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Asian Churches Unbiblical? I Think You Mean Multiethnic…

The world today is shrinking. The era of globalization has been ushered in, and the surge of migration into America has vastly changed the urban landscape. The church stands in the middle of this gushing torrent, staring nervously at the rising waters. Where the waters once held a homogenous sheen, it is now a dizzying mosaic of colors.

In light of redemptive history, how should the urban church deal with this unprecedented multiplicity of ethnicities? Is the multiethnic church model commonly espoused today as the biblical paragon really the answer, or does the answer lie elsewhere? Or, in other words, does Pastor Wong of CCCCC (Chinese Christian Church of Californian Chinese) really have to cower in shame at his critics, feeling like his church is less than the biblical ideal?

It is my contention that because ethnic diversity is so biblically affirmed and valued by God, the multiethnic church model is – paradoxically – in fact less biblical than the monoethnic church model. Chin up, Pastor Wong!

God’s love for ethnic diversity is progressively revealed through Scripture, and is seen most dramatically in the multiethnic focus of his redemptive plan. From the very moment when his plan began to fashion itself (e.g., the call of Abraham), there is an embracing and exaltation of all the world’s ethnicities. See e.g., Isaiah 66:18, 21.

And by way of the redemptive work of Christ, there is an accentuation of the brilliance and color of each ethnicity. Rather than diminishing ethnic distinctives, the New Testament appears to exult in the contrasting tones of God’s people. During the Pentecost, for example, what is notable is the deliberate manner in which God reaches out to an ethnic potpourri. In the ensuing cacophony of diverse languages lies a singular harmony: a celebration of each ethnic group as important, valid and beautiful in God’s eyes. For God is no demolisher of the wonderful and unique aspects that make one ethnic group different from another. He rejoices in them, finds beauty in them, redeems them.

This celebration and heightening of the ethnic diversity among God’s people reaches a stirring climax in the book of Revelation. Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 14:6-7 intensify – and not diminish or dilute – the ethnic differences. Every “nation, tribe, people and language” cry out in worship to God; and the fourfold ethnic emphasis hammers home the sanctity of ethnic diversity. Far from being a soupy swamp of indistinguishable ethnicities, heaven will have a diversity of ethnicities that better reflects the richness and depth of God. A brilliant panoply of sparkling color and flavor, each ethnicity reflecting a different aspect of God’s multifaceted glory. Unity with diversity; diversity within unity. It is a glorious vision.

The multiethnic church destroys that wonderful diversity.

It is unintentional, yet inevitable. For the multiethnic church faces the difficulty of trying to be all things to all people. Cultures are so radically different from one another, that to accommodate all of them is like trying to squeeze a square peg into a circular hole. Indeed, cultural and linguistic differences are anathema to the functioning of any church which attempts to be multiethnic. Which language to sing in? preach in? fellowship in? What food should be served during lunch or church picnics? Sushi or spaghetti? Should we greet one another in a manner which is demonstrative and expressive, or one which is more restrained? Should we bow, shake hands, hug, or kiss? Should we take off shoes at the house of worship, or will our bare feet be offensive to those of another culture? These are practical – as opposed to theological – issues that the church can only futilely attempt to surmount. Only the pastor who is attuned to the vast cultural/ethnic differences and wishes to be sensitive to each group can appreciate the sheer impossibility of the task. Cultural/ethnic imperialism becomes almost a necessity.

What one usually finds in multiethnic churches is a dominant ethnic culture presiding over almost everything – the worship style, preaching style etc. – to which the minority ethnicities simply acquiesce to. And it is this acquiescing which is the most tragic since it results in a relinquishing of those very cultural and ethnic distinctives that are precious to God. The front door of the multiethnic church is, tragically, a ruthlessly effective ethnic filter.

It is ironic that the very ethnic diversity which the multiethnic church seeks to nurture suffers such a swift demise within its walls. Those in the ethnic minority may have a few token gestures thrown its way by the presiding dominant (ethnic) culture, but they are inevitably forced to assimilate to the presiding culture. This is not (usually) carried out with malice or racism; it is simply a fact of life. For it is simply impossible to impose upon the strictures of the church the heavenly vision of full integration as recorded in Revelation – which is probably why the only time the New Testament paints a picture of such a multiethnic congregation is at the idyllic beginning (Pentecost) and at the climaxing conclusion (Revelation).

Times Square Church, for example, has a congregation over eight thousand with over a hundred different nationalities represented. While many describe the worship experience as that of Revelation 5:9, it is, in fact, decidedly a niched Pentecostal and African American experience(notwithstanding its two white pastors!). While it inculcates a cultural fit for someone Pentecostal and/or African American, an immigrant from Fujian province in China will feel like he has landed on an alien planet. For him to fit, he will need to strip away all that is ethnically his. Redeemer Presbyterian Church has also been espoused as a multiethnic church which has somehow been able to reach out to the postmodern demographic. Yet its multiethnic reach is limited to white and second generation Asian Americans, and typically well-educated and professionally successful ones, at that. Although professing to reach out to a spectrum of ethnicities, it has actually only been able to (with great success, in any case) reach out to a decidedly limited niche.

Although proponents of the multiethnic church paradigm claim they stand on biblical ground, it is the monoethnic church which has a better stake to that claim. Of note, the New Testament church planters emerged with a decidedly monoethnic ministry paradigm targeting specific ethnicities. Paul was apostle to the Gentiles, while Peter was apostle to the Jews. The early church (certainly Paul and Peter, anyway) demonstrated a sensitivity to the wide swath of cultures, and of the need to approach each one differently. Paul spelled out his strategy by declaring that to the Jews he became a Jew, and to the Greek he became Greek. He understood that the diversity of ethnicities was not something to be tamed and diluted down, but something to be celebrated. And this celebration was reflected in his ministry pattern, one which gave due respect to each culture, gave it room to breath, and one which did not impose a dominant paradigm which would stifle the God-given ethnic distinctives.

Pastor Wong, chin up! Your church is more biblical. You have nurtured the very ethnic distinctives that delight God. Inasmuch as you have loved and delighted in your people and in your culture, the earth is all the better for it, the heavens all the more brighter for it, God all the more joyful for it. I salute you; no, I bow to you. Xie Xie.


19 responses to “Asian Churches Unbiblical? I Think You Mean Multiethnic…

  1. elderj

    Wow… I’ve never heard it expressed with quite such eloquence as you have here. My post on monocultural multiethncity i.e. Borg theology touches on some of these concerns although not in quite the same excellent language you employ here.

    One reason I believe we have such critique of ethnic churches (although the White church is rarely described that way, but that’s another post) is a poor ecclesiology that centers the entire kingdom on the local church, which can never be a full expression of the body of Christ. For every church that is diverse in one dimention (say ethnically) it is often not diverse in 5 others (economics, theology, worship style, political leanings) and yet there is MUCH more in scripture about bringing those folks together than ethnic people. After all Paul enjoins the wealthy and the poor to come to the lord’s table together without prejudice, but then also commands people to be sensitive to the cultural idiosyncracies of other belivers by submitting themselves to those idiosyncracies for the sake of non-offense.

    Someone needs to write a book called Divided by Dollar Sign since that’s often the most obvious point of separation.

    Ironically ethnic minority churches are often more economically integrated than others

  2. Thanks for your insight. You articulated some of the reasons for ethnic-specific churches I’ve always known in the back of my head, but I have never been able to express well.

    I agree with elderj, many attempts towards a multi-cultural church have ended up being predominantly white or pan-Asian-American, with a decidedly young professional, highly educated, white collar culture. Such churches may have other ethnicities present, but there does not seem to be a diversity of generations or socio-economic status. There may be a few ethnicities, but it is definitely one culture, rendering it mono-cultural.

    I think one of the main reasons why Asian-American churches get targeted by critics (and not so much the predominantly African-American or Latino-American churches) is because they often contain “Chinese” or “Korean” in their church name. “First Baptist Church” may not contain “African-American” in their title, and may avoid the wagging finger.

  3. djchuang

    Great first post, John! I’d personally prefer a church that does offer hugs. 🙂

    My first reaction is that church philosophies and target groups are only an issue for Evangelical and Protestant churches; Catholic and Orthodox churches don’t have these issues. People just go to the church in their parish/ region/ area.

    I think it is a little over stated to say one church philosophy is more unbiblical than another. Yes, it is a probable sociological dynamic for a ethnically/ racially diverse group to take on the characteristics of the mainstream or majority culture, but yet it is also possible for a diverse group to develop its own corporate culture. That is by no means easy, but it can be done. A fascinating read (albeit pricey) is the sociological deconstruction of Mosaic church in Los Angeles, in “A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church” by Gerardo Marti, and they have indeed created their own subculture.

    Plus, you’d also need to factor in the fact that biracial and multiracial population is growing, and monoethnic churches are very unfriendly to them.

  4. DJ, I actually was going to make mention of Marti’s article about Mosaic Church but couldn’t quite fit it in.

    According to Marti, the ideal multiethnic church is a kind of spiritual melting pot. The different ethnicities are mixed as one into an amorphous mesh until none are fully recognized, and nothing is fully distinguishable in the resulting soupy swamp. The result is a kind of colorblind harmony void of ethnic distinctives.

    Marti’s description of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles is that its congregation is represented in equal parts by whites, Latinos, and Asians. The secret to its success? It has “transcended” ethnicity – the clear implication being, notably, that ethnicity is a hindrance to spiritual unity and must be dispelled with as much expediency as possible.

  5. The mission of the church is one that supercedes the discussion about the viability of the multi ethnic/Asian-american church, and it is this mission that must inform and direct our discussion. Remember, we are not forming ethnic or cultural clubs here.
    I would posit that the ideal ethnic makeup of a church is one that matches the area. Ergo, a Hispanic church in a Hispanic community, an Asian church in an Asian community, etc. My beef with the church that intentionally targets Asian Americans is more strategic than theological. I’ve listed my reasons in my post, so I won’t repeat them here.
    The church that “looks” like it’s neighboring community is more effective at reaching this community. In San Francisco, some Asian american and multi-ethnic churches have been “forced” by the high real-estate prices to locate to Hispanic neighborhoods. Their effect on this community in 4 years? Absolutely zero. The number of neighbors that visited in 4 years? Two, and they left when all they saw were Asian faces.
    The multi-ethnic church is also potentially rife with dangers. In my experience, the drive for multi-ethnicity can create an artificial environment. The Mosaic Church of Los Angeles, by their own admission, has created their own sub-culture. While this may be deemed innovative and sexy by Christians, unchurched people do not “get” it, and this artificiality is off-putting to them.
    Church folks do not “get” the race issue. I sat in disbelief during a Church service when they had a white person ask a Native American for forgiveness for the wrongs committed in the taking of their land. They prayed together, and then the pastor declared that the curse was over and all wrongs had been righted, and we could move on. I thanked God that my unchurched friends were not there. And if you don’t understand that, I don’t know where to begin.

  6. elderj

    I don’t know that their is an ideal ethnic makeup of any local congregation, although I agree that a church that mirrors its geographic community is likely to be potentially more effective at reaching that community. However community is generally experienced differently than its simple geographic conditions especially because of the automobile. People can travel to their places of community and connection much more easily than previously. I suspect that this will only intensify with the rapid growth of internet “communities.”

    What is meant by the mission of the church is an important question; one that should be taken seriously.

  7. yucan

    great discussion. my thoughts:

    – i think churches need to be increasingly multiethnic as they mature and be like Jesus. i can’t imagine Jesus letting the church be content with where they are culturally. that’s why the persecution in Jerusalem was brought about- in order to get the Jerusalem church out of their comfort zone, ethnically speaking. so for today, the chinese church (for example) had better make sure they are truly a “chinese” church- loving both taiwanese and mainland china folks, teaching them about reconciliation, etc. again, i think churches are called to be increasingly multiethnic.

    – i think your understanding of the NT as giving an more monocultural ministry paradaigm is not accurate. a lot of paul’s letters- galatians, romans for example- were written in part to help jewish and gentile believers get along and be the “church” in the local setting. sure, he was a jew to the jew, gentile to the gentile, but that does not negate his call for the church toward multiculturalism.

  8. elderj

    a good and respected friend of mine advocates for what he terms being ethnic and inclusive pointing out that the problem of the church historically has been that it has been exculsive of others, which is a flat out rejection of the gospel mandate

  9. Wowzers. Great post and great discussion ~

    Personally, I think there is a place for both multi-ethnic and ethnic-specific churches, but each should advocate the other as valid places of growth. If each maintains a static identity, yet with a vision that its members should maintain a dynamic walk with Christ, shouldn’t it and couldn’t it be possible that they could both exist and push for the other?

    People have different points of entry into community with an enormous range of possible reasons for even entering the doors of any church, and traditionally, each church has had an enormous self-interest in keeping that person(s) within the confines of that point of entry, but it should be the case, that as much as we are an ekklesia, calling out believers, that we should seek to be apostolic, sending out believers, to the same degree? And perhaps in sending out believers, we send them to gain the tools that we may not be able to provide in our model of church, in a different, yet equally pursuant of God’s spirit church.

    On the door of my 7th grade Spanish class, there was a sign that read that not all of the world’s great treasures are written in one language, why should it be that God’s spirit would be confined to a particular model of church? Perhaps here again is an example of how we think too highly of ourselves and our churches.

  10. djchuang

    Um, I have a difficult time imagining one church advocating other approaches of ministries. A church typically advocates its own approach to ministry in order to rally its people around a common vision so it can make its optimal impact for its community and the world. While on the larger scheme of things, we can recognize that many kinds of churches are needed, I don’t quite see one church saying and advocating 12 different ways of doing church while holding its own.

  11. I completely understand DJ, but I think it’s possible and honestly, I think it would be refreshing.

    I have seen a non-Asian church weekly announce a different church in the city to pray for and highlight their vision and pastor. And for new visitors, they distributed a short video that outlined what the vision of the church was, but then said upfront, there are other churches who do other things better, and then actually gave the pastor’s name, address, and what that specific vision was. I remember as I watched the video that this church had a larger sense of the Kingdom than I had ever seen acknowledged before, but found it bold, humble, and focused which earned my respect and membership.

    Why would that be so difficult for an Asian church?

  12. elderj

    What you saw David is rare in the non-Asian church as well so it certainly isn’t an Asian problem. But i agree that it would be refreshing to see something different modeled. One thing we did a lot in my church cirlces growing up was have regular fellowship with other churches, especially for evening services. So when we’d have a guest speaker it was for afternoon service and he’d bring his people. We’d usually have a joint fellowship between services, so it was a good way to be less insular. Too bad churches are doing that less these days.

  13. This is such a fascinating dialog. I just kinda stumbled in by accident, but have been drawn into reading the posts which are so interesting. I guess they say as much about US society generally as about the Church specifically.

    I don’t have anything really to add directly, but I guess I’ll be passing by again.

    Thanks to all.

    Peace & Blessings


  14. I’m not of Asian decent so I hope you don’t mind me eavesdropping on this wonderful conversation. David Park is a dear friend of mine so I stop in periodically. I usually just listen. Respect requires that one be a part of a group if one is to critique it with any credibility. Thus any comments I would make must be regarding what it may mean to follow in the way of Jesus and not more specifically how that should unfold in an Asian context. I pray you don’t mind if I respectfully weigh in.

    I believe edlerj and David hit the nail right on the head. The challenge of the church is not so much its tendency toward cultural coalescence, but rather, to borrow a phrase from Miroslav Volf, one of “exclusion or embrace.”

    It is undeniable that God appreciates ethnic diversity. Scripture says that God gives to each “gifts… as He pleases.” I’ve always considered my ethnic heritage and cultural experience a gift (I’m Black), even with all the hurt and baggage it brings. Still, it’s difficult to make a universally applicable argument for or against a multi- or mono-ethnic manifestation of the church in a specific context. However, the one thing I am suspicious of is the idea that the church can somehow exist as a spiritual oasis disembodied from any particular cultural context. Church always expresses itself with the tools of one culture or another. There’s no way for it not to. Thus, there is no such thing as ‘color-blindness.’ Those who argue for a more ‘color-blind’ or ‘biblical’ approach are simply coalescing around a de facto expression of the dominant culture, which in the formerly colonized world is Whiteness.

    The kingdom concern, however, is one of radical inclusion that is willing at a moment’s notice to sacrifice ethnic affinities and cultural commonalities for the chance to embrace a neighbor. Anyone can be nice to each other, but how can we embrace one another, give power away to one another, prefer another over ourselves—that’s the myth of kingdom-come.

    Thank you so much for this conversation and for your willingness to embrace your Asian heritage so openly. The rest of us need you to as we learn to appreciate each other for who we are and not for who we want each other to be.

  15. John

    Your argument makes a lot of sense . . . if there is no God. If there is a God, then the church belongs to Him and the central question of worship is not does this or that group like it but how does God want to be worshiped.

    The article implicitly confuses two things: an evangelistic ministry which can indeed “by all things to all people” (as Paul says) and the church in which the only factor that can divide is sin, not food preference or race. Unity was a major value in the NT church, so much so that divisiveness was considered so serious that it was one of the few specific sins described as grounds for excommunication (Titus 3:9-10). And yet today we think it is acceptable to divide over styles of music or ethnicity. The article frankly misleads when it states that the early church allowed for division on the basis of ethnicity. Paul may have targeted Hellenestic people for out-reach and Peter Jewish people but in the church they expected no divisions. And neither should we.

    If someone has to always have their food preferences in order to attend a particular church, their reasons for attending church is very poor. That is probably why I’ve never seen a healthy “Chinese church”. If the people wanted to go to a church where Christ was at the center and His Word was preached, they’d go to that church even if it meant spaghetti was served at fellowship meals. “Chinese churches”, sadly, are built around the idea that Christ is not enough to unite us. I still haven’t seen an exception to that.

  16. John, a “healthy” church is rare regardless of ethnicity so you might want to keep that in mind in your pointed criticsm of “Chinese church”. I believe the underground Chinese church is up to 80 million although I have no idea what they serve at fellowship meals.

    Your last comment that these ethnic “churches are built around the idea that Christ is not enough to unite us” I feel reveals a Western bias. Asian cultures are founded upon community, you can criticize it for not being Christian enough, but when revival comes, it will be wholesale. What you see as a structural weakness comes out of a highly individualized, Western mindset. Many Asian friends that I respect and admire have a much longer, patient, and communal point of view that I feel is healthy when looking at how God is working in the world and in our lives. God is a God of erosion just as much as he is a God of earthquakes.

  17. Pingback: 2 Years! « Next Gener.Asian Church

  18. Lee ⋅

    When we speak of ethnic identities, there are usually two sides of the argument. Those for preservation and those for assimilation. Since this is an “Asian-American Church” website, I will speak about the issues relevant to Asians or more specifically Asian Americans, although it could apply to other ethnicities in America. I will first rule out two extremes which I believe are both hurtful for those who see themselves as Americans – those who see themselves as non-Americans (i.e., just Chinese, just Japanese, just Koreans, etc.) and those who see themselves as full Americans (i.e., just Americans). The first group do not realize that the socio-cultural story of Asians living in America are radically different from those in their native lands. “Our” experience in America includes issues such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Watsonville Riot, Japanese Internment, LA Riot, etc. which made its impact far beyond just Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, and Korean. It affects all Asian Americans. The latter group do not realize that the American ideal of “equality” is yet to be fully realized, and until then, to call oneself simply, an American is to implicitly affirm all the latent injustices.

    Therefore, I believe the Pan-Asian/Asian American demographics is what is needed in the Asian American Church. It took nearly 400 years for the Afro/African American Churches to develop their own unique culture in American soil. While most Afro-Americans today would admire their particular tribal ancestry in Africa, they understand that an Afro-American will never be the same as a Native African. Same goes for the Hispanic Churches in America. Honestly, it will take time for Asian American community to development their own, unique, cultural identity. It is much more complicated than just picking and choosing what we like and don’t like today.

    And honestly, I think it will happen anyways (regardless of what praxis we would like to innovate and implement today) as the “Yellow” people bond together by becoming primarily an English-speaking community with shared experiences of oppression and exclusion (we all look the same to Hispanics, Blacks, and Whites). It will just be a matter of who is more aware of this inevitable, traditioning process and be able to deal withit accordingly.

    With that said, I believe God does want a colorblind Church as we all grow closer into the image of the objective Christ (which we will see “as He is” at the Final Day). Paul clearly told us that their is there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female in Christ (Gal 3:28).” Those passages about singing in various “tongues and languages” isn’t about what Heaven will look like. It is a rhetorical device used by John to instill in us a picture/heart of unity given the present reality of diverse cultures. We really don’t know what the exact nature or essence of our state of being will be like in Heaven. Any speculation on that, is just that, a speculation – just like the Pharisees who wondered whose wife the widowed woman would be in heaven as she meets the 7 dead brothers (Mark 11:18-27).

  19. randplaty

    While I would not agree with John that there are no healthy Chinese churches… his observation is at the core of this issue. Generally Asian-Americans have been more concerned with this multi-ethnic church issue than our white, black, and latino brothers. Even when a pastor who is not Asian like McManus or Keller forwards the concept of the multi-ethnic church, a large portion of their congregation consists of Asians.

    So this multi-ethnic issue has an intimate connection with Asian-Americans. The reason for this? I believe it is because of the general lack of health in Asian American churches and Asian Americans are seeking a solution to that within their churches. In otherwords, ethnic churches aren’t working for Asian Americans, therefore they see the biggest problem in their churches is the ethnicity. Solution… multi-ethnic.

    I believe THAT is the true motivation behind many multi-ethnic congregations rather than a true heart to worship with other ethnicities as in Revelations.

    Also, looking at the New Testament church and prescribing their actions as normative is not helpful. Paul and Peter dividing up and serving the Gentiles and Jews respectively is not normative for us. The fact that many NT churches had both Jews and Gentiles and that Paul told them to be unifiied is not necessarily normative for us either.

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