Continued from Part I
A few weeks later I found myself in conversation with them once again. The youth group staff, which included myself, Auntie Ming, and several others were out celebrating at Red Robin with the rest of the youth—it was our annual dinner for the graduating seniors.
As a testament to the strange space that a Chinese-American inhabits, Red Robin was my favorite restaurant as a child. Growing up Chinese-American meant a good deal of Americanness too—namely a deep and abiding love for burgers and fries. Even now a good burger—medium-rare—is as much my comfort food as a bowl of niu rou mian. Back then my parents knew that before they could even finish the question, “Say, where do you want to go for your birthday—” my sister and I would reply with shrieks and screams, “Red Robin!” So like returning to my old church, I felt an odd sense of circling, retracing the worn grooves of my former life as I found myself back in Orange County—back at Red Robin. And perhaps a bit of sheepishness at thinking too deeply about a chain restaurant.
We seated ourselves around a long table checkered with tiles, first enjoying and then silently regretting the fried appetizers. We laughed and chatted and when the food came, vigorously fell upon it. I had missed the crisp exterior and fluffy innards of a good steak fry. Appetites sated, we entered the post-dinner phase, where a certain languidness rolls over you, the atmosphere hums with goodwill, and the heart and tongue feel expansive.
I suddenly felt intensely curious. Our church was shifting in a Reformed direction, especially with the hire of a new pastor, recently graduated from Mohler-era Southern Seminary. Differences in theology had long been a sticking point for why the younger, New Calvinist generation had trickled out. We wanted our doctrines of grace, our expository preaching, and when we didn’t have it, we left. I also had often seen the older, first-generation adults as overly pragmatic. They just didn’t understand the importance of theology I thought. In my more generous moods, I pitied them for never having the opportunities to learn the rich theology I had, and that’s why such theology never became a priority for them.
So with a great deal of curiosity and youthful arrogance, I waited for a lull in the conversation, and then said to Auntie Ming and Uncle Henry, “I have a question.”
“Ok. What is it?” Auntie Ming said.
“How do you feel when the younger generation makes a big deal out of theology?
“What do you mean?”
“I mean for our generation, a lot of us young people have left because we didn’t like the church’s theology.” They were both nodding vigorously. “Do you think we’re silly or foolish for making such a big deal out of such things?” And then the Freudian slip: “Or is theology just not as important to you?” I immediately reddened. “…I didn’t mean it like that.”
But Auntie Ming’s response was gracious. With a gentle shake of her head and a smile, she said, “No, we think theology is important as well. Many of us are always seeking to know more. Why do you think we had all those Bible studies when you were kids? For many years when we were raising our children it was hard to find time to study, but even now we enjoy and desire to learn more about God, about his truth.”
Uncle Henry added, “And not all of us agree on the same theology, some of us are more Reformed than you think.”
“But why stay then? Why stay if your theology is different and is important to you?”
Auntie Ming smiled again. “We came to this country as strangers, with no family, few friends, and even fewer people who spoke our language and understood us. This church became our family, was and is our family, our community, and we never truly thought of leaving them—whatever the season, whether good times or bad.”
It’s interesting to consider that one of the criticisms of the ethnic church is how much they bring their culture into the church. I hope at least some of you have been dissuaded of the myth that a church can be cultureless. And while I fully admit that putting cultural traditions above the the teaching of Scripture is wrong (though trickier than we think—a post for another time), we must not overlook cultural strengths that align with Scripture. Many minority and, subsequently in America, non-Western cultures prioritize the family, such as the various Asian and Latino cultures. That prioritization of family can be a strength when applied toward the church.
And I’m not just talking about a family-like atmosphere of warm hugs and smiles. I’m talking about quiet endurance, like a stalwart mother who sees her children come and go, rebel and drift and return, who patiently mends relational rifts, who fights to keep family together, who is an anchor tied to a greater anchor, ever steady and hopeful. That following Sunday, I took a look around. And at least on the Mandarin side, nearly every family I grew up with, save one or two, the parents were still attending and serving. Some had been widowed, and nearly all their children no longer attended. Because of our youth, we see dimly, but these faithful parents had left their earthly sons and daughters by choosing to remain with their spiritual family, applying Matthew 10:37-39 in their own painful, sanctifying way.
Cynically, I can see the ethnic church as a family yes, but one big dysfunctional family. There is probably a lot of bitterness, broken relationships, and callous hearts. There are petty squabbles and silly grudges, and maybe some choose to remain because they have status and power. But still there is unity. By choosing to remain, these people are evidencing that they have not yet given up on each other. That as much as they might have been hurt by that other person, they care enough to stay. This is especially poignant to me because I like to run away from my problems. I like to escape and avoid, and I know very little of the character born from quiet endurance. There is hope for the younger generation in the ethnic church because many are not like me. Whereas I left and came back, certain peers of mine have stayed and endured. The fullness of their reasons I cannot divine, but there is undoubtedly a love and maturity I am only beginning to learn, and I envy the fire-forged character they display. Perhaps even Machen’s warrior children have a thing or two to learn from the unity and endurance of the ethnic church.