9 Things About Asian American Christianity

This was a guest post at Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange Blog, hosted at Christianity Today in 2013; cached from https://web.archive.org/web/20160308033055/http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/november/9-things-about-asian-american-christianity.html

Asian Americans are a significant part of American society and its increasingly multiethnic population. Asian Americans are also accelerating in their role in participating and shaping the future of the American church at large. One blog post couldn’t possibly describe enough to sufficiently understand this diverse racial grouping, but it’s a good place to start the learning and open the dialogue. Here are 9 things to know about Asian American Christianity:

1. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States. With an estimated population of 18.9 million in 2012, Asian Americans are projected to reach over 40.6 million by 2050. Proportionally, Asian Americans currently make up about 5% of the US population, and that will almost double to 9% by 2050. This rapid pace of growth is being fueled both by immigration and reproduction.

2. There may be more varieties of Asian Americans than any other racial group. Asian Americans are not all alike. Far from it. Asian Americans consists of more than 34 ethnicities, each with vastly different backgrounds of languages, cultures, nationalities, time of immigration, and more. These 11 Asian groups are mentioned in the U.S. Census: Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, and Cambodian. Plus, there’s the “Other Asian” category that would include: Taiwanese, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Indonesian, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Bhutanese, Mongolian, Okinawan, Tibetan, Mien, Singaporean, Tamil. Furthermore, these 3 sub-groups – East Asians, Southeast Asians, and South Asians- can be helpful in grouping those ethnicities with similarities.

3. 83% of Asian Americans are in these top 6 ethnicities: Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese. When statistics are presented about Asian Americans, be careful not to use general statistics to describe the whole. 17% of the Asian American population consists of many more smaller ethnicities with very different socioeconomic issues and, therefore, different ministry opportunities requiring fine-tuned contextualized strategies. Similarly with the larger ethnic groups, there are wide range of differences too.

4. Asian Americans are more educated and have higher median family income than any other racial groups; but that’s not the whole picture. On the one hand, Asian Americans have a lot of latent capacity to be developed for greater and wider impact, but on the other hand, statistics about Asian Americans has often been misused by overgeneralizing and perpetuating the “model minority” myth. The reality is that there many who have achieved much educationally and financially, but there are also significant numbers of Asian Americans are disadvantaged and struggling, especially among Southeast Asians and smaller Asian groups.

5. 64% of Asian Americans speak English very well. Language fluency is a good indicator of cultural fluency, but it’s not necessarily determinant of how someone will respond to spiritual things. I’ve heard that a good missionary practice is to present spiritual truths in the heart language of a person, but in the American context, English can be very effective in presenting the Gospel, if done in a contextualized manner and not merely a generic “color-blind” manner. Briefly speaking, contextualizing means recognizing the diversity in people’s backgrounds and socializing; that is to say, “all-American” sports analogies will not connect with all Americans.

6. 42% of Asian Americans self-identify as Christian, that is, 22% Protestant and 19% Catholic. Note that these survey results also indicate that 75% of the U.S. general public self-identify as Christians. Take a closer look at the numbers across ethnic lines, and you’ll notice something very different for each ethnic group. As the chart illustrates, the most churched are Filipino Americans and Korean Americans, with a majority of Filipino being Catholic and Korean being Protestant.

7. There are an estimated 7,123 Asian American ethnic churches — of which 4,000 are Korean and 1,200 are Chinese. While exact numbers of Asian American churches, (or even American churches for that matter,) are difficult to obtain, having estimates does provide some data for strategizing ministry. It’s safe to say that a majority of these ethnic churches have worship services only in their respective Asian language, with only a minority of them also having an English ministry, by necessity of ministering to the children of immigrant families. These estimates of Protestant ethnic Asian churches, however, don’t add up for me. An average church is usually under 100 in size, so 7,000 ethnic churches would reach around 700,000 and that’s far short of 4 million if indeed 22% of Asian Americans are Protestant as surveys stated. This could mean a number of things: Asians, like other non-Asians, default their religious affiliation to Christianity; I’d say it’s unlikely that so many Asian Americans are attending non-Asian or multi-ethnic churches or thousands of ethnic Asian churches are unaccounted for. What this does say is: we need a lot more churches to reach this fastest-growing demographic.

8. What’s trending is the significant growth of next-generation multi-Asian churches. I started tracking this trend during my work in a partnership between L2 Foundation and Leadership Network. As this chart illustrates, there’s an exponential growth of what I’ve called “next-generation multi-Asian churches.” Most of these autonomous churches are led by an English-speaking Asian American pastor and consists of at least 20% Asian in its congregation. While ethnic Asian churches can reach people that speak Asian languages, culturally-relevant churches are also needed to reach English-speaking Asian Americans with a bicultural background, and in turn, well-positioned to reach all English-speaking peoples around the world. This OC Register article, “O.C. exports Asian American churches to the world,” describes more about these next-generation multi-Asian churches.

9. More Asian Americans in college campus ministries indicates a future trajectory for the American church. Asian culture’s value for education translates into larger numbers of Asian Americans attending U.S. colleges and universities, as noted in the 2006 Christianity Today article, The Tiger in the Academy: Asian Americans populate America’s elite colleges more than ever—and campus ministries even more than that. At the recent Urbana 2012 triennial student missions conference, 39% of the 16,000 attendees were Asians & Asian Americans, up from 24.4% at the previous Urbana 2009. Both InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Cru’s Epic Movement are intentionally contextualizing ministries for Asian Americans, by Asian Americans.

There’s one more thing I must say. Numbers tend to numb; relationships melt the heart and change the mind. These numbers only give a quick overview for the growing signficance and importance of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism. It’s an incredibly diverse racial group, and my encouragement to you is to start a new relationship with someone of Asian descent, listen to their unique story of life and faith, and grow a friendship that will mutually bless one another. Value the relationship first by investing time, and then later, the opportunity to become partners in the Gospel task will become evident in due time.

Statistics above are taken from the U.S. Census and the Pew Research Center reports: The Rise of Asian Americans (June 2012) and Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths (July 2012), unless otherwise indicated.