Lessons from the Ethnic Church, Part I

I couldn’t believe it was seven years. Seven years since I last stepped foot in this church. Now seven years is a long time. In seven years, newlyweds can become a family — their clean, fresh-off-the-registry furniture now adorned with protective bumpers, drinking glasses now tucked behind sippy cups, and calm nights long forgotten, buried under a whirlwind of limbs and shrieks and toys and clothes. In seven years, uncertain young men and women begin higher education, graduate then graduate again, their mien more confident, their rough edges lathed smooth, and their dissemblance more skilled at hiding the small child costumed in business suits and silk ties.

And walking next to the thrice-painted green fence that skirted the church, I almost was that child who had made this same journey week after week, year upon year, through puberty, high school and renewed faith, through dark vales that led to hidden streams, through life’s every transition, until seven years ago I stopped. I stopped but now I was back again. And how they would accept me, how they would welcome me (if at all) was on my mind as I unlatched the low gate and swung it open.


Forgive the generalization, but Reformed Christians typically don’t have a high view of ethnic churches–at least in America. I suppose I’ll speak of Asian immigrant churches in particular. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the Reformed often see too much synergism between Christ and culture in the ethnic church. Perhaps they see too much infighting and too much politicking as well. Yet for all the criticism of the immigrant church, have we considered what this rich and diverse set of churches can teach us? Or has it only become a favorite punching bag of biculturals who now embrace Reformed theology? Children of immigrants, such as myself, have undoubtedly played a strong role in perpetuating the idea of the dysfunctional immigrant church as we drift away in silent exodus from the churches that birthed us to what we see as greener pastures, often speaking ill (I am guilty) of whence we came.

Among the many things that Westminster Seminary has taught me is a deeper understanding of common grace. If we are to truly have a high view of God’s rule and reign over all creation — the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty — we must admit that our being, knowledge, and knowing of that knowledge all come from God, which applies both to those who know him and those who don’t. Thus, someone who doesn’t acknowledge God can still have incredible insight into physical nature as a scientist or human nature as a novelist.

A dear professor put it this way: In the story of the blind men and the elephant, one man touches the stout leg of the elephant and declares, “The elephant is like a pillar!” Another grasps its flexible tail and exclaims, “The elephant is like a rope!” And so forth. As Christians we see the whole elephant because of revelation through grace, but the man who has studied the tail of the elephant all his life — observing all its wrinkles, counting its hairs (33,000!), analyzing the variance in color from section 1A (taupe gray) of the “rope” to section 2B (slate gray) — can say a good deal about the tail while missing the bigger picture. Still if we desired to learn about the elephant’s tail, it would be rather foolish to dismiss his observations and analysis. Understanding common grace ought to help us walk the line between a rash embrace and a scornful rejection of what the world has to say.

If this is the case for those who are not the people of God, how much more then for those who are. We ought observe keenly and listen well to those of different denominations and traditions, of churches known and unknown, including those you left — because one day you might be back.


The gate closed behind me with a clack and I walked gingerly into the courtyard milling and bustling with people. Children ran by laughing, weaving through the ever-changing seams of the aged with their canes, parents, and youth, all moving with age-correlated deliberateness towards the entrances of two buildings. I moved toward the smaller where the English service was held.


I turned to see my parents’ friends grinning at me.

“Hey…” I wasn’t sure how to address them. Growing up, I always called them a-yi and su-su. Plus, I had been gone for so long. But what is seven years out of twenty-nine? So I went for it. “…Auntie Ming and Uncle Henry. It’s good to see you.” I smiled back.

We fell into an easy rhythm of back-and-forth, “So how are you?”

“I’m good — I just finished seminary and I’m back for at least a year. How’s Derrick and Angeline?”

“Ah they’re doing fine. Derrick is in Texas and — Oh!” Uncle Henry looked at me with a conspiratorial smile. “Have you seen my granddaughter?”

He slid out his phone and deftly swiped to show me the little girl, not quite two. We admired the pictures together for a bit, but service was about to start and after promising to catch up later, we hurried off to our seats.

My thoughts wandered during the singing as I wondered how they recognized me. Despite the question in their tone, I knew they knew immediately who I was. I was certain I looked a bit different from my earlier self — in dress and bearing at the very least. But it made perfect sense when I thought back to our shared history of summer sleepovers and monthly potlucks between our house, theirs, and the other Mandarin-speaking families. Though I had been gone, I had grown up before them with and as their own children, as one large family, and no parent ever forgets their child — no matter the passage of time, no matter how much they’ve changed.

To be continued.

David Cheng

Born and bred in Orange County, David has wandered quite a bit both geographically and theologically. After graduating from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, he moved back to sunny Southern California and married his beautiful wife Jessica. He is the Assistant Pastor at King's Church in Long Beach. In his free time, David enjoys reading, writing, cooking, and rock climbing.

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