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The typical Asian American church will bring together people from two ends of the cultural spectrum, from the East and the West. When an Asian American church starts by reaching first generation immigrants from Asia, naturally over the course of time, immigrant parents would have children that are largely influenced by living in America.
For people acculturated with an Eastern perspective, first generation Asians are accustomed to a high-context culture that values traditions, group-oriented, family, filial piety, respect for authority, harmony, honor, protocol, social status, and loyalty. For people acculturated in a Western society, next generation Asian Americans are socialized in a low-context culture that values individualism, directness, assertiveness, casual informality, egalitarian, mobility, and results-oriented. (This broad overview is only intended to quickly contrast some of the cultural differences; please do not attempt to use this as a guide for cultural competency.)
Bringing people together with these widely divergent cultural differences can be particularly challenging; misunderstandings and conflicts can easily arise. Add to this the different generations and the familial and relational tensions can be intensely painful. For example, what a next generation Asian American intends as a honest inquiry or question for clarification may be perceived by a first generation Asian American as disrespect for questioning authority.
Allow me to share a personal confession. When I graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary and went into full-time pastoral ministry at a traditional Chinese church, I thought my seminary training could be applied right away. Boy, was I mistaken. I was totally clueless to the cultural context of the traditional ethnic Chinese church, even though I had grown up in a Chinese family with traditional parents and brothers.
In my desperation, I wasn’t able to find a book that I could read to study up on Chinese culture, like I could with all the other subjects I studied in seminary. In my attempt to be teachable, I asked people to explain how things were done or why things were the way they were. But they were not able to use words to explain Chinese culture to me. Even though I looked Asian on the outside, much of my thinking was very Americanized.
I remembered my interactions with an older Chinese grandfather who had shown me kindness by taking time to talk with me about Chinese culture. There wasn’t a lot of explanation, because that’s a rather direct form of communication. Instead, he encouraged me to read a book titled Animal Farm by George Orwell. When we discussed the book after I read it, he referred to how the allegorical stories had similarities to some of the people dynamics I was experiencing. I had learned from a master at indirect communication.
Through that interaction and many others since, I’ve come to realize that culture is not something to be explained; culture is something that has to be experienced. Just as we need a translator and a tour guide when visiting a foreign country with a different language, we need a translator and a tour guide to effectively learn cross-cultural skills in a respectful manner.
Because culture is more caught than taught, Asian Americans who have the lived experience of being immersed in two very different cultures is a huge asset in a multiethnic and multicultural context of America, and the global village of the world as well.
During the formative teenage years, Asian Americans often wrestle with their sense of identity, struggling to belong with their Asian community or being fully accepted as an all-American person. It’s fairly common for Asian Americans to experience feelings of being “second class,” “not fitting in,” stereotyped by racial insensitivities, mistaken for a different Asian ethnicity, or being ignorantly asked the question, ”Where are you from?” only to be followed by “Where are you really from?” I’ve been there myself, so I can sincerely say that I feel that pain too.
However, rather than being limited by these challenges and struggles, I believe that being Asian American is “more than,” not “less than.” While Asian Americans are not fully Asian and not fully American, it’s more valuable to recognize that our lived experience with bi-cultural backgrounds enables us to bring out the best from both cultures and to better navigate in a multicultural world to make our unique contribution.
And that’s what is uniquely special about multi-Asian churches, the multi-ethnic churches that have the valuable contribution of Asian Americans. First, let’s go back to the Bible to get at the heart of what God wants, and allowing that to change our hearts to want what God wants.
Biblical Mandate for Multiethnic Churches
Why do we need multiethnic churches when diversity is so hard to achieve? The reasons for why we should have multiethnic churches is not to be more politically correct or to address our society’s need for racial reconciliation. The reasons for multiethnic churches are clearly biblical, theological, and practical. Everything we do as Christ-followers and churches must be grounded in what the Bible teaches.
Pastor Mark DeYmaz, an influential church leader, has authored two books on this subject, “Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Congregation” and “Leading a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church: Seven Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them.” The second book is co-authored with Harry Li, an Asian American pastor who ministers together with Pastor DeYmaz at Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas. Pastor DeYmaz concisely summarized the biblical mandate for a multiethnic church in a Leadership Journal interview titled, “The Theology of Multi-Ethnic Church: Diversity isn’t just a social issues, it’s a biblical one.”
Christ envisions the multi-ethnic church on the night before he dies (John 17:20-23), so that the world will know God’s love and believe.
Luke describes the model at Antioch (Acts 11:19-26; 13:1ff.), the first mega, missional and multi-ethnic community of faith and the most influential church in the New Testament.
Paul prescribes unity and diversity for the local church in his letter to the Ephesians, where his theme is “the unity of the church for the sake of the Gospel.”
The Bible can speak for itself. Here’s five of the key passages:
John 17:20-23 (ESV)
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Acts 11:19-26 (ESV)
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
Ephesians 2:11-22 (ESV)
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Ephesians 3:1-10 (ESV)
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
Revelation 7:9-10 (ESV)
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
There you have it. Ephesians 3 clearly explains that the mystery of the Gospel is revealed to us, that the Gospel is for everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, both Asian and Americans. In fact, for every nation, every tribe, every people group, and every language. The Good News brings everyone riches, promises, hope, and peace.
This is the power of the Gospel on full display for the world to see. The multiethnic church is the best showcase of people coming together across racial, ethnic, class, socio-economic, and generational differences. And when people worship together because they’ve been reconciled to God and to one another, the world will know God’s love and believe in Him; this is what Jesus prayed for in John 17. The best showcase of human diversity is not the Olympics or the United Nations. The best showcase of human diversity unified as one is the local church, where people are worshipping together and living peacefully with one another, for now and forever.
If the multiethnic church is the biblical mandate, then why are there so many Bible-teaching churches not multiethnic and racially diverse? According to this quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., “Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America.”
Indeed, years after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the American church is still largely segregated. Sociologists define a church as being multiethnic when the congregation has at least 20% diversity. The 2012 National Congregations Study results show that 20% attend churches where no single racial or ethnic group makes up at least 80% of the congregation. <cf. Many U.S. congregations are still racially segregated, but things are changing, Pew Research, December 2014, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/08/many-u-s-congregations-are-still-racially-segregated-but-things-are-changing-2/>
To be fair, legitimately, a local church could be monocultural because the demographics of its locality is not diverse, or due to language limitations of an ethnic church for immigrants. But in an increasingly diversified America, that is a shrinking reality in almost every state in the United States.
Dozens of books and research have been published about multiethnic churches that get into the many complicated reasons for why there are so few, including the systemic racial problems, social injustices, homogeneous church growth pragmatics, and cultural blind spots.
There are also simple reasons for why there are few diverse multiethnic churches. It’s uncomfortable. It’s natural for people to like being around people like themselves, because it feels more comfortable. It’s normal for people to like being comfortable; I know I like wearing t-shirts that are 100% cotton.
As I’m writing this chapter, I just finished a phone call with a Caucasian pastor of a church in the Dallas Fort Worth area, describing his experience with leading his church to diversify. The church went from primarily being Caucasian to a diversity of 30% minority during the past couple of years, and it was met with resistance. Even though the church is very active in cross-cultural missions overseas, church members said they were uncomfortable with the increasing diversity in their church, not because of different races, but because of different cultures. What’s disruptive is not that different people look different, but how people express worship differently, how different people relate, talk, eat, and behave.
However, the Gospel, that is the heart of God, calls every church to be the supernatural witness of Good News for all peoples, not only limiting itself to one locality or one language. Every church is to be a supernatural work of God that starts in one place with a group of people meeting regularly and progressively takes steps toward fulfilling the God-given mission to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Within the limited scope of this book, I will address two topics related to how the local church can be fulfilling its Gospel mandate more completely: contextualization and multi-Asian churches.
Importance of Contextualization
Have you noticed that the Bible has not just 1, but 4 Gospels about Jesus Christ? Why wasn’t one Gospel enough for everyone? Matthew was written for the Jews. Mark was written for the Romans. Luke was writing to the Greeks. John was writing with the Gentiles in mind.
Because the Bible has 4 Gospels of Jesus Christ, we get four different perspectives of the same true story and that makes the story richer and more meaningful. Just as the four Gospels demonstrate the importance of contextualizing for different audience, so also are different expressions of local churches valuable for giving us more perspectives about worshipping God and reaching different demographics too.
No one would say that we need only one of the Gospels, right? We need the entire Bible, all of the Gospels, the Old Testament and the New Testament, because it is so valuable for our whole lives. As it is written in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV): All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Pastor Tim Keller explained so well the importance of contextualization in his book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism: “The moment you open your mouth, many things—your cadence, accent, vocabulary, illustrations and ways of reasoning, and the way you express emotions—make you culturally more accessible to some people and force others to stretch and work harder to understand or even pay attention to you. No one can present a culture-free formulation of biblical truth.” <page 102>
Pastor Tim Keller has also become rather active on Twitter in recent years; this short curated list of tweets further expands on the necessity of contextualization:
Everyone contextualizes — but few think much about how they are doing it. <https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/697895952590491648>
When you open your mouth and speak in English you are making the gospel hearable to some and not others. That’s contextualization <https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/698505638540922880>
Contextualization is giving people the answers the gospel gives to the questions they have. <https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/680010233201180672>
Sound contextualization shows people how the plotlines of the stories of their lives can only find a happy ending in Christ. <https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/599605297834020864>
“One of the biggest barriers to effective contextualization is the invisibility of our own cultural assumptions.”@timkellernyc #CenterChurch <https://twitter.com/M_Breezy215/status/358802937948020736>
“We adapt and contextualize in order to speak the truth in love, to both care and to confront.” -@timkellernyc #preaching <https://twitter.com/dalehuntington/status/628946705551994884>
“To reach people we must appreciate and adapt to their culture, but we must also challenge and confront it” @timkellernyc #Contextualization <https://twitter.com/MichelGaleano/status/708326915233288193>
For a more thorough treatment of contextualization, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, which has 4 chapters on contextualization. At the time of this writing, Chapter 10 on Active Contextualization is available as a free PDF download at timothykeller.com/books/center-church.
So it is in this multicultural diverse world in which the church must contextualize its Gospel expression as a community of faith. To be faithful in a multicultural society, we must become more aware of our own cultural lens and biases in order to know how we influence and impact others, both those who are similar and those who are different.
How can you and your church better contextualize for the world today? In one sense, you and your church already contextualizes based on the your own life experience and culture. That’s where we all start.
But the Gospel calls all of us to participate in the work of God to reach the ends of the earth. In multicultural America, people from all around the world are coming here. Asian Americans already know that innately because the immigration story is right here in our immediate family history. Our current events also has raised our awareness of immigration from many other nationalities and racial ethnic groups too. To reach people from around the world in many American cities and suburbs, you just need to go across the street or down to the next neighborhood.
This is why you must do the work of contextualization, so that you can grow your capacity to share the Gospel beyond your own cultural comfort zone. And to do that, there’s no easy way, no recipe, or online course; I’ll be honest with you and say that it’s plain hard work to learn something totally different.
Here’s a few tips towards learning contextualization: Go as a student and a learner. Get a tour guide and translator. And if you don’t have one, make a friend with someone over meals. Sharing a meal together had so much more meaning in Old Testament times and it’s an integral part of crossing cultures. With a sincere and respectful curiosity, ask good questions and be a great listener. People of all cultures have a born instinct to sense your sincerity. At the top of this chapter, I mentioned how culture is something you have to experience rather than get an explanation for. As your friendship grows, you’ll earn the trust to take more risks and making mistakes as you learn how to communicate better cross-culturally.
Contextualization is not just the message of the Gospel and the words we use to communicate. Contextualization also affects our theology and our ecclesiology. Recent scholarship is surfacing the subject of global theology and beginning to reveal just how much our theology and ecclesiology has been solely shaped by European cultures and Western civilization. Some of this may be attributed to the sovereignty of God and how the Gospel has spread during the past twenty centuries. But, as the center of Christianity is moving to the South and the East, we are beginning to discover new perspectives from South American, African, and Asian Christian leaders.
And this is where I believe the multiethnic churches has the potential to more fully express the Gospel in a multicultural way. The multiethnic church can be the best context for people to grow together in a community of trusted relationships in order to caringly challenge cultural blind spots and experientially learn one another’s cultures. Discussions of faith and race can often feel rather awkward and uncomfortable, because most of us don’t have practice in navigating multiple cultures and having respectful conversations cross-culturally. The multiethnic church can be the safe place to appreciate the differences and work out the contextualizing of the Gospel for their community and participating the mission of God for the world.
Why Multi-Asian Churches
American history has been racialized through its government policies that supported slavery, discrimination, prejudice, and other injustices. Even in the history of American churches, there was the formation of denominations along racial lines. For example, the Baptists split into 2 denominations in 1845 over slavery. The north became the American Baptists; the south became the Southern Baptists. Over time, the Southern Baptist Convention has become and remains the largest Protestant denomination in America today. Yet, it wasn’t until 1995 that Southern Baptist officials formally renounced the church’s support of slavery and segregation. Thus, in this American context, a majority portion of the development of multiethnic churches has involved the racial reconciliation between white and black, Caucasians and African Americans. We’ve made some progress, but we still have a long way to go.
With this new phenomena that I’ve called Multi-Asian churches, I believe this gives the American church another way to bring hope and healing to many. Multi-Asian churches are a different kind of multiethnic church, in that it is led by a next generation Asian American pastor. The bi-cultural experience of an Asian American can be leveraged as a head start for acquiring new skills in crossing cultures and for facilitating cross-cultural dialogue.
And, perhaps, because Asian Americans have a different narrative in their part of American history, we have something different to contribute. Asian Americans do not have that long history of racial tension between white and black that’s lasted generations. That racial tension has obviously resurfaced and shown its ugly head again in recent violence in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Dallas, with no end in sight.
Having a mediator to facilitate reconciliation in broken relationships is common practice in the biblical cultures of the Old and New Testaments, as well as in Asian cultures. When it comes to racial reconciliation in the context of American history, then, perhaps a table that’s hosted by an Asian American could facilitate healthier progress in ways we’ve yet to experience.
I wonder if the racial tension and systemic power inequalities between black and white have resulted in everything being stuck, and we could try a different approach to do an end run around the stalemate and possibly discover a new way forward. Asian Americans have the experience of mediating reconciliation indirectly and relationally by coming along side of contentious parties, in contrast to having everyone directly air their grievances out loud and then asking for forgiveness. It’s the difference between acupuncture and invasive surgery.
Multi-Asian churches are best contextualized to reaching next generation Asian Americans. Some next generation Asian Americans have a difficult time feeling home in an ethnic Asian church or the mainstream American church; both of those tend to be too homogeneous. A Multi-Asian church can be a more inviting place for next generation Asian Americans and non-Asians alike, because its ethos of bi-cultural elasticity can accommodate more diversity. When I’ve experienced a healthy Multi-Asian church, I describe it as entering a church community and not having to explain myself so much, because I’m with people who have shared experience and empathy for my bi-cultural background.
In 2012, Pastor Drew Hyun gathered weekly with a group of people, eating, praying, and dreaming about starting a family of churches in New York City. Hope Church NYC launched first in Astoria, and now, 4 years later, Hope Church NYC has launched a family of churches in 5 other diverse neighborhoods across the city: Roosevelt Island, Midtown Manhattan, Long Island, Bayside in Queens, and Brooklyn. Each of these churches are called Hope Church and share the same vision and core values to lead people into a transforming relationship with Jesus and a community of faith; yet, each church is autonomous and independently-governed so they’re fully empowered to lead and serve their own communities as they discern best. In a place like New York City, planting neighborhood churches right where people live allows the transforming power of community to continually seep into their lives every day rather than once a week on Sundays. Pastor Drew Hyun (a next generation Korean American) has intentionally directed the Hope Church family to empower minorities in planting diverse churches. The pastors of the other Hope Churches include a New Yorican (Puerto Rican 2nd Generation), a Korean-American, an Indian-American, an African-American, and two Caucasians.
In 2016, Pastor Drew was part of launching an urban church planting network called the New City Network which hosted its first conference, the New City Gathering, in May 2016. This gathering consisted of 170 diverse church planters and practitioners from around the country, and amongst other topics, the heart for launching diverse church communities was emphasized and discussed at length.
All Kinds of Churches for All Peoples
“It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people,” said Pastor Rick Warren. In the cultural climate of America that’s becoming more and more antagonistic to Christianity, I’m not about using my time and energy getting worked up by discernment ministries and their watchdog blogs, or developing the best arguments for the right theology or methodology or model of ministry. I would encourage church leaders to be thoroughly convinced from the Scriptures for how to do ministry and how to organize their Biblical understanding into a coherent theology. Churches need to have firm convictions but we don’t need to be wasting time being contentious with other churches.
In closing, let me address a couple of the common questions that arise in my conversations with pastors and church leaders.
Some pastors say, “We just need churches that preach the Gospel and leave the results up to God.” Yes, absolutely, we need Gospel-preaching churches. And, we need to realize that everything speaks: what and how we preach, the communication style and language used, how we choose and sing the worship songs, the way we relate, the decor of the worship center, and so much more. There’s so much more going on in a church than merely its statement of beliefs or doctrinal statement. Some church leaders like to quote this, “The message never changes, but methods can change.” My encouragement here is to be thoughtful and strategic for how your church does its ministry, to evaluate your ministry effectiveness, and when something is not effective, be willing to make changes. We want churches that are both faithful and fruitful.
What about ethnic Asian churches? Yes, there’s an obvious need for the ethnic Asian church to reach and minister to first generation immigrants from Asia in the language that they can understand, whether that’s Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi, just to name a few. And, there’s a Gospel call for the ethnic Asian church to participate in work of God to reach all peoples. If not for the missionaries that got out of their own cultures and crossed the seas to share the Gospel in Asia, there wouldn’t be Asian Christians. There are still unengaged unreached people groups around the world with no Bible, no churches, and no Christians, and ethnic Asian churches can make a unique contribution in sharing the Gospel there.
Many pastors in ethnic Asian churches face the challenges of ministering to the next generation English-speaking Asian Americans. The question I hear most often is: “How do we keep our children in church?” That’s certainly the heart’s desire for all good parents; it’s natural to want their children to keep the faith by belonging to the same church that would have a familiar family-oriented Asian culture. And God can give us more than we imagine and ask. (Ephesians 3:20, NIV): [God] is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
Consider these more Gospel-oriented questions to look beyond the challenges and see the opportunities: “How can our church reach the friends of our children?” “What does God want us to do in our city?” “Who does God want us to reach beyond our own ethnicity?” I think the churches that become the answers to these kinds of questions will get to keep their children and get so much more by participating in God’s work. When we join with God’s life adventure of faith, church will not be irrelevant or boring. “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
In the next chapter, you’ll get to read the stories of multi-generational churches first-hand and how they’re reaching Asian Americans and beyond.
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