The Young Adult Black Hole

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). [1] 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%
Never attend 14% 20%

 

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!

REFERENCES

  • 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 https://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.

[1] Penny Edgell, Religion and Family in a Changing Society: The Transformation of Linked Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Asian Pacific American Christian history: missing or dismissed?

Presented at The Second Asian American Equipping Symposium (Feb 7-8, 2011) at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA) on Feb 4, 2011

Opening Remarks

This panel presentation will introduce the theme of the symposium, namely the interrogation of the historical amnesia in church and academy regarding Asian Pacific Americans. The following questions may be addressed:

  • Why is religion (and Christianity, in particular) missing in Asian Pacific American historical studies?
  • Why is Asian Pacific America missing in the histories of American Christianity and Church History?
  • What explains the use and misuse of social sciences in the study of APA Christian history?
  • Why is understanding Asian American history, both the particular and the common, significant in constructing APA hermeneutics and identities?

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, the missing coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15 serve as a backdrop to the presentation:

8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, NRSV)

How did the woman know that she was missing a coin? Don’t all the coins look the same? We don’t know, but I suspect that she felt a sense of incompleteness and disquiet that we sometimes feel: “Something is missing, I just know it!”

Among Asian American Christians, a similar sense of disquiet surrounds us. Something is amiss. Unlike the woman and God, those who notice that our stories are missing from the narrative of Christian history are few and far between.

The recent interest in global Christianity has been a welcome development. But the ignorance of the history of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is more than missing a small coin. As the story of world Christianity justifiably receives greater attention, the story of Asian Americans is still missing. Most recently, Philip Jenkins has written The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asian – and How It Died (2008). His central point is that the expansion of Christianity is not inevitable.

Nevertheless, while scholars like Jenkins, Samuel Moffett, and others are retrieving the histories of Asian Christianity – and rescuing it from mission history – the state of Asian American Christian history remains lamentable.

1.  APA Christianity is not so much missing, but dismissed in church and academy

34“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14:34-35, NRSV)

Jesus concludes the previous chapter with this cryptic remark that seems out of place. Yet, it resonates with many in the church and the academy. If something is irrelevant or insignificant and if it doesn’t seem to have a function, it should be thrown away. In so far as Christians reify the irrelevance of history and the academy reifies the insignificance of APA Christianity, the history of APA Christianity is likely to be dismissed.

When one compares this situation with African American or Latino histories where religion is so much a part of the fabric of these communities, it is deplorable that religion (and specifically Christianity) is rendered irrelevant to Asian American history. David Yoo has rehearsed some of the reasons for this in the first issue of Amerasia Journal dedicated to religion in Asian America. Allow me to state them a little differently.

  1. The religious academy is more attuned to religious diversity than racial diversity. Thus, Asian Americans are merely ethnic or cultural variations of religious traditions. The study of the way that race shapes different religious communities has not received much attention in this arena.
  2. Asian American studies, on the other hand, has been more focused on socio-political and economic factors than religion. One even senses a denigration of Asian American Christianity in some circles.
  3. Social scientific approaches have done a great service by opening up the scholarly conversation around actual APA Christian congregrations and organizations. But they are missing the historical richness of the APA experience – and are in danger of reifying the idea that APAs are recent immigrants.
  4. Historians of the American religious experience continue to wrestle with how to craft an inclusive narrative of American religion. Twenty years ago, Martin Marty wrote an article for Church History that summed up the then current state of American church history. He noted that there had been advances in the history of African American Christianity, but a paucity in Latino and Asian Pacific American Christianity. Today, the paucity still exists. And even though the recent emergence of the history of evangelicalism has reshaped the history of American religion, the master narrative remains stubbornly the same. The recent PBS series entitled “God in America” is a good example of how difficult it is to envision a history that is not centered on White Protestantism.
  5. The nature of historical research in APA communities is itself very challenging. Identifying sources, equipping researchers, and finding financial resources for historical research for a marginalized population is extremely daunting. As mainstream funding agencies shift further towards  postracial or multicultural assumptions, ethnic and race specific resources are drying up.
  6. It therefore behooves the APA churches themselves to support and sustain the historical study of their own communities. But these churches are themselves locked into an Evangelical “born-again” theological culture that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. Most evangelicals possess an ahistorical understanding of reality. Salvation is about conversion to a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come! Thus, the old is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. As J. Kameron Carter suggests in his very important study entitled Race: A Theological Account, modern Christian theology and popular culture assumes a “hierarchy of anthropological essences and the supremacy of those of a pneumatic nature within the hierarchy.” Anything rooted in history and race are considered inferior to the spiritual realm. Carter suggests that this tendency is more akin to Gnostic desire to repudiate the Jewish roots of Christianity in favor of a spiritualized Christ. Indeed, by Orientalizing the Jewish Jesus, the Gnostic strategy was to establish a hierarchy of spiritual elites. Thus began what Carter calls “a discourse of death, the death of material existence.” This is one of the origins of racial ideology in the West, one from which modern Christianity in its theological and institutional expressions needs to be liberated from.

Therefore, the history of APA Christianity faces a double marginalization in the church and academy. The worst part of all this is the self-marginalization of our histories. Insofar as APA evangelicalism embraces this modern “discourse of death, the death of material existence” we will never find value in our experiences, our stories, and our histories. Instead, we will pursue the Orientalist strategy of “leap frogging” Asian America.

So what can we do? Beyond protesting this state of affairs, we must move towards representation in both senses of the word. Representation as a political act of empowering participation; Representation as an act of self-expression and culture making. But in both cases representation does not occur de nova, nor is it created ex nihilo. It must be grounded in history.

2.  God values the marginalized.

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2, NRSV)

What does God value? Outcasts and marginalized. Here, the tax collectors and sinners are the ones who are outcast. Yet, Jesus portrays God as one who actively searches for them. This continues Jesus’ lessons in Luke 14 about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to banquets (Luke 14:13-24).

Carter begins his study with an overview of Irenaeus work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies, ca 180). I’ve always liked Irenaeus – from his name, which means peace, to the pastoral heart for the flock in his theology. Indeed, to counter the Gnostic attempt to Orientalize Jesus and his Jewish identity, Iranaeus embraces the entire historical scope of the Hebrew Scriptures vis-à-vis his theology of recapitulation. Jesus Christ is the recapitulation of Creation, Fall, and Israel. Rather than renouncing Hebrew Scripture and the history of Israel, the Gospel is its fulfillment. Thus, all are welcome – not just the spiritually enlightened elite. All, including the mulatto and hybrids.

APA Christian histories are mulatto [cf. Brian Batum’s Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010)] and are therefore ignored, leap-frogged, and excluded. Nevertheless, our missing histories are of great value to God, just as the missing coin led the woman to light the lamp and to sweep diligently in order to find that coin. Indeed, this is the historian’s craft!

So what can we learn from the Asian American margins of the history of American Christianity? A few themes may be helpful to consider.

First, in contrast to the romanticized narrative of immigration into the American melting pot, the story APA Christianity prior to the Second World War is filled with nationalist discourse and transnational practices (e.g., Ng Poon Chew). Asian American Christians did not simply mimic white Christianity. They believed that Christian faith would empower Asians – whether in the homeland or the North American diaspora. Very early on, Asian American Christians sought to indigenize their Christian institutions vis-à-vis nationalist rhetoric. Institutional independence from denominational control was an effort to fight white supremacy, but also an attempt to redefine Asian participation in the church as a whole.

Second, the Asian American Christian story between World War II and the 1980s is also about a shift from an anti-segregationist to an anti-assimilationist posture within American society. During this time, Japanese American nisei (and other Asian Americans) initially valued integration, but when it came at the expense of their cultural identities and denominational representation they started to question how it was implemented. Thus the caucus movements were started in the 1970s. The story of caucus founders (e.g. Paul Nagano) within mainline Protestant denominations needs to be told – not only because the civil rights inspired stories are compelling, but because their experiences teach us about theology, identity, and empowerment within structural injustices.

A third theme is the story of the evangelical transpositioning of Asian American Protestantism. Whereas Asian American leaders in mainline Protestant denominations approached faith, culture, and civic engagement through the lens of the Niebuhr brothers, the evangelical renaissance among post-1965 immigrants created a different lens through which to understand APA Christianity. Of course, to call this a renaissance implies that it was all good – and after all, isn’t church growth a good thing? Unfortunately, it was not all good, in my opinion. For we see the re-inscription of hierarchical gender roles and a shift to a privatized and color-blind faith. Furthermore, the evangelical story is not all about immigrants. We must never forgot the witness of leaders as Hoover Wong, Stan Inouye, and many women evangelical leaders.

Having said this, I am still not convinced that an APA Christian history will be written any time soon. We live an an era that proclaims America to be post-racial. In this environment will the missing coin APA Christian history remain MIA? Perhaps. I’m not hopeful.

3. Fulfillment of our yearning and desire.

Nevertheless, it is my prayer that the search for APA Christian history will be received by the Church with the same spirit as that woman who found her missing coin. Note how she celebrated with her neighbors! Joy and fulfillment was the natural outcome! The search for our missing history is indeed motivated by a desire to correct injustice. But from the vantage point of faith, this is not the final destination. Joy and celebration with all God’s children, not just APA Christians, should be the ultimate goal of engaging our missing histories.

The search for our missing histories fulfills not only God’s yearning and desire to find the marginalized and lost, but the church’s missional call to invite all to the Great banquet!

Colorblind and Purpose: How Differences Can Also Bind

Posted on the ISAAC blog on Dec 15, 2009 [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/new-issue-of-inheritance-magazine-now-available/]

Hello everyone!

The new issue of Inheritance Magazine, a resource of Asian American Christian Young Adults, is now available. See it on-line at: http://www.inheritancemag.com/ and follow it on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/INHERITANCEmag!

ISAAC is a big supporter of Inheritance Magazine. The following is an article that I wrote for the inaugural issue a few months ago. Please support this important work!

Colorblind and Purpose: How differences can also bind
Timothy Tseng, Ph.D.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Psalm 133:1 (NRSV)

I left New York City in 1994, but I still feel like a New Yorker deep down. I’ve come to appreciate the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live and enjoy the local sports scene, but I still secretly root for my New York teams. However, despite the fact that I am nostalgic about my experience growing up in the Big Apple, I don’t miss the feeling of being rendered invisible or silent in a black-white community. Things are different now, but in the 1970s and 80s, Asian Americans in New York City were barely noticed in public life or media.

I also didn’t realize that I was a member of a marginalized Chinese enclave until I enrolled in college. It was there that two competing emotions caused me to reflect on my faith more critically. First, I felt ashamed of being Chinese. Not only were real Chinese New Yorkers rendered invisible, but also stereotypical images of Chinese people dominated the media (well, maybe with the exception of the late Bruce Lee–maybe). My sense of shame was exacerbated by my poor Chinese language skills, which marginalized me from many of the people in my church. Thus, I entered college with a strong desire to flee the Chinese church.

The second emotion was anger at mainstream America for its history of racism towards Asians and Asian Americans–and its complete ignorance of that history in contemporary life. In college, I learned about the horrors of slavery and racism directed towards African Americans, but I had to learn about the Asian American experience on my own. Asian American activists were harshly critical of Christianity’s complicity with these historic injustices, and I was “all ears.”

I thank God for the Chinese Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity ministry at my college. Their love and willingness to hear my shame and anger helped me heal. Their enthusiastic commitment to the gospel as the way out of personal and societal brokenness convinced me to surrender my life in service for the Kingdom of God. However, they did not have good answers for the causes of my shame and anger. They held a colorblind worldview and did not have biblical and theological resources to deal with ethnicity and race. In fact, talking about race and ethnicity was very uncomfortable for them.

However, I believe that God intended creation and humanity to relish diversity. For instance, the diversity among and within plant and animal species in creation appears to be at the core of God’s design.  Also, God rescued not just one kind, but every kind of creature in Noah’s ark. Moreover, at Pentecost, God spoke to different people in their own languages. Accepting and embracing diversity gives voice and power to those who have been isolated and silenced by those who are more powerful. God intended diversity to be a good thing!

I’ve discovered, however, that many Asian American Christians today are uncomfortable talking about diversity. Many are not interested in their racial-ethnic identities because they believe that Christian identity supersedes all earthly concerns. Others have had negative experiences in Asian immigrant churches and want to leave for a mainstream American church. Still others feel that talking about one’s ethnic or Asian American experience is unbiblical and impractical for multi-ethnic ministry.  They argue that emphasizing our racial-ethnic identities creates division in church and society. They also argue that we should unite on common kingdom goals, such as winning souls for Christ and correcting social injustices.

I argue that avoiding the “Asian American” question is short–sighted, dangerous, and is an idolatrous conformity to mainstream American culture.  I do not mean that there is something innate in European or white American people that is idolatrous. Rather, what is idolatrous in any situation is when realities of power and privilege are masked by rhetoric that sounds appealing.

Being “colorblind” sounds appealing because it sounds like anti-discrimination language. It also appeals to the belief that Christians should be spiritual and avoid the messy sinful world of race politics.  Even when multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism is held up as the ideal goal for American Christians, an unconscious “colorblind mandate”– the conformity to “white norms and privileges”–remains if the ugly realities of race are not brought to the surface.

On the contrary, our full human experience–including our bodies, our cultures, and our politics–is of concern to the God who created all things. The “colorblind mandate” ignores the messy and complex realities of human experience. In contrast, some Christians now favor the term “cultural mandate,” which means that God called us to be embedded in our cultures, transforming them according to God’s purposes. If we are to find unity of purpose, Asian American Christians (indeed, all Christians), must consider how to participate in the “cultural mandate” and be very conscious of how power and privilege operate.

In order to overcome the “colorblind mandate,” each cultural or racial group within a multi-cultural organization must be allowed to represent itself. When Asian American Christians leave their immigrant churches to join or form multicultural or mainstream churches, what do they bring with them? How do they “represent?” If they bring nothing of value from their experiences or cultures, I would argue that they’ve conformed to the “colorblind mandate,” choosing to be invisible and voiceless.

There is no doubt in my mind that the “colorblind mandate” has had a devastating impact on Asian American evangelicals. It exacerbates our intergenerational gaps, separates us from the neediest Asian Americans, and leaves us feeling worthless in both the American and global contexts. Unlike the previous generation of Asian Americans who were forced to feel inferior and made invisible, our generation has a choice but has often chosen the path of isolation and self-hatred. This is one of the reasons why Asian American Christians have such a difficult time finding unity of purpose.

So how can Asian American Christians move towards unity? Perhaps we can begin by removing “colorblind” interpretations of the bible. Here are some examples: In Luke 10:27, Jesus affirmed the two great commandments: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpretation would ignore the “as yourself” part of the command. Implicit in the “as yourself” phrase is a need to be conscious of one’s own situation and identity. Maybe Asian Americans need to understand themselves better if they are to better love their neighbors.

Another example is in Ephesians 2:14-16, where Paul declares that Jesus is the peace that broke down the wall that divides Jews from Gentiles. The key phrase is in verse 15, where Christ creates “in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpreter would say, “It’s obvious that God wants to remove our cultural particularities in order to create a new and more spiritual people.” But that goes against the grain of the incarnation of God in a flesh and blood Jewish man. The new humanity is neither the erasure nor the fixation of our cultural particularities. It is the mutual transformations of our differences towards a common kingdom purpose. So rather than ignoring or rejecting our Asian American identities, we need to find ways that these identities can contribute towards the new humanity. This can take place in ethnic-specific, pan-Asian, and multi-ethnic churches.

Finally, the Great Commission is not about rescuing sinners into a “colorblind” lifeboat, but about going into the world and making disciples of all nations. This means appreciating and transforming all cultures, not assimilating them into a “colorblind” norm. The history of missions has demonstrated that the gospel can only spread if this principle is followed.

Finding unity in purpose among Asian American Christians is complex, but not impossible. It begins with removing “colorblind” interpretations of the Bible.  It also involves building relationships with fellow Asian Americans intentionally and unapologetically. These steps will help Asian Americans towards the transformation of our culture for the Kingdom of God.  Crucial to this mission is for Asian Americans to understand that we contribute towards the Kingdom of God not by dismissing our cultures and identities, but by becoming more conscious of who we are.

A Meditation on Itch Scratching

Posted on the ISAAC blog on Oct 6, 2007 [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2007/10/06/a-meditation-on-itch-scratching-tim-tseng/]

I made a surprising discovery. ISAAC causes rashes!

Many friends have encouraged ISAAC to “scratch where people itch.” Indeed, our research, resources, and consulting efforts “scratch” the Asian American “itch.” But most immigrant Asian church organizations and mainstream American institutions have so locked their gaze on Asia, that they barely notice the Asian American “itch.” And “model minority” Asian Americans are purported to be so well assimilated that they no longer itch.

Most of the messages that we church-going Asian Americans hear avoids the “itch altogether. We are always being mobilized for missions to China and the world, but we are not supported when we feel called to lead our own ethnic churches. Others urge us to leave our Asian “ghettos” behind to join post-modern, multi-cultural ministries. Yet, nothing about our Asian American histories and identities is affirmed or even taught to us. Still others insist that we must participate in social justice work, yet deny us the right to suggest that advocating for Asian American concerns is a justice issue. Is it any wonder then so few believe that there is an itch to scratch!

But ISAAC believes the “itch” is very real – especially among Asian Americans who are not in our churches. Many in these communities need help. Few are aware of efforts to resettle Karen, Chin, and Kachin refugees from Myanmar – a recent example of how the Asian America “itch” has been overlooked (see how American Baptists are helping at http://karen-konnection.icontact.com/). An exciting effort to raise up Second Generation Southeast Asian Christian leaders deserves more attention and support. And a recent report by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropyrevealed that effective giving to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities’ needs has not kept pace with the growth of these communities.

If we are to make a positive “kingdom” impact in the Asian American communities, then Christian leaders ought to pay attention to the “itch.” Moreover, we might want to practice the discipline of “itching the scratch.” For example, college students and faculty might support Asian American Studies on campus and encourage these programs to pay more attention to religion. Campus ministries might encourage students to see returning to their ethnic churches and communities as real discipleship and mission choices. Seminarians and theological educators might insist that courses and programs that address Asian American concerns be offered – and then go out of their way to attend or offer these courses. Similar “itching” practices ought to be encouraged in denominations, para-church ministries, and the market place.

Given the recent changes and growth in Asia, it would be wise to “itch the scratch.” History can be instructive. 65 years ago, Rev. Hideo Hashimoto, Pastor of the Japanese Methodist Church in Fresno, California, spoke these words to his congregation on the Sunday before 120,000 Japanese Americans was forced to leave their homes and live in internment camps during World War II:

In a sense, our being evacuated is the consequence of our sinfulness. As American citizens of Japanese ancestry, we had a great mission to fulfill. We were destined to be the bridge-builders of the Pacific.

But we failed. In our self-centeredness, like Jonah, we ran away from our great mission. We thought only of fun, thrill, and good time. We sought fame, reputation, to be a “good sport.” We sought money and soft, easy, comfortable lives. We were constantly reminded of our task, until we were sick and tired of hearing about “Bridge-builders of the Pacific.” Yet, instead of going straight toward our responsibility, we went in the opposite direction – money making, self seeking, sin. For sin means going the opposite direction from God-given destiny.

This war, this suffering, and our evacuation, is partially our fault and our making. If we had been vigilant, and stuck to our God-given mission, working with all our heart and soul to prevent war and make for peace, justice and true democracy, the situation may have been different somewhat.

From Allan H. Hunter and Gurney Binford, eds., The Sunday Before (Sermons by Pacific Coast Pastors of the Japanese race on the Sunday before Evacuation to Assembly centers in the late spring of 1942) [unpublished manuscript, Graduate Theological Union Library Archives])

Rev. Hashimoto exaggerated the shortcomings of the Christian Nisei in his sermon. In fairness to him, he also considered the evacuation “a shame, a dangerous attack upon the fundamental principle upon which our nation in built.” Nevertheless I believe his message to Christian Nisei has relevance for us today. We, too, have a responsibility to pay attention to the Asian American issues of our day!

Today, ISAAC is helping to scratch the Asian American itch. But we may have to draw attention to – and maybe cause the itch, first! Will you join us in this effort? – Tim Tseng, Executive Director

Asian Pacific North American Theological Educators Summit (L.A. Times, 3/7/2007)

Posted March 7, 2007 at ISAAC blog [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/07/apna-summit-la-times-story/]

LA Times reporter Connie Kang covered a ISAAC and Korean Institute for Advanced Theological Studies gathering of seminary-based Asian American Center directors at Fuller Seminary on Feb. 17th. It was an important first step towards making theological education more relevant to Asian and Pacific North American Christian communities. Please contact her if you have any comments. Hope that you find it useful. For a list of participants, follow this link.

– Tim Tseng
President
Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity
(510) 962-5584

latimes.com
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-beliefs3mar03,1,1318985,full.story

Asian American churches face leadership gap
Pastors aren’t being prepared to handle congregational conflicts over cultural and generational issues, experts say.
By K. Connie Kang
Times Staff Writer

March 3, 2007

Asian American churches are going through a “crisis of leadership” because seminaries are not preparing a new generation of pastors to work in multi-generational and multicultural settings, Asian American Christian leaders say.

The problem, the leaders say, affects churches throughout the country but is particularly pronounced in California.

At a time when Christian immigrants from Asia and Asian converts in the United States are fueling what a study calls “the most dynamic changes in American Christianity,” few U.S. seminaries offer courses designed to prepare pastoral leaders for the linguistic and cultural needs of Asian American congregations. That was the view expressed by experts who gathered last month at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena for a national summit of directors of seminary-based Asian American Christian centers.

One result is decreasing enrollment of Asian Americans in seminaries.

Recruiting Asian American seminarians is “a major challenge,” said Fumitaka Matsuoka, former dean of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. “We have generous financial aid, but even with that, it’s hard.”

Matsuoka said only three or four Asian American students are enrolled at his seminary, a stone’s throw from UC Berkeley, where 43% of students are Asian American. “The discrepancy is incredible,” he said.

At Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, Asian American students number about 50 — down from more than 100 in the 1990s, according to the Rev. Sang Hyun Lee, a professor of systematic theology and director of the seminary’s Asian American program.

Pastors, seminary professors and lay leaders said at the session and in later interviews that generational schisms in Asian American churches are causing clergy attrition and turnover among pastors born or reared in the United States. Some young pastors experience so much frustration that they start their own English-speaking, pan-Asian churches. Others become so disillusioned that they leave the ministry, experts said.

A 2005 Duke Divinity School study, “Asian American Religious Leadership Today,” said the “most acute tensions” in Asian American churches revolved around two issues:

• Continual clashes between the generations over cultural differences in the styles and philosophies of church leadership and control.

• Young pastors’ view that immigrant churches are “dysfunctional and hypocritical religious institutions” that demonstrate a “negative expression” of Christian spirituality for the second generation.

For example, some American-born or -reared pastors consider the hierarchal structure of heavily immigrant churches and their emphasis on prosperity difficult to handle.

The situation is complex because many immigrants start on the lower rungs of the social ladder in America, and the church is one of the few social outlets where they can display trappings of success — whether it’s their children’s achievements or luxury cars.

Also, second-generation pastors, who often handle English-language ministries within Asian churches, say they have no influence on church policymaking because most English-language ministries are not financially self-sufficient and the big donors are often first-generation parishioners.

The problems are so pervasive that Jonathan H. Kim, an associate professor of Christian education at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, is doing a study on clergy attrition, conflict and burnout among U.S.-born Asian pastors.

The Duke Divinity School report also said that pastors trained in Asian seminaries or Bible schools appear better equipped to serve churches in Asia than Asian American congregations in North America.

Even those who are trained in the United States may be better able to lead churches in Asia or predominantly white congregations in North America, because their training fails to impart an understanding of Asian American issues, the study said. The Roman Catholic Church has the most extensive program among American Christian groups for preparing Asian priests for ministerial leadership in U.S. churches and society, the study said.

Seminaries affiliated with mainline denominations are experiencing the biggest loss in Asian American enrollment.

Princeton’s Lee said that only 15% of Asian American seminarians attend seminaries affiliated with mainline denominations. The overwhelming majority — 80% — choose evangelical institutions.

Serving the complex Asian American Christian communities today requires “crossing boundaries between East and West, immigrant and native-born, and between various ethnic communities,” said the Rev. Tim Tseng, president of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity.

“Like Hiroshima, the fusion jazz band that blends Asian and Western instrumental and musical sensibilities, the formation of the next generation of Asian Pacific North America church leaders requires improvisation and a willingness to redefine what it means to be an Asian Christian in North America and the world,” Tseng said.

For example, a young American-born pastor might have to balance his inclination to speak his mind with the assumptions of elders who expect deference from the young.

Tseng, who was born in Taiwan and reared in New York, and the Rev. Young Lee Hertig, a Korean American Presbyterian minister and lecturer at Azusa Pacific University, are co-founders of the institute.

Its goals include training culturally sensitive and biblically grounded professionals and lay leaders to serve Asian American churches.

The institute also aims to educate colleges and universities, religious institutions and the public about Asian American Christian history and to encourage research that brings in-depth understanding of Asian American Christianity.

Joo Hong Kim, a lay leader who teaches college students Sunday school at Youngnak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, a Korean mega-church with a $15-million annual budget, said Korean churches have difficulty finding qualified Korean American pastors to teach the younger generation, and he doesn’t know why. He asked experts at the conference to help.

Some seminaries use creative approaches to encourage Asian American students to enter the ministry.

With a grant from the Lilly Foundation, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago embarked on a $1.9-million, four-year program to encourage, support and challenge new generations of Asian American young adults to consider and possibly pursue a Christian vocation.

Called AADVENT — Asian American Discipleship for Vocational Empowerment, Nurture and Transformation, the program includes a summer conference and “taste of seminary” leadership seminars to encourage students to consider the vocation.

McCormick has eight Asian American students, according to the Rev. Virstan Choy, interim director of the Center for Asian American Ministries at McCormick and a visiting professor of ministry.

“You have to start with junior high to raise the question early on about vocation,” he said.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

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