Reversing the Generational Exodus
Hanley Liu | SEPTEMBER 19, 2018 | 6 MIN READ
15 years ago, our trilingual Chinese American church struggled to retain English-speaking young adults. Many of our friends made their exodus (for good reasons), while others, including myself, felt called to stay and shepherd the next generation. We believed God’s word could reshape a new generation of emerging millennials, as long as we preached the gospel and expounded Scripture.
We still have a long way to go. But today, these young adults have learned to navigate the cultural matrix of a trilingual/tri-congregational church while growing in the gospel. And now they are shaping the vision and direction of our future.
By God’s grace, we recognize three specific blessings that helped us reverse the generational exodus.
1. Millennials Who Responded to Sound Doctrine
If you grew up in an Asian church, your first exposure to the beauty of multiethnic or multi-Asian fellowship probably came during college. Maybe you experienced the non-Asian megachurch with excellent facilities and high-quality visual/sound production.
We knew we couldn’t reproduce the above in our “mom and pop” Asian church context — at least not fast enough.
But we also knew college is where you begin to form your doctrinal convictions. You begin to wrestle with deeper questions of theology and biblical interpretation or ecclesiology and mission. Whoever takes you through this spiritual journey will be the hand that fed you and the church that shaped your theological foundation.
So, what if your Asian home church taught you sound doctrine and helped you form deep theological convictions before any other college fellowship got to you?
We banked on the hope that if you left with sound doctrine and persevered on sound doctrine, you might come back to the church that fed you sound doctrine (regardless of our mediocre sound quality).
While sound doctrine can reshape the culture of an Asian church, it must be applied with humility, patience, and relational authority.
2. Relational Authority That is Earned Over Time
It took us a decade to win the trust of the older generation. Like it or not, honor and shame make up the interpretive grid for how the Bible is taught and applied within most Asian cultures. At the same time, the cultural language of honor and shame can work for you and not against you.
For instance, loyalty brings honor to the person you are loyal to, and honor — over a period of time — generates trust. When members of the older generation give you trust, it’s their way of reciprocating honor and loyalty to you. Even if you are younger and lack positional authority (i.e. senior pastor title), they start listening to your ideas. We call this relational authority.
In some Asian churches, the older generation is unwilling to budge. But if God opens the door for intergenerational collaboration, there is no substitute for patiently building relational authority. Because once you earn it, you can begin to change the church’s culture.
Now relational authority will only get you so far with Asians because the language of honor and shame (typically) works top-down. We needed an immigrant voice to champion a future for English young adults.
3. A Senior Pastor (or Leadership) with A Strong Vision for the English Congregation
Traversing the cultural/generational gap between Chinese and English congregations requires the strong, public, consistent, and vocal support of a respected senior pastor or leadership group. In some cases, the English pastor is already the senior pastor. But more often than not, you’ll need an Asian immigrant positional-leader who is bold enough to elevate the church’s Christocentric identity over cultural identity.
In 2014, our tri-congregational church called a new senior pastor — the highly coveted type of Chinese visionary leader who can preach in three languages (English, Mandarin-Chinese, and Cantonese-Chinese). When asked about the future outlook of the Chinese American church, he said:
“The English congregation is the future of the Chinese American church. If the church is to thrive, the English must lead and anchor the entire church.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. He was saying things no English leader would dare to say in public. It was both shocking and refreshing. What’s more, he repeated this statement over and over again — in staff meetings, in the presence of lay leaders, and before the Chinese-speaking congregations. This idea was now baked into our church’s culture, and everyone knew it was part of the vision.
In many ways, the above three blessings affirm our initial calling — to stay and shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet 5:1-5). Now we believe, more than ever, as long as the gospel and the Scriptures are being faithfully proclaimed and the church elevates Christ over culture, God’s people can come to worship together.
Hanley Liu serves as the English Lead Pastor at First Chinese Baptist Church of Walnut, California (FCBCW). He is happily married to his wife Meryl and the two have one daughter. He is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Talbot School of Theology (M.Div), and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).