Another life influence.
I went to Urbana 1996 and heard a talk by Ken Fong that changed my life. I use that term a lot. But it doesn’t take much to change my life. It just has to be something, no matter how small, that changes my way of thinking in a lasting way. Unlike Dave, these influences stay with me for a long time.
Anyway, his talk was on the Asian American church. And I found it to be absolutely insightful and completely true. And since that day, I’ve known that eventually I want to be a part of an “Asian American church”. Not a Korean church. Not a multi-ethnic church. An Asian American church.
Let me explain. I still have my notes from that talk but it’s too much detail. I think he published a book that expounds the topic at greater length, but I’m not certain as I haven’t read it. But it’s probably a more complete resource if anyone’s interested.
The gist is this. There are three types of “Asian-Americans”. The first type is the 1st generation, who are almost completely of their own language and culture. The next type is the 1.5-2.0 generation, which is more mixed, both in language and in culture. As generations progress, eventually you reach a type that pretty much only speaks English and is completely accultured and multi-ethnic in worldview. He’s more details in his characterizations but you get the basic idea. 3 types, differentiated in large part by language and level of acculturation.
Hmm, I’m not quite sure how to organize this. There’s a lot of insights I think he had. One of them was that the Japanese-American church is in a lot of ways a model for Asian-American churches, in that they’re about 2-3 generations ahead of most Chinese-American and Korean-American churches so we can learn a lot from what happened to them. There are differences between that church and Asian churches now, but many similarities, and you can kind of see how history is repeating itself. So lemme talk about why ultimately I don’t want to be part of a Korean church, kind of looking at how it’s similar to what’s already happened to the Japanese church and getting into his insights as we go.
Another insight he had in his talk was this: the flow of acculturation cannot be stopped. Maybe it’s not that insightful. His bigger insight was that Asian churches think that it can be stopped. And this manifests itself in a couple ways.
Like, one big thing a lot of Asian churches do is kind of try to preserve the culture as well as the faith in the church. Er, at least the Korean church. Like, the churches I’ve gone to have always had Korean school. I was once asked to do the children’s message and when talking to the head pastor he asked me to use 50% Korean. Just, it’s clear to me that Korean parents want their kids to be Korean, and they want the church to help preserve that culture. And preserving the culture is fine. But I think there’s something beneath that where they want to stop acculturation. They want us to be Korean, not American. And that’s impossible.
Another thing is, Asian churches have gotten pulled into starting English-speaking ministries kicking and screaming, only when it became obvious that they absolutely had to. Ken Fong talked about how this happened in the Japanese-American church and I believe that was his own experience with the Chinese-American church. It took them forever to start something like an EM and by the time they did, a generation was lost. And that’s terrible.
I think something similar happened with Korean churches, at least in the Bay Area. By the time I was old enough to be a part of one the larger churches had EMs. But people 5-10 years older weren’t so lucky. Honestly, I have no idea where they went. I think they were expected to just teach the younger kids or something like that. But there was nothing really for them. A lot of them were probably just lost. It’s only after Korean churches saw this happening that they started EMs. And many smaller churches still don’t have it. This isn’t the only reason, but I think part of it is, at least for Korean churches, they want to stay Korean. They start EMs just so their kids will stay at a Korean church.
The existence of EMs gets into another thing he talked about: the 3 different types have different needs. So you need to have different ministries like a Korean-speaking and English-speaking ministries, that are different not only in language but in culture and ministry style, to best suit their needs. Again, maybe that’s obvious. But what was interesting was his bolder claim that no single church can capture all three types.
Maybe I should back up and talk about what the 2nd type looks like. The first generation type is pretty clear, right? They all came from a different country and they primarily speak a different language. They group together based on their common tongue and culture.
With the 2nd type (us), there’s a little less emphasis on language and more on culture. I think this is a purely empirical statement. Meaning, that’s what you actually see in 2nd generation congregations. More mixing, but still Asian. Like John’s brother goes to a Chinese church. There are a bunch of Chinese people at KCPC. It’s common to see “Asian” fellowships on campuses all over the country. But it’s still predominantly Asian. The bond is less a common language and more a similar culture.
Not just with churches, but in general. Like, for most of us reading this page, the majority of our friends, especially our close friends, are Asian. Maybe throw a few token white guys into the mix. That’s what my friends used to call it, anyway. “Token White Guy”. Even at Bell, I often found myself in a group of mostly Asians (including Indians) with a couple token white guys.
So yeah, that’s just how it is. For some reason, our natural tendency is to become friends with other Asians. Not just other Koreans, or other Chinese, but other Asians. And many of us might be comfortable interacting with non-Asians. But for whatever reason, even for most of those people, our natural tendency is to group with other Asians.
So that’s what the 2nd type looks like. Less Chinese or Korean or whatever, and more Asian. And again, this process isn’t something that can be stopped.
OK, going back. Like I was saying, another insight was that no church can capture all 3 types. I’m just going to take for granted that if any church were to try to do this, it would be an Asian church. Just, even if an “American” church had say a Korean-speaking ministry, no Koreans would go to it, because Koreans want their own church. I’m guessing (but really no clue) Chinese churches are the same way.
So yeah, if any church is going to try to capture all 3 types, it’s going to be the Asian churches. And in fact that’s what they’re trying to do. And that’s impossible. Two main reasons Ken Fong pointed out.
The first is that when push comes to shove, whoever is in charge will ultimately do what’s best for his ministry. And since the different ministries have different needs, there’s a fundamental tension there. Again, I have to defer to Fong’s expertise, but I know it’s absolutely true for Korean churches. You can’t blame them. The head pastor, the leader of the Korean congregation, needs to do what’s “best” for his congregation. It’s just that sometimes it’s detrimental to the English-speaking congregation.
This can just be little things like who gets the first/best resources, how decisions are made, other stuff like that. I think a big thing is the first generation’s desire to preserve the language and culture through church. That’s fine, but it causes problems. Like, I think it’s clear that the EMs of Korean churches are increasingly more Asian than Korean with that acculturation that can’t be stopped. So if you insist on the language thing, you alienate or even push away some of the EM congregation. That’s not good. In fact, I’m going to say that a lot of Korean churches don’t even want other Asians there. I mean, they kind of do but they kind of don’t. I dunno how to explain it but it’s this weird conflict there. Anyway, yeah, in the end, whoever’s in charge has to do what’s best for his group and that can be bad for other groups.
He had a second insight as to why you can’t capture all 3 types, and this was the single most important thing he said to me, the thing that totally impacted me and has stuck with me in a big way. What he said was, the biggest problem with Asian churches that try to catch all types with stuff like English speaking ministries is that their emphasis isn’t on reaching people – it’s on keeping people from leaving. And a church that is not reaching out is a dead church.
100% absolutely agree with this. On all counts. That Asian churches are more concerned with keeping than reaching, and that a church that isn’t reaching is dead. This is the single biggest reason I want to be involved with an Asian American church.
I strongly strongly agree that any healthy church needs to be reaching new people. And who can we best reach? The people we hang out with. And who do we hang out with? For the most part, other Asian Americans. That’s the crux of it, I think. Our generation just naturally hangs out with other Asian Americans. That’s who we’re comfortable with, that’s who they’re comfortable with, and that who we’re most able to reach. So we need a church that fits all of those things. It’s just a reflection of how things are.
And like I’ve said, I don’t think anything that’s associated with a 1st generation Asian church will work. When they’re in charge, they just hinder the 2nd generation ministry. With Fong’s examples and my own experience, I’m just fully convinced of this.
There are some forward thinking 1st generation pastors who are more amenable to an Asian-American English speaking ministry. Not coincidentally, I think these tend to be the biggest 2nd generation ministries. And the vision of these pastors is that someday the EM pastor will become the head pastor, as the EM grows to be bigger than the 1st generation congregation. So they believe the ties can be kept. This is my dad’s vision.
But I have my doubts about this. I’ve thought about it a lot, and what I think is, if it ever reaches the point where an EM is bigger than say a KM, everyone in the KM will leave. That’s my claim. Just, Koreans have way too much pride. Why the heck should they be in a secondary ministry when they can go to a church where they’re in charge? Can you imagine Korean adults standing for a situation where they don’t get final say and control? It’s unimaginable to me. So yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
So I really think the Asian-American church, distinct from the 1st generation churches, is the future. Just, it’s happening already, with every 2nd generation ministry you see. It’s becoming Asian American. Not singly ethnic, and not truly multi-ethnic, but still Asian American. And my belief is that it can only thrive when it’s independent from the 1st generation church.
Side note. Some people think I have impossible constraints in regards to what church I want to be a part of. But really, it’s just that it be Asian-American and a cell church. And more importantly, I think both of these things are happening – it’s something that can’t be stopped. It’s just a matter of how soon people hop on board. I honestly don’t think it’s a fad type thing but there’s something deeper, a reason why more and more churches are becoming cell churches and why more and more Asian American congregations are appearing. So, I’m actually saying something stronger than “I want to be a part of an Asian-American (and cell) church.” I’m saying that Asian-American cell churches are the inevitable future. Like it or not, that’s what the future is going to be. Bold? That’s what I think. I think it’s happening already.
OK, now let me explain why I don’t want to be a part of a “multi-ethnic” church. You know what I’m talking about right? When I was college, I remember getting into disagreements about this, about how I went to a Korean church and we had this essentially Asian fellowship on campus. Basically people slammed that, saying that we were exclusive or separating, and that’s not Christian. If we’re all one in Christ, we should all go to the same church.
I don’t disagree with the idea that multi-ethnic churches are good, I just disagree with the idea that Asian-American churches are necessarily bad. Again, what it comes down to for me is that a church needs to be reaching. And, yeah, there are some disadvantages to an AA church. Like Drew was talking about how he didn’t feel comfortable inviting some people to his church growing up. And that’s bad.
But I still believe there’s a place for it. Again, we all have non-Asian friends but the majority of our friends are Asian. They feel comfortable with other Asians. A church that can best reach them, where they feel most comfortable is going to be an Asian-American church. That’s not watering down the gospel at all. I just don’t believe we need to place extraneous conditions on the gospel. Why should Asian-American non-Christians be forced to go way outside the culture they’re comfortable with just to hear the gospel? The gospel itself is confrontational enough. Why place additional demands on it?
I think Perspectives just reinforced my beliefs on this. Just, a big thing with Perspectives is being culturally sensitive and relevant. Culture is one of the perspectives studied. Because the Gospel is inherently supra-cultural, if that’s the right term. It’s not tied to any particular culture, nor should it be. So, a country shouldn’t be forced to conform to Western norms to adopt the gospel. And in countries with different cultures or groups or castes or whatever, the big thing is having different churches for each particular group’s needs. And if that’s a valid strategy for evangelism in other countries, I think it’s valid in the U.S. also.
There’s another reason I’m not big on multi-ethnic churches. Again, not that it’s bad. It’s obviously good. But sometimes, just sometimes, I think it’s mostly a sham. Meaning, it’s just superficially multi-ethnic. But when you dig deeper, you find it’s almost just as ethnically separate.
Like, you know, a bunch of us were in IV our frosh year and a good number of our friends came from there. It’s not an “Asian” fellowship. But, like, for me and most other Asians not just my year, the closest friends we had were still also Asian. There were exceptions, obviously. But by and large, even though we weren’t in an Asian fellowship, our closest friends were still Asian. And that separation is even more marked once we leave school.
I was having a conversation the other night and someone mentioned I think the Young Adult group of this multi-ethnic church that a bunch of people go to in Menlo Park and someone called it the “Asian-American fellowship”. Because it’s all Asian. I dunno, there’s something to that. Just, a lot (not all) of Asians are going to multi-ethnic churches but they’re just hanging out with other Asians there, and more so outside of church. So yeah, you can call it “multi-ethnic” but it’s kind of superficial.
I dunno, I’m being way too cynical, and that’s bad. But, I guess I’m just not big on superficial shows “unity”. Just, going to the same church even though it’s still at heart separated ethnically is “unity”? Or, having some event where you say hello to 1 person you don’t know is “unity”? I dunno, I’m just big on the fact that if we’re believers in Christ we’re already unified. So, just organize things so we can best grow the kingdom, and not have these random shows of “unity”. And the Asian-American church definitely fits in there.
I dunno, again, being cynical, but to me it looks like what’s happening is that Asians aren’t assimilating into “American” Christian culture. What they’re doing is taking it over. Like, with IV at Stanford, I dunno, in a lot of ways, it just was an Asian fellowship. Just, it was majority Asian. And the white people who weren’t comfortable with that went to Cornerstone or something. Seriously, Cornerstone was like white Christian fellowship. Really weird.
Ken Fong talked about this also. Just, how people can worship together and still not really be one. He had something like a marriage test. Meaning, you’re really one if you can marry the other. His point being something like, many Asians-Americans fail the marriage test. They can say they’re really worshipping with African-Americans but wouldn’t really be able to marry them. So are they really unified? Or is it still kind of superficial?
So yeah, hope that all made sense. Essentially, I want to be a part of an Asian American church because I think there’s a place for it. It can best reach Asian-Americans, who naturally tend to come together, and reaching for the kingdom of God is a most important thing. You can’t stop the flow towards “Asian-American”. And for some, multi-ethnic churches are great. But for a lot of (probably most) Asian-Americans, they’re most comfortable in an Asian-American setting, and even in other settings, they’ll kind of revert to that.
I’ll probably have to explain myself but that’s the drift of things. I think some people thought it was negative. I just remember people I knew walking out of Ken Fong’s second talk. Someone asked them (I think the talk was called The Future of the Asian-American church) “How’s the future of the Asian-American church?” and one guy responded, grim-faced “Not good.”
But for me, I thought I was incredibly encouraging. In kind of the same way the gospel is encouraging when it tells us essentially how much we suck. The encouragement is that we don’t have to be the way we are. There’s something better. The Asian-American church doesn’t have to be the