The noise for Asian-American (AA) ministries has been growing louder in recent months.
There appears to be a surging conviction for the legitimacy of AA ministries. Various AA leaders feel less inclined to apologize or feel ashamed for their ministry contexts.
And while I find this present moment encouraging, I also wonder how AA churches will feel a year(s) from now when they still feel stuck with the same challenges and issues as before.
Yes, the emotional boost in the present is good, but what about the reality of things on a ground-floor level once the dust settles? The legitimacy of AA churches and ministries may be established, but I believe AAs will continue to feel that they’re still far from where they want or need to be.
In my previous post, I gave 5 predictions for the future AA church, in this post I give 5 recommendations or food-for-thought for the present AA church as it continues to evolve and emerge.
Qualifier: Similar to my previous post, I fully acknowledge and recognize my limitations in perspective due to the constraints of my own time, context, experience, and knowledge. I recognize that these considerations cannot speak or apply directly to everyone in every context.
Consideration 1: Greater Crystallization of Purpose and Practices, Less Bowing at the Altar of Pragmatism.
As a 2nd generation Korean-American (KA), here’s a little of what I remember from my teenage years: We would make fun of nerds or jocks, but we ourselves wore baggy jeans while spending our summers at Elite Academy, listened to gangster rap and Chris Tomlin, cheered for Korea during World Cup and Olympics, and cried on 911. In other words, we were a little confused. We knew what we weren’t, but we weren’t entirely sure what we were.
I wonder if this is how some AAs feel when they attend their AA church. They know what their church is not, but they’re not exactly sure what they’re about either.
Don’t we see some dissonance in AA churches? Our stated convictions (church’s/ministry’s vision and mission statements) aren’t really celebrated (which is the true revealer of values)? Our ministry constructs (weekly Bible studies/services/programs), don’t really correlate with our stated convictions?
So what ends up happening is our churches become a hodgepodge of ideas (borrowed from 9Marks, Redeemer, Acts29) and different practices (cause we should do SAT classes and cheer for our country) which aren’t clearly or closely bound together in a clear picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
So we end up doing the next natural thing: unknowingly reinforce a culture by celebrating the only things that seems visible - attendance and giving, which are important but left alone, sends a message of championing self-preservation and stability (which oddly enough, are AA values).
Over time, pragmatism cannot help but drive convictions and constructs, since the celebrated culture demands certain outcomes (numbers). We know who we’re not (Redeemer, The Village Church, etc.), but we’re not exactly sure who we are and what we’re about.
How can this be remedied? Though it’ll require a multi-layered process, a helpful start might be something detailed in Tim Keller’s book, Center Church.
In it, he describes how the church’s innerworking usually goes directly from 1. Theological foundation (“What We Believe”) to 2. Ministry expression (What We Do”). But he argues for the inadequacy (too much loss in translation) of a two-step process by proposing a middle road-stop called “a theological vision” which enables a church to more tightly bind it’s beliefs with its practices for greater theological translation at every ministry level.
While AA churches have robust theology or well-oiled ministry practices (Services, Classes), I wonder if it would be helpful for AA churches to carefully think through a theological vision that connects the theology and practices clearly, precisely, in a way that may be further contextualized for AAs.
What if AA churches had a standardized theological vision/manifesto on making disciples, undergirded with theological principles and ministry philosophies? What if AA churches had a detailed plan that shows how disciple-making happens at their church/ministry? It won’t work perfectly, but what if it could actually be understood and articulated by people in the church?
“But what if my ministry/church is evolving.” But how do you know it’s evolving if you’re not sure what it’s evolving from? Ambiguity cannot assess ambiguity.
It’s one thing to embrace the legitimacy of AA ministries (comfort in one’s own skin), it’s another thing to clearly and strategically do AA ministries (live out of one’s own skin).
Consideration 2: Pursuing Gospel-Applied Preaching, Not Merely Gospel-Centered Preaching
I wonder if some of the gospel-centered preaching done by AAs today are done more out of a fear of being labeled, “not gospel-centered” rather than one born out of a true conviction which shows itself in a well researched, deeply reflected, beautifully crafted sermon.
Without getting into the finer points of Christ-centric hermeneutics, Tim Keller’s preaching book, or the Fallen Condition Focus of Bryan Chapel, I’ve heard a lot of sermons be called “gospel-centered” simply because they either 1. Reference the historical events of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection at some point in the sermon (usually the end) 2. Demonstrate the historical-redemptive nature of a given text (usually at the end) 3. Demonstrate the gospel motivation of the imperative in a way that replaces guilt for gratitude (yup, you guessed it - at the end). However, I can’t help but feel that a number of these sermons feel oddly perfunctory. “I talked about Jesus or made some sort of connection, so don’t label me the wrong way.”
But isn’t this a disservice to people, especially if our audience is AA? Shouldn't we further contextualize the gospel for an AA audience by not stapling a generic gospel at the end of every homily, but by applying a specific aspect of the gospel which is channeled through the inherent gospel themes in a given passage for a specific audience (AAs)?
For example, if we’re trying to exhort our people to get involved in community, one way to be “gospel-centered” could be, “Jesus came to the earth, died for our sins. He looked to the interest of others. Let’s do the same.” That would get a preacher “off the hook” (?).
But what if we could be more “gospel specific” through the careful application of a particular component of the gospel with greater specificity into the heart of the AA audience/heart?
What if we said: “I know why you’re afraid of community. Yes, because we’re an honor/shame culture, but also because we’re afraid of rejection. Many of us are used to being loved, but not necessarily “liked.” While we felt loved by our immigrant mom and dad, we didn’t necessarily feel like they liked being around us. We felt rejected by them.
This is why we have a deep aversion to anything that presents the opportunity of “love without like.” This is why Asians are better at cliques than anyone else. But here’s what the gospel has to say about this issue: When you were saved - you experienced Trinitarian inclusion. You were adopted by a Father who doesn’t only love you, but likes you right now. He enjoys being around you. You have an elder brother named Jesus who isn’t ashamed to call you his sibling. The Holy Spirit was not afraid to enter into your heart and he will never leave you. That’s the security you have in the gospel. That’s why we can do community because of our Trinitarian-covenantal fellowship with the God-head.”
Something tells me the latter will resonate more with an AA audience than the prior.
AA preachers need to go beyond perfunctory preaching out of fear of how we’ll be perceived and pursue a labor of love that invites our imagination, time, passion, and excellence.
Consideration 3. Widen the Lens of “Missional”
I’ve heard criticism over the years regarding how AA churches grow primarily through transfers (Christians joining another church) rather than conversion (non-Christian joining a church through salvation.
“Transfer growth is not real growth.”
“Are we making disciples or are we trading disciples?”
I understand where this comes from. Yes, we want unchurched people to find Jesus and join the church. But I also wonder if we need to widen our lens of what it means to “grow” and be “missional” given the context of the people our churches can effectively reach and minister to.
For example, when it comes to Korean-American (KA) contexts, I believe one of our big mission fields is actually de-churched (left the church) KA Christians and their children.
The demographic of truly unchurched KAs is still a minority. KAs in Southern California, while certainly encroaching the experience of the post-Christian world, are still largely the byproduct of “Western Christendom” in the form of EM/KM contexts. Almost every KA kid remembers going to church at some point in his or her life, even if it was just for a little bit.
In light of this context, a KA individual who has left the church, but returned to the church, is a real spiritual win. A KA individual who has never left his church, or is a dedicated member at a new church, is in some ways a greater win and testament. Why do we downplay this?
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe we should engage the un-churched and partner with various things in one’s city. I’d love to share about the people I’m personally investing in relationship with and the ways our church is trying to partner with people and places in our local area. But let’s be slow to de-legitimize good gospel ministry.
If you’re a church leader and you have majority KAs who have grown up in the church, with some returning to the church, you are doing amazing discipleship work.
Disciple-making, while it can be razor sharp and specific, also encompasses the journey of the whole believer from the womb to the tomb. Let’s honor all that God is doing.
Consideration 4: Creating a Plan for Leadership Development
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The irony of this proverb is that it’s an Asian proverb (Chinese to be specific).
It’s ironic because when you look at a number of AA churches, the value system is still deeply provisional (“I do for you”) rather than training for the multiplication of provision (“I teach you to do for others”).
Think about your church for a moment. It’s probably 10% of the congregation doing 90% of the work, right? If you’re one of the 10%, it’s probably something that gets you fired up with indignation.
But have you ever tried to replace yourself (yes, literally) by an actual process of training and development? Is there a culture in place where that’s valued with a built-in roadmap that facilitates the on-boarding for volunteers?
I fully understand the lack of involvement and know-how for this on the end of the immigrant church. Their learned mode of operation from the previous generations compounded by the language barrier between 1st gen and 1.5/2nd gen pastors, it’s not hard to imagine why there was so little training and development.
But for the current crop of 1.5 and 2nd generation KA pastors, the 2nd and 3rd generation Chinese American pastors, don’t we have to do better?
At what point are we willing to take the short-term loss of time, energy, and comfort for the long-term win of creating a church where our members grow in leadership, and our leaders become leaders of leaders?
I’m not saying it has to be an extensive plan. But if you’re the pastor of a smaller congregation, can’t it start out by integrating a training portion during your staff meetings? Or maybe it can start by actually having some staff meetings?
This is an area where I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to be working under a senior leader where development is verbalized and actualized through conversation and more.
I believe that this will be a linchpin issue when it comes to the future trajectory of the AA church.
Consideration 5: Learning From Other AA Tribes
There’s an interesting dissonance I see regarding Asians.
Though we’re so great at copying and mimicking everything in the world from Louis Vuitton bags, to DVDS, we’re strangely slow at adopting the strengths of other AA churches that are different from our own.
It gets weirder. We’re quick to adopt points of strengths when it comes from non-Asian Christians. We try to make our bands sound like Hillsong. We try to preach like Keller or Matt Chandler. We even borrow organizational principles from Saddleback and Northcoast. But we have an aversion to learning from our own.
Why is this the case? Is this because our convictions truly go that deep?
Or is this because we’re threatened? Is it because of our Asian insecurity and fear of incompetence, where we want to be perceived as the expert in the room (God forbid we enter a space where we have to position ourselves as the learners for once)?
Look, there are some really great AA charismatic leaders who know their Bibles and pray like no other. Yes, sometimes in tongues. Yes, sometimes too much tongues in the context of a corporate gathering (!) But they have some incredible things to offer.
Sure, there are overly organizational AA leaders who talk too much about numerical numbers and strategies and replace the word “scale” for “discipleship” and “metrics” for “fruit” but they are actually developing great leaders in their churches and they’re trying to put the ministry into the hands of people.
Sure, there are some AA Reformed guys who only refer to Jesus as their federal head, and get out of their ice chambers when they wake up in the morning, and have a weekly date with the Westminster Shorter Catechism after kissing their wives goodnight. But they also have such a robust theology that glows with reverence for a grand, majestic God who is displaying the beauty of God’s glorious grace in His crucified, now risen Son, Jesus.
Sure, there are some KA leaders who are way into their titles and will only show up to spaces if they’re asked to speak or sit in a position of honor. Sure, there are some Chinese-American leaders whose churches have three congregations who speak in all different languages but somehow function as one church. Sure there are some bigger independent AA churches who are trying to do the whole “big-white church” deal, while others are just trying to survive. But would it hurt for us to come together to listen, learn, and encourage one another?
When John MacArthur came out with “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel” we were quick to point out how this creates a certain ethos of separation. But how could we be so astute to point that out, while being a part of the fragmentation ourselves as AAs?
What if AA churches and leaders could be better? What if we could create spaces where we could learn, adopt, adapt, and cheer each other on? I wonder if AA churches and leaders would gain greater credibility if we pursued this.
Every AA church has a set of specific obstacles but opportunities. Every AA church has its own pains and passions. Every AA church has its unique ministry calling given by God.
This post was motivated by a personal desire that while it’s one thing for AA churches and leaders to capitalize on a cultural moment, it’s something far better to do the hard work of going deeper, deeply reflecting, and making the necessary changes and adjustments in attitudes and/or ministry constructs so that we move from simply “Here’s what could be” (optimism) to “Here’s what we are doing” (groundwork).
I wonder what Jesus will say to the AA church many years from now.
I don’t think he’ll say, “You guys cracked the AA code for churches in America. Good job.” I don’t think he’ll say, “Hey, your church was like the Chinese Redeemer.” But whatever it is that the AA church hopes to hear in the future, I hope and pray we roll up our sleeves and prayerfully do the work so that we can hear, “Well done good and faithful servant.”