“This church is so Asian.” Admit it. You’ve thought it before.
You saw some situation unfold during service, some conversation take place in the foyer that was so embarrassingly “Asian” that you couldn’t help but feel mortified by association.
Maybe it’s because we’ve been hurt by the Asian church or because we come from shame-based cultures. Maybe it’s because of our church-attending parents and their flaws. Whatever the case, we are quick to bring up the mistakes of our Asian Christian upbringing.
To put it more colloquially: We’re haters.
But now that the second-generation church has had time to grow and make our own mistakes, I have reconsidered my criticisms of the first generation. Here are three that we can rethink so we can grow in our culture rather than run from it.
“A BUNCH OF PHARISEES”
My parents have attended early morning prayer nearly every day for the past 30 years. To me, this was a sign of undying legalism.
It was compounded by the fact that their focus seemed to be on external behaviors. On Sundays, men must wear suits and ties. There was to be no talking or fidgeting in the sanctuary. We could never miss a service nor be late, and we always gave offering.
I looked at my parents’ generation and thought, “What a bunch of Pharisees.” And I felt justified. After all, didn’t Jesus himself hate legalism?
So here’s the problem with that. “Jesus said it, so I should too” doesn’t work for us because we’re not Jesus.
Jesus could make such statements because he knew men’s thoughts and reasonings (cf. Matt 9:4; Luke 9:47). When we try to personally claim the authority of Jesus to know people’s hearts, we’re being just as arrogant and legalistic the Pharisees.
Instead, the second-generation Asian American churchgoers should ask: Could it be spiritual laziness that keeps us from the daily too-early-in-the-morning prayer that the first generation was so faithfully committed to?
Is it spiritual complacency that keeps us from reading the bible cover to cover? From diligently memorizing scripture? From fasting and praying regularly instead of only when it’s “needed” (i.e. hardly ever)?
Did our parents’ “legalism” create for themselves a commitment to spiritual discipline that our gospel simply fails to do for us?
We need to stop assuming that the generation of faith that preceded us got everything wrong and instead humbly appreciate what we can learn from it. Otherwise, we will find ourselves coming down on the wrong side of devotion to the Word and prayer (and don’t even get me started on giving) just because our parents cared to prioritize them.
“RESPECT SHOULD BE EARNED, RIGHT?”
Many Asian cultures are built upon showing deference and respect, particularly to one’s elders.
I hated how this cultural value seeped into the church. Elders in the church (by age, not title) were granted an automatic, unearned authority, and that seemed unjust.
Yes, there are issues with this cultural value as with any other. But is it so terrible to give respect that hasn’t yet been earned?
In 1 Peter 2:18, the apostle writes:
"Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust."
Peter is writing to slaves who are suffering. And he says to them, even if your masters are unjust, submit to them with respect.
He goes on to say, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). “Example” refers to a model in which children would trace to learn to write, the implication being that when we willingly suffer this way in Christ, we are closely emulating Him - tracing him - to the world.
Our parents have afforded us a cultural gift: a submissive respect should be given even when not earned. Believe it or not, while that’s not a very American notion, it is an undeniably biblical one.
“SO OUT OF TOUCH”
We look at the religious practices of the first-generation church and lament how out of touch they are: revival nights, bible reading chains, big tacky banners. We think they over-value spirituality, and they spend too much time in the church and not enough in the world.
And so there has been a reactionary swing among the second-generation church to be more “in touch” with the world. Trendy. Relevant. Cool.
Sadly, that means our churches, much like the American church-at-large, have merged so much with contemporary culture that we are often indistinguishable from the world but for a #blessed here and a #gospel there.
Christians are supposed to be aliens in the world. Set apart. Different. In fact, a little out of touch.
It’s okay to a have a “revival” once in a while rather than a conference. It’s okay to tell someone, “I’m not going to do that because of my faith” or “I can’t come because I have church.”
People will not always understand and sometimes they’ll be offended. But remember, if we are never offending the world, we cannot truly be of Christ (cf. John 15:18-19; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15; 1 John 3:13).
As Asian Americans, our multi-cultural background gives us a certain advantage - a natural gravitation toward the notion that this is not our home. That we are neither “American” nor “Asian” should certainly make the reality that we are citizens of heaven (cf. Phil 3:20-21) more palatable.
Perhaps, it’s time we embraced the foreigner part of our identity and strived to be a little more alien.
DON’T HATE, APPRECIATE
Culture is the sphere in which the gospel operates, so let’s not hate on our own culture and history.
Let’s not allow those pieces of identity that we have inherited from the previous generation to be quelled so that we might neither align culturally with the world nor be accentuated in a way that supersedes Christ himself.
Rather, let’s simply remember to appreciate our uniqueness – historical, cultural and otherwise – and allow our rebirth in Jesus shape the whole of us for the common good of the greater body for the glory of our one true God in every culture.
Joe Suh is the lead pastor at The Exchange Church.