5 Predictions on the Future Asian American Church

5 Predictions on the Future Asian American Church

Steve Bang Lee     |     SEPTEMBER 14, 2018     |     12 MIN READ

This post was originally published on Bang Blogs on August 2, 2018 and is republished here with permission from the author.

There have been changes in the Asian-American (AA) church scene.

At least that's what I saw from my perspective.

Roughly twenty-five years ago (1990's), it felt like immigrant Asian churches were realizing they could no longer function as mono-cultural congregations.

There were undeniable shifting generational and sociological factors (such as fluency in the english language and greater cultural absorption by 1.5 generation AAs) which led the immigrant Asian church to conclude the need for greater ministry contextualization.

The answer and go-to-strategy during the 90's appeared to be to jumpstart and/or build up an english-speaking congregation within the immigrant church led by an english-speaking pastor which would become coined as “English Ministry (EM)” (which led to the rise of the "EM Pastor" position and the evolving "EM/Immigrant" models, which would become the majority AA church experience).

But as the EM/Immigrant template sought to be the answer, I began hearing and witnessing the frustrations AAs were experiencing in these EMs. Emerging AA adults struggled with ownership in a church largely run by their parents. AAs felt a glass ceiling for their EM's potential.

Over the course of time, I began hearing rumblings of a different church model for AAs in the early/mid 2000’s: The Independent-AA Church (IAAC) model.

IAACes were churches led by english-speaking AAs for an AA demographic, which would not operate as a ministry within an immigrant church, but as its own organizational entity.

These churches anticipated a “spiritual homelessness” emerging AAs would experience. They believed AAs would feel progressively foreign at their parents' church while still feeling uncomfortable in multi-ethnic contexts. They believed the IAAC model would be home for AAs and their children.

These were my own personal observations as a 2nd generation Korean-American over the course of almost two and a half decades.

But what’s to come in the next few decades for the AA church?

While only God knows (thankfully), here are 5 predictions on what I anticipate for the future AA church for the next 10-15 years.

A few qualifiers: 

Qualifier 1: These predictions are personal opinions. They don't stem from detailed research but more of a gut feeling from observation and conversation.

Qualifier 2: I realize my views are largely confined to my own paradigm and experiences. For example, when I say Asian-American, it is largely in view of Korean-Americans since that has been my ministry pool, limited to the region of Southern California, as a millennial-aged pastor.

Prediction 1. A Small Trickle Back to the Immigrant Church

Yes, you read that correctly. I believe we will begin to see a small stream of 2nd generation AAs return to the immigrant church.

I think it might already be happening.

A few reasons why:

a. Some immigrant churches are leapfrogging the IAAC in terms of ministry evolution

How? They're transitioning their church's senior pastors with bi-linual AA pastors who understand all 3 cultures (Immigrant parents, 2nd Gen, and 3rd Gen). Yes, there are Korean-American pastors in their 40's replacing 1st generation senior pastors in their 60's, which no longer stiffles a Korean church's influence on AAs to the EM or EM Pastor. The very nature of immigrant churches are changing.

In her seminal article, "Silent Exodus: Can the East Asian church in America reverse the flight of its next generation?", Helen Lee described three ways Asian churches can solve the "silent exodus" of immigrant children leaving the Asian church: (1) "[Renew] traditionalism (2) [Develop] a multiethnic approach, and  (3) [Plant] new churches." It appears that immigrant churches are creating a 4th approach: recreate the immigrant church from the top down.

b. Some AAs are beginning to wonder if their IAAC lacks ministry conviction

For example, some IAACes in the name of contextualization, have jumped too quickly from "Korean-American" to "multi-culturalism." While AAs understand the tension, there are some who feel misled. They feel like IAAC pastors have changed "the mission" to simply grow their churches and feel that if they don't adapt, they're being “selfish” (even though the very foundational conviction of IAACes was to provide a place for the children of immigrants).

The suspicions of AAs are shifting. Have you noticed how a few years ago, Korean-Americans despised the legalistic tendencies of their parents' faith but today speak with greater admiration of their parents' sacrifice and commitment? The new suspicion amongst AAs is lateral.

Ten years ago, I would've said the IAAC would eventually dwarf immigrant churches and then become progressively multi-cultural. While that may eventually happen one day, I believe we'll see a resurgence from the immigrant church in the near future.

Prediction 2. Increasing Mobility Among Younger Pastors

When I meet a fellow pastor over lunch, I get some version of the same question every time: "So, what are you thinking? Staying? Leaving? Planting?"

Ten years ago, a pastor leaving his church was met with suspicion. Nowadays, there is greater understanding and even sympathy when a pastor decides to leave.

I believe in the near future, pastoral mobility will be treated by younger AA pastors as a right to be exercised for the following reasons:

a. Younger AA pastors have a greater theological conviction when it comes integrating “calling” and "the sacred and the secular"

While Korean immigrant pastors tended to dichotomize the sacred from the secular, and 1.5 generation Korean-American pastors taught that the gap must be bridged, it is the milllennial-aged pastors who are beginning to apply it.

Sure, the millennial-aged pastor affirms the divine calling of a pastor. But he also affirms the divine calling of someone in a 9-5 job and the calling in the role of parenting. Because all spheres are opportunities to minister, the ground is leveled, which means he no longer feels it's one church or bust, since it's not even pastor or bust.

b. Younger pastors have greater options

15, 20 years ago, the average job listing for Korean-American pastors was to either be an EM pastor, a youth pastor, or both. 10 years ago, there was only one website I knew for pastoral job listings. Today, the landscape has changed. There are organizations (Slingshot Group,Vanderbloemen) dedicated to helping pastors land positions all across the nation.

Furthermore, there is a quietly growing concept in the church world patterned after the "gig economy" which encourages and resources pastor to pursue a "side-hustle" for additional income.

c. Younger pastors have a different understanding of loyalty and commitment

On the one hand, immigrant Asian pastors held to a non-reciprocal understanding of loyalty. Meaning, regardless of the commitment that was made to them from outside parties, they were willing to commit wholeheartedly. This was informed by their Eastern heritage in which the communal dictated the individual. Younger pastors, on the other hand, are informed by a more Western, individualistic understanding of loyalty. They believe it's binary and reciprocal, it's a two-way street.

Therefore, younger pastors have a "Let's wait and see" approach. This has especially been amplified as younger pastors have watched some of their fellow pastor friends be loyal, only to receive poor treatment from their churches.

Prediction 3. Achieving Multi-Culturalism by De-Emphasizing Multi-Culturalism

For the last few years, if you asked your average AA pastor what his dream church scenario would be, he may have described something about pastoring a multi-ethnic church.

It's the classic AA guy dream. He wants to date the white girl, as the leading scorer on the all-black basketball team, while maintaining the 4.9 GPA.

This is why certain Asian churches have felt so... non-Asian. They’ve been trying to shed their own Asian-ness so they could attract other ethnicities. So while the guy on the stage holding the guitar or the Bible looks Asian, everything else has felt forcibly white.

But these days, I think AA pastors are beginning to believe they don't have to apologize for being Korean-American, Chinese-American, and so forth. Instead, they're trying to discover what it is about their heritage that helps radiate the beauty of the gospel to other cultures in a way not possible through multi-culturalism.

This is a different AA guy dream. He wants to date the Asian girl, doesn't mind playing on the all-Asian team, and he's comfortable in his own skin (with the 4.9 GPA of course, anything less and he would dive into a self-condemning spiral where he questions his personal worth).

See, he's no longer wondering, "How do we not scare away non-Asians when they come to my church?" He's beginning to ponder what it means to be on the cultural offensive, asking "How do we present the gospel accurately as AAs?"

This will be new terrain, one that AAs are just beginning to scratch the surface of.

The irony is, I believe this will cause multi-culturalism(!).

Just as 1st century Greco-Romans were attracted to a gospel which was initially distinctively Jewish (Jewish Messiah), I believe there are other cultures that will become attracted to the Biblical sprituality of AAs as AAs embrace, and not deny, their cultural heritage.

Prediction 4. Greater Collaboration, Greater Tribalism

Do you know when a church begins to aggressively form cliques? When the church really begins to grow.

This is because as the church grows, everyone is encouraged to intentionally meet others. But as people make contact, they do so not for the pure purpose of meeting others, but to decide where they belong. The irony is that contact fuels temporary togetherness, while cementing eventual fragmentation.

There appears to be a greater collaborative spirit these days than from previous years. If you scan the scene, church groups are putting together retreats, conferences, and even mission trips. There's a sense in which churches and church leaders are open to dialogue, to connect, and brainstorm.

However, just like church cliques, I believe this growing phase of togetherness will eventually evolve (or devolve) into tribalism - a loyalty and commitment to "one's own."

If you think about it, haven't the tribes already been formed? Don’t we have the AA Bible churches that revere John MacArthur with a flair of “Reverend Jun Mook” and the AA gospel-centered churches that feel like a blend of Tim Keller and “Pastor Tan Kim.” You also have your charismatic AA churches who embrace Mike Bickle and "Pastor Mun Byung?" And then you have the AA church trying to be the white mega-church like Rick Warren and "Reverend Ryu Wook?"

"The Four Corners of the Asian American Church Tribes" have already been organically formed. It's just going to take a few senior leaders who decide to formally huddle together to raise a flag.

By the way, isn't this very Asian? Korean-Americans, for example, love being tribal. Once the lines have been established, they're not afraid to choose. It's either Kobe or Lebron, John MacArthur or Tim Keller, or one of the 4 corners of the AA church tribe.

Don't get me wrong. There will be a spirit of Christian charity, but I believe tribalism will exist nonetheless.

Prediction 5. AA Pastors Will Begin to Breakthrough onto National Platforms

Though I had written previously on why I believe this will be a challenge, I also have reasons to believe why this can and will happen.

It will not happen so much because of alternations made on the end of AAs. I believe it will happen because of adjustments made by white-majority organizations.

First, I believe white-majority organizations have and are continually realizing how much of their audience is AA.

AAs are great consumers of Christian media. From books, articles, music, to events, AAs are arguably greater consumers than any other minority group. Furthermore, if so many AAs consume content without strong AA representation, organizations will deem it strategic to give greater representation in order to "tap into the greater market" of AAs who haven't quite caught wind yet.

Secondly, I believe white-majority organizations are feeling more pressure to include and empower minorities than ever before

There used to be a time when AAs would feel suspicious if an AA was platformed. They'd think, "What are they trying to pull here?" The landscape today is the reverse. If there is no minority representation, they wonder, "Hmm, who's calling the shots here?” Times have changed and this will eventually catalyze change within organizations. 

The danger will be opportunistic AA leaders who somehow land the speaking or leadership opportunites, but leave a bad taste in people's mouth thereby ruining it for other AAs. The positive will be that AA leaders with character or a message will finally gain a greater hearing to the encouragement of many.

Concluding Thoughts

Truth to be told, if these predictions become a reality 10 years from now, I don't know if I'd be jumping for joy saying, "I told you so!"

I'm not entirely sure if they're all purely positive. 

But in the here and now, here's what I positively do know:

1. If you're an AA who belongs to an immigrant church,

I praise God for you. Please continue to faithfully love and serve the church out of conviction rather than staying put out of comfort or a fear of branching out. If you're there, please stay there as gospel partners with the immigrant congregation. You worship as one church, even if the service times and facility rooms don't collide. The goal should not simply be to tolerate the immigrant congregation until you arrive at greener pastures, but to humbly discern how to partner together for the gospel. Yes it's complicated but it should be. Family matters are always complicated.

2. If you're an AA who belongs to an IAAC,

I praise God for you too. Please don't just stay there because you can't stand the immigrant church or because you want to be a part of something "different." Be there to help your IAAC discover, clarify, and walk into her calling as the bride of Christ. Stop complaining about what's not happening (esp. if you're not tithing), and start praising God for what is happening. Roll up your sleeves, get to work, rejoice in the small things, and continually remember how faithful God has been.

3. If you're the pastor of an AA church (immigrant or independent),

I really praise God for you. Being a pastor of an Asian church is difficult. It's difficult because certain championed ministry philosophies are frustratingly outdated, or we've reached our ministry's ceiling (3 years ago), and we're trying to be faithful without being bored out of our minds. And you know what, we're always one click away from beginning our journey towards another ministry position. But before you make that click, please remember the faces of the people you minister to. Sure, anyone can minister to them, but I'm just saying we shouldn't disregard the fact that an all-wise God has placed you there, at this moment in time. If you're gonna hit the eject button, please confer with him first, and if you sense He's leading you elsewhere, move forward with courage. And lastly, let's not be so hard on ourselves. God has been and is doing things in the lives of our people. 

No one truly knows what the future holds for the AA church, but I'm thankful it's Jesus who holds the future of the AA church.

We're in good hands. 

Steve Bang Lee is the college & teaching director at Living Hope Community Church and serves as the Conference Director for the SOLA Network. Check out his blog at https://www.bangblogs.org/.