Why Do Asian American Churches Keep Self Destructing?

Update 2015: For a more academic version of this article which includes citations and new insights, please refer to this research paper submitted to Fuller Theological seminary.


 

Introduction

If you have ever gone to or been a member of a multi-congregational Asian American church, and you wonder why these types of churches face so much “drama”, this article is intended to elucidate a very complex problem. The motivation in writing this article is not just because there is “church drama”, as if any church were free from the effects of being run by fallible humans. But what I’ve noticed is that the type of “church drama” that Asian American churches face is a reoccurring phenomenon that is not exclusive to any geographical area. The Asian American churches I observed in the Midwest suffer from the exact same problems as churches I’ve observed in Los Angeles and in other places as well.

As I keenly listened to people’s experiences in multi-congregational Asian American churches, it just seemed to me like there is a cruel drama reel playing over and over again. It is a show those who are old enough have seen enough times and in various places. It is the show of watching another Asian American church split or self-destruct.

Oh how these churches blossom with the fervency of the Asian spirit! Multitudes are saved and are discipled. But suddenly, the TV turns on and we’re watching the same show again- rampantly running and ruining the well-being of these churches. What once was a healthy church is now perpetually hurting church.

What gives?

It’s easy to suggest that, of course, sin is the problem. Sin is what is causing all these problems. Sure, I’ll agree with that. But how do you explain sin that is consistent cross-country and within different contexts?

Might I suggest that it is not just sin alone that is causing these problems in Asian American churches, but sin within a system. Let me give an example of what I mean. Let’s take the flu virus.

The flu virus is bad in itself, but introduce it into a human organism, and you’ve got some situation. It’s not as easy as just “removing the virus”. Healing that human is complicated by the fact that the virus living in there is operating within the human system and within certain organ systems- you get the point.

In the same way, sin within Asian American churches is operating within a very particular cultural system. We need to understand that it’s not just simple reconciliation, pride, gossip sin that is causing cancerous problems our churches, but we must first recognize the system with which were trying to heal. So, if I could describe the nature of this article, it’s that I am doing my best to make some observations about the system of the multi-congregational churches that is so prone to become a “sick church”. We need to, after all, really stop the bleeding so that God’s purposes in these churches can run freely with power.

I understand that people have done research on this subject, but I am writing this for my own edification, growth, processing, and if possible, to perhaps inspire others. This article is also written to my brothers and sisters back in CCUC who have, for generations and generations, wonder why the church continues to face “drama.” This is article is for an Chinese-American brother I talked with earlier about his church falling apart. And this article is for anyone else who has been to these churches, thrown their hands up in frustration, and have said, “Why does this keep happening, Lord?”

Values Which Propagate Vicious Cycles of Irreconcilable Differences

What is about our Asian culture, which when put into the context of obeying and loving Jesus as a community, causes conflict? There seems to be some things inherent within our cultural DNA which is causing Asian American churches to repetitively seeing the same problems.

After much prayerful thought, I’ve noticed that there are a few distinct cultural values that are painfully neutering one very important Biblical principle for the life of the family and for the life of the church– the ability to reconcile.

As in any relationship, they can have the most dynamic vision, the most engaging interests, the most connective personalities, but if reconciliation is not an integrated necessity and value in that relationship, that relationship will not last. It’s that simple–people are not perfect and will never be on this side of eternity. If people don’t learn how to deal with conflict and learn to forgive, relationships will not last. And it is in this very necessary self-mediating act of reconciliation that Asian American churches have trouble engaging in because of cultural blindspots that are at work within the church family.

The fruits of this are obvious. And most people have felt the excruciating symptoms of irreconciliable differences in one way or another. Allow me to suggest a list of things that might have happened at your church when there was conflict and tell me if any of these resound:

When there was conflict in your Asian American church….

  • You heard about the conflict first from someone else, and not from church leadership, probably in the form of gossip
  • Looking back at the situation, you realize that you really had no idea what happened and still don’t to this day
  • In the end, there was an unsettling emotional dichotomy between being assured that the situation was resolved and knowing that the situation was not resolved and that there are in actuality some loose ends
  • The church is loosely divided over those who have “inside information” and those who don’t.
  • This is probably not the first time that this has happened, and those who have been around long enough will tell you so

How did we get this way? And what makes us so poor at resolving differences?

The reason this is so is, as I mentioned before, because there are several Asian values that are violently clashing with Biblical values which cause such cyclical problems. They are the legs of the system which perpetuates any sort of sin introduced into it and it is important to bring them to light to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. And so without further adieu, here they are:

It is a three-pronged system of the Asian culture’s culture of shamecommitment to honorable public appearances, and imposition of cultural hierarchical assumptions which are feeding this harmful cycle of irreconcilable differences.

The Culture of Shame

The first thing we need to understand is that the Asian culture operates within a culture of shame. It is how we police our members and enforce our moral principles. Families raise their children under the principle that they act correctly or else they will endure the shame of their most trusting community- their family.

Shame is proven to be a powerful and sometimes devastating emotional experience. However, within the Asian context, it is also a very powerful motivational factor for correcting behavior. The results of this are unflattering.

Because the value of not being shamed is prioritized and upheld within the community, any problems that arise are best dealt with by suppressing them so that the guilty parties will not have endure the emotional experience of shame. The consequences of this culture being operant within Asian churches is that problems that are never exposed are never dealt with. And problems that are never dealt with will never be solved or healed. In short, a culture of shame promotes a culture that endlessly suppresses its problems.

It’s not that divorces don’t occur in Asian American families- it’s just that you don’t hear about them. It’s not that that child and sexual abuse doesn’t occur in Asian American families- it’s just that no one talks about it. It’s not that the pastor is struggling with sexual sin or the church leadership has character issues or the church secretary had a huge conflict with a deacon, it’s just that Asian churches just don’t talk about these things.

Asian culture is suppressive by nature, and tend to deal with problems by denying that there is a problem. And so to explain why the problems found in Asian American churches are cyclical, it’s because the rug can only hide so much dirt. Neglected issues become the seed for repetition. Any problem that was not dealt with will remain and explode the next time a problem arises. The lessons that should’ve been learned in healing and solving problems was never learned in a culture of shame.

They only know how not to be shamed. Not how to mediate.

Commitment to Honorable Public Appearances

When problems arise in the church, it is generally in the Asian American church’s best interest to naturally engage in the alternative option to enduring shame: saving face.

With (perhaps) honest intentions of preserving the well-being of the community, they will do their best to reassure their members that everything is okay. Surely, everything will be okay, because Jesus is the Lord of the church. But the act of saving face compromises the necessary steps for the church to move forward.

So in a variety of ways, there is a natural tendency to cover up significant issues, downplay situations, or promote a hush hush environment. The prepared statements given to the congregation never tell the whole story. They rarely include any confession of sin, or more importantly, an appeal for forgiveness. They are often politically correct, responsibility-avoiding in nature, and non-disclosure, revealing just enough details to show that there was a problem, but not enough for the community to believe that the problem was actually healed.

This may be normative in an Asian family context, but how will an Asian-American church respond to this? And how does this add further to the cyclical problem?

Because disclosure and openness are both deep Biblical principles (see 2 Cor 7) within the family of God, Asian Americans’ commitment to honorable public appearances do more harm than good. It fosters serious distrust and frustration in the lack of full disclosure and integrity. Accepting that problems are a natural part of being human is not a problem. But when involved in a church where its tendencies lean towards more in appearing right than in handling issues truthfully, it advocates the idea that the church cannot handle problems healthily.

And because healthy long term relationships are dependent on the ability for the people in the relationship to be able to face its issues, and because talking freely and openly about issues is a necessary step in that process, the desire to appear “okay” within the community’s eyes brushes even more dirt under the rug, thus further contributing to the cycle.

Imposition of the Asian Culture’s Hierarchical Assumptions

Within the Asian culture, we have a strong hierarchical system ingrained in our family system that’s at work within the church. It’s this one: Children are children and parents are parents. There is in impenetrable wall between them and diving the two is the wall of hierarchical respect.

While I believe this wall is a natural God-given wall of distinction in human relationships, be mindful that this wall in an Asian context is often thicker than other cultures, and a lot less permeable. The thickness of this wall disallows upward communication. Messages are mostly sent down, not up. It is because of this hierarchy that you find Asian children having a hard time seeing their parents eye-to-eye as functional independent adults and friends.

Now… consider that because the general culture of a church is based on the collective dynamics of the family constituents within the church, it is natural to find this hierarchal dynamic at work within the Asian American churches.

In other words, just as Asian families see the relationship between parents and kids as “parents are parents and kids are kids”, so in Asian American church dynamics, church leadership (the parents) are church leadership, and congregations (kids) are congregations.

This is not to say that this is a position that Asian American Church leadership chooses to take intentionally; it’s just a position that has already been established in the family, and therefore easy to fall into in the context of a church family. Translated over from the dynamics of the Asian family is the hierarchal assumption that there is an indivisible wall between the leaders of the church and the rest of the congregation. They are, with or without them realizing, functioning as “parents”. And just as in families, the symptoms of this can be seen by what happens when conflicts come their way.

When issues arise in the church, just like in Asian families, the “adults” will deliberate, and the children will be sitters in that process. That’s not to say that leadership is operating out of a pride agenda (though they very well may be), but they are more inclined to be exclusive in who they involve in the process of discerning issues when problems arise. For this reason, you will find that the communication dynamics in Asian American churches between church leadership and the congregational is often not open, seldom done as equals, and most importantly, seldom inclusive of each other.

Church members are generally lost as to what is going on, and only hear about details (accurately or inaccurately) from each other.

This further adds to the cycle because the very people that could’ve helped solve the problem, the entire church family, is estranged and disjointed. I have spoken with numerous individuals who, after consistently seeing their contributions going nowhere (or seeing the lack of an avenue for any sort of contribution), have felt separated from the church leadership without (or with) the church leadership’s best intentions.

Family members who feel they have no place to contribute to the well being of the family will soon won’t feel like family anymore. And that’s exactly what happens when this hierarchical system is in place- people begin losing interest, leaving, and dividing when they receive enough of the dead end of their well-intended contributions.

Tying it All Together

I mentioned earlier that these three (I’m sure there quite a few more) conflicting cultural values are synergistically contributing to the problem of Asian American churches self-destructing, and that is exactly the case.

  • The culture of shame suppresses problems and disallows for healing by neglecting those very problems.
  • A commitment to honorable appearances fosters distrust and confusion within the community, further exacerbating the issues.
  • The hierarchical values of the Asian family at play within the church family disengages the entire church family, divides the body, and neglects the utilization of perhaps the most powerful tool in solving problems- a committed, engaged, and contributive community.

And as these cultural values continue to foster in the church, the self-destructing bomb begins ticking. For the very steps needed to disarm it (that is, the power of reconciliation) are neutered by our inherent cultural values. And so, the roots of irreconciliable differences and bitterness begin taking precedence and eventually grow to become insurmountable. And people can only be damaged so much until it’s unbearably painful and overflow with frustration on why, no matter what the issue is, situations are handled in the same devastating manner. On and on they continue, with no end in sight. What were once whispers of these issues will become legends.

Behold–our Asian American church.

Moving Forward

I hope that some of these thoughts are helpful in seeing the way Asian American churches function and often self destruct. I want to affirm that these sentiments towards God’s church, especially the Asian American churches, are expressed from my knees. I don’t speak from a position of authority; I speak as one doing so while wanting to wash your feet.

This is not a knock on Asian American leadership or a challenge to anyone’s character. This is meant for us to see and realize what it is about our culture that stands in stark opposition to the way the family of God should operate. This is meant to open the discussion on how to stop the bleeding in these type of churches as the growth of the Asian-American demographic is not slowing down anytime soon.

And while this article thus far has only been a diagnosis, I believe that the light of God’s Word, when confronted with our deficiencies, is the truth that will set us free. And so with a prayerful heart, and our eyes towards heaven, I invite us to ask the God of the universe, “Lord, what is your prescription?”

More to come.

Posted by Phillip Chan

Phil has been writing in the Black Box for 10 years. His passion is to grow in his love for Jesus to obey his purposes in our generation.

11 comments

  1. Godfrey C

    Phil – I read through it rather quickly and I'm glad you're thinking through this stuff. But, as my former Asian-American congregation has merged with a predominantly Caucasian congregation, I can assure you that these issues are not unique to the AA congregation. Still, I'd be interested to hear your diagnosis… I'll wait for that.

  2. Olivia K

    I find myself agreeing quite a lot with what you said. As someone who is bilingual and bi-cultural, I'm definitely excited to read your next post.

  3. Tommy T

    Insightful. Well thought out.

  4. Marcus L

    Maybe we should leave god out of why Asian-American Churches self destruct. All to often it comes down to personalities. It is said, "that Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Sometimes Pastors are good pastors, but not good administrators. It is usually the actions of a define few that start down the path of church destruction.

  5. Steve

    Phil, your points are well taken. But I will point out that there are thriving Asian American churches out there that are doing good ministry within their demographics, especially to people with similar demographics (i.e. these Asian American churches are excellent at reaching their own, but when it comes to cross-cultural situations, they flounder).

    I think another issue to consider is the conservative evangelical theology that Asian American churches have adopted without much thought to contextualization. Not that conservative theology is itself problematic, but it is its adoption that leads an inability to contextualize the Gospel for the Asian American context. Hence you often hear the Gospel preached in these contexts in abstract language with very little application to real-life situations of people in the pews. Most Asian American churches have failed to contextualized the Gospel and thus many are unable to even address issues of gender, power, justice, etc.

    1. pete

      This is one of the biggest problem with Asian American Christians, they are focus on worldly concerns (gender, power, justice, etc). Asian American Christian like most Christian lives are not changed. Their values hasn’t change and their attitudes hasn’t changed. We are not called to be relevant. We should all be irrelevant. I wish we can all learn to die to self and just pick up the cross. There is nothing relevant about the cross.

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  9. kpeachey

    You hit the nail on the head perfectly. I left Korean dictator style church for the very reasons you say

  10. Don Laing

    Hey Phillip your link to the academic version doesn’t work, can you update the link?

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