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What kind of future would you like to see for the next generation of Asian Americans? You have a vital role in raising up the next generation of pastors and church leaders. It does not happen by accident and it doesn’t happen by prayer alone.
Many Asians immigrants come to America with great hopes for better opportunities and aspirations to the Asian American dream. This too was my family’s immigration story; my father brought our young family to America from Taiwan in 1974. I was 8 year old and my 2 younger brothers were 6 and 1. We grew up in rural Virginia, the city of Winchester, with a population of 20,000. My parents upheld a great value for education and wanted us to study hard to get the best grades in school, believing that was the best path for success in life.
Parents Make the Biggest Difference
And it’s not just the church’s leadership that makes it last for more than one generation; ultimately it’s in the sovereignty of God and how people respond to His leading. Yet, the church can be instrumental in cultivating an environment where parents live out their faith in a loving and affirming manner.
Vern Bengtson examined the religious beliefs and practices of more than 3,500 grandparents, parents, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren over four decades and published his research in a book titled “Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations.” In a 2013 Christian Today article interview with Vern Bergtson, two factors stood out that explained why some parents were successful in passing on their faith:
#1 “… parents who provide consistent modeling. If the parents aren’t consistent, the kids won’t have religious role models to emulate.“
#2 “… the quality of the relationship between the child and the parent affects the success or lack of success in transmission. Warm, affirming parents, especially fathers, tend to be the most successful.”
The Bible has much to say about how the older generation can pass down their faith in God to the next generation. It’s anchored in the Bible passage known as the “Shema” (the Hebrew word for “hear”) in Jewish tradition that has been a daily prayer for devout Jews from generation to generation. As it is written in Deuteronomy 6:4-9,
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
For one’s faith to be alive and active, it has to be more than praying regularly, preserving traditions, and practicing rituals. Faith has to come alive in our relationships, how we love one another, and faith guides us to discern how best to use the gifts and talents God gives each one of us.
God gifts everyone differently
Many Asian American families follow this common narrative: the parents sacrifice greatly to make ends meet, sending the children to the best schools to get the best education, so they can become doctors, lawyers, and engineers, in order to gain social status that brings honor to the family name and provides financial stability too. This Asian American narrative is pretty much the same for Christian and non-Christian families alike.
But, there are two problems with that narrative. First, God doesn’t create everyone equal, so not every Asian American should be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. You’re probably familiar with 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NIV), “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” While this passage is speaking of spiritual gifts, the very same God gives different people different natural gifts too. God also created people to be teachers, salespersons, programmers, professors, business executives, managers, musicians, artists, dancers, social workers, pastors, missionaries, carpenters, plumbers, and many other kinds of workers.
I followed that narrative myself, as the dutiful eldest son of my family. I did well in math and science during high school, so going to college and majoring in electrical engineering seemed like a logical choice. After graduating from Virginia Tech, I worked 2 years as an engineer in Southern Maryland and God started to get my attention through an older man twice my age.
He was a retired Navy senior chief that became, in a sense, my spiritual father. I attended a Bible-teaching church with him and went through a discipleship program called Operation Timothy. Though we had little in common, he took a sincere interest in me, encouraged me, invested in me, and prayed for me. He shared his life very openly with me, both his victories and his struggles. I saw how he lived on Monday through Saturday, as well as Sundays, and spent a lot of time at his home with his very hospitable family. Seeing how he lived his life beyond the church activities was what sparked my own faith awakening.
During the Summer of 1990, one particular Bible passage kept getting my attention in Bible studies, seminars, and conferences I attended, Matthew 9:36-38 (NIV)—
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
This passage echoed in my heart as I heard it repeatedly in different settings and I couldn’t ignore it. These words moved me to action and I received it as a “call to ministry.” Seeing how many Asian Americans I went to college with didn’t know Christ, I thought that God could use me in some way to reach them and people like them. I was available and I knew more pastors were needed, so I started to prepare for ministry by going to seminary.
Not growing up in a Christian family, I went to seminary with the notion that pastoral leadership was all about mastery over the biblical text. So I enrolled in the extra couple of years to study for the Master of Theology degree that required learning the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was originally written in.
However, when I entered into pastoral ministry, the questions people asked had very little to do with the original languages of the Bible. People had everyday concerns about how to know the will of God, what to do with broken relationships, and looking for God’s strength and encouragement for life’s challenges. I believe seminary training gave me a solid biblical foundation and framework for understanding God’s best desires for humanity and boosted my confidence in the biblical text, but I had much more to learn.
How fast the world changes
Secondly, the world has changed dramatically in the past decade because of digital technologies, social media, and the internet. But the narrative of the Asian American dream has not changed. One day I happened to watching a video of popular YouTube star Freddie Wong being interviewed on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Freddie described how his parents wanted him to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and they weren’t exactly thrilled that Freddie aspired to be a filmmaker. Looks like things haven’t changed since I went to college over 25 years ago.
Education is valuable but no longer enough. Having a college degree may be foundational, but having productive work experiences is much more valuable. The latest chatter I’m hearing is that a resume with education is not as useful as a list of projects with results accomplished. The number of full-time life-long careers are shrinking. More jobs are requiring the self-awareness of knowing one’s transferrable skills and building on developing skills and experiences based on your strengths. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average person held more than 11 jobs in a lifetime. <http://www.bls.gov/nls/nlsfaqs.htm#anch41> And the numbers seem to be trending higher for the next generation, not just the total number of jobs but number of careers too.
The church has also changed dramatically since the late 90s when I went to seminary. Being an effective pastor in today’s world requires so much more than knowing and understanding the biblical text. In a world where people have all of the world’s information at their fingertips (and easily called up by asking Siri or Alexa), the pastor’s role is not only a shepherd that cares and comforts but also of a shepherd that guides and leads in the context of today’s fast-changing world. Psalm 78:72 described what’s required of a good shepherd: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”
The call of our time is for more pastors who can lead with integrity of heart and skill of hand. An effective pastor must have both character (integrity of heart) and competency (skillful hands). In recent years, I’ve started to notice how much knowledge that younger leaders have compared to when I was their age. And many young leaders seem more capable and confident than when I was their age. But my concern for these young leaders is if they’ve had enough time with mentoring relationships to develop the character that’s required for effective ministry to last for a lifetime.
As we read earlier in Matthew 9:38, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Yes, it starts with prayer, but it doesn’t end with prayer. Korean Christians have a great tradition of early morning prayers and dedicated prayer mountains where many have fervently cried out to God with earnestly petitioned for their daily needs. And, what other things are earnest prayed for? How often do we hear of Christian Asian families pray for God to send out more laborers for his ministry? How are parents praying to make their children’s spiritual foundation a higher priority than educational achievements? How can we pray for increasing faith to take bolder steps of faith to raise up more next generation pastors and church leaders?
Making Sense of Leadership
I don’t consider myself a natural-born leader, having never aspired to be a class president or taking any leadership role in my school years. Yet I’ve found myself working in this realm of leadership development for almost 20 years now, more as a strategic advisor and not in a role of training leaders within an organization. I like to describe my contribution as connecting people to people and people to resources. And perhaps that gives me a perspective of seeing the ingredients of leadership more explicitly than someone who has a gift of leadership and innately or intuitively knows how to lead.
What is leadership anyways? It’s a common question encountered by churches in both Asian and American contexts. For one, leadership is challenging because there are so many different definitions. I recall one speaker say that there are over 6,000 definitions of leadership and tens of thousands of books on leadership. There’s certainly a lot of interest in the topic of leadership in the Christian church world, as indicated by annual conferences like Catalyst and Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit that have attendances of over 30,000 each.
And then there are pithy sayings that obscure the complexity and multi-faceted dimensions of leadership, like: “Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.” (John Maxwell) “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” (Peter Drucker) “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” (Warren Bennis) “A leader is a person who influences people to accomplish a purpose.” (Howard Hendricks) These definitions are useful as a good starting point, but there’s so much more to developing a leader.
Reading leadership books, listening to podcasts, enrolling in classes, and going to conferences can be helpful to one’s leadership development. When I looked into programs for leadership development, I found basically 5 types: courses, conferences, cohorts, coaching, and residency. All of these programs can increase one’s knowledge of leadership principles and practices. Some programs are better than others at developing leadership competencies and skills. For more details, see this comparison chart of different leadership development programs at multiasian.church/comparison.
There’s a great deal of content that can be learned through these leadership programs, but content alone doesn’t make for a skilled leader. Reading leadership books, listening to podcasts, enrolling in classes, and going to conferences can be helpful to one’s leadership development.
What I found elusive was a coherent way of pulling together all the different aspects of leadership. And, I suppose, that’s what makes leadership so dynamic and challenging. Every organization, every group of people, every situation, and every leader is different. Leadership is not like a recipe with instructions for you to follow and get a delicious dish to eat.
First things first. Leadership does not begin with leading others or seeing if you’re a leader that has followers. Leadership begins with leading oneself. Self-leadership is the most essential ingredient that cannot be ignored; that’s why self-control is listed as a fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Dr. Benjamin Shin said it this way, “If you can’t lead yourself, you have no business leading others.”
Secondly, leadership has to be learned first-hand through actually leading others. A leader has the best opportunity to grow his or her leadership skills by leading in real situations with real people. You learn to lead by leading. And, you learn to lead by practicing both the science and the art of leadership principles. The ideal scenario for growing as a leader is to have someone older and wiser that’s guiding and coaching you in the same context where you’re learning to lead, but that may not be easy to find, particularly those that desire to have a seasoned mentor in an Asian American context.
What Next Generation Leaders Need
In my on-going conversations with younger Asian American leaders and pastors, the number one thing they want is to have mentors and role models. That was the need that was expressed 20 years ago and it is still the need being expressed today. But where will they find them?
Sometimes, an older pastor may not know how to mentor because they haven’t been mentored themselves, or they refrain from being a mentor because they don’t understand the culture and thinking of next generation Asian Americans. Plus, ministering in an Asian American context may be too demanding that it’s hard to find the time and energy to be mentoring.
Plus, some of us Asian Americans may be reluctant to draw attention to our expertise and experiences out of sincere humility. I remember a time when I heard an accomplished Asian American ministry leader share how he was reluctant to call himself as a mentor, because it might seem presumptuous or boastful, plus he didn’t feel ready because he knew of his own shortcomings. And, you know what, I’m well aware of my own insecurities too.
I won’t make too fine a distinction in differentiating between mentoring, training, coaching, and leadership development, though there are technical differences for each term. I simply want to highlight the importance of mentoring leaders and that it is something you can do now. I have found this quote from Seth Godin most helpful: “Mentoring is rarely about the facts of the deal (the facts are easily found), but instead is a transfer of emotion and confidence.”
I’ve also observed that many Asian Americans don’t think of themselves as leaders, nor do they aspire to be, so they would be unresponsive to leadership development opportunities. Part of that may come from recognizing the weighty responsibility of a leader and the commitment called for, so it’s not a decision to be made lightly. But, again, our world is in desperate need of good Godly leaders, both in the church, in the marketplace, and in our government too. If the Asian Americans of good character don’t step into leadership opportunities to serve people well, those with lesser character and impure motives won’t hesitate to fill the void.
There could be many other reasons why we don’t have enough Asian American leaders in the church today. The tendency is to wait and slowly make effort at diagnosing the issues through more research, but that will not get us more leaders. Working on the solutions to actually develop leaders is what will result in producing more leaders.
For a more thorough exploration about the developing of Asian American leaders, I’d recommend Paul Tokunaga’s book, Invitation to Lead: Guidance for Emerging Asian American Leaders, published by InterVarsity Press in 2003.
How to Raise Up Next Generation Leaders
What can churches do to raise up the next generation of Asian American pastors and church leaders? I believe there’s a lot that older leaders can do, both first generation Asian immigrants as well as non-Asian pastors too. And, there are some of us middle-aged English-speaking Asian Americans that can help too. There’s something very powerful for a younger Asian American when someone older takes time to invest in his or her development; it’s the power of blessing. Here are 3 tips to get started.
Prayer: It starts with prayer and asking God for the courage to take steps of faith, because leadership is much more than managing people and running programs. Leadership is acting in faith with full dependence on God to turn vision into reality. And like Jesus did, pray for discernment to identify and invite the right people to invest your time and energy for developing into leaders.
Preparation: Start with basic training; and you don’t have to be a leadership expert to help a younger leader. You can meet weekly with 2 or 3 younger leaders and learn by reading a leadership book and discuss it together. Conferences are also valuable for training as a shared experience. The website at www.oases.church has the largest database of Christian conferences for you to find one based on topic, location, and dates. Never go to a conference alone; it’s so much more valuable when you go with 2 or 3 others, because during the shared experience, you can strengthen your relationships and you can discuss how to apply what you’re learning back home.
Practice: You don’t have to design an entire curriculum and program to train up leaders, though a few of you have the resources to do just that. When you’re going through the everyday activities of being a leader, those can be great learning opportunities. My favorite book on leadership development is Exponential: How You and Your Friends Can Start a Missional Church Movement by Dave and Jon Ferguson. The book has many great examples and this profoundly simple process for developing leadership skills:
- I do. You watch. We talk.
- I do. You help. We talk.
- You do. I help. We talk.
- You do. I watch. We talk.
- You do. Someone else watches.
We have many great leadership resources and maybe it’s the over-abundance that is paralyzing; it’s hard to know where to start when there’s so many to choose from. To get you started, I’ve compiled a list of recommended books, courses, conferences, and other resources at multiasian.church/leadership. The important thing is to start.
Three Pastors Walked into a Diner
On January 30, 2015, three pastors walked into a diner. I know this might sound like a great opening for a joke, but this is really what actually happened. The 3 of us happened to be next generation pastors of Asian American descent: 1 was Korean American, 1 was Vietnamese American, and I was Chinese American. (Even though, technically, I’m not currently working as a pastor, I do work alongside of many pastors as an advisor, networker, and strategist).
As we were getting to know each other, we discovered our commonalities as bi-cultural Asian Americans, our shared like-mindedness for developing future church leaders, and what we could be doing together. We believe that Asian American pastors have something valuable and unique to contribute to the Church with the very essence of who they are and who God has created them to be in this generation. While we all have attended many of the existing Christian conferences, we also recognized that Asian Americans needed our own space too. (You can also watch the raw video footage of this back story at thirty.network/backstory.)
A year later, we launched the Thirty Network <thirty.network> to gather 30 Asian American pastors and church leaders, in their 30s, for 30 hours, to talk about the next 30 years. We started with an invitation-only event to begin forming a relational community with access to mentoring, coaching, and ministry opportunities towards shaping the next 30 years of Asian American Christian leaders in the church, both domestically and internationally.
Even though we had no staff and no budget, we had a vision and God provided through the generosity of volunteers and sponsors. Thirty Network partnered with several mainstream Christian sponsors that believed in what we were starting and wanted to invest in the future of Asian Americans. Our invitation list was compiled by recommendation from credible pastors. As we gathered, we listened to a seasoned church leader from mainstream culture speaking on how we can prepare for our next 30 years. We also made time to hear from one another because every participant has something to contribute and we wanted their voices heard.
At the end of the 30 interactive hours, we surveyed all the participants and confirmed how valuable this gathering was. All respondents would recommend this gathering to a friend. The high value was noted in comments like, “Valued spending time and fellowshipping with other pastors and workers,” “Brainstorming sessions and ideas from others, “ and “Networking, being encouraged, stimulating conversations.” To use business-speak, this was a proof-of-concept or beta test.
We have shared the vision of Thirty Network with key leaders in cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia, and it has been received enthusiastically. Our volunteer core team is willing and able to convene a gathering when four ingredients come together: a speaker (to provide wise mentoring), a sponsor (to help with financial costs), a space (where we can gather for 30 hours of interactive conversations), and a squad (to invite the right people).
We are building this plane as it flies, as the saying goes something like that. In addition to the signature event of a 30-hour intensive, Thirty Network is also launching open-access gatherings as a conference add-on because having face-to-face interaction together is irreplaceably valuable. So, Thirty Network is gathering in October 2016 as a pre-conference session at the Exponential West 2016 church leadership conference. After we’ve had our group session, we will join the larger conference to experience that together in its entirety.
Thirty Network is doing its part, a small part, to advancing Asian American pastors and church leaders for multiethnic churches in multicultural America and to the ends of the earth.
What are you inspired to do?
The future of Asian Americans in a multiethnic world can be significantly shaped by those who have more life experiences. If the older generation of Asian Americans will bless the next generation for what God has gifted them for and is calling them to accomplish in serving their generation, all generations can be blessed abundantly and more people from all nations can be reached for Jesus Christ. The next chapter will explore more about the possible future we can have as Asian Americans.
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