Being a pastor in the Asian-American church network has allowed me to meet a number of churches and pastors. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of travelling to different churches across the states for both speaking and leisure. While I’ve greatly enjoyed my time with each pastor, church, and believer, I’ve come to observe something quite unsettling when it comes to the Asian-American Church: we simply aren’t engaging in the Great Commission of the Church.
I’ve met plenty of Gospel-centered, theologically solid, and philosophically brilliant Asian-American pastors, churches, and Christians. I’ve benefitted greatly from many of them, and have often been encouraged by the friendships I’ve built. But unfortunately, I have a hard time finding those who are actively on mission for the Gospel. When it comes to the command of Jesus to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” we rarely take those words literally.
Maturing Disciples Instead of Making Disciples
Oddly enough, I have seen plenty of Asian-American churches who take the call to missions in the Great commission quite seriously. I can name plenty of churches that have large missions budgets, long rosters of supported missionaries, and regular short-term teams sent each summer. However, Asian-American churches that are actually making disciples in their cities and communities are hard to come by.
Somehow, we have equated making disciples with maturing disciples. We do a great job of gathering Christians into a building, putting people into small groups, and maturing them in the Gospel – all the while never making a single new disciple. We have bought into the illusion that by simply adding members to our local churches or sending missionaries overseas, we are fulfilling the Great Commission.
We say we are baptizing new believers, but in reality, we are only adding biological growth by baptizing our children who have grown up in the church. We say we are growing God’s Kingdom as we see our churches grow, but in reality, we are only adding transfer growth as existing believers join our membership. We say we are engaged in mission, but in reality, we are only reaching the dechurched, while the unchurched remain largely untouched.
“Other Asians” Instead of “All Nations”
We have also redefined “Go and make disciples of all nations” to “Go and make disciples of other Asians.” We may be great at engaging the nations when it comes to overseas missions; but we fail to recognize the many nations represented in our own neighborhoods and cities. We have become so isolated in our Asian Christian Bubble that we find it strange when non-Asians join us for worship on a Sunday morning. We stare with bewildered eyes, wondering where this outsider came from. Or when interacting in our workplaces and communities, we rarely seek to build relationships with our non-Asian peers. Whether due to fear, discomfort, or even racism, we have rationalized for ourselves a mission that never sends us out of our Asian circles.
Some reading this may say that’s simply how people gather; we cannot stop people from gathering by race or affinity. Or some may say that we can better reach those who are like us, as we are more familiar with their context and worldview than an outsider. Some may even say that churches are not commanded to be multi-ethnic. All of this may be true, but it doesn’t mean it should dictate the mission Jesus has given us. If we are to be a church on mission with the gospel, then we should do so where Jesus has placed us, regardless of ethnicity.
When Jesus sent out the disciples after the ascension, he did not command them to only make disciples of Jews, but also in “Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Revelation 7:9-10 talks of believers from all nations worshipping together in Heaven. Scripture paints a picture of the body of Christ being a multi-ethnic entity, united not by culture or race, but the blood of Christ (c.f., Ephesians 2:13-16).
Though we may be better at reaching other Asians, we should not focus only on Asians. Jesus has placed us in jobs, neighborhoods, and communities where we interact with more than just fellow Asians. Though we may say that the Gospel is for all peoples, we need to consider if the way our church looks and acts is actually barring other ethnicities from the invitation to salvation through our local church.
J.D. Greear often challenges church leaders by asking the question, if our church left our neighborhood, would anyone care? The painful truth for many Asian/Asian-American churches, is that our communities would likely never notice if we left because we rarely engage our neighbors with the Gospel. If were are sent by Christ to be churches on mission as light in the midst of darkness, our communities should notice our presence, regardless of race.
Great Commission Diagnostics
If you find yourself disagreeing with me as you’re reading this, I’d ask you to consider a number of questions as a diagnostic to how we’re doing as Asian-Americans on mission with the Gospel:
- When is the last time you shared the Gospel with a non-believer?
- When is the last time someone from the community your church is situated in has visited your worship service?
- When is the last time your church baptized a new believer (not including children who have grown up in the church community)?
- When is the last time you had a deep conversation about faith and/or life with a non-believing co-worker or friend – regardless of race?
If you or your church can answer these questions with positive results, then praise God for your desire to be on mission for the Gospel. I do not doubt that there are great churches and believers within Asian-American evangelicalism living missionally for Jesus. There may even be large numbers of Asian-American churches being quite engaged in mission. But these are my observations with the majority of Asian-American churches I’ve come in contact with. My experience is you are the exception, not the norm.
Why is it that so many of us in the Asian-American church (and the rest of American Evangelicalism, I’m sure) have such a hard time obeying the commands of Jesus when it comes to being his witnesses? Why is it that we are great at talking about Jesus within the church walls, but once we leave the comforts of our holy huddle, we never once mention his name?
These are questions I hope to answer in the coming weeks as we as Asian-Americans seek to be on mission for the Gospel which we’ve been called to. My desire is that our churches can grow together to be witnesses for the Gospel where God has placed us, and to be welcomed by the Savior with the comforting words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
9 thoughts on “An Unsettling Observation of the Asian-American Church”
There is quite a lot to chew on here, and that alone makes this a valuable article. Based on a first read, I would however take issue with the author’s seemingly reductionist approach to what it means to “make disciples.”
Specifically, I find quite problematic the seemingly strict dichotomy the author draws between “making disciples” and “maturing disciples” – this is seen in the author’s statement that, “Somehow, we have equated making disciples with maturing disciples.” As if to drive the point home, the author immediately contrasts “gathering Christians into a building … and maturing them in the Gospel” with “never making a single new disciple.”
It is worth noting, however, that Jesus’ command is not to “make new disciples.” It is to “make disciples.” This is not a minor or trivial distinction. I do not quarrel with the idea that making disciples involves evangelization of the unchurched, those outside the Church, and that all of us (present company included) could do a better job of that. But I do not agree with the author’s implication that helping existing Christians mature in their faith does not also fall under the realm of “making disciples.”
One can see this in Jesus’s own command. If one of the principles of hermeneutics is that a particular phrase’s meaning can be gauged and clarified by the phrases immediately surrounding it, then let’s take a close look at the phrase, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” What does Jesus say immediately after this? In other words, what words does Jesus himself link to the idea of “making disciples”? Here is the entire command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
The reference to baptism clearly underscores the evangelization aspect of making disciples. But one must not forget the teaching aspect. Making disciples involves not just bringing people into the church fold, it involves teaching – yes, maturing – them. In other words, the author’s dichotomy between “maturing disciples” and “making disciples” is – in my estimation, not as clean as the author would seem to like. Yes, we need to think about how to improve our evangelization of those outside the church. But that should be in conjunction with, not in contradistinction to, maturing disciples. Because maturing disciples is also “making disciples.”
Thanks for your comments Larry. I did not intend to dichotomize making disciples from maturing disciples. Both are very clearly evident in the Great Commission. This article is mainly focusing on how we do dichotomize the two and focus on maturation only in the Asian church. But yes, it must be both and.
Hi Pastor Clark. I stumbled on your post and appreciated your thoughts. I actually spoke with Joey Chen not too long ago and we discussed some of the ins and outs of Chinese American church life, since Sunset and my own church, FCBC, aren’t too different in a lot ways.
I agree that these issues need to be addressed in our churches. I know that Sunset has taken it upon itself to be a “multiplicative” church, and I think it’s awesome that yall have taken ownership of that call. But I think there are deeper questions we are compelled to ask before we can identify “solutions” to our “deficiencies” in any kind of meaningful way. Because I’d bet that most folks who attend Chinese American churches already know they aren’t doing discipleship very well. To remind them of this fact only heaps on shame. In fact, I believe that these kinds of “you’re-not-doing-this-well-enough” exhortations are the exact kind of parental guilt trips that continue to be harmful to Asian American Christians: the same kind of disapproval we received from authority figures throughout our lives, now coming from the church.
I think we have to start with different questions. Your diagnostics seem only to ask, “Are you doing what you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing?” But I think before we can ask the questions about practice, we must ask questions about consciousness. For example, what if, instead of asking, “When was the last time you ministered to non-Asians?” we asked, “In what ways have you internalized a ghettoized perception of Gospel in which Asian Americans are only equipped to minister to other Asian Americans? And how then do we start to see God’s multiethnic kingdom as Good News for Asian Americans?” And instead of asking, “When was the last time you spoke out about your faith?” we asked instead, “In what ways does the Good News of Jesus actually empower us as bicultural, transnational, liminal Asian Americans to use our voices like Moses, Esther, and Paul, who all leveraged their bicultural identities for the sake of the kingdom?” The former set of questions highlights our weaknesses; the latter probes deeper into the ways we have internalized the lies of Empire and highlights the ways the Good News redeems our identities. From there, we can actually start to piece together a plan for our church practice and we can see how the Gospel redeems Chinese American identity, our understanding of the great commission, and our purpose in San Francisco and the world.
Blaming ourselves for the ways we have internalized our own voicelessness is too familiar an assessment of Chinese American churches. It is too easy to point out the areas where we fail. The work of identity redemption and healing is slow, difficult, and gut wrenching. But when we have a more whole, loving sense of who we are as Chinese Americans redeemed by God, we won’t need blog posts like this anymore to tell us how we need to shape up. May the day come soon! Thank you, Clark, for your post and for the chance to reflect here in this comment.
Hey Nate. Thanks for reading. We still have a long ways to go at Sunset, but we are trying.
I understand the sentiment of approaching this issue from a point of love, not rebuke. That’s something I hope to do in future blog posts (this was not meant to be a stand alone post, but the beginning of the conversation on how to grow in being more missional as Asian-American churches). However, in working with a variety of Asian-American churches (not just Chinese-American) I do think there is a place for rebuke and recognizing our failures (think: Jesus’ letters to the seven churches of Revelation).
A discussion on this article has started as I have shared this on my Facebook page. Feel free to see the comments there as well. Thanks Clark for having the love and compassion to sharpen the Asian-American church!
Praise God! Thanks for the share. Writing a follow up article on the topic today!
as one who’s spoken on the subject in dozens of Asian churches myself, i agree with the sentiments here. clark, i appreciate your graciousness up front. many need to learn from your example. a quote: “other asians” – “we have rationalized for ourselves a mission that never sends us out of our Asian circles”
all of these observations point to another observation i’ve made, that problem behind lack of evangelism is a lack of compassion. why a lack of compassion? there’s a lack of discipleship of the inner-emotional life…so that even the “fruit” of the Spirit, even love, is taught rationally, intellectually. in practice, asian-american churches generally don’t do a good job of teaching holistic discipleship…there are exceptions that i cheer about. i know bacbc did a series on what i consider the largest gaping hole on discipleship, the discipleship of the emotional life. a few asian-american parachurches have also baked some good emotional discipleship tenants into their policy and culture, from which result compassion that’s heartfelt like the Father of the Lk 15 prodigal. evangelism, then becomes almost a by-product.
a digression, most tools on the subject of holistic discipleship need major contextualization for an asian context. MFT programs need the same.
IF asian-am churches and organizations targeted this, compassion would follow naturally. a greater sense of belovedness would arise, which of course, is intricately tied to a heart for evangelism. theologically, an Asian-rooted (group -oriented) lens of reading the Word would be a HUGE gift to the Body, in the sentiments of scholars Jackson Wu and Jayson Gorges, this whole area is hugely undeveloped.
until that’s done, we’ll continue to limp along.
and if this is any encouragement, that’s why i offer this, God’s opened the door of evangelism to me. There is evangelism going on OUT THERE! Some of the best evangelism out there happens through intentionally planted “kingdom” companies here in San Francisco, reaching thousands. Personally, i’ve got two blogs that document the dozens of evangelism encounters God’s placed before me just in the past few months. one blog is private for prayers so i can’t share that here. but here are two links that point to two instances of evangelism. both of these blogs have been read by the people who experienced God’s love from SF’s non-Christian church community, and an atheist friend.
Couldn’t agree more. Evangelism is fundamentally a discipleship problem. Looking forward to checking out your blog.
What the Asian American Church has done for me.
Great debate Clark. lets look at another side of evangelism from Chinese speaking church goers.
For the majority of my Christian life, I grew up in an Asian American /aka Chinese American Church. I was born in Guangzhou China but immigrated at the age of 5 to the United States. While growing up in the United States and Canada I actually found my Chinese heritage in an Asian American Church. In fact, I owe my learning chinese, finding my roots, appreciating food and culture there. Week after week while attending chinese service, listening to phrases repeated over and over again, having family by your side, in my case, 4 generations, enabled me find my cultural identity.
If you ask any Chinese speaking church goer, why they like coming to an Asian American church, they would tell you the chinese congregation has all the ingredients that are often lacking at home. in other words, chinese speaking church replicates the ideals of what Confucius espouses. — community, family, harmony, hierarchy, law and order. They find in Asian American Church what lacks at home.
History tells us that if you do not know your past, you are like tree without roots. The likes of Matteo Ricci, Gladys Aylward, Hudson Taylor all understood this. Their success in advancing Christianity in China was that they cultivated the value of espousing Confucian ethics. Their inroads to bring Christianity to China was due to the fact that they lived Confucian and dressed and ate Chinese. Confucian ethics paved the way for the birth of Christianity in China.
Would I espouse coming to Asian American church solely for pursuing identity? (–?–) For me, it would be like reading the OT without reading the NT. Where the chinese highly value law and order aka right behavior, unity, harmony and roots, the English value spirit and grace, vulnerability and confession, areas where the chinese are weak.
For me, if I did not have an hyphenated identity, an all American church would suffice, but as a Chinese American, Asian American church offers what an American church cannot — identity, family and cultural roots. As my knowledge of Scripture grew, (due to seminary training) I realized as an Asian American, understanding Scripture in both Chinese and English has its own special rewards.
While I agree with what Clark says in his lament, I often ask myself, would I stop coming to an Asian American church in spite of all its flaws?
This would be the same as if I asked myself, would I stop reading the OT and neglect the NT. In this double faceted world, there is tension, there is dichotomy, yet there is a discovery. We are made this way for a reason. But lets be careful not to let the hyphenated Asian-American church, separate or overwhelm one from the other.