In my book, "Thrive." I explore how the contemporary church can live out its mission in a post-Christian society. Despite culture having pushed the church from the centre to the fringes, underlying church culture has remained largely the same. Churches continue operating as if it still lives in the privilege of Christendom. As a whole we are missing the mark on the primary issue: mission. The question we must ask is, "what current paradigms need to change to survive and thrive in a post-Christian world?"
In my book I also present four broad church categories: churches/denominations that are on the brink of demise; the average church holding steady at around 100; ethnic congregations; and the growing large/mega church. It’s the ethnic congregation I want to talk about in this post (since I write little about it in Thrive, maybe in the next one *hint hint*). I’m going to interact with a well written post by Steve Bang Lee entitled, “5 Predictions on the Future Asian American Church” to help call out ethnic congregations and their approach to mission.
My question, specifically to Asian American and Canadian congregations, is this: are ethnic churches capable of embracing God’s mission beyond their own world? The question stems from my observation that Asian churches are some of the most closed churches an outsider will ever encounter (Chinese and Korean among the largest). They can be cold, outdated, tend to be conservative, have immense language barriers, and lack diversity. It’s great if you look like you belong, but unwelcoming if you don’t. I state this as a Chinese/Japanese Asian Canadian who is not Chinese enough to fit into Chinese church and not Japanese enough to fit into Japanese church.
Admittedly, I am characterizing, but my premise remains: ethnic churches are closed to outsiders. This leads me to ask, in the age of decline, will ethnic churches follow their white majority counterparts and slowly dwindle away? We know from the stats that very few churches of any kind are growing through conversions. The way churches maintain attendance is through 3 primary ways: births, church transfers, and new immigrants who are already Christians.
Many ethnic congregations are bucking the trend. More than their white evangelical counterparts, many have experienced growth as a result of conversions. Providing ministry resources and relationship to new immigrants are keys to growth. This is where the value of ethnic congregations is evident. They excel in mission to their own. But can they do it beyond?
Is Homogeneity Kingdom?
Traditional church planting has long relied on the Homogenous Unity Principle where birds of a feather strategies were embraced. The strategy relies on building a church intentionally around sameness so you can reap quicker benefits and sustainability. As a tactic it works. People crave the security of familiarity. Surround people with others who firstly look the same, and then earn or live around the same place, and you have a greater chance of success to build community. It’s also cheaper since there’s significantly less accommodation required when the needs are the same. Ethnic congregations have taken a page from the HUP playbook, but is it kingdom?
Does HUP look like the New Testament church? Was sameness readily embraced? Or were dividing walls conquered as the early church learned to embrace unity IN diversity? Is the Triune God a God of sameness? Or is it three distinct persons in ONE Godhead? Sameness is not the same as “oneness” that is so distinct in Triune relationship. Is homogeneity embraced by Jesus? Or was he constantly demonstrated the love for the “other” and the embracement of diversity in tight community? Does the HUP principle adequately reflect the Great Commission and the Great Commandment to love the other?
It’s safe to say that staying within the guise of sameness isn’t necessarily UN-biblical. It’s not a sin to remain rooted in your Korean church for the rest of your life. I contend, however, that it IS a detraction from the wholeness of what God’s kingdom is about. Kingdom hope is rooted in final hope that sees every tribe, tongue, and nation worship the Lord. You get to retain your identity, but at the same time you give up a piece of yourself to be brought into the oneness of the kingdom. In practice this can’t happen without breaking down dividing walls and sharing distinct and lasting relationship with people who are different. I can’t think of a better place to do this, at least in theory, than the church.
So what’s stopping us?
Consumers and the Struggle with Mission
Most churches are stuck in a model where pastors do all of the work, discipleship is weak, and the central focus isn’t Christ & kingdom. The focus tends to be the Sunday service. In this model you typically only grow through excellence of production and program. Conversely, when church has a longing to join unfolding kingdom in the neighborhood and city, and all contribute their gifts to this mission, you get a different identity.
One of Bang’s observations on the Asian American church is a telling expose on the kind of Christians in evangelical Asian congregations. (Spoiler, they’re no different than their white counterparts.) 2nd or 3rd gen, who rejected the old traditions of their parents and sought to build more contemporary communities are now coming back.
“The suspicions of Asian Americans are shifting. Have you noticed how a few years ago, Korean-Americans despised the legalistic tendencies of their parents’ faith but today speak with greater admiration of their parents’ sacrifice and commitment? The new suspicion amongst Asian Americans is lateral.
Ten years ago, I would’ve said the Independent Asian American Church would eventually dwarf immigrant churches and then become progressively multi-cultural. While that may eventually happen one day, I believe we’ll see a resurgence from the immigrant church in the near future.”
This move is stunning. I would assume more AA are leaving the church entirely, not going back to dad’s church. (I don’t know the numbers of this, there may still be a looming exodus underway.) My immediate question is why the return? Why are they going back? I think the answer, to oversimplify, is preference. The motive, consumerism. A move towards wider mission from immigrant to multi-ethnic, even for visible minorities, is difficult. The cost is higher than returning to the familiar and safe world of the immigrant church. The prospect of mission has arguably become too difficult as thus people are “giving up” and moving back to a place they can be served.
Sound harsh? It is. It’s also a generalization, I know. But if it’s true, the impact will be felt on future generations. Ethnic churches, if they’re experiencing such a resurgence, are merely going to cater to the already churched and their consumeristic demands. And the mission? Is going back to the immigrant church (let’s call it “square one”) being faithful to the missional call? You cannot rely on new immigrants to pad the stats forever can you?
Is Multi-Ethnic a “Higher” Kingdom Value?
Of course, this all assume there’s even an interest or a value (we can say a theological value at this point) to embrace diversity. Many churches simply do not believe diversity is an important value or practice. Many people don’t believe this either. White majority churches think they’re ‘neutral’ (everyone is welcomed) but that’s only because they view the world from the top and assume everyone else must see the world as they do. What they don’t know is that minorities in their communities have to live out a characterization of themselves in order to fit in. Ethnic churches sometimes commit this stereotype when they’re part of wider denominations, adopting “white theology” as their own in order to be accepted. But we should know better.
Asian American and Canadian, and any ethnic church, should have a better view of the world as minority churches. For one, minority evangelical churches are uniquely positioned in post-Christendom to inform the church as a whole. Many have increased in size during the same decades white churches have experienced an exodus. But that expertise can’t come solely from an experience catering to new immigrants. The subjugation of the ethnic church to the majority church should in theory inform a better response to mission because we should have an experience that values the ideas, “we’re all in this together”. That’s ALL of us, from across ethnic, racial, and gender bounds.
Jesus had a few things to say about breaking down dividing walls in lukewarm churches.
Where to Now?
One thing we have to press ethnic congregations is why they remain so closed. Is it a detriment to mission when only Chinese or Korean speakers belong? Or to put it in a different way, is there more or a deeper expression of kingdom when mission stretches beyond race boundaries? One thing is certain, mainstream culture is casually plodding along slowly getting better at embracing diversity. It would be nice if more churches were at the table.
To reiterate, I think fundamentally all churches must ask a question about how they view mission. Most need to re-imagine mission not as something done in a far away land to foreign people by professionals, but the lens through which we filter the entire function of the local church. Ethnic churches need to stop relying on the notion new immigrants is the extent of their mission. Fundamentally all churches, ethnic ones included, have to re-orient themselves to whole mission, and away from strategies built to retain inherited traditions for closed community. One opts to batten down the hatches only letting in familiar faces. The other re-imagines church function in a new era. One will settle and/or decline, the other will hopefully co-create in a new culture and thrive.