Unity and Diversity in a Chinese Church

This entry is part 8 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

One of the big challenges in a bilingual Chinese church is to maintain the overall unity of the church while giving each congregation adequate freedom to develop their own ministry. What is the basis of our unity? How can we allow diversity without tearing the church apart?

Most people value unity, but it probably receives a greater emphasis in Chinese churches due to the strong cultural value placed on harmony. To understand the concern for unity in a Chinese church we must understand this deeply held value. People are often willing to go to great lengths to “keep the family together.” For this reason there is often a reluctance to let the EM go its own direction for fear that it will eventually split the church. This is not an empty fear, because there are cases in which the EM in a Chinese church decided to leave and form a separate church. On the other hand, forcing the EM to do everything the same way as the CM will create a lot of frustration, and in some cases can lead to a church split as well. So what is the solution?

Unity in Christ is not enough

Before you brand me as a heretic, let me explain what I mean. Certainly our unity in a church is based on our spiritual unity with Christ (Eph. 4:1-6). We are spiritually united with all Christians everywhere, including the Spanish speaking church across town, the Korean church in the next city, and the black church downtown. But that does not mean that we can gather scores of ethnic groups and dozens of languages and function effectively as a single church body. In addition to our spiritual unity, we need enough in common with other church members to draw us together as a particular local church. I call this the sociological glue that holds us together.

This becomes especially apparent in outreach. The well known (and frequently maligned) “homogeneous unit principle” states that it is easier to reach out to a person who finds enough things in common with the group. When people first visit a church they ask “Are there people here like me?” The similarity is not limited to ethnicity. It could things such as socio-economic status, education, political views, cultural background, hobbies, or interests. The more points of contact there are, the easier it is to connect with a new person. That should be obvious enough.

The problem comes when we consider the universality of the Gospel. We are called to go into all the world with the Gospel, not just to people like us. Some people are indeed called to focus their main ministry on others who are very different than they are. We call these people missionaries. But for most Christians, it is easiest to reach out to others with whom we share enough thing in common.

So that means that a local church body should have a sociological focus. Making every church as diverse as possible in every way is counter-productive. I’m not talking here merely about ethnic diversity, because a church could be ethnically diverse but have many other things in common. God’s harvest field is large and diverse, and we are each called to work in different parts of the field, not in every part of the field at once.

Unity in a Chinese Church

In a bilingual Chinese church it gets more complicated. We have not just one “target group” but two (or more). To some extent, the more “Chinese” the church is the more comfortable it is for recent immigrants. But if it is more “American” it is more comfortable for the second generation. This inevitably creates a certain tension.

For both congregations to be effective, they each need to have their own distinctives. In such a case, what is the reason for remaining together as a single church? Here are some reasons that I think are not adequate:

  • We have a common history.
  • We share a building.
  • We are mostly ethnic Chinese.
  • Some families have members in both congregations.
  • The EM needs financial support from the CM
  • The CM needs the EM to take care of their children.

We need something more than convenience or a common heritage to hold us together. Otherwise when the cons outweigh the pros for the second generation they will find a different church. What is needed is a common vision to be a bilingual multi-congregational Chinese church. What is our unique role in God’s kingdom as a bilingual church? From the perspective of the EM, what can we do as part of a Chinese church that we could not do on our own? Unless you have an answer to these questions it will always be a struggle to maintain unity. Tomorrow I will share some thoughts about maintaining unity in a Chinese church.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • What do you think is the key to unity in a bilingual Chinese church?
  • What reasons can you think of for the EM and the CM to stay together?
Series Navigation<< Why we don’t have a Senior PastorMaintaining Unity in a Chinese Church >>

4 Responses to Unity and Diversity in a Chinese Church

  • We are all Chidren of God, He made us, and placed each of us here. and said to take care of the Earth and Prosper. To Love each other as he Loves Us,care for each other as he cares for us.
    I truly beleive in Unity, as a Church Family, and not putting any thing between us,as a beleiving church body. What ever it talkes…
    thank You PS even if it means, to have two classes at the same time. learning the same thing.

  • NKL says:

    2. I will begin with answering the second question: we learn RESPECT and RECONCILIATION. Again I will begin with the latter–Reconciliation is the key ministry in the church that is called to keep both an EM and an CM. Traditional Asian families are not grace centered. They are obligation centered. They are face (public image) centered. They are honor-shame centered. Some are able to follow the system, others cheat here and there, and others still are marginalized by it. There is a lot of guilt, a lot of hurt, a lot of tired people trying to satisfy a system based on shame and not grace.

    To bring reconciliation, healing and unity to the body of believers is a sign that an EM + CM church understands the ministry of Christ.

    Where reconciliation has yet to be completed, respect works as the TEMPORARY glue. You have to respect the power of respect. A EM + CM church is a peaceful place when the groups and leaders respect each other. I believe this is only temporary though–we are not given the ministry of respect but the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5); Jesus did not establish peach by setting up rules of respect but by destroying the walls of hostility (Ephesians 2).

    1. So the key to unity, in my understanding of the Asian American church, is reconciliation. It’s an ongoing work, and ongoing ministry.

  • NKL says:

    It’s me again. I dug up notes made of a panel discussion on the pattern for spiritual growth in our Chinese churches. Three senior pastors from other churches were invited to comment. Here are their comments:

    SP#1 (HK born): Not an intellectual thing, the problem is whether we are willing to stretch out our hands in love to reach out to the other party

    SP#2 (HK born, raised in NA) What is at stake isn’t that we can become a good church. What is at stake is the credibility of the gospel. We claim to preach a gospel of reconciliation, that tears down walls. If we can’t work through these diff and work together as a community, then we discredit the very gospel that we preach and believe in. BUT, if we show the world that if we’re in Christ, that barriers are torn down, two become one, we validate the gospel.

    SP#3 (HK born, now leading Mandarin church) A teen piano player came to mem asking if he could play piano for the church as mandatory volunteer hours. I would say yes, but leaders say no because it is worship (i.e. teen is not a Christian) In all situations, we need compassionate understanding of the background.

  • PK says:

    I agree with you that respect is crucial. Mutual respect that allows for cultural differences is a must. Reconciliation is needed wherever there has been a rift of some sort, whether between two groups or individuals in the church, or in the family.

    On SP#3, I would say that it is more than a cultural issue. Based on a biblical understanding of the spiritual nature of worship, I would never have a non-Christian playing music for worship.

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"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." -- C. S. Lewis