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.
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.
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.
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.