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

Answer Me This

I was recently at the ANACEFC annual conference and got to sit in on a session where as a group the leaders wrestled with many questions together. It was really refreshing to do this in an Asian setting out of a seminary context. It was also interesting as a Korean American to listen to the concerns of Chinese American pastors and church leaders. We are surprisingly similar yet with some differences. First of all, let me express my respect and admiration for my Chinese American brothers and sisters who have a greater capacity and tolerance for differences than I have witnessed in Korean settings. I was also encouraged by the presence of women at the highest levels of this conference. And lastly, as we tackled questions together, I was impressed by the presence of dialogue as a problem-solving tool even as we discussed passionately and laughed together over difficult questions.

I would like to share some of their discussion questions with you in the hope that discussion can happen here that might help us all. Please feel free to jump in…

  • How do we embrace and empower the second generation ministry?
  • Is it really necessary to delete or change the word, “Chinese” in the name of the church? Is it more appropriate to adopt the usage of term “a church of Cantonese, English and Mandarin Ministries” and avoid the term, “a church of Cantonese, English, and Mandarin congregations.
  • With respect of a church of multiple ministries, what is the role of the Senior Pastor? Give your views on the structure of pastoral staff.
  • How do we effectively resolve conflicts between pastors, boat members, and pastors, among board members, boar dan members of the church and etc.?

Reclaiming Chinese religious identity

**If you don’t listen to Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, you’re missing out on a top-notch podcast on religious faith. Highly recommended.**

I’d like to share the latest podcast episode from Speaking of Faith where Krista Tippett interviews Mayfair Yang, a scholar and director of the East Asian Center at UC Santa Barbara. Mayfair Yang speaks about the effects of modernity and Christian (how ironic) Western influence and its oppressive effects on the indigenous religious expressions in China.

Continue reading “Reclaiming Chinese religious identity”

As untouched as the turn signal in an Asian woman's car

The title of the post probably makes absolutely no sense to you, but once you see it in context I’m sure you’ll understand it. Some of you may even chuckle about it. However, I’m not sure it’s the laughter that I would find offensive. Most-likely, it is the fact that people still have the perception that it’s funny because it is rooted in truth. Before I get to explaining this further, let me take you back about 40 years. Let me share with you a tv commercial from the 1960’s about a baby that wants to eat some glape jerr-o. Again, you probably don’t get what I just described, but after watching the video below you will:

Was it funny? Was it offensive? Are your feelings neutral about it? Continue reading “As untouched as the turn signal in an Asian woman's car”

Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals newsletters online

Worship services and churches for the next generation, and even English ministries, were not all that common in ethnic Asian churches back in the days.

One factor that likely contributed towards the development of English ministries within the Chinese/ Asian church was an organization called FACE, the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals, which started:

… at the 1978 NACOCE [North America Congress of Chinese Evangelicals] congress, the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE) was born, sounding a call for “parallel ministries” for American and Canadian born Chinese in the Chinese church. Today, American born Chinese ministries, and the broader challenge of planting Asian-American churches, are an accepted part of the ministry scene in North America. [a]

About Face
They published a quarterly newsletter from 1979 to 2003 called “About FACE”. According to the first issue, The Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals is a ministry established by four American-Born Chinese (ABC) participants of NACOCE and encouraged by NACOCE to enable the whole Chinese Church to be more effective in ministry to ABCs. The “About FACE” newsletters have been made available online for free download at

Browse this spreadsheet for an index of “About FACE” article titles, authors, and topics.

Browse through those ol’ newsletters and find historical artifacts and insights that may be quite informative to the conversations going on here. How’s that saying go: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it?

[update] A select number of these newsletter articles were adapted into a Book published in 2009 titled “Completing the FACE of the Chinese Church in America: Promoting Effective Ministries to American-Born Chinese.”