Paucity of Chinese American ministry leaders

This set of question was posted in a recent email discussion, as Southern Cal ministry leaders are anticipating the upcoming lunch fellowship this Wednesday 6/3:

As an observer and advocate of ABC ministries since the 1970s and a former youth worker in a Chinese church, can anyone educate me as to WHY there are few(er) ABC’s committing themselves for full time Christian service these days? (a) Postmodern culture? (b) Options of going into Asian American/mainstream churches and ministries? (c) Others…? We have always had a shortage. Is the shortage growing?

John Ng (Youth Pastor at First Chinese Baptist Church, Los Angeles) wrote:

There are not enough from the Chinese churches going into seminary. We need to instill the vision and dream to help our youth and young adults to contemplate and pray about full-time service in church and the mission field.

… I personally feel one of the reasons is that even Christian parents have a hard time with their children entering into ministry positions. It’s not prestigious enough, they can’t gloat to their friends, their kids can do better, etc., so it’s not encouraged but discouraged. Tokunaga’s book Invitation to Lead, says some things similar to that.

Also, I’ve known women who have graduated seminary and it’s tough finding a place to serve and work in a Chinese church, so in that respect, yes the options are much more limited. Obviously theological barriers and traditional Confuscian barriers.

I agree that parents, Christian or not, is a huge factor on whether their children will follow God’s calling, or if their children will fulfill certain career expectations for “practical” reasons. Now, I admit that I’m less interested in figuring out why, and much more interested in finding solutions. To find solutions, I’d like to see more experimenting, trial & error, research & development.

And one more thing. I’d add that developing the following would avert the apparent shortage — (1) raise the prestige and salary of pastors [if the church doesn’t do it, who can?], (2) producing contextualized resources [and events], (3) starting new churches that reach the unchurched, (4) providing coaching for everyone to fulfill their God-given calling, not only those who might be pastors or missionaries.

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21 Responses

  1. Ken Liu says:

    One place to look is the Australian Chinese context where they have dedicated themselves to growing full time workers from within. They've taken the MTS (Ministry Training Strategy) system developed by Philip Jensen and adapted it to the Australian Chinese context. In a nutshell, its a 2 to 3 year apprenticeship (before going to seminary) under a seasoned English pastor where they get a realistic picture of pastoral ministry in a Chinese context. What I admire from afar is their conviction that it is the local church that raises up the next generation of leaders.

  2. Lon says:

    that's interesting, i was part of the largest non-denominational seminary in canada – and it seemed like half the students were asian.

    maybe it's a toronto/canada thing but it seems like seminary/pastoring is still seen as the pinnacle of christian spirituality in asian circles.

    maybe, an anemic amount of people committing themselves to full-time ministry, is a result of a generation of ministers/leaders doing things right, and sending their people into all sorts of other vocations to serve god and redeem every realm of creation…?

  3. Steve says:

    I am completely unqualified to answer the question but curious as to how one pronounces Pastor Ng's last name.

  4. Tim says:

    some people used to say bc pastors aren't respected in taiwan (can't get a real job?) and obviously pastors in household/underground churches are not as common–so even more than in non-Chinese churches, real leadership is found in the lay people of influence (assigned as deacons/elders or not). john ng talking about that “collective” value definitely makes me think a hired pastor is not as important, and in chinese circles the pastor is clearly more of the employee/servant, unlike in a korean church where the pastor is a community leader (and often (sometimes inappropriately) revered). or maybe, a reflection of the overall health of the Christian faith for Chinese in America. real reason to go to church–cultural instead of Christ-centered? a weak church only breeds even fewer good leaders? ABC pastors are few, but ABC youth pastors even fewer–how does that impact the growth of those potential future ABC leaders?

  5. Ted says:

    church parents, preachers and teachers must have a paradigm shift: the goal of preaching, teaching, and parenting must be to raise up the next generation to love and fear God, or else judges 2:10-12 will happen all over again.

    this reminds me of the old list you and timothy tseng used to moderate. 🙂 hope it catches on. keep up the good work

  6. hi DJ,
    Just to contribute to the conversation,
    I posted some thoughts on my own blog earlier today:

    –Parental and worldly expectations.
    Immigrant parents often push their American-born children to accomplish great things in academics, instilling in them a value of hard work and achieving success. Parents do not consider pastoral ministry to be an acceptible career. While it is okay for others to be pastors, their children should be doctors and lawyers to support the church and support them in their old age. Because of this, many do not seek out the Lord’s calling on their lives, reducing the supply of Chinese-Americans even considering full-time ministry as a vocation.

    –Hurts experienced in churches.
    As it has been well-documented, many Americanized Asian-Americans can speak of hurts that they have experienced in churches that are led by the immigrant generation. An alarming majority of those who grew up in these churches do not return to them after college, many of them leaving the faith altogether.

    –Pessimism regarding the immigrant church.
    Concerning the bilingual, immigrant church model, the prevailing mood among American-born Chinese seminary students I interact with is one of extreme pessimism. Many of them consider the bilingual church beyond repair, and that they do not want to go back to these types of churches that they grew up in.

    –Other ministry desires.
    Many ABC seminary students/ministers are currently looking for other kinds of ministries, whether in more progressive “multi-ethnic” churches, para-church ministry, or in the mission field. Whether this is affected by hurts experienced in the immigrant-led church remains to be seen.

  7. dannyyang says:

    DJ, i tried to get hired by a chinese church in atlanta, but was rejected for one of the “other” reasons– my theology was too progressive, even though the pastor confessed that i was the most qualified applicant they had seen.

    re: someone mentioned alot of asians at seminary. i get the sense that within the korean church, the pastor has higher status than in chinese social circles.

  8. djchuang says:

    @Ted, thanks for your comments, and it does take a paradigm change. So what practical ways have you found effective to implement a paradigm change and to raise up new Chinese American ministry leaders? And yes, this discussion topic does bear some resemblance to the older email listserv. Now in the online world, if it's not searchable and findable via Google, then it doesn't exist. So this blog post should surface the topic for all to find and join in.

    @Daniel, great thoughts. Thanks for writing them out on your blog post.

    @dannyyang, sorry to hear of the rejection – that never feels good, for whatever reason. I've heard that even my Dallas Seminary degree is too liberal and progressive in some (small) circles.

  9. Joseph Wong says:

    Thanks for this venue DJ.
    The discussion seems to imply that this matter is a human, business-like issue. Being an ABC pastor, serving in Chinese churches, here are my experiences. All the speculations about why there is a paucity, are not the determining factors in my life. Instead the calling of God and His persistent faithfulness has granted me a wonderful life of ministry.

    In high school the Lord laid His hand on me and called me into the ministry. When I told my father, his supporting comment was, “You'll never make it.” So I worked my way through college and seminary. My own church never considered me for any position, so I looked for a position, from the Bay Area to Seattle and was finally offered a part-time youth pastor's position in Seattle. We believed it was God's door and accepted it, packed and moved up to Seattle. We found our 'bread and butter' job at Boeing. Two years later we were put on full-time as an associate, and served another 8 years.
    Since then we have served at Chinese churches along the west coast. We believe we were serving our Lord, and the churches, especially the ABCs, were our charge. We did not serve because the work conditions were so favorable, but because our Lord opened the door for us to go. We faced rejection, being ignored by church leaders, etc.. But this is our 48th year, serving a wonderful Master. Gratitude for this life seems to dominate my heart.
    Joe Wong

  10. hehmin says:

    {quote}…(1) raise the prestige and salary of pastors…{/quote}

    a little off the point of your post… but i randomly thought about something similar on sunday and casually wrote down – “pay your youth pastor enough to afford a car with automatic windows and a/c”

    at a Chinese Missions conference (2007/2008?) a panel of former and current youth directors/pastors urging the parents attending the discussion to pay their youth staff better.

    many youth pastors (and other minstry folks) spend much of their own money to help facilitate the ministries they're involved in. some buy season tickets to basketball games to take their youth group kids. others buy a minivan (even tho they're single) to chauffeur kids to/from church activities. often, none are subsidized by the churches they serve at. and they are paid so little that i often wonder how they can afford the necessities in life.

    so maybe one way to start is to pay pastors enough to afford the smaller luxuries that many would consider a “need” – like … automatic windows and a/c

    i've also heard the chinese church “waits” 7 years for a youth pastor. perhaps it's even longer now? i wonder what the avg wait is for korean churches? compared to non-asian churches and mega churches (asian or not)?

  11. Tim Liu says:

    I would have to cast my vote for a lack of positive mentors and role models in ministry. Its hard to take the tough steps going into ministry without seeing many examples of those who have gone before. And it seems like too often the models who are there are tired, jaded or burnt out on ministry, which doesn't exactly excite the next generation.

  12. randplaty says:

    I'd say … (b). I know a lot of my peers who are in ministry or going into ministry… but only 2 out of 15-20 are in bilingual Chinese churches. A lot of them are in multi-ethnic or AA ministries.