Published in Inheritance Magazine #13 (Sept/Oct 2011)
Young Adults and the American Church
It is becoming a well-established fact: young adults are vanishing from the American Church. Recent surveys indicate that emergent Americans who identify themselves as Christians today have declined sharply over the past twenty years (see figures 1 and 2 below).  Even White evangelicals, who have usually retained a higher percentage of young adults than mainline Protestants or Catholic, are experiencing a decline of this treasured cohort. But even though many more young adults say that they are not affiliated with any religion it doesn’t mean that they are rejecting spirituality. In fact, we are witnessing the spectacular growth of emergents who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”
Figure 1: Distance from organized religion today
|Distance from Organized religion||Emerging Adults||Other Adults|
|Attend church weekly or more||15% (20 plus)30% (30 plus)||40% (older adults)|
|Not members of a church||35%||19% (all adults)|
|Belong to no religious tradition||20%||14% (all adults)|
|“Secular” or “somewhat secular”||23%||15% (ages 25-64)10% (over 64)|
* * * * *
Figure 2: Comparing Church attendance (1970s and today)
|Church attendance of Americans under 45||1970s||Today|
|Attend weekly or more||31%||25%|
Some speculate that the conservative politics of many Christians may be turning off and tuning out the emergents, who are generally more liberal. Others think that the increase in privatization and consumerism in recent years has made the culture of young adults less interested in participating in organized communities. Rather, communities are formed to cater to the needs and desires of the young adult. Whatever the cause, the Church in America is facing one its greatest challenges.
Asian American emergents and the “renewal” of American Christianity
Though racial-ethnic Christian communities also face similar challenges, young adult engagement in church life is still relatively high when compared to the wider American Church. In fact, the significant presence of younger Asian Americans in thriving non-African American urban churches and in many campus ministries can be interpreted as a sign that God is using Asian Americans to revitalize (White) American Christianity. Asian American presence in previously White ministries legitimizes a multi-ethnic vision as do Asian American ministries that reject being identified as Asian American.
But these developments can also be a sign that Asian American churches have no future. The “Silent Exodus” will continue as generations of young adults who remain Christians leave their immigrant churches for White or multi-ethnic churches. From the perspective of immigrant Asian churches (who should also be considered Americans), the wider American church can be viewed as a Black Hole, a parasite, or a vampire that sucks the young life out their congregation’s families.
I have very little sympathy for immigrant churches that drive their young adults out because of insensitive leadership, authoritarian parenting, or uncaring coworkers. These churches don’t deserve their children.
But for the churches that have made a concerted effort to build intergenerational and multicultural faith communities (by the way, immigrant churches may be more multicultural than most multiethnic churches because they have to navigate language diversity), the revitalization of American Christianity seems to come at a great cost to them. The way American Christians treat the immigrant (and refugee) church is a test of our capacity to love the foreigner among us. Thus, the struggles and concerns of immigrant churches should matter to all Christians.
Furthermore, the fate of those who embark on the “Silent Exodus” should also matter. Do Asian American Christians in non-Asian ministries have any role other than increasing multi-ethnicity? Are their unique needs cared for? Are their contributions and gifts valued?
The bottom line: Can the American church truly be renewed if immigrant churches are dismissed and “exodused” Asian Americans are only valued as window dressing?
Raising these questions begs a deeper question: Why do Asian American Christian young adults leave immigrant or pan-Asian churches? I’d like to suggest a few reasons. Since I believe that immigrant and pan-Asian churches are to be valued as important members of the American Church, their desire to retain young adults must be taken seriously. So I’ll close with a few recommendations for these ministries.
The “Silent Exodus” or the “Babylonian Captivity”?
The usual reasons given for young adult flight from racial-ethnic churches center on four narratives. First, the culture of immigrant churches is incompatible with the Americanized young adult. It is too “Asian,” too foreign. Second, assimilation and integration into American culture is desirable, more compatible, and inevitable. Third, many Christians believe that multiethnic congregations are more biblical, therefore, morally superior to racialized churches. Hence, there is, among many evangelicals today, a race to become multi-ethnic – often at the expense of immigrant and pan-Asian churches. Fourth, underlying most evangelical conviction is that our earthly identities ultimately do not matter. Our Christian identity is the most important. Even in many multi-ethnic evangelical churches, the goal is to shed, not affirm, our earthly identities.
Together, these narratives create what I call the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America.” I’m not saying that evangelicalism intentionally seeks to destroy Asian Americans. But Asians and Asian Americans who have their faith shaped by evangelicalism usually think that being Asian American is irrelevant. So this is how the evangelical sub-culture “deconstructs” Asian America (and other earthly identities).
Now perhaps Asian America should be deconstructed. Perhaps there should be no “ethnic” churches. Perhaps all Asian Americans should join the “silent exodus.” But these narratives sound suspiciously like “cultural captivity” to the “American dream” rather than entry into the Promised Land. Indeed, the American dream is the secular version of these four narratives. Immigrants are too foreign to matter. Their children can integrate and succeed. Together they create a multi-ethnic America where ethnic identities are less important than American identity.
Given these narratives, is it any wonder that Asian Americans prefer to leave their ethnic ghettos behind? Leaving the ethnic immigrant or pan-Asian church is equivalent to moving up in the world.
I won’t suggest very loudly that Jesus’ incarnation moves in the opposite direction. Nor do I blame Asian American young adults for wanting to pursue the American-Evangelical dream. But I do believe that these narratives powerfully shape all Americans. They create social scripts that ensure that the American norm is colored White despite the reality that there will no longer be a racial majority in the United States by 2040. It’s easier to conform to these social scripts than to change them or write new ones. That is why the “silent Exodus” will continue in the foreseeable future.
Of course, negative experiences in immigrant or pan-Asian churches will exacerbate the “silent Exodus,” but even healthy churches won’t stem the flow. Insofar as evangelicalism is captive to the American Dream, insofar as Asian Americans are captive to the evangelical deconstruction of Asian America, there is no future for Asian American Christianity. Immigrant and pan-Asian churches will never be able to develop sustainable young adult ministries. Indeed, unless we prayerfully rely on the creative work of the Holy Spirit, these social scripts are much too pervasive and powerful for us to change.
Here is an example of its power. Imagine what it will be like to dine at Christ’s great banquet when his kingdom finally reigns. Who will be seated at that banquet? Will it not be a great cloud of witnesses from every nation and every race? Who would you want to sit next to (someone else will be seated at Jesus’ side, so you probably can’t sit next to him right away)? Augustine? Luther? Calvin? Wesley? Billy Graham? All the male heroes of Western Christianity? Would you want to meet the Asian and Asian American heroes? Would you know who they are? If not, why? Isn’t this because of the Christian social script that we’ve inherited? We’re conditioned to think that only certain people are representative of Christianity – and that doesn’t usually include Asian Americans.
Creating counter narratives
But I believe that God is alive. Surprising things can and will happen. We can counter these narratives by creating alternative or counter narratives. These new narratives can capture the attention of Asian American young adults and, possibly, move their hearts towards embracing immigrant and pan-Asian Christian faith communities. I suggest three ways create counter narratives:
1. Re-envision the Asian American Christian role in the new global reality: church leaders need to capture a biblical vision of God’s redemption of all nations and peoples that includes ethnic and racial minorities. Asian Americans should not be fully identified with the dominant American culture or with Asia. They are stewards of a unique set of gifts from God (Asian American cultures, ethnicities, histories, etc.) and will be asked to demonstrate how they have multiplied their “talents.”
2. Retrieve and retell Asian American Christian stories: churches and wealthier Christians could fund research in the study of Asian American Christianity. Insist that seminaries and universities hire specialists in the area. Create scholarships that encourage such research. By retrieving stories from the past and present, a treasure trove of resources will be available to help churches tell Asian American stories. Don’t let Asian American Christian young adults grow up with no knowledge of their unique story and gifts for the wider church and the world.
3. Redeem representation: Embrace the reality that immigrant and pan-Asian churches need to encourage greater Asian American representation in the mainstream American church. Don’t simply consume what is offered by the mainstream – rather insist that Asian American voices be heard in major conferences and events. This also means promoting and advocating for Asian American speakers and leaders who understand and embrace immigrant and pan-Asian ministries. The other meaning of representation is the creation of new ways of being Asian American and Christian in our worship, literature, and arts. Churches and wealthier Christians can fund artists to articulate traditional and contemporary expressions and forms. It is not enough to protest the way mainstream culture defines and stereotypes Asian Americans. Asian Americans must create their own representations.
Multi-ethnic churches can also participate in this creative activity, but immigrant and pan-Asian churches are more deeply rooted in the Asian American experience so have a greater advantage.
In the end, the only way to stem the deconstruction of Asian America is to re-construct Asian American Christianity again and again – in new forms and expressions. Like other emergents, Asian American Christian young adults are attracted to opportunities to create. So, let us assume that immigrant and pan-Asian churches have created healthy intergenerational cultures and are responsive to the “Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults.” These churches can then become “culture making” laboratories and carve out space for creating counter narratives. There may yet be hope for Asian American Young Adults!
- 60 Minutes. (2008, May). “The millennials are coming!” www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3486473n
- Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Brooks, David. (2001). “The Organization Kid.” Atlantic Monthly. www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks
- Changing Sea: The changing spirituality of emerging adult project. http://www.changingsea.org/
- Cooper, Marianne. (2008). The inequality of security: Winners and losers in the risk society. Human Relations, 61 (9): 1229–1258.
- Crouch, Andy (2008). Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
- Edgell, Penny (2005). Religion and family in a changing society: The transformation of linked institutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Park, Lisa Sun-Hee (2005). Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs Stanford University Press.
- PewResearchCenter (Feb. 2010). “Religion among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional in Other Ways.” http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=510
- Smith, Christian, with Patricia Snell (2009). Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson. (2011) Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Timothy Tseng (2011). “Five Cries of Asian American Young Adults” contact author or view at http://timtseng.net/2011/03/07/five-cries-of-asian-american-christian-young-adults-resource/.
- Robert Wuthnow (2007). After the baby boomers: How Twenty- and Thirtysomethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
 Penny Edgell, Religion and Family in a Changing Society: The Transformation of Linked Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).