What Color Do You Preach?

Is there such a thing as Asian American preaching?

There is something distinctive about African American preaching, and it resists “whitenization.”

I’m not trying to racialize everything about our worship experience, but I do think it bears at least asking, is there something distinct about our preaching, our proclamation of the Gospel? Or do we believe that the Bible is colorless or White for the most part?

The fact that most EM’s operate in English and leave all other cultural aspects implicit, that is to say silent, seems to imply that true Biblical preaching is absent of culture, ethnicity, race, etc. As if the Bible could read itself for forty minutes on Sunday morning, we really wouldn’t need a preacher, because they would fall short of the text speaking for itself.

We seem to accept the incarnation of Christ, taking on all the particulars of a human male, as though it happened in an anachronistic time. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi in a time when none of that racial, socio-economic stuff mattered. Jesus is transcendent, more God than man, more spirit than flesh. Therefore, we in church, reflect a negative view of the particulars and details of ourselves. We retain something of the gnosticism that denied physical aspects of Christ and thus of ourselves. We are escapist not only of this world, but of our own bodies. And thus, we are not comfortable in our skin or our voices and experiences. Ironically, even though those very things may have led us to Christ, we are hurriedly ushered to crucify that old man, rather than redeem him. We think of transformation as abandonment even though we should raise an eyebrow as to why resurrection would really matter if our hearts were the only thing that God looked at.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying we go all the way down that slippery slope to humanism and diminishing the divinity of Christ. I’m just wondering if we can hold both his divinity and humanity in tension because I think those details matter. I don’t mean to make my ethnicity an idol, but I think that we would dismiss the beauty of God’s wonderful design if we ignored the details of our own being and creation. Culture and ethnicity and history are part of God’s beautiful design, and facets of a wonderfully cut diamond of creation, when will we learn to polish it and appreciate it?

Edit: I got off on such a tangent that I forgot to link to this interesting article by Matthew Kim on Asian American preaching. Here’s the portion that triggered this post [emphasis mine]:

The trend among many preachers of multi-Asian and multi-ethnic congregations has been to discourage the promotion of ethnic culture and tradition within church walls. For instance, one Korean American pastor expressed that his church was not a Korean church or an Asian church, but rather a place for everyone regardless of their ethnic-racial background. He proceeded to lay down ground rules for the many Korean Americans in the congregation. First, he banned eating kimchi and other types of Korean food in the church. Second, he refused to make announcements for any Asian events in the community. Third, he prevented his congregants from going to Korea town for lunch. Michael Luo observes:

Today, despite [this pastor’s] efforts over six years to make people of all races feel welcome, the 250 to 300 worshippers who attend the church’s three English services every week are almost all Koreans, with a scattering of other Asians. He has attracted only a handful of whites and blacks.

By de-emphasizing ethnicity and culture from the pulpit, some Asian American preachers prevent ethnic people from being themselves and are in a sense rejecting the beautiful diversity of God’s creative workmanship in human differences. Since every person innately possesses an ethnic and cultural tradition, Asian American preachers should make the most of illustrations that highlight examples from the various ethnicities, cultures, and traditions to which congregants belong.

It is important to contextualize sermons and assist congregants in embracing their ethnicities and cultures. For example, many Asian Americans dislike their physical characteristics and believe God made a mistake when creating Asians. Such ideas should be addressed and corrected through Asian American sermons. It is possible to overemphasize Christian identity to the complete neglect of ethnic and racial identities. Community will never be built in the Asian American church by shying away from our differences but rather by acknowledging them head on and conversing sincerely with those who are unlike us.

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Comments

  1. Interesting topic, David. The lack of a distinctive voice in the Asian American pulpit mirrors the lack of a distinctive identity in American society in general. The ramifications of a lack of an AA identity (especially AA male identity) trickles down not only to the pulpit but to the spoken prayers in the church. Let me specify one group: the AA male christian teen. While AA female teens are generally articulate in group public prayer, the male counterpart, when in a more public setting, tends to mumble his way in eeyore-type fashion. He gets away with it because it is interpreted as “humble praying” but it is really just “mumble prayer” – a loss of tongue brought on by a loss of clear identity. Out of the heart the tongue speaks, after all; and where the heart is confused, uncertain, and unsure, prayers will come out in like fashion. If the heart is tied-up in binds of identity-obscurity, the tongue will be tied up in a cloud of obfuscation.

    Watch for it; listen for it. It’s enough to make you want to weep.

  2. David Park says:

    ah, you’re right on, cuttingtruth. i have been in those uncomfortable moments of prayer so I know exactly what you speak of. i guess i’m more befuddled that AA preachers can speak boldly, but cannot clear up any of that obscurity for said teenager. and certainly, we can’t assume that just because teenage girls can pray with some articulation that they are more clear on their identity, right? or can we?

  3. elderj says:

    I preach in brown mostly, though sometimes in Black.

    Love this post and the topic. I think the lack of a distinctive preaching style comes from a general lack of distinctiveness and a sense that there is no story worth telling. Cut off from the root of culture and ethnicity, how can the preaching be anything but a neutered khaki plain vanilla kind of thing which fails to resonate or invite transformation.

  4. David Park says:

    I agree with you elderj, I think what is most problematic for me is that theological dimension that I think many AA pastors subscribe to which may be a cause for them avoiding ethnic identity as a source for their preaching.

  5. Wayne Park says:

    I agree with forementioned statements but at the same time I feel for this guy w/the congregation of 250 – 300 folks. I think he’s got heart, and will venture to say that he’s thinking the right way. But the Korean momentum is too strong (sic). He would’ve been better off church planting and starting from scratch with just a handful of Koreans rather than hundreds of them.

    But the sentiment is well-taken, we cannot turn back on our racial identity. Does that mean we stay in ethnocentric churches however? I’ve found that I can be proud of my Korean identity and celebrate it freely in a multicultural setting; I don’t care about my rank n’ stank kimchee because it’s my heritage. And people in a multicultural setting seem to appreciate it…

    I’m all for identity, but I’m also all for identity on mission…

  6. David Park says:

    interesting points wayne. implementing change is very difficult and not easy to discern when you’re in the thick of things. Obviously he has a vision, but perhaps he was pushing it on the wrong group of people. and/or not at the right speed.

    as for staying in ethnocentric churches, i think asian americans are the least comfortable in their own skin (huge generalization, i know), particularly when it comes to worship. i think that by asking AA preachers to preach from with their ethnicity in mind, it would be particularly constructive to the identity (and spiritual) formation of the congregation. Mostly when AAs leave for multicultural settings, our ethnicity may be accounted for, but we lack any sense of who we are. We become honorary whites; not only is it bestowed on us, but it is what we wanted. So when we go on mission, we do it as honorary whites, not as AAs.

    but perhaps you’re right, this may be an inevitability. we may just minimize our “heritage” with cuisine and become ‘american’, but gosh, that doesn’t sit right with me. surely there was/is more to being a hyphenated american/Christian than this.

  7. daniel so says:

    David — Great discussion! I tend to agree with what others have been saying; that is, we lack a distinct AA worship/preaching style because of our deep struggle with our AA identity. I mean, seriously, I’m in my 30s now and have only relatively recently begun to feel comfortable in my own skin.

    I think only once we begin to help guide the people in our churches towards a deeper understanding of their God-given AA identity (in all its beauty and mess) will we see a particularly distinctive AA worship/preaching style emerge. When I look at my daughter I realize that the world hasn’t changed much since I was her age — but, perhaps because of my experiences, we are doing everything we can to help her connect with her God-given AA identity.

    As you kind of touched on, the full humanity/full divinity paradox inherent in Jesus’ identity can be helpful for us in living in the tension of our AA identity. Instead of viewing it in the typical negative way (neither fully Asian nor American) we can live with some paradox as “both/and” people. In that sense, AAs are inherently postmodern — if I ever get around to it, I’ll try to post the seminar I gave on this topic sometime.

    I hear what Wayne is saying to about the AA pastor you referenced — it sounds like good intentions, but just not well-thought out or well executed. Cultural sensitivity is one thing (kimchi might be kind of off-putting for some people… until they realize that it is truly God-given!) but acting as if God wants to erase our cultural identity is the wrong way to go.

  8. danny says:

    hehe– there’s a church like that in atlanta. i’ve even heard that the pastor would scold asian members for having only asian friends.

    despite all this desire to find a distinctive AA voice, i’m not sure how many would be willing to take the hard steps to find that voice. this would require some pretty serious re-construction of our theology.

    why is our preaching so white? because our theology is white. justification by faith, penal substitution, TULIP, biblical inerrancy –> these were concerns for white Christians living in Christendom. are these legitimately our concerns today? and here we move back toward how well do we understand what it means to be AA? too bad, churches don’t help second gens form our AA identity beyond language classes and ethnic holiday festivals.

    if we take our AA experience, it may lead us to read Scripture differently, and even lead us down “heretical” paths. would the AA church be comfortable if we produced our own james cone? or will we continue to cling tightly to our love affair with john piper? black and feminist theology begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion. that would collide pretty directly with most AA notions of biblical inspiration. yet if we continue to read the Bible with the rules given by white people, we’ll keep sounding like white people.

  9. elderj says:

    I think kimchi will be served in heaven, so taste sensitive people had better get used to it on earth…

    Danny, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet in a way that I think it needs to be thrown. If AA aren’t willing or don’t know how to be AA, then the church and the preaching will default to the dominant culture and very rapidly the AA church will not exist (especially given the outmarriage rates).

  10. William Woo says:

    In Bryan Chapell ‘Christ Centered Preaching’ there is a discourse on the use of stories, and how preaching needs a human face. (sorry to lazy to find page right now) To clarify: when we preach our stories help illumine a text and may help someone in the pew get to know God better or impact their life in someway. Thus for AA’s as we live out the Christian life, perhaps God can use those illustrations to to reach our particular people for Him. (hmm, is this contextualization?)

    Once in chapel, one of our professors made a joke concerning rednecks. Something about watching (Nascar) cars make 500 left turns…but I thought, hmmm, on the one hand that was funny to me because I’m from the USA, but what about all the internationals here?

    Francis Chan spoke at Youth Lab (Southwestern Seminary) and the audience was mostly not Asian. He only had one story with an ethnic theme. He related how he used to sell vacumn cleaners and his buddy came up with a story that he came from China, spoke no English, and needed to sell these vacumns ($1200 a pop!) back in the day. Pretty funny stuff that transceneded race, because the joke was really about deciept. Deep down we laughed because in someway we understood that in any moment the deception would be caught…anyway, Chan is a good speaker.

    I guess we have many kinds of speech labeled as “preaching”. I of the bent that the only preaching should be Christ centered preaching. He calls many types of people to the kingdom and he uses each uniquely.

    Is TULIP white man’s theology? Perhaps, but I think that all races should interpret the Bible in its contexts, with the Rule of Faith, and prayerfully.

  11. lam322 says:

    Great discussion. I think before we can even deconstruct “white” theology, we need to first decide who we are. I grew up most of my life being highly nationalistic, completely ignoring what I agreed to do when I first raised my arm and made the oath of citizenship. However, the older I get, I realize that we need to distance ourselves from our socio-politically self-enclosed 1st generation immigrant parents when it comes to cultural identity.

    Back in our native countries, the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have their own story of conflicts and resolutions, but here in American we have our own story which is complete different from theirs. The color of our skin has pretty much forced us to share the same set of problems together as “yellow people” of America. Hence, even if it feels unnatural and forced, we need to stop identifying ourselves as Korean-American, Chinese-American, Japanese-American, etc. and intentionally move towards the label Asian-American. When we do this, we have a long story of oppression. As Asian-Americans we were all involved in the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Filipino Watsonville Riot, the Japanese Internment, the Vietnamese Refugees, the LA Riot, etc. Although not as long as the Afro-American story, when they are seamed together, it’s quite a story.

    When we can achieve unity in this matter, then we can have a voice… whether it be in Reformed circles, Evangelicals circles, etc. to push for “amendments” in theology and gain support in our efforts to undertake constructive theology. James Cone was able to influence the general populace because the Black Power movement was already in full force. If we want our voices to be heard, we need to systematically support the Asian-American movement in all its forms (e.g., theology, music, entertainment, literature, etc.).

    P.S. I wouldn’t say TULIP is completely all white man’s theology. The Nicene Creed was signed by Coptic (African), Syrian (Asian), Eastern Orthodox (East-Europe), and Roman Catholic (West-Europe) and must of Reformed Theology was drawn from Bible and Patristic sources. The Reformation was a restoration movement that by-passed much of “white” theology (e.g., Roman Catholic). You’d be amazed at how close Protestant thought is to say… the “Nestorian” Church or Assyrian Church of the East. Their worship is almost Protestant. In fact, they even work together with a lot of Protestant Church’s in India.

  12. P.Dan says:

    Sorry about have the typo and grammar problems on the post above. I’m kind of jaded right now. I stayed up drinking too much coffee. And it’s the Lord’s Day today too! May God have mercy one me. hehe.

    By the way, I forgot to mention, the Nestorian/Assyrian Church of the East (which were actually the first ones to come to Asia prior to Colonial expansion) also uses hermeneutics drawn primarily from the Antiochian School (e.g., Diodorus, Theodoret, Ephrem, etc.) much like the Reformation/Puritan theologians. So in many ways, I would say Reformed theology is Asian theology, lol.

  13. Ashleigh says:

    David,

    Thanks so much for helping us think about this! As a white woman invested building a multi-ethnic InterVarsity chapter for the past few years, I’ve noticed a surprising number of minority students that seem to disregard their ethnic identity completely. I expect that from white students, though that’s still sad, but it’s particularly disheartening to see students that think God probably wants them to just assimilate into the majority culture.

    I have really appreciated the gifts AsAm leaders have been bringing to the table within IVCF nationally, but there’s still so much to be done at the more local level within the church and parachurch, isn’t there?

    I pray AsAm leaders will rise up in churches all over the country to encourage their brothers and sisters to embrace their special gifts in the kingdom.

  14. David Park says:

    good points p.dan, hope your sunday services went well 🙂 you’re right in saying that until we unify ourselves as asian americans, we dilute the very notion of asian american theology. that is something ironically, i think, koreans are the slowest and must reluctant to do. honestly, i think koreans think very highly of themselves particularly when it comes to the subject of Christianity and church. of course our economics doesn’t help the discussion.

    the notion that reformed theology is a descendant of nestorian theology is a new one for me. i’ll have to read up on that more, but still i think that reformed theology naturally being an “asian” theology is a huge stretch.

    thanks ashleigh, i’m a big supporter of ivcf and consider myself an alum. you all are really the ones pushing this issue of identity to the fore in campus ministries. i just find it strange that young adults have fewer options to continue that past college. i mean, how is it that ethnic churches don’t discuss ethnicity? especially in the larger AA sense? but then again, they don’t even talk reconciliation or justice, just propositional beliefs and commitment to the church’s programs. tsk, tsk, tsk.

  15. P.Dan says:

    david,

    reformed theology is only related to the nestorian church in hermeneutics (antiochian school), nothing more. the reformation fathers chose to take the side of the antiochian school instead of the alexandrian. hence, the part about reformed theology being asian theology is an exaggeration. it would more accurate to say that antiochian hermeneutics is asian.

  16. Wayne Park says:

    gonna re-enter this dialogue here… it’s a good topic. Recently watched rev. Wright (Obama’s pastor) and while I wholeheartedly stand with him that he was getting kicked around by the media – some of his tendencies toward liberation theology was a bit disturbing… as I understand this is a prominent theo among latino’s & af-am churches and while I appreciate its emphasis on praxis, it’s clearly heretical in teaching… makes me concerned. Is it possible for us as non Euro-Anglos to adopt orthodox theology and to make it ours? Is there an asian or (immigrant) theology unique to us and still yet orthodox?

    I would like to hope that we can bring a new “brand” of church on the scene that has a strong orthodoxy (which Asians can be obsessed over) and yet embrace some of the pragmatic elements of Liberation theo…

  17. David Park says:

    p.dan, that’s very interesting stuff. i would love to see you post something on that. i’m eager to hear/read about it. are you in georgia, by the way? or in cali?

    wayne, this really is the heart of the issue, much like danny mentions a few comments ago. orthodoxy is so strongly associated with europe, and the protestant ethic that was birthed out of the reformation is so closely tied to colonialism, i’m not sure if we can separate power from orthodoxy. the critique of those churches that snuggled up with orthodoxy is that they were oppressors nonetheless, thus creating the need for liberation theologians who emphasized praxis. i share your hope, but right now, all i have are questions.

    just observationally, i think that a great deal of disenchantment in the AA context re: the church is because we have not spoken through our experience to arrive at our theology. what we preach from the pulpit still seems assimilationist, which means we don’t need to be in the pulpit if all we really want to do is aspire to be white preachers. There are plenty of those around anyway. i don’t know is p.dan’s notion of an antiochian hermeneutic is going to be helpful to developing distinctive AA preaching, but i think it’s worth investigating. i think a great deal of the silent exodus would appreciate hearing something distinctive about AA christians so that the assumption is not that we have “sold out” but we are being more true to ourselves by claiming Christ as savior and Lord. honestly, that’s what i think is at stake here. and perhaps that’s what a great deal of af-ams and latinos needed to hear as well. no white preacher would ever preach that word of hope for them, right?

  18. P.Dan says:

    david, i’m in orange county. live across the street from talbot.

    i think the disenchantment seems to be the result of three primary issues: inter-cultural issues, inter-generational issues, and theological issues. 1) inter-cultural worldview, in the sense that older gen asians were more communal, later gens are more individualistic and less hierarchical (probably the difference between Greek worldview & Confucian worldview). 2) inter-generational attitude, in the sense that older generation were busy surviving in a harsh environment trying to build a “colony” for later gens. they had to be much more practical and less theoretical. hence they seem like hypocrites from later gen perspective, and later gen seem like idealistic, ungrateful snobs from first gen perspective. 3) theological in the sense that they just took the pre-packaged theology from the european missionaries, we have time now to reflect and develop our own.

    i personally think the gospel is non-negotiable (as mentioned above by intersection), but how you package that can change. the issue of free-will, man, sin, grace, and righteousness are timeless but in so far as the outer package such as systematic theology, covenant theology, dispensational theology, etc. (which is actually a debate over hermeneutics), we should make one better suited for asian americans.

  19. David Park says:

    ah, now i see we’re singing a similar song, p.dan.

    as with elderj and yourself, as long as we define the gospel as the proclamation of christ through the cross and resurrection, then i’m fine deconstructing the rest. the difficult part will be to make sure that none of the reconstruction calcifies into idolatry. but i do agree with your multi-valent view of a solution. there are several dimensions where we need to negotiate these things openly, particularly when it comes to theology. further, i think that negotiation needs to take place with the people, not just among scholars. if we take the “priesthood of all believers” seriously, we should relegate Confucian hierarchy into a new ethos in how we unpack the text and let the body come together to see what Christ has called us to. but it should be fun…and i’m glad it seems that God seems to be stirring the pot recently. There seems to be a lot more interest in this subject matter than 5 years ago.

  20. elderj says:

    Multi-valent? David, your $5 words are elevating the level of discourse above my head. The pot is indeed stirring — hot pot perhaps? What I find is that there is not enough thought among the laity to have the kind of discussion you mention. Where can this conversation happen? Perhaps the starting point is still on the stage, just not in the pulpit i.e. the worship team. I say this because musicians can work across church and denominational lines more easily sometimes. They are more accustomed to the give and take of critique and even confrontation with the goal of improving as musicians. So we need to train a generation of theologically astute and culturally aware worship leaders who can retheologize their congregations as they lead in worship.

  21. P.Dan says:

    yea, i agree. worship is probably the front line for change. there’s pretty much an implicit asian american (particularly among those coming from korean immigrant churches) praise “canon” developing (the ones that speak to the heart of asian americans). this needs to be made explicit, and systematically solidified. if not regional, at least at the local level among “sister” churches.

    you’d be amazed at how many later gen koreans remember many of the popular hymnals from the national korean protestant hymn book (i believe they are similar to chinese hymn book too). there’s also the old school praise songs from vineyard, steve camp, keith green, steven curtis chapman, michael w. smith, etc. that are becoming classics. if we could collect these together along with some of the newer ones by tomlin, hillsong, redman, etc. would be a nice set!

    only if pastors and worship leaders can get together somehow, communicate, coordinate and compile a modern asian american hymn book “canon” (with theological discernment of course) of these songs…might be a good place to start at the grass-roots level. especially for the welfare of our future generations. there needs to be a inter-generational mentality.

    plus, too many “new-songs” are really counter-productive for corporate worship. my pet peeve is that worship leaders keep pumping out new songs every week. every 5 years, there’s a “generation gap” in praise song knowledge, it’s destroying corporate worship. and we really need to get rid of all the singular pronouns and change them to “we, us, and our” for Sunday praise!!! (wow, rambled a lot! hehe)

Trackbacks

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