Disclaimer: It is worth noting that while Rachel, the main character in the story, is a Chinese American, many characters are not Chinese Americans but rather are Chinese Singaporeans. A movie centering on a specific set of Chinese Americachons and Chinese Singaporeans does not reflect the experience of all Asian Americans. While the term “Asian American” is used in this series, it will often be used in specific ways, and it is also not intended to be representative of all Asian Americans.
I asked God once why he made me Chinese. I wasn’t struggling with questions of identity or belonging as much as wondering if there were a purpose for my being both Chinese and American. Why not just one or the other?
Fast forward 15 years and I was thinking the other day about how grateful I am to be Chinese American. While very far from bilingual, I have the ability to get by in two languages. I’ve been given the gift of American education and freedoms. I have access to authentic Chinese food (not a trivial thing for me!) and easily form cross-cultural relationships. With family abroad, I have gotten to travel internationally since I was small. These are but a few things I am grateful for.
Yet above the enjoyment of all the things I’ve listed, there is another reason I thank God for making me who I am. I’m convinced one of the most important purposes God has for making me bicultural is to equip me for service in his kingdom. If you’re a minority and a Christian, I believe the same is true for you.
Today, we’re closing up our series launching from Crazy Rich Asians. In the last three posts, we’ve focused mainly on the struggles of Asian American as we navigate two cultures as Christians. Now, I want to take the time to explore how those who’ve learned to live biblically in this tension can be a gift to the church.
Here at Reformed Margins, our desire is to build up the church. Most of us serve on staff in local churches (or in my case, as a committed member married to the pastor), and we want to serve the greater church through writing. We exist out of the conviction that the Western church is edified through the perspectives of minority Christians, so we write.
Previously, we have written about the need for minority voices in the Reformed world. Focusing on Asian American examples as we finish this series, here are three more reasons we need minority voices in the American church.
1. Because we need people to help us minister better to minorities.
I was at the airport with three other Chinese American women leaving a major reformed conference I had thoroughly enjoyed. When I asked one of the older women what she thought about it, she answered, “It was…white.” I was upset. What did she mean it was white? I went on to argue against the idea (which she didn’t hold, by the way) that minorities had some kind of key to Scripture that others didn’t. Truth never changes! Interpretation of Scripture should not be dependent on culture!, I argued.
Since then, I’ve come around to see that culture does indeed shape our interpretation of Scripture. This is because the questions we bring to it are shaped by the cultures we come from and live in. Scripture is unchanging no matter what the cultural context, but it is not monotone. In its divine sufficiency, the word of God speaks specifically to the wide variety of needs, blind spots, and values formed by the history of every culture. Some of this history is universal to all humanity in Adam. But because our histories are not identical, one issue sporadically found in one culture may have a massive grip on the majority of members of another.
As I’ve written before, the success of Crazy Rich Asians was not just due to a need for the representation of Asian faces in Hollywood, but the longing for an Asian American story. Likewise, the need for Asian Americans in the church is more than just about Asians being represented in leadership. Most Asian Americans have been formed by narratives and struggles not experienced and articulated by those in majority culture. Even if these narratives are understood to some level, the nuances are often lost in interpretation.
While it is untrue that the only way to minister to another person is to have gone through exactly what they have, we all recognize that there is a unique wisdom offered by those who have walked through similar circumstances. This dynamic shouldn’t be surprising to us. When we look for perspectives on suffering through cancer, being a Christian in the workplace, or caring for a child with special needs, we seek out wisdom from those who have lived through these experiences.
Recently I searched for resources on filial piety and the gospel. Many of the perspectives I found from non-Asians, even those serving in Asian contexts, oversimplified the issue. Not realizing they were analyzing filial piety from a Western paradigm, they offered straightforward explanations and solutions. Eventually, the most helpful and nuanced books and articles I found were written by Asian Christians.
Asian Americans in the church need to hear how God ministers to the parts of us that reflect our experiences as Asian, American, and Asian American. This means we need Asian American Christian counselors, pastors, teachers, and writers serving people in the church. It also means non-Asians in leadership need our voices to understand our common needs and struggles.
2. Because we need help to see the blind spots of American Christian culture.
Blind spots are areas where we are unable to see our errors or insufficiencies without the help of others. Just as individuals have blind spots shaped by our childhood, theology, or personality, cultures have blind spots too. If you’ve ever tried to hang something on the wall without help from someone standing further away, you’ve realized that what seems straight to you can actually be pretty crooked. Often, it is only when we can stand at a distance that we see our cultural sins and blind spots.
For example, in the American church, much of our understanding of Christianity has been influenced by the vision of individual fulfillment. In the worst cases, preachers promise if you follow Christ, all your dreams will come true. False teachers speak as if God is responsible for our self-actualization and happiness, no matter how we choose to define it. These errors are fairly easy for most of us, at least in the Reformed world, to spot.
It is more difficult to see how, within the bounds of orthodoxy, the questions we bring to Scripture have also been influenced by our culture of self-actualization and individuality. American Christians talk often about fulfilling Christ’s purpose for me and following his will for me. We tell people they need a personal relationship with Christ. When we evangelize, we say “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” not seeing a need to include, “you and your household.” (Acts 16:31) Moreover, our current cultural climate informs the way we choose to prioritize the language of satisfaction versus sacrifice.* The things we emphasize may all be good and true, but we need to see how our paradigm of individuality and self-actualization actively frames the way we speak and think of our faith.
In practice then, individualism often trickles down to the way Americans think relationships within the church ought to look. We need books and teaching specifically aimed toward convincing us that we can’t be Christians without the church. The perceived boundaries of the individual and nuclear family are implicitly enforced in such a way that hospitality and organic family-like relationships within the church need to be worked toward with intentional earnestness.
In contrast, one of the main strengths of the Chinese church in America has been the experience of community. Because of Chinese culture’s emphasis on family, many of us grew up in the church with dozens of “aunties” and “uncles” who might as well have been our relatives. They prayed for us growing up, supported our short-term missions trips, and even now welcome us with familial affection. The message of Christ’s salvation reaching a culture that values family means we commonly see whole families coming to Christ, with the gospel not only moving down generations, but up and across to grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., even to those who live overseas.
Reflecting a culture of hospitality, homes are often open for impromptu visits from other church members, and needs are often anticipated and met before they are verbalized. Many practices American Christians need to explicitly encourage in the church regarding hospitality and community are already part of the lifeblood of the Chinese church.
Unfortunately, there are also common blind spots within the Asian American church. Many believe that if they go to church their families will necessarily flourish, their children making all the “right” decisions, even those dictated by cultural expectations for educational and professional success. Asian Christians are often much less willing to speak to others about things going on inside the home out of respect for their parents. In a communal, shame-honor culture, many are reluctant to confess their sins and will excuse the sins of others out of fear of disturbing the peace.
The difference between confronting American and Asian blind spots is that living in America, it is much easier to be exposed to teaching that uncovers the shortcomings in the Asian church. Many of us who grew up in immigrant churches and embraced the Reformed tradition later on were subsequently given a new distance to stand from. With exposure to the perspective and practices of the Western church, we found footing to stand on that allowed us to see and reject aspects of our church cultures that oppose Christ.
Just as Asian churches need help from the American church to expose baggage we carry from our culture, the American church needs the same from Asians and other minorities. The gifts many Asian Christians bring regarding relationships, hospitality, service, and sacrifice can speak into American culture’s weak spots. Asian Americans are in the unique position of being able to not only stand as American Christians examining the Asian church, but as Asian Christians speaking to the American church.
3. Because contextualization is an essential part of global missions.
The beauty of the gospel is that wherever it spreads, it causes each culture to truly flourish. As some aspects of culture are rejected and others redeemed, the church of God begins to reflect the original divine intention. The local church has same gospel lifeblood in every place while reflecting the diversity of languages, music, and gifts entrusted to the people by God.
Thus, missionaries who seek to incarnate Christ in a foreign culture always have contextualization on the forefront of their minds. Church planters abroad seek to establish biblically faithful, indigenous churches. Those who do not see the mandate to contextualize the gospel end up unwittingly exporting Western practices and ideas along with the word of Christ. There may be nothing wrong with sharing American practices in and of themselves, but to bring the burden of not only becoming Christian, but American, to another culture is to hinder the cause of the gospel. If we do not properly contextualize the Scriptures, we burden the consciences of new believers with unbiblical standards and confirm to others that Christianity is truly a Western religion meant for outsiders.
Many of us in Asian American churches have faced questions of contextualization regarding the two cultures we straddle. One perpetual struggle for those inhabiting multiple cultures is what to do when values conflict. Especially in the church, we feel a need to figure out immediately which culture is more right. In doing so, we often fail to recognize that differences may be biblically permissible. Even when we are aware of the need to distinguish between matters of preference and Biblical faithfulness, it is not easy. Culture is the air we breathe. It’s hard to see clearly how much our sense of how things ought to be and how they should be done have been formed by it.
As I’ve thought through different issues as an Asian American Christian, one indispensable help has been the perspectives of those who are neither Asian nor American. In many cases, having a third or fourth cultural angle has allowed me to see whether a conflict allows for diversity or whether one culture really is in the right. In this regard, Asian Americans (and others who’ve grown up in multiple cultures) have been given a unique opportunity for furthering the global cause of Christ.
While it is challenging and tiring to have differing sets of cultural values internalized, as we learn to parse through our Asianness and Americanness in light of Scripture, we are getting trained in contextualization. Understanding two cultures does not guarantee success in interpreting a third, but it does help. As I’ve spoken to Asian Americans preparing for missions, I’ve seen how God’s prepared them for his work through developing their sensitivity to the nuances of Christianity as bi-cultural Christians. Our experiences of being in different worlds here at home may be God’s gift for us to bring onto the mission field. Our perspectives can also aid others who are preparing for cross-cultural missions.
A Note To the Asian American Christian
Crazy Rich Asians has emboldened many Asian Americans to unabashedly celebrate our culture and share our experiences. This celebration of Asian culture, cuisine, beauty, and values is right. But while our Asian Americanness is to be enjoyed, as Christians, we do not stop there.
Brothers and sisters, as God’s people, we are stewards. Asian American Christians, your experiences have been entrusted to you by God. God has sovereignly assigned our struggles, strengths, and perspectives not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of his kingdom. Forged in the heated pressure of living between two cultures are divine gifts. May we steward them gratefully and purposefully for God’s glory in his church and in the world.
* I heard this point made recently on an interview with a Christian leader but have since been unable to locate the source. (If you know who said this, please leave a note!)