievements, even if it is done in a self-effacing Asian way.
2. Ethnic Cultural Center, where preserving one’s language and culture is the unspoken rule in the Asian church. Subtle forms of exclusion of “outsiders” occur, e.g. discouraging interracial dating or marriage.
3. Pseudo-Extended Family, where tight knit relationships of loyalty, responsibility and obedience define the church “fellowship” – where turning away from the Asian immigrant church is akin to turning away from one’s (extended) family.2
Of course, these are distortions of reality and the positive ministries and work of immigrant churches tend to be clouded over in the younger generations’ memories or perceptions. But these distorted images occur because the immigrant churches’ vision of mission as reaching out to one’s ethnic immigrant group no longer captures the younger generation’s imagination. That vision is partly based on the Homogenous Unit Principle (of which I have critiqued in a previous post). The younger generations increasingly see the local church’s mission as community based, rather than ethnic based, for “all nations” rather than for one nation.
#4: Incarnation and Transformation or Assimilation vs. Marginalization
Finally, this leads to a deep theological challenge that underlies the three earlier tensions: how the Christian church ought to engage the culture that it finds itself in. I find there are two approaches that churches generally use: (1) incarnation and (2) transformation.
The incarnation approach seeks to immerse into the culture and find ways to “contextualize” or “translate” the gospel into the dominant culture in order to make the Christian faith relevant. It seeks connections between the gospel and culture. The transformation approach, however, assumes the lack of connections between culture and gospel, seeking rather to transform culture according to the gospel worldview. Instead of making the Christian faith relevant, the emphasis here is on making the culture Christian. Rarely, however, does a church employ only one approach in engaging culture. Often, churches shift from one approach to other based on the cultural issue at hand.
Unfortunately, incarnation often morphs into assimilation where the gospel is assimilated into the culture and becomes almost indistinguishable from it. Transformation, on the other hand, often morphs into marginalization where the gospel, though clearly different from the culture, becomes irrelevant and “foreign”, even threatening, and is, therefore, marginalized.
These distortions become even “messier” when we realize that churches that employ marginalization towards a dominant culture have, almost always, assimilated the gospel into another, albeit non-dominant or no longer dominant, culture. For example, the Old Order Amish Christians stand clearly in a marginalized, and in many ways prophetic, position towards the dominant North American culture. However, the Amish embodies this gospel marginalization in the clothes of a 16th-17th century Swiss/German cultural form of Christianity that requires men to keep untrimmed beards, for instance. Thus, the Amish have already assimilated the gospel into an old order European culture in the first place.
Similar dynamics occur for Asian immigrant churches (probably all immigrant churches). Asian churches possess various degrees of gospel assimilation to their native Asian cultures. But against the dominant North American culture, these churches assume a marginal stance. Hence, the phenomena of “ethnic cultural centers” the younger generations perceive in the immigrant churches. The younger generations, in contrast, often take a transformational stance to their immigrant culture but often fail to see their own assimilation of the gospel into the dominant North American culture. As a result, tensions and conflicts arise as in #1, #2 and #3 above.
In my opinion, the Biblical approach is an incarnation for transformation approach or incarnational transformation. I will have more to say about this in a later post. For now, let me suggest that these two approaches – incarnation and transformation – are not either-or options. Both are needed for a faithful engagement with culture. But most churches are not intentional about this missional stance towards culture. And the forces of cultural assimilation are too strong to resist without such intentionality, resulting in assimilation of the gospel. And when the dominant culture evolves or shifts, the church with its assimilated gospel assumes marginalization.
Suggestions for Moving Forward
Here are my suggestions for moving forward:
1. Asian Churches should collaborate with other churches to birth multi-ethnic churches for the younger generations. Can Asian churches collaborate and share resources with Anglo churches or other ethnic churches within their own denominations, especially within urban centers, to plant a multi-cultural church using each other’s younger generation members and leaders? In this way, the new multi-ethnic church is part of the Asian immigrant churches’ mission rather than as a competitor. Such new church plants will fare better in the long run than English-speaking ministries within established Asian churches.
2. Asian Churches need to review their missional focus. This is not easy as it questions the very basis for an immigrant church. What is the mission of the church and of the local church in particular? Does this mission allow for permanent ethnically segregated congregations? Is a mono-cultural ethnic church a faithful embodiment of church? Is an immigrant church sustainable? These are tough but necessary questions in light of the emerging missional paradigm (see my next post) and of issues of diversity and racial reconciliation (see my post on God’s Intercultural Vision).
3. Asian Churches need to think of other ways, besides the church, to pass on the treasures of Asian culture. It is both natural and positive for Asian parents to pass their Asian heritage on to their children. The keys here, though, are: (1) the “treasures” of a culture must be distinguished from its “garbage” and “baggage”; (2) the church’s mission is not as conveyer of culture. Thus, some discernment needs to be carried out in regards to Asian culture and different vehicles need to be identified or created for the passing on of these cultural treasures for the blessing of the nations. Can we not agree that parents, and not the Church, are the main vehicles of ethnic cultural formation? Can Asian parents create a separate organization to help them in this regard, apart from, but in partnership with, the Asian church? For instance, can Chinese Christians from various denominations collaborate to set up an independent Society of Chinese Christians that focus on preserving and engaging Chinese culture from a Christian perspective that can yield fruits for both cultural transmission to the next generations and cross-cultural mission for the churches?
4. Asian Churches, as part of that renewed missional focus, need to intentionally adopt an incarnational transformation pose, both to its own Asian cultures and to the dominant North American culture. Asian churches need to do some serious soul-searching to see how they may have assimilated the gospel into their Asian cultures, and how some parts of that Asian culture may have contributed to the younger generation’s unpleasant images of immigrant churches. The hoped for outcome here is not the abolishment of Asian culture but rather the redemption and renewal of Asian culture by the gospel. Such renewal can help Asian churches to bear fruits for an incarnational transformation of North American culture, which itself requires gospel renewal. Indeed, many North American Christians have already embarked on that journey in critiquing their own culture via critiques of the Enlightenment and Greco-Roman past. Asian Christians need to begin a similar journey with their Asian heritage. This journey will feed into the missional focus, into discerning cultural treasures from cultural baggage, and into the theological foundations for a multi-cultural church. Furthermore, such a journey taken together by both first and second generation Asians will help both generations move beyond the East vs. West impasse to see how the gospel says both “Yes” and “No” to different aspects of both cultures.
If you are an Asian Christian in North America, do you resonate with these observations? Or do you disagree?
If you are not an Asian Christian, do you still see similarities between your own experiences and with what is described here about Asian churches?
Is the assimilation vs. marginalization dynamic universal to all churches?
1. See Lee, Helen. “Silent Exodus: Can the East Asian church in America reverse flight of its next generation?” in Christianity Today (August 12, 1996). Also see Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents (IVP 1998), pp. 145-147.
2. Taken from Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents, pp. 146-147.
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