I’ve been spending my time this summer as an intern working for a wonderful organization, the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC). I meet with my coordinator and my fellow interns each week to discuss our church experiences, our ethnic identities (by coincidence, we are all Chinese-American), and to discern our ministry callings together with church leaders and former interns. Lately we have been discussing articles from a special anthology published by ISAAC, the Asian American Christianity Reader, which is quite theologically robust and includes material from well-known scholars like Peter Phan, Helen Lee, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, in addition to endorsements from Mark Noll and Amos Young.
This week we read two articles, but I want to focus on the first one because it generated the most discussion. Though “Silent Exodus” is nearly 20 years old, Helen Lee’s famous Christianity Today article seems to still shape our discourse about Asian American ministry, particularly among Korean and Chinese evangelicals who share a common formative experience of ethnic churches filled with immigrants and their children. Lee observed that most Asian-Americans raised in their parent’s churches never return to an Asian church, or any church, once they reach maturity. This is the titular “silent exodus” which has troubled many ministries.
This article resonated very strongly with my cohorts, who shared stories about the tensions between the older leadership of their Chinese/Korean churches and the younger “English Ministry” (EM) that is forever subordinate to their elders. Even in Asian churches that strive for greater equality between the two ministries, one intern reported a feeling of unease, the unease of implicit deference to authority, when a grey-haired senior pastor sits in a meeting with the English ministry pastor.
The article describes these “pressure points” well: different understandings of hierarchy and how to transmit leadership; whether a church should pursue a multiethnic congregation; and, perhaps most importantly for evangelicals, a fear that a personal faith has been smothered by a lack of intentional formation.
“The kids don’t own the faith. They come to church because they are forced to. They can’t differentiate between Asian culture and Christianity, and they they often develop a hatred of the culture — which they then extend to Christianity. (103)
“We have been given ministries on a silver platter… which has resulted in a weak Christianity.” (103)
These quotes may come from separate people interviewed in the article, but they point to a common phenomenon. Most Korean and Chinese-American churches are evangelical or some sort of low-church Protestant, but the same phenomenon of not owning the faith has also been observed in American Orthodox parishes, which are often seen as ethnic enclaves for Middle Eastern or Eastern European groups that do not welcome outsiders and do not pass down the tradition to the second generation.
There is a common thread in these groups. Older generations rightly see the church as a refuge to navigate life in America in solidarity with fellow immigrants and to preserve their culture. I would describe this situation as a particular, encultured mission for that generation’s church. There is nothing inherently wrong with this model of ministry, especially when so many immigrants who come to a hostile culture need a social circle to resist discrimination. But the first generation’s enculturation is not ours. The second generation feels stifled by this particularity. We seem to instinctively understand that a monocultural setting does not seem to reflect the universality of Christianity. Jesus Christ, as the Incarnate Son who mediates God and humanity and grafts the Gentiles into the tree of Israel, is a universal savior for all nations. God is no “respecter of persons” (Acts 10.34 KJV) in his salvific plan.
A fellow intern, who serves a dynamic multiethnic church with a large Chinese demographic, described a wedding between a white woman and a Chinese man in her congregation, who boldly — repeatedly — proclaimed in their vows that they would follow “God’s way” and not the Chinese way or the American way. We talked about deep value of this statement to us — it saw faith as something that could transcend culture or at least help us navigate its pitfalls more effectively. Why focus on saving face, for example, when we could instead display a radical Christian vulnerability to our friends and family?
At the same time, these sorts of statements make me a just a little uncomfortable because they seem to ignore that “God’s way” always expressed in a cultural package. The Bible is an encultured text. Most importantly, our Lord was an encultured person. As Christians we can’t just believe that the Son of God assumed an abstract “humanity” not bound to a particular culture. In the same way I believe that our task, as second-generation Asian Christians, is to proclaim the good news in our lifetimes by “enculturating” it — what makes our context unique? How can we use that uniqueness to highlight a particular aspect of the Good News that other contexts do not emphasize?
For the first generation, the beauty of the Gospel could have been that it proclaimed a God who provided safety and solidarity. “God is our refuge and strength.” (Psalm 46.1) But in our second-generation Chinese-American context, our comfort with multiculturalism allows us to “enculture” or “contextualize” the Gospel by emphasizing its own pluralism, its own ability to hold all people in its embrace .
The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
he has revealed his righteousness in the eyes of all the nations.
…every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation. (Psalm 98.2, 3 CEB)