What about Asian American Churches?

This entry is part 21 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

An increasing number of ABCs are being attracted to English only Asian American churches instead of bilingual Chinese churches. What should we make of this trend? What does it say to the Chinese church?

The Growth of Asian American Churches

The term “Asian American Churches” is sometimes used as a general category for all ethnic Asian churches, including bilingual immigrant churches. But at other times it is used in a more narrow sense of churches which primarily target English speaking Asians. Although they both are working toward being truly multi-ethnic, two of the most well known Asian American churches are Evergreen Baptist Church and New Song Church, both in Los Angeles. Other churches such as the Asian American Church of Houston intentionally and deliberately focus on Asian Americans.

The fact is that churches which are predominantly Asian American, whether they call themselves “multi-ethnic” or not, are very attractive to a wide range of ABCs. Because of this, OBC church leaders are sometimes critical of these churches because they attract away the young adults who are so essential to developing a mature EM (English Ministry). Obviously most OBC pastors are going to be less than excited when a new AA (Asian American) church starts up nearby because they might lose some of their EM co-workers. The AA churches are sometimes seen as dangerous competition for scarce co-workers.

Unfortunately, in some cases new AA churches are founded by disgruntled leaders from the EM in a bilingual Chinese or Korean church. As a result these churches can carry a lot of baggage due to the way that they feel they have been misunderstood and mistreated in a bilingual church. The not-so-subtle message of these leaders is that the Chinese church is hopelessly broken, and that the best thing for ABCs to do is to abandon ship and start new, healthy, hip AA churches. Needless to say, leaders of bilingual churches take a dim view of this sort of rhetoric.

There are plenty of AA churches without the sort of baggage described above, and there are many OBC leaders who are not suspicious of AA churches, but church leaders with these views do exist. There must be a way for these churches to move beyond mutual suspicion and mistrust.

The Need for Different Kinds of Churches

Both bilingual and AA churches are an essential part of God’s work among Asians in the U.S. Some ABCs who are more Americanized or who just don’t want to deal with a bilingual environment will prefer a different type of church. Personal background can be a factor as well. I suspect that those ABCs who had a relatively healthy relationship with their parents end up with a more positive view of Chinese language and culture, and are more likely to be happy in a bilingual church. Those who had a difficult relationship with their parents do not want to be around OBCs who remind them of their parents every Sunday. Different types of churches can reach different types of people. There is no single type of church that can reach everyone.

As long as immigrants continue to arrive from Asia and as long as they continue to have children there will be a need for bilingual churches with a strong English Ministry. It would be a tragic mistake for all EM co-workers to “abandon ship” and leave an entire generation of young ABCs without anyone to reach them. Surely God has called some ABCs to make a long term commitment to building a healthy EM in bilingual churches.

In his book Pursuing the Pearl, Ken Fong uses the metaphor of a freshwater stream to describe the immigrant generation. They can’t “build a dam” to keep their children in a cultural pond and prevent them from moving downstream toward cultural integration. He argues that it is inevitable that the 2nd and 3rd generation will become increasingly influenced by American culture and will require a new type of church.

But in his talk at the Asian American Leadership Conference in 2004, Fong reminded us of the continued need for healthy bilingual churches. He urged young ABC leaders to consider remaining in bilingual churches and serving there and criticized those who were too quick to try to run off and start AA churches. As I recall, he presented this topic as a balance to the argument in his book for AA churches. If you can find a source for the tape of this talk, it would be worth hearing.

Looking ahead, it is vital that we have strong AA churches as well as strong bilingual churches. Is there a way to forge some sort of partnership between these types of churches? What would that look like? How could it come about?

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • If you are an ABC, what do you think are the pros and cons of serving in these two types of churches?
  • How could an AA church and a bilingual church work together in a mutually beneficial partnership? What common goals might bring them together?
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2 Responses to What about Asian American Churches?

  • Daniel Eng says:

    Many bilingual Chinese-American churches have vacant English-speaking ministry positions for a long time. Although it is left unwritten in their job postings, they are looking for American-born Chinese pastors to shepherd their English-speaking flocks. These positions remain vacant not because of the lack of resumes they are getting, but because of the remarkable absence of ABCs applying. This shortage is leaving these churches to hire pastors who are (1) immigrants or (2) white, and while there is nothing wrong with these per se, we would be fooling ourselves into thinking that this is what they had in mind.
    Yes, part of the problem is the shortage of ABCs in seminary. Our second generation is brought up doubting whether full-time ministry is “successful.” But for the existing ABC seminary students like myself, many of us (myself included) carry some hurt from growing up in a bilingual church that we truly hesitate about returning to that church model. There is much healing to be done. I am unsure where God is calling me after I graduate.

    I’m currently attending and interning at Evergreen Baptist Church SGV, pastored by Cory Ishida. We may not get the press that Evergreen-LA gets, but I believe God has blessed our church in different ways. Pastor Cory’s commitment to reaching Asian-Americans in the San Gabriel Valley is what brought me here. I am learning a lot about a healthy English-speaking Asian-American model being mentored and serving here. If God calls me back to a bilingual model–which I hope He does–I hope to have a better grasp about how God desires to bring healing to the Chinese-American church.

  • PK says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for sharing about your situation. After reading through your blog a bit I can tell that you are working through some important issues. There is certainly a shortage of ABCs going to seminary, and I agree with you that having a suitable cultural background is important for serving in a bilingual church. Without the time I spent in Taiwan I couldn’t do what I am doing now.

    But your second point is also very important. What can we do to make growing up in a bilingual church a less hurtful experience, and how can we help those who do feel hurt to find healing and wholeness? I think about these questions quite a bit recently.

    Blessings on you as you continue your seminary studies and seek God’s direction.

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