Book Review: Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, edited by Peter Cha, S. Steve Kang, and Helen Lee

Review
09.24.2020

Peter Cha, S. Steve Kang, and Helen Lee, eds., Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. InterVarsity Press, 2006. 221 pages.

 

The dilemma for ethnic churches is a familiar one: immigrants move to a foreign country in search of opportunities. They are drawn to other immigrants who share the same language and culture, and thus plant churches together so that they can worship in their native language and cultural context. They raise their families in these churches. But difficulties emerge in the next generation as their children begin losing the traditional culture, replacing it with the local culture. Even as the ethnic church continues to provide a familiar community for new immigrants, it becomes decreasingly relevant for upcoming generations.

How can the church deal with these two increasingly different groups under one roof?  How can the church ensure that it is built on biblical truth, rather than a particular culture? How does an ethnic church fit into the bigger picture of what God is doing? These and many other difficulties face Asian American churches today.

HEALTHY ASIAN AMERICAN CHURCHES

Growing Healthy Asian American Churches (GHAAC), edited by Peter Cha, S. Steve Kang, and Helen Lee, attempts to address these challenges by discussing “the theme of developing healthy Asian American congregations, exploring both ‘what we are becoming’ and ‘what we are called to do’, our identity as well as our mission” (13). This book advocates eight values that should characterize healthy Asian American congregations, or “households” (13), and enable them to overcome the challenges facing ethnic churches:

  1. Grace-filled households. Asian American churches should be built on the grace that we have received from our relationship with Christ. “Grace-based ministry is our service to God based on our experience of his generosity to us” (25). It is not “a methodology to be imposed on a church. Rather, it is a foundation on which each local church can build its ministry” (31).
  2. Truth-embodying households. Asian American churches should boldly communicate truth in this world. “The church is the earthly embodiment of the risen Christ, the truth-embodying community in time and space” (45). Yet, truth is not merely “a set of esoteric propositions” (47), but rather is found in a relationship with Christ.
  3. Healthy leaders, healthy households. Healthy households will not exist apart from healthy leaders. Yet, Asian American leaders face particular cultural barriers to healthy leadership. Therefore, they must look to the Bible, which “provides numerous examples of timeless leadership principles that apply regardless of cultural setting” (67).
  4. Trusting households: Openness to change. Change is a difficult, but inevitable, aspect of the Christian life and the life of a church. Healthy households will embrace change by “[trusting] in God and what God is doing in their churches” (109). This trust must be true not only among leadership, but also throughout the congregation.
  5. Hospitable households: Evangelism. In this postmodern age, healthy households must “think of evangelism not as a program but as a way of life that proclaims the good news to those who have open hearts, souls and minds” (124). Asian American churches must use their relationships, ministries, and worship services to engage their community and meet both immediate, as well as spiritual, needs.
  6. Multigenerational households. Given the intergenerational conflict that is so prevalent in ethnic churches, “developing intergenerational ties is a critical task for Asian congregations in North America” (148). Healthy Asian American churches must serve as places of “healing and reconciliation” for the old and the young (148).
  7. Gender relations in healthy households. Particularly in Asian culture, there exists harmful gender views, which regard women as inferior and reduce them to household roles. Yet, a healthy church will provide “a sociocultural and spiritual environment in which its members can form healthy . . . gender identities . . . [and] safely explore and develop all of the gifts that the Holy Spirit has sovereignly given to them” (165).
  8. Households of mercy and justice. Healthy churches understand that evangelism is not simply “individual salvation but . . . the expression of God’s kingdom values into the world as expressed by the household of God” (191), particularly through mercy ministries and social justice.

A FEW INSIGHTS

The challenges facing Asian American churches have to do with both traditional Asian culture, as well as contemporary American culture, and these eight values attempt to get at the root of these challenges by applying eternal biblical truths.            As can be seen from the eight values, there is much to commend in this book. Two points stand out in particular:

First, GHAAC provides helpful insights into the East Asian culture and how these cultural influences affect the church. In discussing leadership in the Asian church, GHAAC highlights Asian tendencies towards authoritarian hierarchy, false humility, saving face and avoiding shame, and ignoring or avoiding conflicts, as hindrances to healthy leadership and even “contradictory to Christian teaching” (61). Similarly, especially among Asian American leaders, the constant drive in Asian culture for achievement, and even perfection, in education and work often contradicts the grace of God and must “be supplanted by the freedom of knowing that God loves us unconditionally” (33, 68).

One of the most helpful insights is the function of the Asian church as a cultural center. For example, in less than a century, over 4,000 Korean churches have been planted, and yet “the growth in the number of these churches has little to do with any targeted evangelistic effort” (124). Rather, it is because the church has become a place for both “spiritual support and relational support . . . the overriding institution that helped Koreans maintain their own cultural identity” (124). Clearly, Asian American churches are heavily influenced by Asian values and they must wrestle with the effect of these influences on their faith.

Second, GHAAC provides a vision for healthy churches that goes beyond pragmatism and numerical church growth. Unlike many contemporary books on the church, this book emphasizes the spiritual and relational aspects of a healthy church, while exploring the outward responsibility of the church to the community and the world. GHAAC criticizes leaders who would “unreflectively borrow from either successful megachurches or notable mainstream Christian thinkers who advocate some sort of one-size-fits-all teaching.” Instead, Asian American pastors are to “struggle to understand the particular place and role the Asian American church is called to fulfill in God’s kingdom” (49). When it comes to evangelism, Christians must be careful to depend on the Holy Spirit through prayer (131). Moreover, “the road to effective evangelism is not merely measured by yearly conversions.”. Rather, churches must “focus more on the process and journey of coming to Christ than on a singular moment of decision to accept Christ” (144). GHAAC’s emphasis on the need for social engagement is particularly commendable. If churches are to be faithful, “they must have a public a witness and not merely exist for the sake of maintaining their own households” (185). One way this is fulfilled is in its active participation in “ministries of justice and mercy” (186). GHAAC does not see church health simply as new programs or bigger buildings, but recognizes the importance of spiritual growth and social engagement.

SOME SIGNIFICANT WEAKNESSES

Although there are many helpful insights in this book, it ultimately falls short as a biblical guide for Asian American churches due to several key weaknesses.

First, there is a lack of clarity about the message of the gospel. The first chapter discusses the strictness of Asian culture and the importance of grace for Asian American churches. This book defines grace as “the outrageous generosity of God” (21), but strangely, it never gives a clear description of what this generosity looks like or how it is conveyed to us (i.e. the gospel). The closest thing to an explanation of the gospel in the book is this: “[God’s generosity] is given at the expense of his justice. There was a cost to God’s generosity, and it was paid by Jesus’ death on the cross” (22). That’s it.

The book never clearly articulates God’s perfect holiness, our utter sinfulness, God’s wrath against sin, Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, or the free offer of salvation by faith in Christ alone. Granted, this book is not meant to be a systematic theology on the atonement. But if grace is to be the foundation of all the church’s activities, it cannot be depicted vaguely or abstractly, but must be shown forth in all its historical reality and theological glory in the gospel. Clearly and continuously proclaiming the gospel is particularly critical in Asian American churches, which, as GHAAC rightly points out, are often more “Asian” than “Christian” (124).

This lack of clarity about the gospel will result in other errors. For instance, without a clear gospel message, conversion is seen not so much as a spiritual transformation resulting in repentance and faith in Christ, but rather it is a gradual acclimation to Christian values from Christian relationships. “As one enters this household the value system of that household begins to influence the individual” (191). GHAAC writes, “healthy Asian American churches are . . . not as focused on immediate conversions but on bringing each of their members and attendees to a closer relationship with Christ and with one another” (131) Yet, Scripture clearly teaches that apart from a spiritual (or “immediate”) conversion, there is no relationship with Christ or with his body.

This misunderstanding of conversion has a huge impact on the church’s evangelism. Evangelism no longer focuses on the proclamation of the Good News, but is primarily focused on building relationships with people. But if churches tragically misunderstand the task of evangelism, fail to communicate the message of the gospel, and have a weak understanding of conversion, though they might develop friendships unbelievers, their pews will be filled with unconverted people.

A second weakness of the book is the way it is largely disconnected from the other Christian traditions. Sadly, Asian culture has had a history of isolationism, and this is often repeated in how Asian American churches are disconnected from other churches and from the historical roots of the church. An obvious example of this is GHAAC’s focus only on contemporary Asian American churches as examples of healthy churches. This is understandable given the audience of this book, but for churches that wish to fight harmful cultural influences, they would do well to study churches in different cultures in order to learn from their strengths.

GHAAC also fails to call Asian American churches to a deeper grasp of its historical roots. Since Asian American churches are a relatively young church in America, the only history in which they have participated is the “American fundamentalist Christian culture that nurtured many of the Asian American churches in the first half of the twentieth century . . . [and] the American church-growth movement of the 1970s to the present” (33). These two movements in particular have had significant influence in Asian American churches, and much of this book’s emphasis on a subjective relationship with God and social engagement are part of the various reactions to these movements.

Regrettably, these responses fail to provide a comprehensive understanding of Scripture and the church. In church history, however, we see a much wider picture of God’s work in his church and how he has worked through weakness and failure, as well as courage and obedience. A great deal in church history would serve the Asian American context well: the persecution and boldness of the Reformers, the history of missions to East Asia, the perseverance of early Christians in house churches, the challenge of nominal Christianity under the state church, the pursuit of truth through careful study and discussion in historical councils, the migration of the Puritans to the New World, and countless other accounts of God’s faithfulness. By connecting Asian American churches to the stream of God’s work throughout church history, they will gain greater balance, humility, and wisdom in responding to the trends and movements of our day and fulfilling their unique role in redemptive history.

Finally, GHAAC fails to provide an adequate ecclesiology for Asian American churches. The book never provides a clear definition of a local church. In one place, GHAAC writes, “the church can be described as the space and time where God’s chosen people affirm their new life in Jesus Christ through worship, instruction, fellowship and expression” (44). Here it would seem that the local church is the setting where God’s people gather, which is good. Yet elsewhere, it states, “Church is a hospital room where a distressed mother and child have no one to turn to but their church family. Church is a home where discord and stress have brought a family to its breaking point” (184). Here, the definition of the church is based on the ministry of the church to care for the needy.

Without a clear definition of the local church, readers are either left to wonder exactly what the church is, or to fill in their own understanding of the church. Yet, we see in Scripture that the church (ecclesia) is ultimately not a setting or certain ministries, but a congregation, an assembly of people who have been called by God, saved in Christ, and transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Without a biblical definition of the local church, all other aspects of ecclesiology in this book suffer. We see this deficiency in the area of church membership, where churches are encouraged to invite unbelievers into their “household” as part of their evangelism. We see it in the area of church discipline, where a pastor allows a couple to join the church, even while they are living together unmarried (36) or where leaders have no idea how to lovingly discipline an elder or pastor caught in immorality. We see it in the area of church leadership, where there is no clear understanding of the roles of elders or deacons or the congregation. These are all areas in which Asian American churches are very weak, and yet are extremely important to the health of the church. As right as GHAAC is in pointing out the dangers authoritarianism in Asian it fails to provide a biblical and practical ecclesiology that can counteract these influences.

GHAAC is one of the first books of its kind, written specifically about the Asian American church and its challenges. It provides many helpful insights into the Asian culture and how it affects the identity and ministry of the Asian American church. If you already have a healthy ecclesiology, it will offer a number of helpful insights.

Yet, because of its failure to articulate the gospel clearly, connect Asian American churches to other churches, and integrate a biblical ecclesiology, GHAAC fails to be a sufficient guide for Asian American churches. Nonetheless, my hope is that this book is the beginning of a fruitful conversation among Asian American leaders on what the Bible has to say about growing healthy Asian American churches.

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Editor’s note: This piece is a part of a series on immigrant churches:

By:
Geoff Chang

Geoff Chang serves as an assistant professor of church history and historical theology and is also the curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @geoffchang.