Chapter 4: Asian American Church Models

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Whether Asian Americans brought their Christian faith with them as immigrants or they became Christians while residing in the United States, the natural outcome is the formation of churches and worshipping communities.

Over the years, Asian American churches have developed using a variety of models to navigate the different languages and cultures of multiple Asian American generations. As a part of this process, church leaders organized around the uniqueness of each generation. The first generation refers to people who are foreign-born, speaks the corresponding Asian language most fluently while the second generation refers to those that are American-born and most fluent in English.

Also note that several Asian ethnicities have coined their own terms. For Chinese Americans, the first generation is known as “OBC,” an acronym for Overseas-Born Chinese, the second generation is known as “ABC,” which stands for American-Born Chinese, and the acronym “ARC” means American-Raised Chinese, someone who was foreign-born and immigrated under the age of 18. In the Korean American context, “1.0” refers to the first generation, “2.0” refers to the second generation, and “1.5” refers to someone foreign-born that immigrated under the age of 18. Japanese Americans may use the terms Issei, Nisei, and Sansei to refer to the first, second, and third generation.

Biologically and mathematically, then, the second generation are the children of first generation immigrants. And that means the strong Asian cultural value for social structure through the hierarchy of a parent-child relationship will greatly influence and be taken into consideration by pastors and church leaders working in Asian American churches that desire to serve multiple generations.

Christian leaders have observed and described the variety of Asian American church models in three different ways. Let me introduce them to you as general points of reference.

Church Models as Relationships

First, Asian American church models may be described based on relationships. These are based on articles by Pastor Ken Carlson and Rev. Victor Lee as they’ve observed how Chinese churches in North America often go through three stages: <Models of Ministry in Chinese Churches, 2003-2007>

  1. Paternal (Father/Son) Model
    Asian churches typically start with a leadership structure that basically follows the Asian culture, with the first generation leaders running the church in the same way they run the family. As children are born and grow up, there’s a natural progression for starting a nursery, a children’s ministry, and later on, a youth ministry. Since these children grow up speaking English in America, ministry is provided in English. These ministries are typically viewed as a part of the church’s Christian education program. This church would prioritize having a worship service exclusively in the corresponding Asian language. When English adults start coming to the church, either from outreach or from biology, the church can temporarily accommodate this for a short time with a worship service that has both Asian and English languages through translation.
  2. Parallel Model
    As more English-speaking adults become part of the church, ministries will be led by English-speaking leaders. Gradually over time, this may include a separate English worship service, separate English fellowships, and other ministries that run in parallel with the Asian-language ministries. These separate ministries allow each language group to have some autonomy to customize their ministries to be more effective. However, the church’s leadership structure remains predominantly held by first generation leaders that make decisions affecting the whole church.
  3. Partnership Model
    In this model, the church leadership structure and governing policy is changed to empower both language ministries as inter-dependent partners. Each language ministry would have its own board or council to oversee its ministries, with a joint formed for policies or issues that affect the whole church.

Church Models as Residences

Second, Asian American church models may be described as types of residences, as housing metaphors are something everyone can relate to. I heard these described in a class lecture by Dr. Benjamin Shin (Talbot School of Theology at Biola University) in the Asian American ministry track of the Doctor of Ministry program. These models will be fully detailed in Dr. Shin’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled, “Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities in Asian American Life and Ministry,” co-authored with Dr. Sheryl Takagi Silzer. I will only provide a general overview of these models; and you’ll notice that these models describe both specifically Asian American churches as well as non-Asian churches where Asian Americans attend. <footnote: https://aapastor.wordpress.com/church-models/>

  1. “Room for Rent” Model
    This model describes a church started and led by first generation Asian Americans. To accommodate their children, corresponding English ministries to children and youth would be started over time, typically in a room of the church, and thus the name for this model.
  2. “Duplex” Model
    This model has two congregations side-by-side: the Asian-language congregation and the English-language congregation. One church with two congregations is like a duplex house with two units under one roof, that is, under one leadership that primarily or completely consists of first generation Asian-language church leaders. This model would evolve from the “Room for Rent” model to accommodate a English worship service.
  3. “Triplex” Model
    This model describes a Chinese American church that has three language congregations: Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Three congregations, each with a worship service in their own language, yet together under a single church leadership.
  4. “Townhouse” Model
    This model describes two language congregations with two separate leaderships but share one church facility, whether that’s one building or one campus. You could call this: “two churches, one location.” Separate leadership here means there are separate constitutions, with decision-making autonomy and independent budgets. Yet, these two organizations have agreed to do ministry together across multiple generations and cultures.
  5. “Hotel” Model
    There are English-speaking Asian Americans that attend a very large church, typically a megachurch (defined as churches with weekend attendance over 2,000 adults and children.) These majority-culture churches reach a wide range of demographics through a larger number of professionally-produced programs and ministries that can result in a personalized individual experience. This is like how a person can have a private room in a hotel.
  6. “Satellite” Model
    This model describes one church in multiple locations, also known as a “multi-site” church (cf. 2 Leadership Network books, Multi-Site Church Revolution and Multi-Site Church Road Trip). Churches are extending their ministry to more people in multiple locations by using this model. A significant percentage of these churches will use video to deliver its sermon from a teaching pastor to the worship services at satellite locations, so that’s how this model gets its name. Only a small percent of these churches actually use live satellite feeds, since there are more affordable technologies available today.
  7. “2 for 1” Model
    This model is two language congregations led by one bilingual pastor, who is fluent in both languages and able to lead by first and second generations. The requirements and responsibilities of a pastor leading this type of church is uniquely demanding, but it can work with someone Asian American who is in that “1.5” generation.
  8. “Church Plant” Model
    Every church has a start date when it was launched; that is called “church plant.” But this model is not just describing any church plant. In the context of this listing, this model is describing a new church that’s planted by a second generation Asian American pastor or a multi-ethnic church that is reaching a significant number of Asian Americans. There’s so much to be said about this model—and that’s what I’ll be covering in the following chapters of this book.

Many Church Models

Third, Asian American church models were described in Helen Lee’s article, “The Many Models of the Asian American Church: Once largely monocultural, Asian Americans’ churches are now as diverse as the country they call home.” (Christianity Today, October 9, 2014). This is an abbreviated summary:

  1. The Asian Immigrant Church
    Asian American immigrants (first generation) started these churches primarily to reach other immigrants of the same ethnicity. These churches would have ministries to their English-speaking children and youth while retaining its strong ethnic identity.
  2. The English-Ministry Offshoot
    When English-speaking adults in the second generation (and subsequent generations) take ownership for their church ministries while remaining closely connected to the Asian immigrant congregation. Others may launch fully-independent churches.
  3. The Historic Church
    Some Asian immigrant churches were started over a century ago by Japanese Americans or Chinese Americans. Some have evolved into pan-Asian or multi-ethnic churches, while others hold on to their cultural heritage. A few even do both.
  4. The Pan-Asian American Church
    Some Asian American churches have a primary focus on reaching English-speaking Asian Americans from multiple Asian ethnicities. This includes churches that have launched with this intentional focus as well as those that have transitioned over time from an Asian Immigrant Church.
  5. The Multiethnic Church
    Some Asian American pastors have launched new churches intentionally to reaching diverse multiethnic and multiracial demographics, with a mix of Asians and non-Asians alike, and sometimes also socio-economic diversity too.
  6. The House Church
    Some Asian Americans are forming missional church expressions in smaller gatherings that don’t require a church building or public venue.

Helen Lee is the author who had written a Christianity Today article in 1996 on the “Silent Exodus” in the Asian American church, arguably the first significant and widely-circulated article that described the trend of English-speaking Asian Americans leaving an ethnic Asian church (that primarily ministered to first generation Asian immigrants) for other kinds of churches.

Now we’ve looked at a number of different ways to describe many kinds of churches that are reaching Asian Americans. The underlying question that drives all of these different models is: how will the church reach English-speaking Asian Americans?

All kinds of issues arise in a church that’s bringing together Asian Americans from multiple generations because each generation have their own language, cultural values and protocols, leadership styles and structures, worship preferences and ways of doing things.

A number of books have been published that explain these issues and many more dissertations and theses have done extensive research. I’ll share a brief list in the bibliography and more titles at multiasian.church. Most share the conclusion that there are too many layers of complexities and there’s no easy answers.

And it should be noted that these ministry challenges are not exclusive to Asian Americans; other racial and ethnic groups are dealing with their own flavors of generational tensions too.

Choosing the Right Church Model

When I talk with ethnic Asian church leaders, I’m frequently asked this question: “What’s the best model for the ethnic Asian church?” or “What’s the right model?”

Here’s the thing. I try my best to graciously explain that there isn’t only one way to do ministry effectively. I believe the Bible gives us a lot of freedom to discerning how to organize and structure a church’s leadership and ministries.

Look at the many Christian denominations and sects that all worship the same Triune God and uphold orthodoxy. Some believe that a congregational form of church government is best, while others have a church polity that is Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, or thousands of others. There is a wide variety in how churches govern its ministries, but we all put our faith in the same Bible and worship the same God.

Those of us that are called to be church leaders are entrusted with an important stewardship. And part of that role of leading is to discern and decide what is the best model to use for a particular context and a particular time.

And that’s the hard work of leading a church: deciding on which model to use for effective ministry now and discerning when it’s time to change to a different church model.

To quote something I’ve learned from my work at Leadership Network: no model is perfect; some are helpful.

In other publications I’ve seen, authors often present church models with a list of pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages.

What I think may be more helpful is for me to share some brief guidance on when each church model can be the most effective, using Dr. Ben Shin’s list of church models:

  • “Room for Rent” model is perhaps most practical for a normal-sized church of under 120 in attendance.
  • “Duplex” model is useful for providing language-specific worship services separately in order to minister to each generation in its own heart language for basic spiritual growth.
  • “Triplex” model is useful for worship services and ministries to three language groups.
  • “Townhouse” model can be more effective for developing leadership in both languages and both generations in order to increase outreach and discipleship
  • “Hotel” model are great at providing high-quality ministries to a wider range of demographics
  • “Satellite” model are good for bringing highly-effective church ministries to multiple locations
  • “2 for 1” model can work if the pastor has the right profile and gift mix
  • “Church Plant” model is extremely challenging but has a greater potential at reaching non-Christians through evangelism (since outreach is essential for its survival)

When to Switch Church Models

The harder work of church leadership is discerning when it’s time to change to a different church model. And, it’s wiser to discern beforehand when your church needs to change before it’s too late to make the change. Your church doesn’t have to wait until everything is falling apart before making changes.

In the Bible, someone named Moses waited a little too long to change. Exodus 18:13-26 tells the story of Moses being overworked and Moses’ father-in-law advised him to delegate work to others. It’s worth reading the passage for yourself:

The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves.

It was a good thing that Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and appointed others to share the work of governing people. In other words, Moses restructured his organization. To apply this example into our context, there’s a time to switch to a new church model.

When a church ministry being done the same way over time, especially in a growing ministry, could result in people wearing themselves out and getting overworked. (I’m assuming that your church wants to grow and reach more people.) There are times in the life of a church when restructuring and reorganizing the model of ministry is necessary.

In an Asian American context, this has particular challenges. Some of this might come from Asian cultures having longer histories in comparison to America’s short 200-some years of history. Generally speaking, Asians tend to change more slowly than Americans, and older people change slower than younger people.

To be fair, though, most people don’t like change. Have you heard this one: the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.

Change is stressful for most people because change introduces the fear of uncertainty and triggers anxiety about the unknown. Life is much easier and more comfortable for most people when things are known and predictably routine.

Of course, as church leaders we must study God’s Word and be in prayer when discerning the times for change. But that is not all. Be careful not to over-spiritualize. There are also many practical things about the work of church leadership too.

Organizational change can be quite complicated and it’s not something that seminaries prepare pastors for. There’s a whole field of study and practices about change management in organizational life.

3 resources I’d suggest as starting points for your church leadership to learn more about the process of guiding your congregation through change are:

Before You Lead Your Church Through Change by Pastor Rick Warren

8 Step Biblical Process for Leading Change based on Acts 15

Leading Change without Losing It by Carey Nieuwhof

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1 thought on “Chapter 4: Asian American Church Models

  1. This is an insightful chapter and interesting read because those who are in and around ministry I think have a sense for this, but seeing it on “paper” in one place is helpful. I agree that form should follow function, many of us, especially in church ministry often times have it the other way around. Also good word to get ahead of the change needed.

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