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Game Theory and Asian American Church


One of the conversations that I recorded last weekend, while at ECBC, but lost (in a series of unbelievable act of user interface goofball mistakes the following day – can you hear me Sharp?! (gyah!)) was one that I truly wish that I could share with you for its spontaneity, insight, and candor. With DJ Chuang, Peter and Jamie Ong, Ho-Tay Ma, and Anna Lee seated around the coffee table, we simply threw out topics including how Asians perceive roles of ministry: elevated in Korean circles; monk-like in Chinese culture; cultural differences in the first and second generations; mentoring; networking among Chinese churches; which led us to the following topic:

Ho-Tay Ma brought up the notion of game theory and its potential application to the Asian American churches. We all sat around the table staring numbly…game theory?

Ho-Tay proceeded to tell us the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Basically pointing out that when two parties can work together, sometimes against the natural urge of self-interest, they actually can both arrive at a better outcome.

This is where I chimed in, this is very contrary to conventional economic theory that asserts that when an individual acts in their best self-interest (not with the whole in mind) that it actually works out better for the collective. For instance, the example that I was taught was that in a checkout lane for the grocery store. Everybody is waiting in line to check out. The moment, another checkout lane opens, everyone begins to gauge or measure their risk and does what is best for them. In some cases, people run to the new lane, other people stay because they think the person who left for the other lane had way more than 12 items, etc. But in the end, the entire system works more efficiently because people act out in their self-interest. This is simple explanation for free market economies, yada yada yada. It is also how many churches seem to operate.

Ho-Tay brought out a couple more examples including OPEC, which made everyone stop to think about the ramifications. Obviously, in the real world, especially with a group like OPEC, there were rules to play this “game” by. But the notion that churches working together for something greater was powerful and filled with inspiration.

It sounded as crazy as Sam Walton telling small retailers how to beat Wal-Mart. Why would someone do that? Bigger question: Why would someone do that?

“When the tide rises…all of us rise”, DJ said. Then DJ brought up the example of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC who helped other organizations and churches financially. It seemed they understood the mentality that by helping others, while we may not benefit the body of this particular church, we benefit the church catholic. DJ, in his casual brilliance asked, how different the mentalities of all the churches would be if we were concerned with church attendance city-wide versus individual church attendance, then we would really be on to something. You could practically hear God smiling in the room.

Because everyone except DJ and myself were working in the New York City area, they began to talk about what that meant in the context of Chinatown and the city. How could they invest in a way that transcends any one particular ministry to benefit the city, the whole city.

I wish you could have been there to feel the hope rise in the room.

Later, on the ride home, DJ and I re-visited the discussion on game theory. Throughout the weekend, DJ had been open enough to talk about the fact that he doesn’t push any one particular agenda, isn’t consumed with a particular ministry – he simply wants to get people to the table to talk…to have a conversation. That’s an unusual characteristic I think. Even pensive people like DJ usually walk softly and carry a big shtick. But he didn’t.

That’s when I saw it. Game theory doesn’t work unless there’s communication. DJ’s ability to bring people to the table, while he himself has questioned whether that has been sufficient for a life calling, is a necessary process in order for churches to begin to dialogue and understand where the kingdom begins and they end. The Asian American church must begin to come to the table simply to start the conversation…lift up your eyes, my fellow believers, what can we do that the King of glory may come in?

Psalm 24:7

Lift up your heads, O you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

4 responses to “Game Theory and Asian American Church

  1. Gordon

    interesting. This has been on my mind for a while. Though I was more focused on bring people, specifically college students, from chinatown churches together to pray for each other. Also during my church’s retreat last week my fellowship advisor brought up how we should be churches praying for churches. It’s thinking about church beyond one’s own church.

  2. djchuang

    Your kind words caused me to blush, and to acknowledge that you’ve represented me more fairly than some others who’ve entirely misunderstood me. So, thank you for that! 🙂

    I believe the quote is “A rising tide lifts all ships,” and believe you me, it is not an original quote from me. I’ve heard it from other more wiser people. And that was a particularly poignant moment during our now lost episode of the attempted podcast: I loved how our collective creativity kicked into high gear there (tho’ I’ll confess I was not cognizant of game theory) and we found a workable and hopeful solution to how churches in one area could work together and for the Kingdom’s sake!

  3. Anna Lee

    Yes, that was an amazing conversation. I’m still letting the discussion cook in my head, speaking about it with others and excited to see what dish is served because of it!

  4. Pingback: Introducing Anna Lee « Next Gener.Asian Church

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