Friday, November 16, 2007

Chinese Take-Out: Commentary on how Asian Christians have espressed faith, both good and bad (1)

I am one in a category of people with very very few inhabitants. I am a/n:
Christian (evangelical) who is
Reformed theologically,
American-born Chinese,
Theologian wanna-be,
Church reformer,
Attending an emerging-style interdenominational church (Acts 29 Network planted) and,
Politically conservative.

In fact, as far as this category goes, most of the time I'm fairly sure I'm the only one in it.

And I have to ask how I got here from where I started. The local Chinese community is a fairly small world. I get this from the fact that my mother knows just about everyone who's in it from the 1960's on up. There are lots of people in it with growing numbers, yet she still keeps up with who's who. Amazing.

Add to it the smaller community of Chinese churches in which my family has spent decades. I cannot underscore the benefit this community has had on me personally. Growing up in a time when racial insensitivity was still a public norm, I needed a place among other Chinese to feel like a just a girl, not the ching-chong like I was at school everyday. (Not that the kids could have missed a glaring target like myself. My wildly out-of-date clothing, diminutive height, nerdy dispostition, and athletic shortcomings bred no small measure of disdain among classmates. Tell me if this isn't your story, too.) I had friends at church, happiness, and a sense of belonging. Coupled with the gospel presentation of a God who knows me and loves me anyway, I am blessed to have my experiences. But yes, there is a darker side to all of this.

The outward goal of Christian faith as expressed by Chinese Christians can be summed up in one word: safety. Just to compare, the Puritans' outward goal was material wealth. Both groups believe that faith in God and pleasing Him well result in achieving these things as a sign of His blessings. Because of the turmoil that besieged the Chinese of my parents' generation overseas, the appeal of Christianity to many Chinese lies in Matt. 11:28-30, from where most relate to Jesus as a gentle, soothing God who loves and provides safety instead of the abuse they are used to seeing from the world. "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."

As a result, most Chinese Christians emphasize the language of God as a refuge of security and peace in their theology, which, as a positive, helps many Chinese to heal from their experiences. As a negative, it explains much of the reluctance to balance their churches with the more complete picture of Christ in the Bible.

As I grew into my teens and twenties, I could see where the theological and practical shortcomings of this community had larger ramifications, ones that sent me down a road of disenchantment with the entire Chinese church establishment, on top of personal bad experiences. I could speak volumes about the negative things I see in Chinese churches, but that wouldn't be fair. So I challenged myself. How do I push aside the pile of criticism and come up with due compliments?

I have compiled lists according to characteristics common in most Chinese/Asian churches below.

Expressions of faith:

  • accept propositional truth claims about the Bible with little outward debate
  • adapt well to the dominant western forms of worship
  • enthusiastic acceptance of anyone willing to join church
  • establishment of routines is sign of security/blessings
  • sincere desire and prayers for the spread of Christianity

The good:

  • do not stray from orthodoxy easily if established with good doctrine
  • maintain a high level of 'wholesomeness' that is reinforced with the Asian subculture
  • make evangelizing immigrants and non-english speaking Chinese a priority (that is, among the Chinese-speaking population)
  • pay adequate attention to the elderly Chinese in the community
  • give generously to meet a church-related need, both monetarily and personally
  • give generously to meet physical needs of church members and/or family of church members
  • highly supportive of missions (mostly international)

The not-so-good:

  • members live highly compartmentalized lives
  • Asian values and expectations often trump Christian values (wealth, material possessions, ambitions)
  • lack of reality in gospel living
  • little pastoral challenge to conversion
  • lack of vision and visionary leadership
  • lay leaders not adequately educated to teach
  • lack of spriritual accountability on all levels
  • shallow emphasis on Bible understanding and theological truths
  • lack of body cohesiveness
  • lack of sprititual and cultural engagement, little connection to the community at large
  • emphasis at church is on getting along and social fulfillment
  • rampant consumerism, which is emphasized to unbelieving Chinese
  • low valuation of creativity and innovation; very protective of traditions/routines
  • racial prejudices largely ignored
  • people feel like it's not their place to make or suggest changes

  • lack of Christian worldview: members unable to make sense of how Jesus should impact their academic, professional, or daily lives, which leads to a low level of actual conversion and changed lives
  • members are biblically illiterate and lack spiritual discernment
  • unwillingness to confront sin, both corporately and personally, especially to church disagreements
  • spiritual laziness, unwilling to raise level of biblical understanding of theological truths
  • low committment to evangelism
  • high level of apathy
  • members feel isolated from sharing personal struggles with each other and suffer from low level of trust, even with close friends
  • low ability to communicate faith and gospel to children growing up in church
  • familial relationships remain strained and dysfunctional
  • cultural isolation, unable to relate to non-asian churches, do not cooperate with churches of other ethnicities much or community at large
  • poor leadership sometimes leading to abuse and injury to the church
  • low initiative to enact change
For Asian Christians, do we recognize this state of affairs, or should we ignore it for the sake of not appearing to criticize our elders? That has been the dilemma for many a decade now. I know that a small but influential group of Asian pastors have sought to turn the Asian-American mentality around to engage our culture, rather than to compartmentalize it. I believe their leadership, and how well they execute it in their own congregations, is the key to bringing Asian churches into better health and effectiveness.

There are four important things that need to happen in Asian churches in the upcoming years if they are to live out Kindgom values:
1. Christians must love others.
2. Pastors and leaders need to lead with stronger examples in their own lives.
3. English and non-English speaking parts of the congregation must define and live out their purposes.
4. Christians must comprehend the differences between what is biblical and what is cultural in their lives.

These four things deserve separate attention, which I will get into shortly. I do hope people recognize, though, that these four principles are not specific just to the Asian subculture in America, but to all Christian churches throughout the world.

I am keenly interested in others' experiences of church in the Asian culture. It has been a while since I last lived neck-deep in this particular milieu, so my exposure has been a little dated. How have things changed in the last decade in Asian churches? What is the third generation experiencing in the Asian church subculture? What issues are at the forefront of Asian churchgoers now? What are the current attitudes of congregations nowadays? What is the message being sent to Asians outside the church community? What is the future of the Asian ethnic church? Give me your thoughts.

(bad blogging note: I realize this post is too long for a main page. Unfortunately, I tried and failed at truncating my text. Attempts at finding code I could use resulted in frustration, so I said the heck with it.)


djchuang said...

Hello, Damsel, your detailed post about a number of issues involved in the typical immigrant inter-generational Chinese church was quite reflectively thoughtful. I think you're well on your way to being a budding theologian!

2 small comments I'd offer up: (1) it'd be great to see how your thinking develops over time as you think and engage with Asian Christians -- we need more conversations about this; (2) perhaps the culture shock of adjusting to an entirely different social context as an Asian in America is too much, and immigrants are doing the best they can; where I think there can be more generosity is for immigrants to bless those with different vision and calling to reach peoples of a different culture and ethnicity/race. After all, it does take people who have crossed cultural lines to reach someone different than themselves (e.g. Apostle Paul, as a Jew reaching Gentiles; and Jesus Christ, as the God-man condescending to reach humankind; missionaries who reached Asians, etc.)

Letitia (The Damsel) said...


Oh, I completely agree. I'm not suggesting that any one church exhibits all of the negatives on my lists, but the bullet points are there to point out that such characteristics do present themselves in many Asian churches. And not only Asian churches but all churches regardless of ethnicity.

I'm not sure which direction you mean by crossing cultural lines. Do you mean immigrants supporting Asians to reach non-Asian cultures? Or do you mean non-Asian Christians reaching out to Asian immigrants?

I think the immigrant congregations' focus should remain on reaching immigrants. There will always be a vital need for them to do outreach in this area. I am especially interested in what the English speaking or American born congregations are doing.

djchuang said...

Letitia, I believe both/and should happen: that an immigrant church can supporting Asians to reach non-Asians, and non-Asian Christians reaching out to Asian immigrants. The Great Commission does call Christians to make disciples of all nations and ethnicities, and it's a good thing when churches of all kinds and any kind reaches beyond those who are like themselves. You're right that immigrants can perhaps best reach other immigrants, and they should be reached, and that can be a priority. (But that shouldn't be a limiting factor.)