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. This begs the question asked by some at T4G: “What is the Future of the Asian American Church?”
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.”
Thankfully, the upcoming generation of leaders has demonstrated its sensitivity to social engagement with role models such as Russell Jeung leading the way.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 I’ve discussed this more in depth here, here, and here.
 James Chuck, “Where are the Chinese Churches Heading in the 1970’s?”
 Jeung, Faithful Generations, 164
 Nancy Sugikawa & Steve Wong, “Grace-Filled Households” in Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, 22.
 Peter Cha quoted in S. Steve Kang, Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, 48.