Asian American churches face leadership gap

March 5, 2007

This weekend, Los Angeles Times featured this article, Asian American churches face leadership gap: Pastors aren’t being prepared to handle congregational conflicts over cultural and generational issues, experts say. [registration required, ht: JoseonIllin, also mirrored at the ISAAC blog and asianamericanartistry and Step by Step and]

A few article excerpts to highlight notable references with hyperlinks added:

A 2005 Duke Divinity School study, “Asian American Religious Leadership Today,” said the “most acute tensions” in Asian American churches revolved around two issues:

  • Continual clashes between the generations over cultural differences in the styles and philosophies of church leadership and control.
  • Young pastors’ view that immigrant churches are “dysfunctional and hypocritical religious institutions” that demonstrate a “negative expression” of Christian spirituality for the second generation.

… only 15% of Asian American seminarians attend seminaries affiliated with mainline denominations. The overwhelming majority — 80% — choose evangelical institutions.

Serving the complex Asian American Christian communities today requires “crossing boundaries between East and West, immigrant and native-born, and between various ethnic communities,” said the Rev. Tim Tseng, president of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity.

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Comments:13 Responses

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March 5th, 2007

I wonder if there is also any kind of significant gap between clergy and laity especially when trying to address needs of Asian Americans (mostly not in church) who have a more postmodern worldview . . . or pastor who has a postmodern worldview, when most Asian American churches do not. Just a thought.

March 6th, 2007

Like Rocky Balboa has said, “I got gaps.” And we all have gaps. Sure, it’s probably realistic to say there are gaps not only generationally but also clergy and laity gaps in trying to better understand and minister to the unchurched Asian Americans and those with a more progressive worldview.

Paul C. Chou
March 6th, 2007

The challenge presented by the study is not new. I personally witnessed the efforts by many committed from both generations. Some years ago, in England, there was a discussion of how to re-form, re-build, transform the churches there. There were four models presented for consideration. To this day, there is no agreement. For the Asians, this challenge will continue to come up and to stir us up.

A problem will not go away, unless a solution is provided. 2007 marks the 8th year into the first decade of the 21st century. Then the young Chinese Americans whom I worked with and served some 30 years ago are all professional leaders in the market place. They are the upper middle class in America. I constantly pray for them with the hope that they would step and start to consider to “plant or to start NEW Asian American churches” to serve their generation. Why continue to manage “pain” and “frustration”? As a matter of fact, many just attend other churches without a chance to lead and to serve (for this group, many other churches do not even know who they are and how to serve them?). Why not step up and gather 12 healthy, strong, progressive families to launch a new church, creating a job for a healthy, strong, progressive seminary graduate to start to serve and to respond to God’s simple calling – become who you are meant to be; live the life you were meant to live!

To me, the next generation Asian Americans are the best leaders to serve America – a being with both the best of the east and the west, deeply committed to God’s truth. These groups of young Asian Americans are the new forces for the post-modern America society. And they are to be the leaders of America if they decide to respond.

I would not be surprised to see another similar report or paper on this “old” fact of life in the Asian American community. I do pray that Christ will transform our Asian culture from control and power into love. When power is strong, love is weak. When love is strong, power becomes weak. Christ taught us that the only way to cause the transformation is forgiveness. Which side will initiate? It is entirely up to each individual to exercise his or her obedience to the little voice in the heart.

One thing I am sure. It is up to 12 families to decide to launch a new church to create a safe place serving others for the sake of broken community around us. Unless such a group of young Asian American families starts to popping up in America, then there would be continuing challenges for the seminary students hard to find a church to serve, for the young Asian American pastors to drop out faster than we can train new ones, for the many sitting in the church wondering who will stop the gap.

I believe that the Lord has over 7000 in the city for this challenge (I King 19). I hope many would be encouraged by my view and confidence in the young Asian Americans in this country. You are the leaders of the land! I pray that you step up and lead! Why live with the pain and struggle weeks after weeks? Why wait for others to do something for you and me? What can I do for the benefits of others? I know many of us are struggling with these questions. To us, they just do not make sense. Would we tolerate this situation at where we work? The answer is obvious.

Will we act to start to produce the best practices for others to report about Asian Americans? I know we can by the grace of our Lord.

March 7th, 2007

Good questions . . . as a 3rd Generation Asian American (Chinese/Filipino) mainline pastor pastor serving a non-ethnic (multicultural) congregation these are issues that i think about constantly as I talks with some colleagues that are trying to do this here in SF. A couple questions that i think have to addressed . . .

1) Is it a valid assumption that the future of Asian American spirituality is in Asian American church communities? Is pan-asian the way to go or will 3G middle class Asian American more readily gather around another homogeny, class, education, life-stage, etc.?

2) If this assumption about Asian Americans gathering in Asian American congregations is true, what kind of theology, politics worldview would be represented? Who would not be?

Ben Pun
March 8th, 2007

Uncle Paul, do you remember me? :) In any case, thanks for your thoughts. I have the same question as Bruce: is the Asian-American church the future for these “frustrated” Asian-Americans? I tend to see Asian-Americans as being important leaders in the future multi-ethnic, urban, “postmodern” church. I, as a young Asian-American, am personally a little burned out from exclusively Asian contexts, and I think many of peers feel the same way: we don’t want to be the only Asian faces in a Caucasian church, but we want to be part of a multicultural congregation where we can invite our friends; that is, if we truly see the church not as a gathering place for like-minded Asians/Christians, but a missional bodies serving our wider communities.

March 9th, 2007

I think the Asian-American name space is not as homogeneous as we perceive it to be. For some ethnic groups, they could be 2nd or even 3rd generation in their development, but for some other, like Vietnamese American, we are still relatively new comers.

I think instead of trying to address it from the top down (structural changes in denominational context), I think the majority of the issues need to be from the bottom up (raising up enough young people).

If we take the clue of the pages of Scripture and church history, the older authoritarian mindset of the Judaizers could not really contain the growth of the Pauline movement. We can hammer the structure all we want, but without new people to flood the structure with, we won’t be able to maintain any structure in the long run…

O'B O'Brien
March 10th, 2007

Speaking from the standpoint of observing evangelical churches from Southeast Asian refugee backgrounds (Cambodian, Hmong, Iu-Mienh, Lao, Montagnard, Vietnamese, etc.), the refugee experience and the relatively short duration of Christianity in their cultures influences the perspective of first-generation church leaders in distinct ways (especially compared with other Asian American church leaders whose people groups came into the United States primarily as economic migrants). Southeast Asian American church leaders appear more interested in fostering creative ministry to their own people groups back in Southeast Asia than to their own descendents in the United States. This may in part be due to survivor’s guilt – that the first-generation people here are the survivors of the Vietnam War, the flight to another country, the refugee camp, etc. and came to the United States to build a relatively free and economically prosperous new life here while thousands more either perished in the process or continue to live in more difficult living conditions.

Some of the cultures, especially the tribal cultures, have long histories of maintaining their lives as an ethnic minority in the midst of an antagonistic majority culture. (In Southeast Asia, strong efforts at assimilation, sometimes violent, continue to this day.) For these cultures there are “cultural survival mechanisms” which place a high value on their descendants continuing in the traditional language and culture. Some of these first-generation leaders do not perceive that the assimilation that could not forcibly be completed into majority Southeast Asian cultures can easily be completed in the midst of our American society with emphases on multiculturalism, diversity, and individual freedom.

These things, along with lack of trust extended to young emerging and fear that next generation ministries will deviate for the doctrine or heritage of their forebears, are active discouragements to the development of next generation leaders.

One of our priorities must be finding new ways to help first-generation leaders understand that ignoring the descendent generations in the United States violates their own beliefs and values. I trust that first-generation leaders actually do care about the lives of the next generation in the United States and that, given the chance to consider it seriously, they would like to foster the growth of the Kingdom of God among the Next Gen. First generation leaders symbolically stand in the same place as the apostles did in the Hellenic widow controversy of Acts 6 – the delegation of authority and empowerment of the next generation of leaders will result in Kingdom growth.

For those of us in Bible-centered Christianity, we may wish to give consideration to developing a “Theology of Next Generation Ministry”. Some of the texts which may contribute to this include…
• Genesis Chapter 12, the call of Abraham – God’s blessing to be conveyed through continuing generations
• The Passover event and celebration – the generational conveyance of God’s redemption
• Psalm 78 – clear declaration about the generational propagation of the gospel
• Acts 6, the Hellenic and Judaic widows’ controversy – demonstrates the growth of God’s Kingdom in the midst of a cultural and language divide in the church. Important elements include the engagement of both traditionalist and modernist leaders in participatory decision-making, the empowerment of new leaders from the nontraditional background, and the public delegation of authority.

Ken Sem Kong
March 13th, 2007

The article is insightful. And comment that was made are all insightful. As a Southeast Asian American non-seminarian student. As one coming a community that’s from the lower bracket of the social economic field. I find seminary a challenge to even try to attend. Let alone apply for. And this is true to a certain degree with many of my peers. We find that seminary would be an awesome addition to our ministrial resume but the cost and relevancy of it to our current ministry setting is lacking.

Many of my peers who graduated from a bible school or seminary but find that what they have learned for the most part has not prepared them for service inside the ethnic churches. They weren’t prepared to deal with issues of cultural conflict. They weren’t prepared to deal with their own doubtful questionings. They weren’t taught that what they learned need to be contextualize for their settings.

Our seminaries are very mainline American base. They exist to train our anglo brothers and sisters. But what about us? What about our issues? What about our issues of pain?

What about courses that not only highlight on the history of European Christianity but that of Asia? What about history lessons on the work of God among great Asian Leaders not just about guys like George Whitefield?

What about seeing theology not only from the eyes of the greats like Augustine or John Calvin. But what about those theologians who are of Asian decent?

Come on! We live in a country that’s no longer just for the “Whites” it’s for all of God’s beautiful people.

I’m not promoting an Asian focus theology. I’m just saying let’s be fair. We are paying for our education. We are paying these instituion to teach us what can help us as we serve in God’s greater Kingdom.

Daniel K. Eng
March 13th, 2007

As a seminary student, I agree with Ken Sem Kong that our seminaries generally don’t prepare us well for ministry to Asian-Americans. Are our church history classes teaching us about the history of the Asian-American church? Are our preaching classes teaching us how to communicate from the pulpit effectively to an achievement-oriented Asian-American audience? Are our counseling classes equipping us to deal with the tensions of living with model minority complex?

Daniel K. Eng
March 13th, 2007

Another thought: I wonder if anthropology should be taught more in seminaries.

By the way, DJ, thanks for linking to my blog!

Paul C. Chou
March 14th, 2007

Ben, I hope to meet you again soon. Thank you for your response. Let me share with you my perspectives for your encouragement and consideration.

Dr. Tim Keller in his many sermons taught us many times that we are like fish living out of the element, meaning that we are out of the water and we live awkwardly on “land”. In other words, we are all broken people living on a broken earth. We are not perfect (I Cor. 13:10) in a non-perfect world. We are in desperate state of recovery, learning to live in an imperfect world, only by the grace of God. Christ lives within us and is redeeming us and our cultures – Asian, American, Asian American and post-modern cultures. Given this belief and Jesus’ promise, I hope that we would build up emotionally-healthy and doctrinally-sound Asian American churches to serve our generation – all people groups, I hope! In fact, I would hope that Asian Americans would have a broader heart to be inclusive and sensitive to others due to our experiences of being on the other side before!

Pete Scazzero wrote a book about the current state of American churches and how it has too many emotionally unhealthy people. We have to become emotionally healthy.

We have to talk about our calling and our DNA also.

Dr. Os Guinness wrote the best book on the subject of “The Call”. Personal I believe that we are wired differently, actually uniquely, in God’s way. His way is high way and above us all. We are called to become who we are and we are called to do who we are. What we do is a reflection of who we are. I believe that there are healthy, strong, and progressive (i.e., open minded, willing to learn and to transform to obey what he or she believes in Christ.) Asian American Christians who are willing to step up to offer themselves to create a safe and nourishing environment for others to live out their faith in Christ. Also, there are Asian Americans Christians who are wired and called in North America to develop multi-ethnic churches to practice their faith.

Dr. Tim Keller was asked whether he has be set up his mind to develop a multi-ethnic church in New York City. His reply was “No.” What Keller was called to do is to preach the gospel in the City. He is doctrinal in what he preaches, therefore, it is evangelical and attracting all kinds of peoples to his church. When you walk in his church, you might think it is an Asian church, so many of them there (a close Anglo-American leader asked me, “Why?” My reply to her is that Asians know where the good food is!). When you’re doctrinally-sound, the church would not be merely a “gathering place,” but a place for joy and a fulfilling place for serving the community, and naturally “missional”, right? All these good things would be the result and fruits of everyone of us being who we are.

In my original statement, I have no specific type of church in my mind. All I want to do is to encourage Asian American Christians to step up and become the leader who can apply themselves in the work place and also in the church, to apply them and to contribute. The type of church is up to the God’s calling/vision and the person’s DNA! Most importantly it is our obedience to become who we are in His plan that counts!

To become who you are and to apply who you are is the story. Find the place to do that: whether it is an ethnic church, a Caucasian church, an African American church, or an Asian American church. (By Asian American church, I mean the leadership is primarily Asian Americans.)

And you know Asian Americans are quite differently when you consider their ethnic background. In my writing, I loosely refer them as a group. There is different issues and needs between the subgroups. You can see the Southeast Asian Americans do carry different needs and views (see other responses!). This is why it is so exciting to see us serving each other and work with each other in the North American Christian movement.

Paul C. Chou
March 18th, 2007

Ken, Thank you for your comments. I do believe that we are also writing another chapter of His story today. In business, I learned that nothing is free. No one will give you something free. We have to know what we bring to the table so that we may have a place to voice. I can hear your need and also your frustration with this broken world we live in.

I am a firm believer of the incredible capacity of Asian Americans in all fields and their potential for making a greater contribution to America today. Of course, we must invest in strong, healthy, progressive Asian American theologians to not only write, but also promote their perspectives and insights on theology. Jesus is to above all and is for all. In 2006, we (L2 Foundation) did self-publish a book that resulted from the conversations of 12 Asian American theologians. Dr. Timothy Tseng in the San Francisco Bay area just launched a new ministry, Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity, for this very purpose.

Asian Americans can and should write your own story in North America. That is the core of my first blog comment. I hope this really would be an encouragement to you – write your story by the grace of God! Live out and do who you are. Many of us are called to be pioneers for this direction.

Ken Sem Kong
March 20th, 2007

Thank for you for our encouragement Paul. Yes, we must write our own stories. All of us Asian Americans are not a like. We all have different stories of faith and journey. Mine just happen to be a story of struggle, plight and faith.

I have also purchased the book you were talking about. It is rich in truth.

And yes I am working with a group of Southeast Asian American to write our unique stories. (DJ, sorry for being so slow in seeking your consultation). I pray and hope that our voice will be heard and shared among our evangelical brothers and sisters.

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