Last April the 2016 Together for the Gospel Conference held a gathering titled: “The Future of the Asian American Church: Protesting the Status Quo.”

The website’s description reads:

How do we think through second-generation ministries? How might we steward cultural and ethnic resources well for the advancement of the gospel? Join several brothers as they discuss what needs to come to an end in the Asian-American Church—the exaltation of culture over the gospel—and what needs to begin to encourage a global gospel work.

For those of us Asian Americans who are indebted to the New Calvinist movement, it was encouraging to see T4G follow up on their 2010 Asian American pre-conference. It was especially exciting to see it feature men that many of us personally know, such as Geoff Chang, Jeff Jue, Jeremy Yong, Julius Kim, and Won Kwak.

This discussion was also highly anticipated by many of us because of how the gathering was framed by Geoff Chang, the moderator. According to Chang’s introduction, Jue came to present “Why the Asian American church is worth preserving,” while Yong came to present “Why the Asian American church should end.”

Background for the Discussion

If you’re unfamiliar with the conversations that transpire within the Asian American church, let me fill you in.

Asian American Christians & “True” Conversion

A significant number of Asian American Christians have warmly embraced the New Calvinist, gospel-centered movement over the past decade or so. A lot of them, however, came to New Calvinism outside of the ethnic churches that they grew up in. Some even describe their journey into New Calvinism as something that happened in spite of their ethnic home churches. Some also believe that they never truly understood the gospel or had a relationship with Christ until after they left their home churches.

Hence, a number of Asian American Christians are upset and can be prone to view their home churches with more critical eyes. Amongst the various critiques levelled against their ethnic home churches, a common one is that they have allowed their ethnic cultural norms to control the church. These ethnic churches are often accused of subordinating the gospel and biblical principles to, for example, Korean or Chinese culture. Critical Asian American Christians cite moralistic teaching that affirms Confucian values with no mention of grace. They cite the invocation of filial piety to justify the moral minority standards that tiger parents set for their children. They also critique how the Asian value of respecting one’s elders has allowed authoritarian leadership styles to dominate their home churches. Such Christians easily come to believe that their ethnic home churches are merely ethnic culture clubs, and not biblical or gospel-shaped communities.

Gospel-Unity Logic

On top of this, the gospel-centered rhetoric that they adopt further fuels their reaction against the ethnic churches that they grew up in. Are ethnic churches even consistent with gospel unity? What about Ephesians 2? How about Galatians 3:28? What about the evils of segregation in America? In reaction to the cultural dominance that they perceive in their ethnic home churches, many leave for more diverse churches, even if these more diverse churches are often multi-Asian. Others who stay in the English ministries of their ethnic home churches often struggle with guilt over the makeup of their church demographics. After all, what is the point of an ethnic church in America having an English ministry?

So when New Calvinist Asian Americans hear the title, “The Future of the Asian American Church,” and the two opening statements being framed as “Why the Asian American church is worth preserving” and “Why the Asian American church should end,” a common question comes to mind: “Are ethnic churches biblically faithful and legitimate?” More specifically: “Are local churches that are comprised of a particular ethnic group or who particularly target a certain ethnic group faithful and legitimate if they exist in ethnically plural societies?”

Summarizing the Gathering

Jeff Jue – “Why the Asian American Church is Worth Preserving”

Jeff Jue began his talk with statistics about the significant and rising growth rate of Asian Americans in the U.S. along with their increased presence in American culture. He defined Asian American churches as (1) traditional ethnic churches, (2) multi-ethnic churches led by an Asian American pastor with an attendance of at least 20% being Asian American, or (3) churches with with Asian Americans on the pastoral staff and a high percentage of Asian Americans, such as Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Dr. Jue’s basic point was that the Asian American church should be preserved because Asian Americans need the gospel. Noting that only 42% of Asian Americans identified as Christians compared with over 70% of the wider population, he sees a vast mission field on U.S. soil. Furthermore, he discussed the climate of world Christianity and the possibilities for Asian Americans wanting to steward their bicultural identities abroad.

Jeremy Yong – “Why the Asian American Church Should End”

Jeremy Yong followed by jokingly complaining that he had to represent the position of “death.” Yong assured us that he was not for the death of the Asian American church. However, he believes three common problems in the Asian American church should be put to death.

First, he’d like to see the culture/gospel swap die. Citing Ephesians 2, Yong spoke against gathering people around culture instead of the gospel. He proposed that English ministries from Asian churches should plant themselves as independent churches that minister to their community’s diverse demographic. Of course a culture will be present in the church, but it should not be inherent in the church’s DNA.

Secondly, Yong spoke against the excessive energy that Asian American churches invest to preserve cultural norms. Instead, he wishes more of this energy was spent on seeing cultural norms “transformed” by gospel truths.

Third, Yong warned Asian American pastors against ministering out of sin or insecurity. He cautioned them of overreacting and ironically gathering people around a 2nd-generation Asian American culture. He also challenged those English-speaking ministers, who believe that they cannot “make it” outside of the Asian American church context, to trust God and stretch themselves to minister more broadly.

Panel

During the panel Won Kwak highlighted that the gospel means laying down our rights and preferences for others. Jeff Jue also mentioned that the gospel frees us from being angry Asian men. Julius Kim shared his conviction that Asian Americans have a unique opportunity to speak into our racially charged society. He also shared some practical questions for Asian Americans to consider: “Do I have the gifts to serve at a non-Asian church?” and “Do I have the opportunity?”

Thoughts & Comments on the Gathering

I was encouraged that T4G is not ignoring the importance of Asian American voices and discussions. I was also glad to listen to five men who seemed passionate about the gospel and spreading it. However, I finished listening to the session wishing that the discussion went deeper.

I understand that the specific question, “Are ethnic churches legitimate and biblically faithful in multiethnic contexts?” was not posed. However, wasn’t that what most of us were hoping to hear discussed? I felt like that question was skirted. Yes, Dr. Jue helpfully laid out why the Asian American church has value and what it could do for the sake of mission. However, all these things could easily applied to Asian American Christian individuals. Why do we specifically need Chinese and/or Korean churches? Ecclesiology was sorely lacking from the discussion. What does it mean for “the church” to be multiethnic? Are we talking about local churches, the universal church, or somehow both? And if both, how should that shape our discussions concerning multi-ethnicity and the church?

While I was sympathetic toward Jeremy Yong’s concerns, his presentation seemed a bit one-sided. It was very evident that he was coming at this discussion with a strong Christ against culture posture. I’m not against this perspective. But I do think that it’s limited and far from the whole picture of how Christians should engage with cultures. Yong also seemed to imply a negative view of predominantly English-speaking ethnic churches. It was hard to tell how strongly Yong felt about this, but it is definitely in line with the gospel-unity logic that I mentioned earlier. In my opinion, though, an in-depth reflection on the gospel’s multi-faceted relationship to culture was sorely lacking.

Onwards

Hence, we who were curious about the legitimacy of ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts left with many unanswered questions. T4G and the panelists need not be faulted, especially considering time constraints. However, for those of us who are serious about finding answers, it’s time to go deeper. I would like to propose a few ways to go deeper. (1) We must go deeper into discussions of ecclesiology, specifically exploring the various missiological obligations of the local and universal church as they relate to the mission of the Triune God. (2) We must reflect upon a biblical theology of ethnicity to better understand the gospel’s relationship to ethnic cultures. (3) We must also consider how already-not-yet eschatology plays into this discussion.

I hope to revisit this question in the future. But for now, I’ll just share where I’m currently at:

While ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts can become misguided and fall short of their ideal or eschatological goal (as all churches do), they remain a faithful and legitimate part of the Spirit’s foreordained and united, yet diverse, missional work in this present age.

Posted by Andrew Ong

Andrew is an ABC (American Born Chinese) born to ABCs from Northern California. After completing a B.A. in Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, he moved to Philadelphia for his MDiv at Westminster Theological Seminary. He and his beautiful wife currently live in Scotland where he is pursuing a PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

7 Comments

  1. Andrew, what is definition of Neo-Calvinist theology? Also, can you briefly share about New Calvinist movement.

    Reply

    1. Hi Uncle Duane,

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for inquiring. Neo-Calvinist theology is a tradition of Post-Reformation theology that hearkens back to the Dutch Reformed tradition, most commonly associated with the late Dutch theologian and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper. If you click the wikipedia link below, I believe that the section “Emphases of Neo-Calvinism” provides a good overview of what Neo-Calvinist theology is known for and how it is distinguished from other Christian traditions.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-Calvinism

      As for the New Calvinist movement, I believe the wikipedia link below does a good job describing it. It’s a Calvinist movement within conservative evangelicalism that was born no more than 20 years ago and has sought to renew the evangelical church with emphases from the Reformation (particularly the Reformation’s 5 solas). The foci of this movement are the centrality and absolute authority of the inerrant Scriptures (sola scriptura), the priority of the glory of God (soli deo gloria), the sovereignty of God over all things, such as history & salvation (hence a Calvinist understanding of salvation, complete with unconditional election), and the centrality of the gospel of grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone (sola gratia, sola fide, & solus Christus). This is a contemporary movement led and embodied by such people as John Piper, and such organizations as The Gospel Coalition.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Calvinism

      Hope this was helpful.

      Reply

  2. Good reflections here to add-on to what the panel had started to explore. This topic is much larger and too important to relegate over to a panel discussion once every 5 or 6 years, so I’d like to see more discussions and reflections than at a time- and space- limited kind of an event like a conference. Perhaps a blog would open up a space for more frequent sharing of reflections and discussions that can continue in an on-going fashion.

    And, to the question, “Are ethnic churches legitimate and biblically faithful in multiethnic contexts?” – which I too do hear often enough that it’s a significant question to be addressed – my recent epiphany was how this is all about contextualization. If the Gospels can be contextualized to specific audience, why can’t local churches? Here’s an excerpt adapted from my book, MultiAsian.Church (and thanks for the mention & link in your article to the book’s website)—

    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.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for reading and for your thoughts DJ.

      I think contextualization is indeed a big part of this discussion.

      I think the impasse might be this:

      On the one hand those who argue against ethnic churches risk having an under-contextualized church, or a church that unwittingly contextualizes toward whoever ends up showing up without much reflection and thinks that it is simply gospel-centered. On the other hand, those who defend ethnic churches can easily contextualize so much that they become exclusive and unwelcoming to those who don’t fit the context.

      In response to your analogy, I would say that while there are 4 gospels, there is also only one gospel (Galatians 1:8-12).

      Perhaps the diversity of local churches corresponds to the 4 gospels and the one universal church corresponds to the one gospel?

      This is something I need to keep thinking about.

      Reply

  3. […] and partial transcript of the conversations that transpired on Facebook after I shared my initial provisional thoughts about ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts. Many thanks to my main conversation partners: Clark […]

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  4. […] two posts reflected on the topic of ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts (you can read them here and here). Are they faithful and legitimate? Or are they divisive and less than ideal? I think […]

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  5. […] Generations, and DJ Chuang’s MultiAsian.Church. [2]  I’ve discussed this more in depth here, here, and here. [3] James Chuck, “Where are the Chinese Churches Heading in the 1970’s?” […]

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