Wanted to share a piece that I had the chance to read by Russell Yee. Make the worship yours…and ours.
by Russell Yee, Oakland, California, USA
- From Chinese Around the World, #185 (June 2004),
Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism, Hong Kong, pp. 85-90
In 2003 the first Chinese church in America marked its sesquicentennial. San Francisco’s Presbyterian Church in Chinatown was founded in 1853 and continues active ministry with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English speaking congregations. In a century and a half, Chinese-American believers have now multiplied across the nation. In 1996, one study counted 158 Protestant Chinese churches in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. Meanwhile, many Chinese-Americans can be found in Asian-American churches alongside Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and other Americans of Asian descent. And Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans have come to dominate many campus ministries. For instance, the students in the University of California, Berkeley chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are overwhelmingly Asian-American.
God has been gracious from generation to generation to call Chinese-Americans to Christian faith and ministry. Nevertheless, despite this considerable history and heartwarming vitality, there remains a critical missing piece in Chinese/Asian-American Christianity. That missing piece is an “indigenous” form of Asian-American worship.
In Asian-American congregations (which I will use to mean both the English-speaking congregations in bi/trilingual Chinese churches, as well as the all-English speaking churches with mostly American-born Chinese and others of Asian ancestry) if you close your eyes on Sunday morning, there is often little or no way to tell you are in an Asian-American church. There is no Asian-American Christian music. There are no particularly Asian-American ways of gathering, forms of prayer, styles of preaching, customs for the Lord’s Table, or central themes in spirituality and discipleship. By and large, worship in Asian-American settings is a slight variation of majority-white culture, theology, and worship.
By contrast, consider what African-American Christians can look forward to each Sunday morning in any of the tens of thousands of Black churches, from a tiny storefront churches to historic landmark churches to newer suburban megachurches, and everything in between. In Black churches there is a fully-expressed, fully-embodied worship experience, with Black Gospel music, call-and-response in Black prayer and preaching, fully-felt ways of gathering and being fully present together, and a strong use of biblical themes (e.g., the Exodus, the Promised Land) and phrases. In Black worship the suffering and the hopes of centuries of African-American experience are fully expressed and fully offered to God. When I have had Chinese students visit Black churches for the first time, they are always amazed at the sheer energy, power, and joyfulness of Black worship. In many ways, African-American worship (in its myriad of expressions) is the crown jewel of American Christian worship, the fullest and most powerful expression of Christian worship among any of American’s races and peoples.
Jesus said the most important commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). In other words, we are to love, serve, and worship God with all we are. Surely all we are includes the racial, cultural and ethnic aspects of who we are. While we have long ago accepted the Reformation principle that worship should be in the language of the worshipers (whether English, Cantonese, or whatever) in many ways we have not taken the further step of cultivating ways for Asian-Americans to bring their whole selves into worship. Let me give some examples.
A major theme in the lives of many Asian-Americans is the strain and discomfort of being bicultural—neither fully Chinese nor fully American. (Of course, what “American” is changes over time—there was a time when the Irish here and when Jews here were not really considered “American.”) I myself am 3rd-generation Cantonese-American. I don’t speak Cantonese and so cannot walk into a Chinese restaurant and order in Chinese. But meanwhile, I’m considered “ethnic faculty” in some of the places where I’ve taught. In my classes, the Asian-American students rarely raise their hands to speak, even though they know the American educational system values individual initiative and individual expression. (The American population is about 75% extroverted personalities and American culture is famously loud.) I know of fully-qualified Asian-American pastors who have not been considered for ministry placements in majority-culture churches.
Where are the songs that speak to this deeply-felt social uncertainty and marginalization? Where are the forms of prayer that work specially well for reserved, introverted personalities not given to fluent, extemporaneous spoken prayers? Where is the “voice” in worship that I can recognize as my very own?
One specific theme in Asian-American Christianity is the tension between works and grace. We’re raised in families with a shame-based, Confucian sense of hard work, academic and professional achievement, financial self-sufficiency, and full attention to family duties and responsibilities. But the Gospel tells us we’re sinners (not model-minority high-achievers) saved by grace (not works) and called to live by faith (not self-sufficiency). A recent and important book on Asian-American Christian discipleship is titled, Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
Where is the theology and where are the sermons that sort out this intersection of duty and grace? Where is the sensibility about church attendance, ministry efforts, and Christian obedience that steers a clear path around mere shame-based works of obligation? Where is the spirituality in worship that incorporates a Confucian sense of responsibility to others and not just a western focus on individual faith and devotion?
Asian-Americans also live with a sense of uncertainty about our physical being and place. To look different from the majority-culture; to often be physically smaller than neighbors, classmates, and coworkers; to be raised in emotionally reserved families with few outward expressions of affection; to be raised to be unobtrustive and indirect; and to see few media images of people who look like “me,” these all contribute to inward questions of how I am to physically move and be present in group settings.
Where is the full vocabulary of physical gestures and actions that would give me a sense of full bodily presence and embodied action in worship? To sit still, quietly listening to a sermon (just as I sat still listening quietly at school), this I know how to do, and it is surely one expression of worship. But to have a sense that my body is fully active in worship—in a way proper to my culture and personality, in a way that does not require me to “act White” or “act Black”—where can I find this?
There are many other aspects of Asian-American experience that rarely or never make it into Sunday worship. Intergenerational conflicts, problems with Buddhist and Taoist family customs, interracial courtship and marriage, losing/rediscovering ancestral culture, self-consciousness in social settings, and food and table customs—these and so many other important pieces of our lives are parts of who God made us and therefore surely parts we need to be able to bring (whether as gifts or as needs) into worship.
In Acts 10, when God gave Peter the vision of the non-kosher animals he was to kill and eat, Peter could not fathom stepping outside his kosher, Jewish culture. But God wanted Peter to go to the home of a Gentile named Cornelius and share the Good News of Jesus with him. The voice from Heaven told Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). In that verse, what is the “anything” that God has made clean? In this context, it is Gentile people living in Gentile culture (notice that Peter goes to Cornelius’ house, not Cornelius to Peter’s house). God wanted Peter to see that under the New Covenant, Gentile culture, including Gentile foods, manners, music, values, terms of greeting, ways of grooming and dressing, parenting approaches, and so forth, were now going to be a proper and worthy setting in which to serve and worship God. One no longer had to be culturally Jewish to be a believer. (Of course, in every culture there are some things that cannot be simply embraced but need to be redeemed or even possibly discarded, for example, Western materialism or a Confucian sense of unforgiveable shame.)
We need more ways of being culturally Asian-American in our worship. In March, 2003 at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, we had a one-day conference on Asian American worship. We called it “Waterwind” (a reversal of “Feng-Shui” and an allusion to John 3:5) and we gathered 140 participants from 40 Asian-American churches. Afterwards, one participant wrote, “I especially felt encouraged when I heard, ‘Don’t apologize for your culture or ignore it.’” Another participant wrote, “What was most valuable was the sense that we are not alone.” For many, the highlight of the day was the six original composer-performed songs we heard. In their sharing and their music, these composers well expressed some of the particular struggles, longings, needs, and gifts of Asian-American believers. It was a rare and beautiful experience, since one so rarely hears such songs, and certainly not six in one time and place.
I’ve done a bit of songwriting myself to try to express something of this intersection between the Christian journey and Asian-American identity and experience. Here’s the first verse of “Never Not in Need of Grace,”
I work really hard and I rarely complain.
I try not to show it when I’m in pain.
I plan what I say, and I keep to my space;
But I’m never not in need of grace, no,
I’m never not in need of grace.
Please save my soul, not just my face,
I’m never not in need of grace.
As befits an indirect, self-effacing culture, this song makes no overt reference to anything Asian—no mentions of rice, chopsticks, black hair, or the Pacific Rim. But it nevertheless expresses something particularly needful and true about my life as an Asian-American Christian.
While creating a body of Asian-American music for worship is perhaps the highest priority, there are many other directions in which we can explore ways to bring more of ourselves (and so experience more of God) in our worship.
Certainly there are customs and approaches to the Lord’s Table we can develop. So many churches are “stuck” on the peculiarly American use of grape juice and on ways of serving that emphasize individual devotion over shared thanksgiving. (I believe God gives us freedom to use whatever food and drink covey nourishment and sharing in a given culture. I cannot believe God want believers who do not ordinarily grow grapes and wheat to have to import foreign foodstuffs to celebrate Communion.) I would be very interested in hearing from any of you who use Asian-specific cultural forms for Communion, whether it is in the food and drink, or ways of setting and serving the Table, or ways people partake.
There are also visual arts for worship: banners, tapestries, furnishings, paintings, and sculptures that can express our particular cultures. Ways of gathering and seating. Uses of sound and silence. Ways of praying that “work” for characteristically self-conscious introverts. Ways to incorporate Asian festivals like Lunar New Year. Fully-Christian rituals for honoring ancestors. The needs—and opportunities—go on and on.
In John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, he says “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.… The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it” (Revelation 21:24, 26). “Nations” is ethne, perhaps better translated “peoples.” And what would the glory and honor of the peoples be but their lives, cultures, music, art, stories, languages, leaders, and maybe even their food, enjoyed there together at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb? May God give us each and all the grace to cultivate forms of worship and ways of loving and worshipping him with all we are, so that we can honor our Lord as much as possible when we are finally gathered with believers from all other times and places–including a place called “Asian-America.” v