Does the Asian-American Church Need an Adjusted Gospel?

Article
09.25.2015

Some would say it is very easy for a bunch of upper-middle class, highly educated, white, male, Christians from North America, to stand up and proclaim that the church universal needs an Unadjusted Gospel. Some would say this is an arrogant proclamation, revealing an ignorant and desperate attempt to cling to the past, while postmodernity has shifted the intellectual ground beneath us beyond recognition.2 Moreover, the exponential growth of global Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is quickly making these Western leaders and their representative constituents irrelevant.3 In other words, many will say, this “white Western gospel” needs to be adjusted, or it will become obsolete.

Within this discussion, how does the Asian American Evangelical church answer this question? On one hand, Asian American Evangelicals share many of the core theological commitments that groups like Together for the Gospel or The Gospel Coalition hold to. On the other hand, many Asian Americans who have labored in Asian American churches have had very different experiences in comparison to what goes on in churches like First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi or Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Does the Asian American church need an unadjusted gospel as well?

ADJUSTING THE ASIAN-AMERICAN GOSPEL

Some Asian American theologians have adjusted the gospel significantly. Their comparative religious studies have led them to a position that no longer affirms the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ. Substantively, what they argue for is a form of universalism, and by doing so they have adjusted the gospel in a radical way. They have allowed their rejection of Western theology to reshape their understanding, and instead they replace the gospel of Jesus Christ with something fashioned in their own image. What do I mean by this?

Asian American theologians, in an attempt to be indigenous, turn from a focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, to the experiences of Asians in America as the foundation for building a theology. One such theologian, Fumitaka Matsuoka, argues that the universal religious experience which serves as the basis for theology also includes distinctive ethnic experiences. Subsequently, ethnicity is a legitimate expression of the universal religious experience and, thus, careful recognition of ethnic diversities contributes to the development of theology. In other words, for Matsuoka as an Asian American, ethnic experience is one voice in a chorus of human experiences upon which theology is built.

It’s easy for conservative evangelicals to see the glaring errors in this approach and quickly dismiss these theologians. However, when you examine the experiential themes that Asian American theologians explore, much of what they express resonates with even conservative Asian Americans.

MARGINALITY

Arguably, the most common theme that Asian American theologians discuss is the experience of marginality. The history of Asian Americans can be described as a history on the borders, “betwixt and between,” and never quite fully assimilated into the American mainstream. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which excluded Chinese from becoming American citizens), the Japanese American internment camps during World War II, pre-1965 U.S. immigration quotas (which discriminated against Asian immigrants)—all reinforce the notion that Asian Americans have been and will be perpetually foreign.4 I am sure that many Asian Americans have had the common experience when asked: where are you from? I’m from Philadelphia. No, where are you really from? Nevertheless, Asian Americans are resilient. The perpetual foreigner syndrome runs parallel with the model minority stereotype, where Asian Americans are seen as highly-intelligent, industrious, and successful, but without the racial militancy accompanying other minority groups.5

This Asian American experience of marginality is sometimes seen as reflective of the Christian pilgrim experience, and therefore the theme of marginality serves as a constructive foundation for an Asian American theology. And while marginality is undeniably a part of the Asian American experience, the gospel should not be re-defined according to our experiences. Inevitably, if we give a normative place to experience, we will adjust the gospel to suit those experiences.

The irony in this approach is that in seeking to construct a unique theology, free from Western colonial influences, Asian American theologians have adopted a method that is identical with what modern Western theologians have been employing. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of German Liberal theology, espoused a theological method that likewise reduced theology and the gospel to experience. Schleiermacher contended that all religions were simply the experiences of human beings expressing a common feeling of absolute dependence. Each experience, and thus each religion, is equally valid because the foundation is the same: the feeling of absolute dependence. The gospel again was reduced to experience, with devastating results for the church.6

PREACHING THE UNADJUSTED GOSPEL TO THE ASIAN-AMERICAN CHURCH

I believe that many of the concerns expressed by Asian American theologians are valid. The history of the Asian American church intersects with the history of systemized discrimination and racialization in America, and it has had a significant impact. However, to follow what these theologians are teaching would lead to the death of the Asian American church. Thankfully, a majority of Asian American churches are conservative and do uphold an unadjusted gospel, in which salvation is found in Christ alone. But upholding the gospel and preaching the gospel may not be necessarily the same thing. For Asian American Evangelicals, our experiences still influence how we understand the gospel.

Much of evangelical preaching can be described as moralistic preaching, without a proper understanding of the grace of God given through Jesus Christ. In some ways, Asian culture is particularly suited for moralistic preaching. Asian culture has been heavily shaped by Confucianism, with its goal of moral perfection, and it’s very easy to exchange Confucian moral standards for Christian ones. Yet, the gospel does not begin with moral standards, but rather with the assertion that we are morally bankrupt (Romans 3:23). So, then, how do we preach an unadjusted gospel that avoids destructive moralism?

I am convinced that we must pay careful attention to the context of the biblical gospel. By context I am not referring to the situation of the audience, nor am I referring to the Ancient Near Eastern or Second Temple Judaic context of the Old and New Testament. The context that we must consider first when we preach the gospel is the canonical context. The Bible is an organic unity that reveals the redemptive plan of God, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. This is a supernatural revelation that tells us how God intends to save the lost, and the climax of that history is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Everything that came before Jesus Christ pointed to him (Luke 24:27), and everything that comes after explains what he did and how the benefits of his work are applied to us. Consequently, whatever passage you preach from the canon of the Bible points you to Christ, and the gospel of God’s redemption. This is the cure to moralism, because in Christ there is nothing that we can earn, live up to, or boast about. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is purely given through the grace of God in spite of our rebellion and sin, and not because of what we have accomplished. I believe the church, including the Asian American church, needs to be reminded of this unadjusted gospel every week.

KNOWING THE HISTORY OF ASIAN AMERICANS

Like the Apostle Paul, we are to preach Christ, and nothing but Christ (1 Cor. 1:23). Still the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses a host of issues, including the issue of ethnicity. Feelings of disgrace, shame, marginality, discrimination, etc., can be healed by the power of the gospel. Those who minister to Asian Americans need to understand something about these common experiences. In order to understand these needs, I would suggest that it is important to read about the history of Asian Americans and to talk to older generations of Asian American Christians. You will learn about their struggles and, for example, how the establishment of the single-ethnic Asian American church was not simply the consequence of language barriers, but was often the result of subtle segregation.7 Likewise you will learn of the Asian American church’s vital role in providing assistance for recent immigrants, when no one else would. This history is important for understanding the needs of and ministering to those in the Asian American community.

Knowing the history of Asian Americans also serves another purpose. The gospel calls us to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). While Asian American churches uphold and strive to preach an unadjusted gospel that is the same for all evangelical churches, it remains necessary to address issues of discrimination and falsehood, even within evangelical Christianity. False and hurtful Asian stereotypes found in such things like the Rickshaw Rally Vacation Bible School material or the Deadly Viper publications have been well publicized. But sometimes these issues are more subtle, and I admit are often accompanied by the best of motivations. This makes it more difficult to address, but speaking the truth is still a requirement. Let me give you two examples.

SUBTLE DISCRIMINATION AND MULTI-ETHNIC CHURCHES

A common trend today within many of our denominations is to encourage the growth of multicultural or multiethnic churches, particularly in urban centers where the cultural or ethnic diversity is the greatest. Justification for this takes on various forms. Sociologically, some of these church leaders still hold to the old “melting pot” paradigm, in which all cultures will be assimilated into the generic American culture.8 Others, whom I would regard as more nuanced, would see the sociological shift towards a post-ethnic America as the grounds for multi-culturalism.9 Culture, they claim, is more fluid today.

If you have worked in youth ministry with Asian Americans, you’ve probably witnessed this phenomenon. Many young Asian Americans have adopted the African American hip-hop culture with its music, language, and style of dress.10 Biblically, these church leaders argue that the kingdom of God knows no ethnic distinction (Galatians 3:27-29; Revelation 7:9).11 In fact, I remember hearing one church planter boldly state that God is more pleased with multiethnic churches! Regardless of the justification, the method for multicultural or multiethnic churches usually follows a model where diversity begins with the leadership. Therefore, it is important to have a Caucasian pastor paired with an African American, Asian American, or Latin/Hispanic American pastor. My own denomination defines multiculturalism in these exact terms.12

But do color lines always demarcate cultural or ethnic boundaries? What if I planted a church with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese members? According to the common definition, this would not qualify as multicultural or multiethnic. But who defines these terms? They are usually defined by someone who cannot tell the difference, or worse do not recognize that there are differences between various Asian ethnic groups. This is a subtle form of stereotyping.

Another form of stereotyping—again, which often comes with good intentions—occurs when some attempt to identify cultural traits in order to connect the gospel with these traits. Asian cultures are commonly described as “shame-based cultures,” and the concept of shame is said to be more familiar than guilt.13 I have seen some pastors and theologians insist that the gospel, when presented to Asians and Asian Americans, should be framed solely by the notion of shame before God, excluding any discussion of guilt. Put simply, they claim that guilt is a Western cultural characteristic, while shame is more of an Eastern cultural characteristic. Again, this is subtle adjustment, with the admirable intention of communicating the gospel more effectively. In my opinion, however, you cannot preach the gospel without discussing the guilt of all sinners before the judgment of God (Romans 6:23). And guilt is not the same thing as shame. Moreover, guilt is not a foreign cultural concept for Asians. Arguably, legal codes in Asia and the Middle East pre-date those in the West. A violation of the emperor’s edict in Ancient China for example, would result in guilt and punishment. Again, this is a subtle form of stereotyping that requires careful attention.

3 WAYS THE ASIAN-AMERICAN CHURCH CAN HELP ADVANCE THE GOSPEL

God has created us and called us to be his children, with our various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, all of which he created. Does the gospel call us to leave behind culture and ethnicity? Sometimes it does. After the Fall, our cultures and ethnicities are not immune from sin. Yet I remain convinced that culture and ethnicity are not inherently evil, and that God uses theses things now to extend his gospel to a lost world. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 Paul writes, “Now there are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are a variety of ministries, and the same Lord; and there are a variety of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” As such, I’m convinced that the Asian American church has a unique role in the work of the gospel. Here are three ways.

First, the Asian American church can help the wider evangelical church see that the gospel is more than ethnicity. Let’s be honest, while America has made progress, racial tension still exists, even in the church. The Asian American church can help unite the body of Christ by sharing its resources with those outside of the Asian community. Asian Americans are disproportionately wealthy compared to other ethnic groups. However, Asian Americans are disproportionately under-represented amongst philanthropic donors. The Lord has blessed many Asian American churches with tremendous wealth, but do Asian American churches share that blessing with others? Of course they do; but usually, it is only for missionary work directed at those who are of the same ethnicity. The gospel, of course, is more than ethnicity, and by sharing the resources that God has given to some Asian Americans, the wider church will be blessed and greater unity will be built, all for the sake of the gospel.

Second, for those who have received the gospel, we must remember that we have been united to Christ (Ephesians 2). Union with Christ is a major theme in the New Testament. We are united to Christ by faith, and the benefit of being united to him includes our justification, adoption, and sanctification.14 In addition, as we are united to Christ, our lives are to be conformed to the pattern of Christ’s life. This is the pattern of suffering before glory, as Christ suffered and died before he was resurrected and entered into glory in his ascension (John 16:33, Galatians 2:20). Now suffering may not be unto death like Christ, but it maybe like Christ a suffering that includes sacrifice. We may be called to suffer through sacrificing our own comforts, desires, and needs.

If I might be a little critical at this point, this is not the common attitude among many Asian American churches that are looking for the next innovation for ministry, whether it be updating technology, changing worship styles, or initiating new programs. Instead, on one hand, a sacrificial attitude may mean teaching our younger second and third generations to sacrifice their comfort for the sake of unity and growth with the first generation. On the other hand, the first generation must be willing to share the leadership of the church in order to encourage young leaders to grow and develop. This could take various different forms from maintaining a single church with first- and second-generation congregations, or launching a new second-generation church which intentionally maintains a relationship with the parent church. Perhaps I am being too simplistic, but I am convinced that a Christ-centered gospel that recognizes Christ’s pattern of suffering before glory as our pattern as well, can avoid the “silent exodus” of children who grow up in Asian American churches abandoning those churches or even the faith when they leave home, as Helen Lee so famously documented in her article for Christianity Today.15

Finally, the Asian American church can play a strategic role in this age of globalization. Philip Jenkins, in his ground-breaking book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, describes how Christianity in Africa, Asia, and South America is growing exponentially, while it is declining in Europe and North America.16 I have read and heard reports from churches in China, South Korea, Uganda, and Brazil that would confirm Jenkins’ research.

As this trend continues, the frontline of Christian ministry will not be in the West. As a result, some claim that the Western church will have no significance in the next few decades. I disagree. Churches in the West still have resources, both financial and practical, to share with the growing church in other parts of the world. However, for churches in the West to interact with churches in Africa, Asia, or South America, it will require cross-cultural sensitivities.

Who better to aid this effort than those who have lived their entire lives in a bi-cultural context? Most Asian Americans are just as comfortable eating with chopsticks as with a fork and knife, they often can speak more than one language, and they are able to navigate cultural nuances and practices that others would overlook. Being Asian American and working in a Western seminary, I am frequently called upon to be a cultural translator in order to connect my institution with partners in Asia, as well as other parts of the world. I admit, sometimes it can be frustrating because you feel like you have one foot in each world, while never being fully comfortable in either. But the opportunity to connect two worlds can result in extraordinary partnerships that could have significant impact for the work of the gospel.

CONCLUSION

It was a surprising and sad moment when as a first year seminary professor I led a seminar in which we discussed the unique role the Asian American church can play in extending the gospel. One of my Chinese American students came up to me afterwards and said, “I always thought being Chinese American was a hindrance. This is the first time that someone has told me that being Chinese American can be an advantage.”

God has created us with individual gifts, including the gift of our culture and ethnicity. Often, that gift can be hidden by sins both committed and committed against. But, to quote Amy Tan, “It may look worthless, but it comes from afar, and carries with it all my good intentions.”17 Even better, James 1:17 states, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

 

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1 Material from this article was first presented at the: Asian Americans Building Healthy Churches pre-conference seminar hosted by Project Antioch at the 2010 Together for the Gospel conference.

2 For postmodern claims see: Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (2001); John Franke, The Character of Theology: A Postconservative Evangelical Approach (Grand Rapids, 2005); Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (2001).

3 Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, 2009).

4 See Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today (Rutgers, 1999).

5 Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America (New York, 2001), p. 7; Frank Wu, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (New York, 2002), p. 40-41.

6 See George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (Oxford, 1980); D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore, 1994).

7 Timothy Tseng, “Asian Pacific American Christianity in a Post-Ethnic Future,” American Baptist Quarterly 21 (2002), pp. 277-292.

8 See David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, 2005), p. 93. For a defense of the assimilationist model see: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Return to the Melting Pot,” in Ronald Takaki (ed.), From Different Shores: Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America (Oxford, 1994) pp. 293-5; and Takaki’s response, ‘At the End of the Century: The “Culture Wars” in the U.S.,’ ibid. 296-9.

9 See David Hollinger, Post-ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (1996); Michael Angrosino, Talking About Cultural Diversity in Your Church: Gifts and Challenges (Walnut Creek, 2001).

10 Joel Kotkin and Thomas Tseng, “Happy to Mix it All Up,” Washington Post (June 8, 2003).

11 Manuel Ortiz, One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church (Downers Grove, 1996); Michael Pocock and Joseph Henirques, Cultural Change & Your Church: Helping Your Church Thrive in a Diverse Society (Grand Rapids, 2002).

12 “Ministering Among the Changing Cultures of North America,” Mission to North America, Presbyterian Church of America (October 2005), pp. 20-21. Found at: www.pcamna.org/about%20us/resources/CulturalAssimilationPaperOctober132005.pdf.

13 Ken Fong, Pursuing the Pearl: A Comprehensive Resource for Multi-Asian Ministry (Valley Forge, 1999), chapter 5.

14 The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 69 states, “The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him.”

15 Helen Lee, “Silent Exodus: Can the East Asian church in America reverse the flight of its next generation?”, Christianity Today, 40:12 (August 12, 1996).

16 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2002); also see Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids, 2003).

17 Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (New York, 1995), pp. 3-4.