7 Issues in the Chinese American Church

Almost a year ago I tried to explain why the majority of Chinese American Christians have been conservative evangelicals since the mid-20th century. In this post, I will lay out a broad overview of seven prominent issues the Chinese American evangelical church has faced over the years. These issues are by no means exclusive to the Chinese American church, but are definitely prominent within it. Furthermore, although these issues are shared with non-Chinese churches, they’re interestingly tinged by the Chinese American context.

1. The Multi-Lingual, Multi-Generational, Multi-Cultural Dynamic

Most Chinese churches in America began as ministries to reach Chinese-speaking people, namely overseas born Chinese (OBC). Before 1965 most of the Chinese immigrants were working class folk who came from the Canton province. After 1965, most of the Chinese immigrants came as students or educated and highly skilled professionals from Taiwan, and more recently from Mainland China. Today, the oldest and largest churches likely have Chinese-speaking ministries (Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Hokkien, etc.) and an English-speaking ministry. Most of these English ministries simply grew out of the need to serve the OBCs’ American-born Chinese (ABC) children.

Hence, many Chinese churches in America are actually more linguistically, socioeconomically, and culturally diverse than the average non-ethnic-specific American congregation. Amidst this diversity, the greatest site of tension is usually between the older OBCs and the younger ABCs. While the Eastern-minded OBCs have found the ABCs (oftentimes their own children) to be disrespectful, self-absorbed and too individualistic, the Westernized ABCs have complained of the OBCs being restrictive, impractical, and unjust because of their collectivist and face-saving dispositions. Such challenging dynamics have often resulted in painful church conflicts, unhealthy church splits, and even ABCs’ “Silent Exodus” from churches. When the Chinese version of legalistic cultural Christianity far too often eclipses the gospel in these churches it is also far too common that individualistic ABCs throw up their hands and give up on their parents’ churches. Even the ABCs, who have not left the faith altogether but joined non-ethnic-specific churches, have often come to see the Chinese churches as inferior to other American churches. They forget to marvel at what God has done in these churches throughout the decades, and ignore the valuable perspectives and lessons that the Chinese church still has to offer despite her flaws.

2. Are Ethnic Churches Legitimate?

Although Chinese immigrants continue to come to America, the hypothetical question is more and more commonly entertained: “If immigrants stop coming, or if Chinese-speaking services are no longer needed in America, and especially if racism is decreased, will Chinese churches be obsolete?” This is an especially pertinent question that English-ministries in Chinese churches wrestle with.

The evangelical ideal of cross-cultural and multi-ethnic unity in the local church has captured the imagination of many Chinese American evangelicals, especially in a Post-Civil Rights era. And contrary to what might appear to be racial exclusivity, one might say we are actually witnessing the beginnings of cross-cultural and multi-ethnic unity and inclusivity in the rise of Asian American churches and ministries.[1] This begs the question asked by some at T4G: “What is the Future of the Asian American Church?”[2]

3. What is the Mission of the Church?

While this question is not unique to the Chinese or Asian American Christian context, Chinese American Christians grapple with it in various and distinct ways. Although Chinese churches in America have facilitated social action, such as cultural preservation through Chinese language classes and service projects to Chinese immigrants as a central part of many Chinese communities in America, “mission” is predominantly equated with evangelistic outreach. However, this soul-saving emphasis in Chinese American Christianity is not without concerned critics.

As early as the 1970’s the late Rev. Dr. James Chuck acknowledged that the Chinese American church was not “sufficiently concerned about the large social issues such as injustice: war, the pollution of the environment, etc.,” but was “preoccupied exclusively with personal morality and the salvation of the individual’s soul.” He blamed the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and wondered: “Why could we not have said that the more deeply we are committed to Christ, the more we will be committed to the world and its needs? And conversely, the more we are committed to the world and its needs, the more we will see the need for the new life in Christ.”[3]

Thankfully, the upcoming generation of leaders has demonstrated its sensitivity to social engagement with role models such as Russell Jeung leading the way.

4. Materialism

It has been argued that consumeristic behavior is especially prevalent amongst Asian Americans because they often sense the need to demonstrate their social citizenship as Americans through consumeristic behavior while they negotiate their bicultural identities. And according to the statistics, many Asian Americans (particularly Chinese Americans) have the means to consume. While recognizing the fallacy of the ‘model minority’ stereotype, Russell Jeung writes “The danger for the Asian American Christian community is to become too inward and self-satisfied. As people who generally have attained a high level of affluence and enjoy career mobility, the lifestyle orientation and group patterns of those in Asian American churches promotes self-sufficiency and a sense of selfish entitlement.”[4]

The story of Tom Lin, president of InterVaristy Christian Fellowship, illustrates the pressures of materialism and the drive for success well. In Pursuing God’s Call, Lin recounts how he gave up his dreams of wealth and watched his Harvard classmates find career success, while he, instead, chose to pursue vocational campus ministry. Even more striking was his mother’s threat to him after making this decision that she would hurt herself if he continued this pursuit of ministry. Although Lin’s parents were professing Christians, their son’s decision had made their worst nightmare come to life. They even stopped attending church and isolated themselves from their friends and family in shame.

5. Meritocracy

A high emphasis on achievement, which often translates into legalism and the overwhelming fear of shame, is another challenge that Chinese American Christians commonly face in their Christian lives. Vivian Louie observed that Confucian values are intensified by the Chinese American experience, in which Chinese Americans live under the shadow of all the great sacrifices that their immigrant parents made to secure a “better life” for their families in America. Filial piety demands gratitude and an obligation to reciprocate parental sacrifice. Gratitude is expressed through achieving highly in education, which Chinese American parents strongly emphasize to their children, since parents believe that educational achievement is the only way to overcome racial obstacles.

The notion that success only requires one’s effort can easily be translated into Christian living, such that faithfulness or a godly lifestyle are seen as merely a matter of effort, willpower, and determination, rather than matters of faith and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit. Hence, many Chinese American Christians seek to be “spiritual model minorities” in their behavior and fall into legalism. For this reason, Nancy Sugikawa and Steve Wong write:

The Asian American church in particular struggles with this most central gospel message, the message of the outrageously generous father of Luke 15…If we are church leaders, we probably rose to leadership by being like the older son: responsible and careful…Honor and righteousness, living according to standards and expectations, are all of high value in Eastern cultures.

6. Anti-Intellectualism

For many theologically-inclined Chinese American Christians, modernism and the liberal theology that has emerged from it are the archenemies of their fundamental Christian convictions and their commitment to Scripture’s authority. The widespread distrust of modernity and its successor, postmodernity, is particularly pronounced when one observes how most Chinese American Christians engage with the non-evangelical academy’s theological output. They mostly ignore it or unthoughtfully reject it. This strong neglect of the non-evangelical academy has been classified as theological “anti-intellectualism.” Peter Cha’s broader reflection on many Asian Americans’ theological complacency illustrates this well, and applies equally to Chinese Americans. Speaking of Asian Americans, he said:

[W]hen they graduate from seminary, they’re done with theological education. They then go into ministry thinking that theology is to be left in a seminary for theologians to write about and teach. They think they are done with theology—they’ve passed their exams and their ordination exam—and now theology doesn’t matter. It’s almost the end of theological reflections. And it concerns me in that churches are being guided by theologically unreflective pastors and leaders.[6]

While some may wonder how the large numbers of Asian American Christians – highly educated in secular institutions – might succumb to this scandal of the mind, Antony Alumkal interestingly argues that the powerful strength of the evangelical subculture combined with studying in scientific fields has led them to read the Bible more literally, and less critically, hence reinforcing their suspicion and their rejection of the modern academy. However, as the number of progressive Asian American Christians grows, the anti-intellectual fundamentalism that exists in the Chinese American church is increasingly challenged.

7. Pluralism

While predominantly maintaining “Christ against culture” and “Christ in paradox with culture” postures, Chinese American Christians have also been known and critiqued for largely adopting supposedly divisive and exclusive social positions. Most Chinese American Christians have held to traditional positions on racial issues, gender, sexuality, and other faiths. Hence, they still tend not to speak out about racial injustice in their churches, they tend toward complementarian gender roles, believe that homosexual intercourse is sinful, and that Christianity is the only true faith. However, the growing number of progressive Asian American evangelicals are challenging their churches and parachurches for their silence on issues of misogyny, sexual discrimination, or on racial injustice.

To the quiet majority of Chinese American Christians, these shifts represent a capitulation to modern cultural trends and a subordination of Scripture to culture and secular society. In the meantime, many progressive Asian American Christians no longer feel comfortable or even welcomed at their home churches and evangelical parachurches, and have even begun gathering online and in person as Progressive Asian American Christians. While these progressives tend to blame the conservativism of most Chinese American Christians on social and cultural factors, most of the conservative Chinese Americans push back and insist that they are merely upholding Scripture. And tension only seems to be growing between the progressives and conservatives.

So, these are the seven most prominent issues that I’ve noticed as a Chinese American Christian, but I’d would love to hear your thoughts about the Chinese American church as well. Please comment below, and let me know what I got wrong or what I missed.

But more importantly, let’s resolve to pray for the Chinese American church. She is clearly not perfect, but she is Christ’s and Christ is hers.

[1] See Rebecca Y. Kim, “Asian Americans for Jesus: Changing the Face of Campus Evangelicalism,” (http://religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Kim.pdf), Russell Jeung’s Faithful 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?”
[4] Jeung, Faithful Generations, 164
[5] Nancy Sugikawa & Steve Wong, “Grace-Filled Households” in Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, 22.
[6] Peter Cha quoted in S. Steve Kang, Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, 48.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. 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.

16 thoughts on “7 Issues in the Chinese American Church

  • August 3, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you for this post and your post from last August. Both are very insightful as I see a lot of myself in what you write. I am a mid-30s OBC and went to Chinese Churches much of my life here in Canada and I attended a predominantly Chinese-American fellowship at an elite college in America. Probably, I was (and am) in a strong subculture that I did not even think about for much of my life.

    On another note, our church fellowship will soon feature a program exploring issues with Chinese churches. Could our presenters pick your brain for a few minutes? Could I out of personal interest? Thanks in advance.

    • August 3, 2017 at 11:05 pm

      Thanks for reading! I’d be happy to connect.

  • August 8, 2017 at 2:11 am

    Hi Andrew, just came across your blog through google. Enjoying it very much and great post indeed. I have spent some years in a few Chinese American Churches in the US and must say your observations are spot on. Some issues (particularly 4-7) apply to some Chinese churches in Hong Kong (where I am originally from) as well. Amen to your prayers :-).

    • August 8, 2017 at 3:29 am

      Hi Keri,

      I’m happy to hear that you’ve found the blog and that you’re enjoying it. Concerning my latest post, thanks for taking the time to read a bunch of stuff you already knew! 😛 Glad to know I’m not alone in my observations or in my prayers for the Chinese church worldwide.

      God bless!

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  • September 22, 2017 at 10:18 am

    Thank you very much Andrew for this insightful article. I am happy someone has finally shed light on this pocket of American Christianity. I want to echo/add something about your point on Pluralism.

    Speaking strictly from my personal experience after having attended or heard through friends the dynamic of 3 different Chinese-American churches in the San Francisco Bay Area, I strongly agree, that we (the Chinese American church) have been almost without exception, strongly conservative in our social leanings. Much of that comes from the already conservative environments many of its immigrant attendees came from, as well as the backgrounds of pastors who are mostly immigrants themselves. They are (rightfully) concerned with building out their lives and families, but an incurious desire to better understand the history and context of American social issues also puts them at a disadvantage to be more easily influenced by the louder voices (more on this later) in the Christian media. Many of us do not realize that had we came to America in 1960 instead of 1990, opportunities would have been fewer for an Asian immigrant, but since economic success has been so attainable for many in the church, they can’t (nor want to ) see the issues (yes, racism is one) affecting other minorities. To put simply – social equality, income disparity and many other hot button issues just isn’t on the mind of most people in the pews, esp. not when so many are highly educated professionals ensconced in the meritocratic cocoon that is Silicon Valley. Instead, many end up parroting the positions of conservative evangelical (note: White) churches because by God, since they agree that homosexual unions and abortions are grave Sins then by all means they (the Christian Right) must be right on all else, including lower taxes for the rich, cut gov’t spending since gov’t is burdensome, and of course less regulation – after all, global warming is not caused by man….

    Over the course of 2016 election, we’ve unfortunately witnessed a new low in the Chinese American Church. Leaders who denounced Bill Clinton over his marital infidelities years ago suddenly feel Trump IS their Man of God and got behind the man whose character and conduct should have been rightly rejected, again following the footsteps of the larger Christian Right. there was and is no acknowledgement of the inherent contradiction of values and outright hypocrisy here. I know of no Chinese American church where a majority were against Trump, and instead heard stories on election night of parishioners literally prostrating themselves in front of the TV, praying for a Trump victory. My own (now former) church, River of Life Christian Church in Santa Clara (CA), was no different. The head pastor, Rev. Tong Liu, even attended the Trump inauguration and several other celebratory events hosted (e.g. Christian Ball) afterward. He posted the pics of them on the church Facebook page, and not surprisingly, the pics invited a slew of both pro and anti Trump messages, many of which came from “Godly” people who denounced anti-Trump supporters as basically godless pagans. One would think a church Facebook page is supposed to be a medium of love….

    I say all of this with great pain, and say this as someone who tries to seek the right path (WWJD? indeed). I am neither liberal nor conservative and indeed there are excesses of the Left which I do not agree with. It was not a good feeling to leave my church after 14 years. I had felt in the past my former church had tried to keep some distance from politicizing the pulpit, but God has once again been muddied and muddled by yet one more church.

    My hope is the younger Asian American generation, and I include myself as “younger” 😉 here, that we the younger who choose to stay in the church will better see things as they are, and it actually is important. Think about it – demographics tell us Asian Americans are the highest educated group, the highest earners. Perhaps this yields some level of clout and power, and I sure hope we can exercise such with the right values.

    • September 22, 2017 at 10:41 am

      Wow, Jay. Thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts. Your heart for the Asian American church is evident, and I’m praying for the same things as you are. Jiayou, bro.

  • November 2, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    thanks for writing this. lots of things resonate with me here, having been in an asian immigrant church for much of my formative years of following Christ. my impression is that the question of identity is at the core of the issues with asian immigrant churches – cultural identity seeming to take precedence over Gospel/Christ-centered identity.

    this manifests itself in symptoms like pouring tons of time/resources/energy/passion into running chinese language school “ministries” (on sunday, no less), while family/personal discipleship, spiritual formation, evangelism, etc fall by the wayside. i don’t say this out of spite, but out of broken-heartedness from fighting losing battles. admittedly, maybe i’m one of those disrespectful, self-absorbed ABC types. if so, i’m sorry 🙁

    • November 3, 2017 at 1:28 am

      Thanks for reading Morris.

      I very much agree with you that the question of identity very much underlies these various issues and dynamics. And while I totally understand where you’re coming from about the cultural identity vs. Gospel identity tension that you see, I wonder if that might be overly simplistic. I like to think that the gospel is not opposed to particular cultural identities, but redeems and fulfills them. In the case of Asian immigrant churches, what has helped me to be a little bit more sympathetic is to understand them as trying to do something good in preserving their culture, yet without the proper tools. I think the conservative American evangelicalism that they’ve inherited is the reason they don’t have the proper tools to contextualize in a way that affirms their non-Western cultures without compromising the gospel.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, and I’m sorry to hear about the lost battles. But let’s not lose heart.

      • November 3, 2017 at 5:39 am

        thanks for the reply Andrew! no disagreement from me on the power of the Gospel to redeem cultures. apologies, i didn’t mean to give the impression that Christ-centered identity necessarily means laying down our cultural uniqueness.

        any discussion on this will be simplistic given the medium, of course 🙂 i know that even among ABCs in english ministries, there is a huge spectrum of thoughts, theories, and experiences on mission/identity. thanks again for writing and engaging.

        • November 3, 2017 at 6:32 am

          Thanks for the interaction. Sorry for assuming some disagreement existed.

          Glad we’re on the same page!

  • January 27, 2018 at 4:09 pm

    Hi Andrew. Thank you so much for writing this. All of your points, especially points 4-7, remind me so much of my experience growing up in the Chinese American immigrant church. I grew up in a Mandarin-speaking evangelical church where most of the adults and my parents’ generation are immigrants from Taiwan and Mainland China, live upper middle class lives, and worked as engineers or in other highly educated professions, so points 4 and 5 stood out for me. As an ex-Calvinist, ex-Reformed Christian, I heavily identified with points 6 and 7, especially since the 2016 presidential election.

    I find points 4-7 not only in the first-generation context, but in many 2+ generations contexts, including Asian American Christian organizations I was a part of in college. Since I was in high school, I had an interest in studying and learning about theology, especially from different views, so I feel a little intellectually inclined. At first the Chinese American youth group felt more like a social network than a church, as one time in Sunday School, I brought up the Sermon on the Mount and no one knew what I was talking about. Also, in my college fellowship groups, I find it difficult having theological conversations on topics like Biblical inerrancy and infallibility and my peers knew little of points I was making. It was harder to have theologically deeper conversations in even 2+ gen. Asian American contexts. Also, since the 2016 presidential election, I felt isolated in my Asian American circles about my strong feelings regarding the outcomes. Regardless of how they voted, it seemed like my peers were apathetic towards the mourning and grieving that was going on around them.

    Another issue I found growing up in the Chinese American church is a lack of empathy for others. It may just be an overall evangelical church or societal sin but from my experience, people were so quick to judge or give advice when I wanted to be vulnerable about faults. This may tie in with your meritocracy claim because there is that rule to hide your emotions and to not stir the pot. But whenever I did stir the pot, I felt that I was met with resistance. Both my elders and even my peers were quick to say as opposed to listen to me. Because of that, it has been hard for me to go out of my way to reach out to peers I grew up with.

    Also, another more personal issue I had with the Chinese American church has to do with mental health. As someone who has had and is still struggling with depression, I felt the Chinese American church to be further isolating. The expectations of not stirring the pot in Chinese American culture and the notion that depression is due to a lack of faith from overall evangelical culture has made mental health especially difficult to talk about within my context. Sorry to be a little too personal here but this came to mind when I think about the Chinese American church.

    I am actually currently in the Progressive Asian American Christian group and it has been a healing place for me as I reflect on my faith journey. I also know a few of the people you mentioned here too. Again, thanks for writing. I hope to talk and connect with you in the future!

    • January 30, 2018 at 10:15 pm

      Hi Tim,

      Sorry for the crazy late reply, but thanks for reading and sharing your experiences within the Chinese American church. I’m happy to hear that I’m not crazy or just seeing things, but that others have witnessed similar observations as well.

      I’m sorry to hear about the hurtful experiences you’ve had in the church, and I’m glad you’ve found a place of healing in PAAC, but I also hope you’ll continue to have a heart for the Chinese American church with me.

      Feel free to connect with me on Facebook.

  • February 9, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    Second generation ethnic Young People tend to leave Churches that speak their parents mother tongue. It is not just a Chinese problem. When the older generation dies, their churches tend to collapse. If you build your church around young families, it will tend to grow. Teaching English to the parents is important to help them to communicate with their children who are not comfortable in English or their parent’s mother tongue.

  • February 10, 2018 at 5:35 pm

    It needs to have a balance between preaching Christ Gospel and emphasis on caring for the needy and poor! Majority of Chinese Churches devote resources mostly on preaching.

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