Chapter 6: Characteristics and Traits

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The most frequently asked question about next generation multi-Asian churches, after its definition, is its characteristics and traits. What are the characteristics and traits of these churches and how do they differ from the typical ethnic Asian church? What do they look like?

Before I describe the common characteristics, note that there’s a wide diversity of Asian American churches because of the wide diversity of many Asian ethnicities, languages, and cultures. It should be obvious that a Chinese person going to an Korean church or Vietnamese church would probably feel just as lost going to a Caucasian church. The experience of the Christian life is more than language alone; it also involves culture, relationships, and theology (yes, different churches have differences in theology, too.) In the forthcoming book by Dr. Benjamin Shin, tentatively titled, “Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities in Asian American Life and Ministry,” there will be a chapter that presents a comparison of Chinese and Korean spirituality describes how their cultural perspectives affect various aspects of their Christianity, including their spiritual habits, faith expressions, and view of pastors.

Let me first recognize the similarities that most, if not all, Asian American churches have, both the ones that are reaching first generation foreign-born immigrants and those reaching next generation native-born Asian Americans.

  • Marginalization – Asian Americans have a shared experience as a minority racial grouping in an American society with a majority that’s currently largely Caucasian, followed by Latino and African Americans. American history has been blemished with injustice that discriminated against Asians in America, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese internment camps, as well as portraying racially insensitive and offensive Asian stereotypes in television and movies. The reality of being Asian American in an imperfect American society is that having an Asian face will be the subject of unjust discrimination, prejudices, misunderstandings, and unintentional offenses.
  • Group-oriented – Growing up and around Asians cultivates the deferential habit of thinking first about the group’s collective needs over one’s individual preferences. Here’s a fun example: this socialization may be observed on the occasion of a small group having a lengthy discussion to decide on where to eat for lunch.
  • Shame-based – Many Asian Americans have been affected by the honor-shame values of Asian cultures through their family history. This affects both their sense of belonging and how relationships are restored. Through her TED talks, books, and seminars, Brene Brown has raised the awareness of shame in American society (but I have to say that I don’t think she adequately gets at the nuances of shame in an Asian context.) She aptly describes the difference between guilt and shame: Guilt is, “I did something bad.” Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt would say: “I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” Shame would feel: “I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” In recent years, theologians like Jackson Wu (author of “Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame”) and Jayson Georges have articulated newly valuable insights about the Christian life and the Bible that’s better contextualized for honor-shame cultures.
  • Identifies with a specific Asian ethnicity – Most Asian Americans self-identify with their ethnic heritage, rather than as a generic Asian American. Note an exception for children of mixed Asian parents, as in Korean married to Chinese. Typically, a next generation multi-Asian church will have a lineage traced to a specific Asian ethnicity, since it was likely planted by a Chinese-American or Korean-American pastor. Even when that connection is not explicitly stated, a Vietnamese-American will intuitively and subconsciously recognize differences between one church with Korean-American lineage versus another church with Japanese-American lineage. In other words, having an English-speaking church doesn’t mean that all Asian Americans from different ethnic backgrounds will easily come together.
  • Missions-mindedness – Ethnic Asian churches reaching first generation Asian immigrants have a natural affinity to bring the Gospel to people in their country of origin and other countries around the world because of their common language and ethnicity. Next generation multi-Asian churches also tend to be strongly missions-minded, but often with a people group different from themselves. I’ve observed that while every church plant has to be actively evangelistic in its own community for its own survival and sustainability, it seems to me that next generation multi-Asian churches also actively start participating in world missions even in its early years.

Aside from the similarities, there are characteristics in these next generation multi-Asian churches that are different than ethnic Asian churches. As an aside, I’ve heard that the term “ethnic Asian church” is preferred to “immigrant Asian church” when referring to an Asian American church that is primarily reaching first generation Asian Americans in its corresponding Asian language.

While not every next generation multi-Asian church has all of these characteristics, these are the ones that I’ve observed more frequently. And, there may be ethnic Asian churches reaching first generation immigrants that has one (or more) of these characteristics. Obviously, the one characteristic that is common for all next generation multi-Asian churches is English-speaking.

Here are 5 characteristics I’ve observed to be more common with next generation multi-Asian churches, and by corollary, less common with ethnic Asian churches.

 

Leadership

Next generation Asian Americans have grown up in an American context with a particular value for leadership development. The proliferation of many courses, books, and conferences on Christian leadership has become a prominent part of churches since the 1980s. If I were asked to explain the reasons for this, I would say it is partly due to our growing understanding in organizational management that is being applied in some churches to more effectively and efficiently fulfill its mission and vision. It’s more acceptable among next generation multi-Asian churches to use vocabulary associated with strategic planning, like mission, vision, values, strategies, tactics, results, and metrics. In the American context, this is just how things are done. There isn’t enough space to compare and contrast, but suffice it to say that American leadership styles are very different from Asian leadership styles.

Church leaders are identified and selected based on character and Christian maturity, according to 1 Timothy 3:1-7. For next generation Asian American church leaders, it is also based on competencies and alignment to vision, in contrast to a traditional Asian churches value for social status, age, and wealth in its church leaders. Another way I’ve heard it said by a next generation Asian American pastor, who has ministered in both cultural contexts, is: “The priority leadership value in an American church is vision, while the priority value in an Asian church is family.” I think that’s a good summary.

Pastor Ray Chang has had a love for the Bible and ministry since his college days. While he did grow up in a typical immigrant Korean family, he didn’t readily fit into a traditional ethnic Korean church. He was greatly influenced spiritually through Christian ministries like Calvary Chapel, Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, Biola University, and Talbot School of Theology.

Our paths first intersected when we were in neighboring rooms in Dallas Theological Seminary. We became friends, even though he was there for just one semester, and we stayed in touch.

A couple years later, Pastor Ray was pastoring a young English ministry at an ethnic Korean church (in a “townhouse” model, as described in Chapter 4.). One day in a side conversation with one of his members, he asked the question, “Why don’t you bring invite your non-Asian co-workers to our church?” The member reluctantly replied, “But this is a Korean-American church and they will would feel uncomfortable.” Pastor Ray began to see how easily a culture becomes the main reason for gathering, not Christ or His mission.

While driving through Washington DC, Pastor Ray noticed the many embassies representing countries from all around the world; the verse from 2 Corinthians 5:20 came to mind: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Pastor Ray caught a vision for how the church could be an embassy for the Kingdom of God. With a dozen people in his apartment, God brought together this small multi-ethnic group to launch Ambassador Bible Church in 1996 with a multi-ethnic vision. This group of 12 had a kind of next generation multi-Asian diversity, with Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, and Caucasians in the mix.

I was invited to join Pastor Ray at Ambassador Bible Church as an associate pastor in Fall 1997 and we saw it grow from 70 to 140 in about 3 years. We got to see people come to Christ from different nationalities and ethnicities.We saw how God provided through His people for His vision, and we met and exceeded our church budget every year.

I still remember to this day the church’s vision statement that we had to memorize in membership class: “To make and equip disciples from all nationalities to be Christ’s ambassadors to all the nations.” Pastor Ray’s visionary leadership laid a solid foundation for this church that has continued to this day. Ambassador Bible Church is now ever more diverse than ever, reaching over 400 in attendance, and reproducing by planting another multiethnic church just as this chapter is being written.

 

Creativity

Many next generation multi-Asian churches have a value for creativity that’s shown in its visual arts and presentation. When you visit its church website, you’ll see a contemporary web design with introductory information to welcome visitors and social media links along with recent sermons and church announcements. During a worship service, creativity may be seen in the use of video clips for sermon illustrations, special music that is energetic, or aesthetically-pleasing decoration in the worship and fellowship spaces. In contrast, an ethnic Asian church would more likely have formal traditions of hymns and a choir, invocation, or silent meditation.

During my first visit to Ekko Church in Fullerton, California, I found myself driving into an industrial area with warehouses near the local municipal airport. This next generation church met in a non-descript warehouse building with contemporary wood paneling on the outside. I recognized the church logo as I walked in, and was kindly greeted by a couple of young adults but I was not handed a church bulletin.

I walked into the worship space, which was dimly lit as to create a quieting mood while soft music played in the background and a video loop of imagery played on the two rear-projection screens up front. It felt like a safe and inviting space. Wood paneling similar in style to what was outside engulfed the stage, where the drums, electric guitar, and electronic keyboard were setup for the worship band. A wooden cross stood at center stage, literally. The band played behind the cross while the preacher delivered the sermon in front of it.

The worship team came on stage, a word of welcome and opening prayer kicked off a time of worship that lasted like 45 minutes. Then there was a time of fellowship for a few minutes to chat and greet your neighbors. I’d estimate over 200 young adults had filled the worship space by now. The sermon was shared in a conversational tone with good storytelling intermixed. And that concluded the worship service.

Ekko Church showed a lot of attention to detail in its visual and graphic design throughout–from the church website to the worship space. I found out later that the warehouse space is borrowed, and I think it’s great that two churches would share space together to maximize its usage.

Ekko also published a beautifully-designed printed magazine to tell its stories and values in an engaging manner. A graphically-designed banner image complements every sermon series. And their social media presence on Facebook and YouTube further extends its storytelling of doing life in community. As communications professor Marshall McLuhan’s adage says, “the medium is the message,” Ekko Church embodies creative use of media to communicate the Gospel message in compellingly relevant ways that reaches next generation young adults, also known as the millennial generation.

 

Social Justice

Many next generation multi-Asian churches recognize the value for all peoples beyond their own ethnicity and beyond getting people to heaven for eternal life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for the here and now, not only for eternal life after we pass from life on earth. In John 10:10, Jesus said: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” More specifically to social justice,  the Bible says in Micah 6:8 (ESV), “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” and in Isaiah 1:17 (ESV), “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

In our world that is obviously broken with recent news of terrifying incidents of violence in America and elsewhere, the church has an urgent opportunity to take a more active role in bringing hope and healing to the whole world. Even here in America, one of the wealthiest of first-world nations, there is brokenness in our very own neighborhoods, and next generation multi-Asian churches want to be actively involved in serving its neighboring community. While an ethnic Asian church does well with serving immigrants of the same ethnicity, next generation churches are desiring to serve those in need within its immediate locality regardless of ethnicity or race.

Epic Church originated as an idea for a different kind of church community that would reach a certain kind of person not interested in church as usual.  Founding pastor Kevin Doi, as a next generation Asian American of Japanese descent, didn’t grow up in church. As a Christian, he had a difficult  time finding a church that was a safe place for his friends, where hard questions could be asked, and where ambiguity (not certainty) was embraced and appreciated He also had a concern for healing and justice, wanting to help create a therapeutic community that addressed people’s relational worlds and the systemic inequities in society.

Starting in 1998, a small group of twenty-somethings started meeting together as a church in Orange County, California. They moved several times over three years, finally landing in Fullerton. In a major shift in ecclesiology and mission, Epic Church recognized that God had called them not to reach a certain kind of person, but to commit themselves to a specific place.

One of the results of this investment in place was the launching of JOYA Scholars, a non-profit inspiring and preparing students from underserved communities in Fullerton toward high education. Now in its seventh year, JOYA Scholars is supported by civic and business leaders, school districts, and local colleges and universities. JOYA provides one-on-one mentoring, tutoring, college prep workshops and tours, with many volunteers coming from Epic Church, other churches, Cal State Fullerton, and the wider community.

Jeya and Daniel So make up the husband-and-wife team who planted Anchor City Church in San Diego at the start of 2014. Just like any church planting journey, discerning and responding to God’s call to plant involved the convergence of many different factors. As Asian Americans, both Jeya and Daniel understood what it meant to be outsiders—neither accepted as fully “American” because of their Asian faces, nor accepted as fully “Korean” either in Korea or in America. After serving for years in English ministries in ethnic Korean churches, they began to sense a broader call to bless, serve, and reach the city—in all its fullness and diversity.

Drawing on their experience of Christ redeeming their sense of being “neither/nor” to become “both/and” people, Jeya and Daniel responded to God’s call to plant a church where people who felt like outsiders, who could not find their place, or felt like they had one foot in two different worlds could experience deep friendship and community. Psalm 68:6, “God sets the lonely in families,” has been a core guiding verse for Anchor City.

In my conversation with Pastor Daniel about what makes Anchor City unique, his first answer was half-jokingly, “We’re just a normal church.” I pressed in for more specifics. As pastors, the goal for Jeya and Daniel is to awaken and empower each members of the church to live out their God-given dreams—both in the context of serving at church but also in living every day on mission with Jesus, in all the places they live, work, and play. Family and the table are guiding metaphors for Anchor City as they seek to build faithful, fruitful community. Jeya and Daniel often joke with their church, “When we share meals together we open our mouths to the meal and our hearts to each other.” At each Home Group meeting, each small group will share not only Bible study and prayer requests, but a meal around a table.

In the two and half years since they planted, Anchor City has grown in attendance, but the numerical growth has tended to be slow and steady—some people have found the church through their web and social media presence, but the vast majority have come through word-of-mouth and relational connections. Because San Diego is a transitional city in many ways, where it can be difficult for young adults to find work, Anchor City has also seen a number of people leave the area because of work. They try to be intentional as a sending church, blessing people as they leave San Diego.

In pursuing whole-life discipleship, Anchor City has expressed their commitment to join in God’s mission of redemption in the world both in words and in action. The pastors preach regularly on the importance of stewarding our whole lives for God’s glory and the importance of personal, relational evangelism. The church community has taken special Easter and Advent offerings where 100% of the giving went to nonprofit organizations serving foster care children, restoring victims of human trafficking in San Diego, and fighting modern-day slavery in India. Home Groups have prepared care packages for senior citizens, the youth group has partnered with local food banks, and Anchor City sent a vision team to Nepal last year —to learn from local pastors and leaders and to partner with them in their faithful work.

 

Celebratory Worship

The worship music and the songs sung during a next generation multi-Asian church’s worship service is celebratory and contemporary, rather than solemn and reverent in a traditional ethnic Asian church. The musical accompaniment is likely a five-piece band with drums, bass, keyboard, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar. The songs are probably the same kind of songs from that praise and worship genre, with popular worship songs by Passion and Hillsong, and the likes of Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Kari Jobe, or Darlene Zschech.

In many ways, the worship experience is similar to a corresponding evangelical church that tends to be largely Caucasian in its majority. But when you open your eyes and look a little more closely, those in attendance are far more ethnically diverse. The typical next generation multi-Asian church will have many more Asian American faces on stage and in the seats. Some may be more blended with a variety of colors from non-Asians, with a few that are even totally diverse with no racial or ethnic majority at all.

And the other differences are far more nuanced, noticeable to the trained eyes and ears in the style of music played and how the songs are sung. And there are subtle differences between these next generation churches too. For churches with Chinese-American or Japanese-American roots, the worship music may be softer, slower, and more meditative. For churches with Korean-American roots, the worship music will be comparatively louder and sung expressively and more passionately. Yes, I’ve measured the loudness on an occasion and it’s right up there at 99 decibels.

 

Aesthetic Quality

Chances are that you will not see a xeroxed handout for a church bulletin at next generation multi-Asian churches. Being married to an artist, I’ve received personal tutoring in art appreciation. Partly due to a value for frugality in many Asian cultures, combined with the immigration story of survival, art and aesthetics in a church setting can be perceived as being a “waste of money.”

For next generation Asian American pastors leading next generation multi-Asian churches, an American value for excellence and aesthetics is more visibly seen in its logo design, worship space decor, lighting, audio and visuals, and embedded into everything that a church does.This isn’t to say that the level of quality and production value in a next generation multi-Asian church could rival the high production value of a worship experience in a megachurch setting. But it is to say that there’s an apparent difference between a next generation church versus the ethnic Asian church. It just looks and feels differently.

To get a sense of what this characteristic looks like, you can browse the websites of next generation multi-Asian churches that are listed at multiasian.church/directory, and see for yourself. To highlight a few, take a look at Quest Church seattlequest.org, Church of the Beloved thebelovedchurch.org, Vision Church visionchurch.org, and of course, Ekko Church ekkochurch.com.

 

One More Thing

There are other characteristics that take on a certain flavor in next generation multi-Asian churches. Since everything is done in English, things look very similar to a typical majority culture evangelical church, on the surface. But there are sub-cultural distinctives that are worth noting and noticing.

Pastor Wilson Wang planted Renew Church in Fullerton, California, with a vision ”to make followers of Jesus through missional communities that display the gospel through words, life together and sacrificial love.” With the support of Ambassador Church as the mother church, or sending church, Renew Church has become more diverse since its inception, with about 35% to 40% non-Asians in its attendance. At an Exponential church planting conference workshop, Pastor Wilson described one trait from his Chinese-American upbringing has contributed most significantly to the community life of Renew Church.

The underlying trait that is inherent for many Asian Americans brings together valuable cultural elements from both East and West, and that is the group-oriented collective mentality and being concerned for the whole group, without having to explicitly say it out loud. This brings together next generation Asian Americans as well as non-Asians in the millennial generation.

This is seen in how Renew Church does its outreach which is essential to the survival of a church plant. They found that when their small groups did outreach as a team, as a missional community, that was more inviting and effective. A typical American church would exhort its members to be evangelistic by being a missionary to invite friends, neighbors, and co-workers to church events, but that’s a more individualistic mindset. Instead, outreach was baked into how small groups are done at Renew Church, and small groups meet and reach out right where they lived, in apartment complexes and neighborhoods. For someone without any church background, going to a smaller gathering with a neighbor would be less threatening than a big event.

Doing life together is another aspect of how this group-orientation helps build relationships. For a typical majority-culture church goer, worship service tends to be an event on the calendar, where you go to church for 90 minutes and everyone scatters on their own way for the rest of the day.

For Asian Americans with lived experience in an ethnic Asian church, being a part of church was an all-day affair because church served as a community center for first generation Asians to connect through their native language and culture. That’s partly why lunch programs are commonly found in ethnic Asian churches. In a church like Renew Church, this value for community and relationship beyond the worship service resides deeply in the culture of this church. People worship together and hang around for another hour or more to fellowship and chat on Sundays and then much of the church goes out to eat. In similar fashion, during the course of the week, they do life together by going to movies, hanging out at homes, and meeting as small groups. This kind of group cohesion is a part of everyday relationships rather than a church-mandated program.

A third way that this group-orientation comes into play is the instinct for inclusion. Asian Americans have an awareness for people who are left out. So whether it’s during worship service or during a fellowship time, Pastor Wilson values a culture where every person in the room is engaged in conversation. If one person is standing by themselves, someone else will come along, start a conversation, and invite them into community, like: “Hey, why don’t you come to lunch with us.” Or, “If you’re not doing anything this afternoon, come and join us for basketball.”

These values of community in living missionally and doing life together comes out of Pastor Wilson’s ethnic Chinese church experience and community-oriented Asian culture, but he has found that it’s resonated with millennials that long for church to be more than a Sunday service but an honest and interconnected community.  

 

Caveat

The characteristics listed above of next generation multi-Asian churches are descriptive and not prescriptive. They were not systematically identified through data analysis from survey or interviews but merely a broad paintbrush stroke of things I’ve noticed through my informal networking. As an Asian American of Chinese descent myself, I may not be aware of additional characteristics that someone who is non-Asian would more easily observe. That’s one of the things about a cultural context that makes it hard to describe by someone who is immersed in it.; it’s a like a fish being asked to describe the water it’s swimming in.

These new kind of churches are showing us creative ways to reach more people in the younger generations, both Asian and non-Asian. Because these churches are agile and adaptable, they’re doing ministry in different ways than the traditional ethnic Asian churches. I think this gives us a picture for what a future of what Asian American churches could look like, because there doesn’t seem to be as many indicators for how existing church models of ethnic Asian churches will be effective in reaching the fast-growing Asian American population that’s on the brink of doubling in our lifetime.

UNEDITED & UNCORRECTED DRAFT - PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE

1 thought on “Chapter 6: Characteristics and Traits

  1. Good chapter, interesting insights and observations.

    Might to interesting to expanding a bit on how and why Multi-Asian churches mirror and learn from Caucasian or Mega Churches in some respects and how that plays into Multi-Asian culture.

    I think the caveat is a good one, I found myself having those thoughts part way through the chapter. Wondering out loud whether that is more effective up to or at the end? Not sure I have an answer for that, just something consider.

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