I should probably address the "fame" issue before the "Asian-American" one.
No pastor or church leader ought to seek fame as an end in itself.
The aim of every church leader ought to be "love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5). The hope of every church leader ought to be hearing Jesus' commendation, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matt 25:21).
But what makes the conversation complicated is the role of influence.
While fame is the result and renown from doing good, influence is one's range and reach in doing good.
Influence is one's capacity to affect ("affect" quotient) and to desire this, John Piper affirms, is not "necessarily sinful." Paul the Apostle asked for prayer with the desire that "many will give thanks on our behalf ...." (2 Cor 1:11). It really depends whether the ultimate goal of influence is God's Kingdom or our kingdom.
I admit, this is very nuanced. And though we'd like to split hairs when it comes to identifying fame vs. influence, their relationship in reality is very closely connected. Someone who is famous is likely influential and vice versa. And though the moral battle of pride must be fought in the motives, the conceptual relationship between fame and influence is amorale.
So while no church leader should aim for fame as the ultimate goal, there is apparently room and space for a church leader to desire greater influence and impact for a Kingdom beyond their own.
So having addressed that issue, my premise for this entry is that Asian-American (AA) pastors operate with less influence than their non-Asian counterparts in terms of being a voice for the broader faith community.
*For clarification, I'm defining "Asian-American (AA)" as primarily english speaking whether descriptive of pastor or church context. I'm also defining "broader faith community" as the Christian sphere beyond their own churches, networks, and affiliations.
Why do I think this?
Well, if you hop on the website of any national Christian conference occuring next year (2018) and observe the front-page speaker list, you won't see any Asians. In fact, the first 4 conference websites I checked out which featured 30+ speakers didn't platform a single Asian voice.
"But what about Francis Chan?"
You're right. But can you think of anyone else after Francis Chan? Isn't this why a national online publication posted an article 2 years ago with the title, "5 Asian-American Preachers Not Named Eugene Cho or Francis Chan... and a Couple Who Are." (Some of us are wondering if that's the Eugene Cho we went to High School with.)
Others may be thinking, "It's because AA pastors aren't as good as other people."
I used to think that too but I no longer believe this to be true.
See, I'm part of a network of churches that seeks to resource Christians in the Southern California region, with one of these resources being an annual conference.
I've noticed an interesting trend at these conferences at least regarding preaching effectiveness. Though I had assumed and expected AA preachers to not fare as well as their non-Asian counterparts, that hasn't been the case at all. In fact, a number of the AA preachers have fared better in the post-conference survey responses. Sure, there may be a contextual advantage, but the numbers must still be weighed. As each conference has passed, I've grown in my belief that AA pastors are just as capable.
So how come Asian-American pastors don't have greater influence in the broader faith community?
Here are 5 reasons why I believe this is the case:
1. Asian-American churches aren't that big
Every industry has its currency.
In baseball, it's all about the Earned Run Average (ERA) and Runs Batted In (RBI). In business, it's all about profit margins.
In the Western church-world, it's about church size (attendance).
A few years ago, I attended a conference designed for church leaders. Every single speaker introduction mentioned three things: 1) Family 2) Affiliations 3) Church size and the number of campuses they've planted.
But most AA churches aren't that big. Many of them can't be. This is because (1) They're reaching a niche demographic (Asian-Americans) and/or 2) They don't have the organizational structure in place for large scale growth because they're still relatively young in their church life-stage. In other words, they're still emerging. While there are non-Asian churches today over 100 years old, there are hardly any AA churches over 30 years old.
As one non-Asian conference organizer once told me, "Leaders who cross over to a platform, already have a platform." Unfortunately, the AA church scene isn't a big enough platform to catch the attention of others (at least not yet). This is why you're beginning to hear of more AA seminary grads applying for multi-ethic churches.
"But not every non-Asian influencer has a big church." That brings me to my next point.
2. Asian-American Networks Are Insular
The only other way a pastor grows in influence outside of his large church (platform) is by knowing the right people (network).
It makes sense. Why would someone be invited to write an article for a national publication or speak at a conference? It's because they got invited by someone they knew.
But most AA pastors are insulated. First, AA pastors don't really collaborate with others (another blog for another day). Secondly, if they do, it's with other AA pastors. The end result being: no one in the world knows who they are.
I had a phone conversation last week with a pretty well-known, non-Asian, lead pastor, and conference organizer, who I won't mention by name. I asked him why he thinks AA pastors hit an influence ceiling. Without hesitation he said this is not unique to Asian-Americans, but any _________-American groups that insulate themselves. He flat out said it doesn't matter how good a preacher or pastor someone is, it's about who they know. (Yeah, it sounds like Hollywood right?)
Most AA pastors don't have a network or tribe and if they do, it's an AA one. But their own networks require networking. Otherwise, there is no pathway, or bridge for network leaders to cross-over, dialogue, be platformed, and so forth.
But this brings me to my next point.
3. Asian-American Pastors Don't Know How To Network
AA don't know how to introduce themselves to others and "make a strong first impression." Why?
Because this isn't really a value in Asian heritage. The Asian narrative is "loyalty where you are" rather than the Western narrative of "Go, explore, and change the world."
Hence, you'll rarely see an Asian pastor initiate a conversation to exchange contact information with another non-Asian pastor for dialogue, mutual learning, and ministry partnership.
The only time you see this happen is when a young Asian pastor waits 45 minutes in line at The Gospel Coalition to take a picture with his idol and father-figure, John Piper. Or Tim Keller. But that's about it.
AA pastors haven't developed the pyschological muscle for what my friend calls, "white confidence." We'd prefer friendship over networking, and though I ultimately agree that's the right order of priority, I think we dismiss the latter completely to our own disadvantage.
4. Asian-American Pastors Aren't Encouraged to BUILD Platforms
AA pastors are deathly afraid of "putting themselves out there."
When I ask other pastors why don't they don't start a blog, create a network, or pioneer something, I get the exact same monologue every time:
1) "Others are already doing it." 2) "I'm not sure who will pay attention."
I don't know people's hearts, but I can't help but sometimes feel the real reason is a fear of failure. Why do I think this? Because it's perfectly consistent with the "honor-shame" Asian narrative. We don't want to try, because we don't want to fail, and failure brings shame.
This fear means we don't pioneer or create. We let others pioneer and we just do the rip-off, whether it's DVDs, Louis Vuitton purses, or awful Hillsong United covers. This is no secret. Even Disney knows this. That's why while Ariel took on a new identity to explore the world, and Elsa broke out of the wounds of her past to become her actualized self, Mulan defeated the entire Hun army just to bring her dad honor.
AA pastors need a greater push to try, fail, and try again. But AA church leaders are rarely encouraged to envision, pioneer, create, speak, write, and so forth. And the moment someone tries, his motives are questioned while we rarely question the motives of the non-Asian leader.
I started this blog back in September. In reality, people have been telling me to write for years. Why did I take so long? There are many reasons but the big one was my own fear of being perceived as a shame-less self-promoter. (Please subscribe if you haven't yet done so.)
5. Asian-American churches don't take their OWN pastors that seriously.
In a recent phone conference with a knowledgeable individual on race relations, he mentioned how AA are viewed by non-Asians today as leaders in the spheres of medicine and law, but not the church.
Though he was making a cross-racial point, I couldn't help but see that to be the case within AA churches themselves.
If you ask the average church member of an AA church who their favorite pastor or preacher is, many of them would not mention their own pastors. They would say John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, or Matt Chandler. And their pastors would not blame them at all.
I just can't help but smell the irony that while AA express outrage at Hollywood whitewashing, or at Matt Damon saving China, or at Asian co-stars not being paid the same as their non-Asian co-stars, we also don't blink an eye as we reverently turn to the non-Asian voice as our spiritual authority who we trust to frame our Christian spirituality as our last (spiritual) samurai.
So where should we go from here?
If you're an Asian-American pastor:
1. Embrace your ministry assignment. Some of us may be called to a multi-ethnic context while others are called to an AA one. But rather than seeking the path of greatest influence, let's seek the path of greatest honesty and surrender to Jesus. Let's engage in honest dialogue with ourselves and others about where Jesus may be placing us, but ultimately ready to steward the ministry Jesus places in our hands. And maybe a helpful indicator as to where our motives are may be by examining our present faithfulness or lack thereof to the ministry God has entrusted to us in the present.
2. Be courageous. The Holy Spirit in the non-Asian Christian leader isn't stronger than the Holy Spirit in you. Don't be afraid to try something new or take a calculated risk. No, we shouldn't be stupid, but let's stop cloaking our fear with the veneer of "wisdom." Let's push forward the Kingdom agenda, fight our pride, and go the extra step.
3. Learn from others. Let's not hesitate to reach out to someone to learn from them. If there's a particular question you have for a pastor or organization, ask them out for lunch, shoot them an email. Why not? Let's learn, grow, and be better leaders tomorrow than we are today.
If you attend an Asian-American church, don't hesitate to encourage your pastor. If you see a distinct gifting or ability, don't hesitate to encourage him and bug him about it. I guarantee your pastor will appreciate it.
The goal needs to be rightly callibrated.
The hope can't just be to see another AA platformed at a conference or for there to be more "famous" AA pastors. Those hopes alone, miss the mark. They'd be far too small a goal in comparison to the things God actually wants to do.
God wants to save sinners with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And because the tomb is empty, there is a saving message to be preached, disciples to be made, and churches to be planted and strengthed. That's what's ultimate.
And yet, precisely because of what's ultimate, it's my hope that AA pastors would more boldly exercise their creativities and giftedness to do all they possibly could do for that end.
And in the end, may the name of greatest fame, be Jesus and Jesus alone.