What does Asian American Christian spirituality look like?

Pastor John Shin recently recorded this Facebook Live video about Asian American Culture and Gospel Culture.

This video got several engaging comments, and with permission, I’ve posted this extended comment from Pastor Joe Suh (Pastor of The Exchange Church in Anaheim, California)—

These are some thoughts I had after watching your video. These are a few thoughts about particular areas in which our AA culture can create barriers that we need to be aware of so that the gospel can penetrate:

1) Testimony:

In my view, our shame/honor culture affects testimony in particular more than evangelism generally (although obviously there’s overlap here). Our cultural upbringing makes it tough for us to be completely transparent about what Christ has done in our lives because to do that, we’d have to share our pain points and areas of shame. While theology teaches people about who Jesus is, our testimonies typically allow people to understand what Jesus does in a person’s life. Our AA culture strongly discourages us from sharing with others our sins, weaknesses, mistakes and grief (e.g. career failures, bad financial decisions, how our marriages have struggled, failed relationships, broken families and friendships, abuses, abandonment, miscarriages/infertility, depression, loneliness, anxiety, health issues, being overwhelmed, the specific sins and heart issues we’ve had like arrogance, addiction, sexual sin, judgment, betrayal, etc.).

I’m not only talking about when we’re going through these things because everyone struggles with that. I’m talking about even after the fact, we still don’t like to share them but try to quickly move past them or even bury them. So our testimonies about Jesus (both past and present) too often sound like, “Here’s how I discovered success and I can teach you” rather than “Here’s how I was lost in my sin and Jesus saved me.”

I’m always amazed when people (AA’s in particular) discover the freedom to share openly not only how great Jesus is, but how bad they were/are (as that gap represents our understanding of God’s grace). I think it’s something we’ll always struggle with, but the fact that there is an added cultural barrier for AA’s makes it all the more amazing when it is overcome (i.e. the barrier makes the testimony more powerful).

2) Cultural Identity:

Like you alluded to, I think we’re unsure of what to do with our culture in light of the gospel. Because we hold strong cultural values but often try to deny that they are important (to us or God), we are confused about who we’re aiming to become. Many 2nd Gen AA churches think we need to change the forms of our worship, programs, disciplines and even our social interactions to more closely resemble those of predominantly white (or multi-ethnic but mostly white) churches. This sends the implicit message that to not conform to the predominant culture is gospel-aberrant (something that I think a lot of AA’s believe).

For example, early morning prayer was one of the core practices of the Korean church (and likely one of the main reasons the KA church grew when it did the way that it did). What did the 2nd gen do with this culturally unique spiritual practice? Devalue it, delegitimize it, and then ultimately, put it to death. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us (2nd Gen AA Christians) now believe we have better things to do than go to church to worship and pray every morning before work (e.g. work out, get coffee, sleep more). Ironically, if our kids gathered every day to pray together before school, I’m sure we’d laud them. But we look down on our parents for the same practice mostly because we prejudicially view spiritual practices that are birthed out of our Asian culture either as having little value or being somehow illegitimate.

Off the top of my head, I can think of several great things the gospel does for us when it reaches our AA culture:

* Being bi-cultural: Stephen Um talked about this (frame-switching) in one of the TGC panels

* Emphasis on teaching and preaching (having to do with our strong value of education): preaching tends to be central to worship in most AA churches and for most AA churchgoers (you even alluded to the emphasis on study in your first video)

* Emphasis on family and community (since Eastern culture tends to be more communally oriented than Western culture which is more individualistic)

* Fewer barriers to mission – I haven’t done any real research on this so I can’t say for sure, but I’ve read so many books that cite incidents where American church leaders are hesitant to make cross-cultural missions a part of their long-term agenda, but I’ve never known a single AA church leadership that opposes supporting and/or sending long-term missionaries. I do believe that being bi-cultural allows us to empathize more easily with other cultures since we are not the predominant culture (or in many cases, even represented well) in the place we call home. I have to believe this also makes us less averse to at least the idea of cross-cultural missions.

3) Evangelism:

This is just kind of my personal gut feeling, but I think one big thing AA churches are tripping over in the area of evangelism is the question, “What’s our target group?”

2nd Gen AA’s simply aren’t sure whom they should be evangelizing to. I know the easy answer is “everyone” but for most AA Christians who attend AA churches, there are likely only a small number of AA’s they know that don’t already attend church (and far fewer who don’t already profess to be Christian) and every other AA church is going after for those same people.

The question then becomes, “Should we be more evangelistic toward the non-Asians in our lives?” The obvious answer is “Yes”, but it seems to me we’re unsure of how to engage since many of us haven’t come to terms with our cultural baggage (and subsequently our cultural redemption). Basically, we’re confused. We kind of don’t like our culture (or at least, don’t like to embrace it) and yet, we tend to stick to our own people. How can we (as churches) be “appealing” to non-Asians and still embrace our Asianness (I don’t have an answer to this and I’m not even sure it’s a question we should care about but I think it is one that AA church leaders think about)?

When our identity and testimony in Christ are more fully understood as not opposed to culture but transformative of culture, I do believe a more integrated relational evangelism/discipleship will follow, provided that pastors and leaders continue to encourage and emphasize disciple-making. I could say a lot more about this but this has already become a lot longer than I intended.

Just some thoughts. Love the videos! Keep em coming. Thanks for the shout out!

In case you’re wondering, why post it here? This is get it out from being buried in Facebook comments and to make it search-engine friendly.

A New Podcast called Centering

Plus, it’s very encouraging to see another stream of conversations about Asian American Christian spirituality starting up in the online public square.

On the first episode of Centering, host Kevin Doi and Professor Daniel Lee talk about how our Asian American specific stories can bring glory to God, and why it is so important for the church to make the connections between our Asian American-ness and our Christianity. Future episodes will continue with more conversations about Christ, Christian life, and Asian American perspectives.

I’ve subscribed (on SoundCloud; RSS feed coming up); you should too.