Exit Wounds: The Flight of Asian American Faith published! October 20, 2006Posted by peterong in Asian American, Asian American Church.
Hey folks, if you have time…go to Asian Avenue and check out my article there…hope you enjoy! You can also read the text here…but I want to encourage you to go to the site and recommend it (if you think it is worthy so that there could be an awareness with the editorial staff that these issues are important to the Asian American community).
Exit Wounds: The Flight of Asian American Faith
by Peter Ong
A walk along boulevards in any major American metropolitan city, one will find that the church as the cultural center for Asian American ethnic communities. According to a 2000 Pilot National Asian American Political survey, Christians make up the largest Asian American religious group at 46 percent. This percentage is made up of the identification of “Christian,” “Protestant” and “Catholic” into one category. Despite the common faith there is an undercurrent of conflict between generational and cultural gaps.
Ten years ago, the publication of Helen Lee’s article “The Silent Exodus” posed a provocative question to the Asian ethnic church, “can the East Asian church in America reverse the flight of its next generation?” This definitive work underscored the conflicting issues of tending a spiritual home between first generation immigrant Asians and its westernized second generation.
“I think the second and third generation Asian American Christians have a tough torch to carry, because they don’t completely fit into the first generation Asian ethnic church and they don’t necessarily belong to a typical Anglo church setting,” said Pastor Ben Kong of Queens Herald Church, a multi-generational Chinese church in Flushing. “These groups lose something in this process.”For immigrants who came of age in the 1970’s, they were the first generation who established Church services for their second generation children. They brought their children to church that had worship services that where bi-lingual. For them, the Asian ethnic church served as an important role in creating community to cultivate and affirm communities with common cultures and narratives.
“There was a certain cultural identification of culture, a foundation that is a good backdrop for building relationships,” says Kara Kim, 33, a Korean American Manager of independent record label, who is serving with her husband John Kim, 33, a Portfolio Manager, at River Vineyard Church, a fast growing multi-ethnic church in Downtown New York City. Kara Kim added, “It was safe, we had immigrant parents and the narrative of expectations and survival. In terms of building of relationships, we were able to cover a lot of ground coming from similar cultural experiences,”
“One of the reasons I am still here is because it’s easy to relate to the people around me,” said Vicky Li Yip, a media supervisor for an Advertising firm, who attends Vision Church, a dynamic New York City Asian American Church. “We’re a pretty small church as it is, but everyone having a similar ethnic background allows us to be even closer–to feel like family.”
These second generation Asian American children were born into educational affluence and economic opportunities. As a result they were caught in between Asian and Western views of their faith. Greg Jao, who co-authored Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents writes that for many Asians their faith is often determined by culture. “Influenced by Confucius’s teachings on filial piety and hierarchy, traditional Asian cultures value duty and obligation as the highest motive for making decisions,” Jao states. “Mature Asians recognize their social responsibilities. In contrast, Western cultures believe an individual self-actualization is the highest motive for decision-making. Mature Westerners act consistently with their self-understanding.”
The prevalent Asian culture of work ethic, shame and authority in the Asian ethnic church conflicted with a Christian gospel message that presented faith and grace as a key expression of faith. This focal issue is often a major factor for many of those leaving the church. Pastor Ben Kong believes that in order to address this issue that there should be a re-examination of first generation Asian leadership, “The first generation leadership needs to seek ways to retain them for the next generation. The fact is that Chinese churches are not progressing in the usual steps of immigration church to become Americanized.” Joseph Tsang, Senior pastor of Vision Church in New York City encourages the first generation leadership to speak with authenticity to their second generation Asian American counterparts, “we need to communicate the story of God in an honest way. [Asian] Churches have a culture of dishonesty. It is not that they are deceitful but they do not always tell the whole story. We need to be sober about what God is really like, what people are really like and what church is really like.”
For many second and third generation Asian American Christians, the conflicts between the East and Western Church culture spurred them to leave Asian ethnic church to escape these entanglements. They found a home for their faith in a broader multi-ethnic church. “I was, at first, very resistant to the idea of a multi-ethnic church, it was very scary for me and it was so new. It was very frightening for me coming from a Korean church background,” says Kara Kim. “It made me engage with people and they way they operate is so different. Instead of an Asian cultural system, being in a multi-ethnic church, I felt that people were deliberate in expressing their thoughts and emotions. People were very different and in a culture that was very expressive, I am discovering my voice and actually using my voice.” John Kim responded, “The multi-ethnicity was the key factor, the more important was to be culturally relevant to engage instead of shun.”
“I would say that the [multi-ethnic] church addresses many these issues vis-à-vis emotional health and the gospel that many Asians are unaccustomed to hearing/experiencing in Asian churches. Therefore, Asian Americans tend to find these principles liberating and attractive,” said Drew Hyun, Associate Pastor at New Life Fellowship, a preeminent multi-ethnic Church in Queens. “For instance, there is an emphasis on honesty and weakness (and is even modeled by the leadership), which is different than Confucian principles of public appearance and saving face.”
As the new generation of Asian American Christians are wrestling through these issues, they are new emerging trends among Asian American Christian who are developing innovative programs to meet the needs of the second generation Asian American Christian and serve as a bridge between first and second generation leaders. In the Korean Church several 1.5 generation bi-lingual pastors are serving as English speaking pastors who are able to negotiate between these two congregations and building stronger partnerships.
Seminary attendance is one sign of Asian American Christians taking a directed approach in developing ministries. Western Seminary, for example, has three campuses; Portland and Sacramento are 11 percent Asian, while San Jose is 40 percent. Fuller Theological Seminary reports that 1,100 out of its 5,000 students are either Asian citizens or Americans of Asian descent. Asians account for 25 percent of the students at Talbot School of Theology. In the Midwest, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) reports an almost 9 percent Asian population. Several Asian ethnic churches such as New Song in Irvine California and Evergreen Baptist Church in Los Angeles are now sprouting throughout the United States that are moving towards integrating a multi-ethnic congregation to reach a new generation of believers.
For the Asian American church, there is a clear challenge for the church to sustain a new generation of believers. For many, the Asian ethnic church remains to be a center of a cultural community, while for others they find a spiritual home with a broader and integrated vision of a faith community. “If that’s where God’s calling you to be, then I say cultivating people in an Asian church is great.” Liao says,“ I just can’t help thinking that at some point, all our cultural needs will melt away so we can start embracing other cultures because there isn’t a Chinese heaven.”