The most common form of structure within Asian American Churches is the multi-congregational model. This is where they have an English service, a Chinese service, a Korean service, etc.. While I understand the initial move to have such structures, now that we’re several decades of seeing these churches exist, the problems that arise form these churches may cause us to reconsider whether this is structure that is missionally advantageous.
This short article attempts to describe how multi-congregational churches have a propensity to stunt to the mission and health of the church.
The context of this is from observing several phenomenons:
- Why these churches have consistent and unresolved conflict (bad)
- Why the English youth / young adults / adults are leaving Asian American churches by the droves (really bad)
Introducing the Issue
In order to understand the problem, we need to understand a few things about these churches. Multi-congregational Asian-American churches are generally planted by first generation Asians. The English congregations generally come into being later when the first generation Christians have kids or other second generation people come into the church.
Note that this is not a bad thing. It’s great that the church is cultivating an environment where entire families are coming to worship, and the formation of an English service is well-intentioned response to seeing a need to disciple second generation Christians. However, there are extraordinary factors which make this an extraordinary situation that are worth considering.
Unlike other immigrants, Asians have an unusual propensity to adapt much quicker and readily to their new surroundings than perhaps other cultures. The combination of the Asian culture’s natural passivity combined with entering a culture where that culture (in this case, the American culture) is portrayed as superior causes this rapid sociological phenomenon. As a result, they yield very readily changes in their cultural DNA. I remember how my current roommate told me how he was under the impression that his old roommate, who he had been living for several months, was an American, when in fact he had just moved from Korean just six months prior. Asian Americans are the master conformists; they are the cultural chameleons.
Now, what does this have to do with Asian American churches?
The basic problem in multi-congregational Asian American churches is due to a large underestimation of how unusually and vastly culturally different 2nd generation Asian American Christians are from their first generation progenitors.
Asian Americans are a new breed. They are a hybrid culture similar enough to be Asian-esque but too distinct to be grouped in the same category. If you have ever seen how difficult it is for a second generation son or daughter try to communicate with their first generation parents and relatives, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that they are too distinct.
It is almost as if they speak different languages. Their mannerisms, customs, values, authority structures, and guiding principles, because of the vast cultural transformation that took place in between generations, are very different to say the least. Missiologically speaking, I would feel very comfortable with understanding the second-generation Asian American culture to be an entirely different culture to the first generation Asians. To that group of first generation Christians, they might as well be Thai or African because of how different they operate from their parents.
Why This is A Missiological Blunder
When you consider the multi-congregational Asian American churches, what you are seeing is not a church with multiple languages, what you are seeing are completely different churches. And what’s the problem then? It’s a little hard to explain, but allow me to demonstrate using a basic missiological principle:
When you plant churches in other countries, say for instance China, it’s basic missiological principle that your goal is not to set up an American church in China; the goal is to bring Americans over there in order to raise up Chinese to lead their own indigenous church. The former is colonialism; the latter is actual missionary work. The problems with setting up an American church are obvious: the Chinese people are best won by Chinese people. That’s why you raise up leaders, and then get out of the way.
When you think about multi-congregational churches, using that last analogy, what you are basically seeing is an authority structure in place that is foreign to its congregants, more notably, the Asian American congregants.
And Why This Causes Problems
And so having multi-congregational Asian American churches is really similar to running an American church in China- it causes a lot of problems.
When conflict arises in the church, the way that 1st generation Asians handle conflict is vastly different than 2nd generation Asian Americans. Communication between leaders and congregants are very different. Value systems and cultural expressions are very different. Suddenly, when you throw in sin into that system, there is no telling what will happen. Have you seen a mix of first-gen and second-gen Asian American trying to address and resolve conflict? It’s not a pretty sight..
The English ministries needs a leadership that speaks the same language to them. Not linguistically- but culturally, value-wise, communication-wise, principle-wise. We cannot do discipleship without this cross-cultural consideration. We cannot reach the Asian American youth who are often spoken to more clearly by pop and internet culture than those in church leadership who believe that the Asian way is the right way. This is why the youth of our churches are leaving in the droves.
I understand that most of my observations about Asian American churches are prognostic and not prescriptive (I hope they aren’t depressing–Jesus still loves AA churches!). I understand the limitations of my opinion as someone who has never been in that type of leadership to bring about change. It’s only that I’m out of the AA church system and in a season of praying, learning, and growing that I can see why it’s not working.
I pray that this article (in the hands of anyone in leadership in AA churches) will at least continue to stir our need to see that contextualization and cultural sensitivity is very essential to the work of the gospel. If we are to reach nations, we should know a little bit about the nations shouldn’t we? So, if we want to do ministry as an American church, we should understand why multi-congregational churches can inherently stunt the mission and the health of the church.
Thanks for reading. God bless you all.