Current Success and Future Failure

[a guest post from Timothy Lo, reposted with permission]

I write this from my own limited experience and observations… obviously limited to what I’ve seen and from talking to others.  And probably more relevant in the non-CA or TX areas of the US.

Since the early 1990’s there have been a lot of new churches that quickly started up and grabbed my attention.  For example, you might have heard of some of them like Redeemer Presbyterian in NY, Parkwood Community in IL, Liquid in NJ, and High Rock in MA.  God is doing a lot of great things in these churches, as is evident by how he is growing them in attendance, spiritual depth, and positive influence in their communities.  They are often marked by excellence in their ministries across the board: worship music, preaching, media, child care, fellowship, small groups, outreach, welcoming to newcomers, etc.  But it is the appeal of being part of such churches that has hurt and continues to damage the future of the children of immigrant Chinese.

What do the children of immigrant Chinese have to do with these churches?  Well from what I can tell these 2nd generation American born Chinese (ABC) as we call them have been greatly attracted to these newer churches.  And this greatly affects their attendance and participation in their home churches.

[This is a skippable section if you have less patience or time]

Let’s get this straight: immigrant Chinese churches haven’t always been good at keeping ABC’s with their churches (the history of this is pretty recent, since many Chinese churches in America are less than 50 years old).  This is a whole other topic in itself, but to summarize it, immigrants started churches, eventually they needed some English parts to it for their kids, they have childcare, children’s programs, then youth groups, and then eventually an English service.  The problem comes when the kids graduate high school.  I’m totally generalizing, but let’s say that roughly less than half of these kids stay with the faith, and out of the other half, maybe only half of those go to church weekly.  And out of those young adults (25% of the original teenagers) that go to church weekly, only some of them go to their home immigrant church, since many others go to the mainstream (white) American church somewhere else.

Now that may just be a typical rate of attrition in youth groups, which is also another whole issue for another time.  What I want to focus on is the fact that there are a bunch that do not go back to their home church, sometimes they just don’t feel the connection there anymore, it could be that they are dating or more comfortable with non-Asians, or for whatever other reason.  But then those who DO go back to their home church, they oftentimes face a lot of struggles there.

In a typical immigrant Chinese church, the primary purpose and mission is to minister to immigrant Chinese.  By extension, their secondary goal is to minister to the kids of the immigrants.  So children and youth programs are an important part of their ministry.  However, when young adults come back to the church, now not only wanting to assert themselves as independent, responsible adults but also with tons of Americanized values which are different than the Chinese, there is conflict.  I have rarely seen an immigrant Chinese congregation and an English speaking and led congregation work together in harmony, cohesion, and with equal authority and fellowship.  In many larger Chinese churches, the two sides (ooops, I mean, “groups”) just tolerate each other, and give each other large amounts of independence and freedom, and that’s called getting along (very eastern: “solidarity in conflict”).  It’s very much like two separate churches just worshiping in the same building–different ministries, schedules, programs, equipment, rooms, worship services, etc.

But in those medium and smaller sized Chinese churches, what I’ve seen happen is when these ABC’s come back to their home churches to serve their youth groups, they are underappreciated in their service, they get burnt out by constant requests and blame, they feel like 2nd class citizens (whether or not the immigrant congregation views them as such or not), there is no one to mentor or disciple them, they don’t have fellowship with other peers, and they wonder, why don’t I just go to that other church down the street that will care for me and love me (yes, it’s a consumeristic mentality) instead of this one that always asks me to help with the youth or children and never cares for how I am doing spiritually?

And then on top of that, and this is my real issue, there are all these new, really cool churches that have started up, full of other ABC’s (and ABK’s, Koreans).  They are intentional, they care for you and minister to your needs, they have excellence in their ministries, they are made up of tons of young adults just like you to fellowship with, and they are typically attended by the more dedicated group of Christians that are left over from the weeding out process in college.

We are thankful for these churches, that serve these American born Chinese who might be poorly ministered to by their home churches.  Perhaps we in the immigrant Chinese church need to do a better job of creating a place where young adults can come back to.  But, meanwhile, because these churches are ministering so well to all these ABC’s, there are fewer than ever coming back to their home churches.

It was hard enough that only a small percentage of our graduating youth would come back, as far as continuing to grow and strengthen the youth and adult English presence.  But now, with the existence of these new, good churches, the few kids that would have come back are not.  They’re getting fed somewhere else now, but that leaves the immigrant Chinese church with fewer role models and ministry leaders, resulting in weaker English speaking ministries.

Is your church one of these places where the spiritually stronger young adults from immigrant Chinese (or Korean) churches are going?  If so, realize that though that may be good for your church, it may also be hurting the future of the next generation of teens from these immigrant churches.  Without at least some American born Chinese students willing to go back to their home church to minister to the next round of students, our youth ministries get weaker, and result in fewer healthy adults.  And that might mean that 10 years from now, there will not be the comparable influx of ABC young adults that have joined your congregation in the past 10 years.

As an example, I am the only 2nd generation ABC in my church who serves with the youth group.  But there are over 40 kids who are craving to be ministered to.  So most will go through all 6-7 years of middle and high school without anyone regularly leading a small group, meeting up with them, walking them through their spiritual questions, or setting an example of “this is what you can look like when you grow up, as an American born Chinese Christian.”  I am very thankful for the many parents who help out in the youth ministry when they can (the cultural challenges for them to help out in the youth ministry are much greater than in a typical white American church).  But unfortunately the number of ABC’s that we have coming back to our church is sometimes very few, or often, none.  And that is crippling the future for these youth.

I’m torn, because I cannot “blame” these new churches for what they are doing.  They are in fact doing a great job of ministering to the 2nd generation ABC’s.  But on the other hand, our Chinese church ministries continue to be hurt by fewer of our graduating students coming back.

I guess I am just praying and hoping for these 3 things:

  1. That these newer churches realize and are sensitive to this dynamic
  2. That Chinese churches can figure out how to adjust to this (design youth ministries to say bye to our kids after graduating or try to create a place where ABC’s would be more welcome?)
  3. That God would put it on the hearts of those who were blessed by their youth group experience to come back and be that mentor and role model to the next generation

6 thoughts on “Current Success and Future Failure”

  1. Timothy, thank you for writing up this post and sharing from your years of experience. Having lived on both East and West coasts, I would say the regional differences are comparatively minimal, and that the situation of how ethnic Asian churches are working with multiple generations is a similar challenge across the board. Intergenerational and inter-church cooperation and collaboration would be a wonderful thing! Would love to see that happen more too.

  2. This post polarizes me as I easily see both sides and struggle to understand the greater picture. Having served in a Korean American youth and young adults ministry, I saw first hand what is represented in this post. At the same time, for me to be ministered to, my eyes turned to a very white, suburban model. After transitioning away from an Asian American church context, I now find myself wishing to be relevant to a generation of Asian Americans, yet worried about what I have to offer and scared that I may not have what it takes to survive the difficulties of such a setting. It is a difficult dilemma for me and I thank you for posting this in the hopes that more dialog around this issue can come about.

  3. A buddy of mine lived in a major metropolitan US city between the coasts and not in Texas. He explained how many had left the 1st Gen immigrant church in this city. Even one of the ministers had a wife who grew up there would not go to worship there. (I had a feeeling his wife went to the church of a famous pastor in the same city. He exclaimed, yeah, “How did you know?” Well I said, that is where I would go!

    He went to his church because some buddies from college were going there (he also is now taking care of his parents). He has since moved and his parents are now in a church in a city with friends. My friend has opted not to go to one of the 1st gen. churches for a church closer in geography. But also, I daresay because of the church’s vibrancy.

    Utlimately -God is sovereign, and perhaps posts like this one will draw those 2nd and 3rd gen to serve Him and worship Him in the ethnic church. And I guess it doesn’t hurt to have your friends attend there too.

  4. I am reminded of a chapel service at SWBTS about 2006. Russell Moore from SBTS had mentioned that so many seminary grads want to reach out to the hip and trendy, forgetting the common folk, the plumber, the hairstylist, the waitress, etc (which are being reached by the Pentecostals today, if the stats and studies I hear are still correct and up to date). So I wonder if our college educated are just not finding any common ground with the dishwashers, cooks, etc?

  5. The Asian church definitely needs to be intergenerational in order for us to be healthy & whole. It’s crucial to us preserving our culture because it’s one based around family and relationships, not individualism (pervasive in the white church). The problem I’ve seen as a 2nd gener, is that so much of the 1st gen Asian churches put culture before faith. The 2nd gener is bombarded with guilt and obligation (rather than support and guidance), authority v. real leadership/role models, and therefore when they reach college age, they want to break free. In order for the young & old to co-exist, we need the older generation in order to carry our culture over to our children, and the 1st geners need to realize that we are not just kids who don’t know anything. They need to trust the Holy Spirit’s work in us.
    I’ve been to a few churches in so-cal and nor-cal who effectively do this intergenerational thing, but it’s in the context of 3rd/4th+ generation Japanese churches.

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