What I'll Miss (And Not Miss) About the Asian American Church

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I attend a multi-ethnic church now.

Or at least I’m in the process of transitioning to one.

I’ve spent all of my life in Asian-American (AA) church contexts. It’s really all I’ve ever known.

And so I believe my church transition lends me a unique vantage point since I’m experiencing and processing things in real time.

In this post, I detail a few things I’ll miss about the AA church context but also a few things I won’t miss. 

But first, a few prefacing items before I get to the points:

  1. “Asian American” encompasses various types of Asians but my filter will come from a predominately Korean-American (KA) viewpoint.

  2. I have only begun attending a multi-ethnic church very recently. I realize my viewpoints are limited and very likely to evolve over time. I may not end up missing what I said I’ll miss and vice verse, time will tell. 

  3. I do not believe multi-ethnic churches are inherently greater or better than mono-ethnic churches. I affirm that both have their strengths, weaknesses, and purposes in God’s Kingdom.

 

HERE’S WHAT I’LL MISS

 

1. Being Organically Understood

There’s a scene in Canada’s sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” where a Korean character named Jung tries to explain what a ddong jeem (“poop needle”) is to his white supervisor. It’s hilarious because the more he tries to explain it, the more concerned his supervisor becomes. But as a Korean viewer, I knew exactly what it was (for unfortunate reasons).

There’s a comfort in being part of a spiritual ecosystem where you don’t have to explain yourself as a “Third Culture” AA (more on TC later). In a KA church, I didn’t have to explain immigrating, the dual language ministries of the Korean Church (EM/KM), and why I crave spicy fermented cabbage.

From leadership modus operandi (not initiating until given permission), to spiritual heritage (morning prayer and audible group prayer), to socializing preferences (staying on the church campus way past the service), there’s an embedded familiarity which can be very reassuring.

In his book “The Minority Experience” Adrian Pei details how being a minority is really about understanding the dynamics of pain, power, and the impact of the past. But in an AA church context, these are organically embedded and understood in the church experience. You don’t have to have to explain yourself and you don’t realize the comfort in that until you have to.

2. Engaging in Life-Spanning Discipleship Journeys

I love hearing the faith stories of KA Christians because they often require a backstory of the church they were born into and grew up in.

I don’t know about every AA context, but when it comes to the KA context, most KAs have some church in their background.

KAs are mostly:

A. Churched (Grew up in the church, presently attends church and loves it or apathetic towards it)

B. De-Churched (Grew up in the church but left and is either jaded or doesn’t care)

C. Somewhere in-between

I’m not saying there aren’t any unchurched KAs. I’m just commenting on the dominant KA demographic and the amazing ministry opportunity this presents in engaging in a discipleship process that span’s the whole of one’s life - from “womb to the tomb.”

There’s something special about walking deeply with people who have a spiritual heritage (or those who walked away from it all). There’s vibrant conversations and you get a front row seat in the building of a rich spiritual legacy.

3. Automatic Community Life

If you look at the insta-stories of AA Christians, you’ll discover that they feature a lot of their church friends.

See for AAs, you don't have to convince them on the importance of community life. Why? Because Asians are a collectivistic society - our default worldview grasps the importance of “we.” This is why the struggle of community life in AA churches is cliques. Our problem is not groups, but forming exclusive groups.

But if you think about it, have you ever considered what a great problem that is to have? That means the majority of people in the church want to be a part of the community. They want to engage in groups and form meaningful relationships. You don’t have to sell community.

In non-Asian contexts, I wonder if people need to be convinced to get involved in community. Why? Because the Western world is more of an individualistic society. Sure, there are cliques in non-Asian churches, but I think non-Asian churches would love to minister to a people who so naturally gravitate towards community like the AA church does.

 

WHAT I WON’T MISS

 

1. Age Mattering Too Much

Age is a fact of life. It’s hardwired into nature. The Bible gives proverbs and instructions regarding the old and the young. But age may matter too much in AA contexts, .

For example, when it comes to leadership, there can be young eagles in AA churches who are desiring and able to fly but have been told by their supervising pastors that they’re too young and/or need more experience. This can be deflating for younger AA pastors when they see their peers in non-Asian contexts being empowered to start churches, and take greater ownership.

While there is certainly great wisdom in delaying the delegation of authority to younger leaders, I think the AA church can be overly cautious to its own detriment. It’s the classic Asian household where the parents are frustrated with their 25 year old son for not taking charge of his life, but they’ve also taken care of everything for him, never having delegated genuine authority and trust in the first place.

If AA church leaders want to talk about the white majority church and the race issue, they also have to confront the age issue in their own house.

2. Limited Outreach Due to Sociological Realities

A non-negotiable aspect of discipleship is outreach. And one of the most simple but strategic ways to practice outreach is to invite someone to one’s own church.

But the average white, black, or latino will not walk into a predominantly AA church. Of course some may, but most will not. And the average AA agrees (!) that this is true. This is why the AA Christian hesitates to invite one’s own co-workers to one’s AA church. It’s not because he or she doesn't believe in the power of the gospel. They just also believe in the power of sociological realities.

I’m not saying multi-ethnicity is the only way to be truly missional or that an ethnic church can’t be faithful to its God-given mission. All I’m saying is, a mono-ethnic church is going to be limited in the scope of its outreach. An AA church can have a disadvantage when it comes to “reaching the city” because it doesn’t accurately reflect the city itself. It’s not a theological issue, but a sociological one.

I absolutely love the ways God transforms and saves people in the AA context. But I personally found the limited scope of mission to be a frustrating conundrum.

3. Fatigue from Third Culture Confusion

If you grew up in a presbyterian church that prayed in tongues while exercising congregational autonomy (presbaptacostal), you may have realized at some point that you were theologically confused. In the same way, I think Asians who were raised in a culture different than the culture of their parents (“Third Culture”) are often culturally confused, without knowing how confused they really are. And much like how we live out of our theology, we will also live out of our cultural identities (in confusion or not).

To put some flesh on this, imagine a Third Culture KA ministry leader. He or she (without even realizing it) will operate in a way where they want to pick and chose the best parts of both cultures. He or she will naturally want to infuse the sacrificial, hardworking spirit of Korean churches with the entrepreneurial, fast-moving DNA of Western churches.

Though this is conceptually beautiful, I believe it can lead to trouble when the rubber meets the road because it requires an ongoing shift from thought system to thought system (with the two sometimes colliding). Sometimes, he or she will be “more Korean.” Other times, he or she will not be very Korean at all.

So imagine the natural tension this can create over time. Picture a ministry volunteer already sacrificing precious time with her family for the good of the whole ministry (“more Korean”). But with the opportunity to do more, the ministry empowers her with 3 other projects with the available resources (“more non-Asian”). Out of loyalty, the volunteer decides not to speak up against her supervisor and simply works harder (“more Korean”). Without clear communication, the experiential schizophrenia can lead to confusion and exhaustion.

I’m not saying there aren’t cultural confusions in multi-ethnic churches. I’m just saying there is an aftermath that results from Third Culture confusion.

Conclusion

I may realize in a few months how inaccurate I was with my initial thoughts and write a reprise post, but these are just some of my knee-jerk thoughts in the moment.

I’m so thankful for mono-ethnic churches. I grew up in them and was trained to be a follower of Jesus by wonderful communities of faith. I am indebted to the AA church and would recommend anyone and everyone to go learn in an AA church context.

In my new season, I’m excited to be a part of a multi-ethnic church that takes the gospel seriously and demonstrates its beauty through the diverse fellowship of its members as they seek to impact their city. I have a lot to learn.

Churches come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But there is one Kingdom with one King who rules over them all.

I’m glad I’ll be a part of that Kingdom forever.