Asian-American churches have had somewhat of an identity crisis in recent years, with most English-speaking congregations breaking off and forming their own church. Others have remained within the original immigrant church but have languished and many members have left. This book examines many of the issues that the second-generation congregations are dealing with.

The first issue to be tackled is grace. Many Asian-American churches are not gracious in how they deal with sin in the leadership. It seems that often the sin is more important than working through the sin and restoring the sinner to a proper relationship with God and the church. Often the leader is just quietly removed and must find a home at another, more gracious church. A healthier approach is consistently invite people to a closer relationship with God, rather than focusing on the sin. Discipline may need to be involved, but Christ died for that sin, too.

As important as grace is, it is also important to teach the truth, well and effectively. The evangelical church tends to place such an emphasis on truth that the truth becomes an end in itself. The truth is not just a puzzle to be solved, but should have an impact on our lives. Our churches should embody the truth in our action. In fact, the is not just a matter for individuals to decide and act on alone, although this is important, but must be lived out in the community as a whole. (The authors observe that an emphasis on community is a strength of Asian culture in this respect.)

Having healthy leadership is essential to the health of the church. The leaders need to have good personal relationships with each other, not just in a professional context. In some churches the pastors eat together; others have activities like fishing or bowling. The idea is that the members of the leadership team must trust each other and value each other. One of the biggest issues with leadership teams is how the team deals with conflicts. Generally Asian culture avoids conflict, but without conflict, relationships cannot move deeper. While conflict is uncomfortable, dealing with it healthily is essential. In fact, unresolved conflict has led to many of the Korean-American church splits. Because this Asian tendency to avoid conflict, one of the authors regularly preaches on the importance of conflict in his sermons.

Another important aspect is change. Since the Christian life is all about growth, change is inevitable and, in fact, desirable. However, most people resist change because it carries with it risk. So corporate change cannot be done merely for change’s sake; the change must be urgent, necessary, have a vision, and be appropriate. When the time comes for the church to change in order to follow God’s calling more effectively, the leadership will need to spend time motivating the change. As cultivating change is done regularly, the church will develop a culture that is open to change.

Evangelism was discussed mostly in the context of serving others—meet the felt needs of others instead of just their spiritual needs. Ministries like helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and promoting social justice demonstrate God’s character (in fact, a large amount of the Bible is devoted to showing how much God values this). The authors also recommend treating local evangelism like foreign missions: learn the culture of the area, the values, and the needs. Meet the needs in God’s name and teach the Gospel as the opportunity arises.

Since most Asian-American churches were started by first-generation immigrants several decades ago, many now have an English-speaking congregation and an Asian-speaking congregation. Often the two do not get along, partly due to an insistence on Asian hierarchy that they second-generation congregation has not adopted. Failure to resolve conflict generally leads to the second-generation congregation becoming a separate church. However, the two congregations can have harmonious relationships if they put themselves in positions to understand each other. One example described a Korean church where some of the older and younger generation went on a medial missions trip together. Since they had a common goal of healing the sick, they learned to work together, and during their other times they learned that both generations truly loved and worshiped God, but just had different ways of expressing it. Through continued events like this the congregations grew to respect and appreciate each other.

Asian-American churches often do not have places for women to serve based on a view that women should be caretakers of children and subordinate to men, a view that the authors claim arose from Asian culture. As a result, many women who would like to serve in other areas simply cannot and leave for other churches. Furthermore, Asian culture values passivity and submission in women, so women raised in an American culture to be assertive and competent are often not valued in Asian churches, leading to still more problems. The authors do not discuss the issue of women in leadership beyond this except to say that until the 1930s the evangelical churches ordained women, to reference some respected theological arguments that suggest women leaders is compatible with Biblical teaching, and to suggest that churches take time to study the issue.

There were several things that seemed particularly relevant to the church I attend, Austin Chinese Church. One of the most important is from the introduction: churches have both an explicit theology which is stated in the preaching/teaching and an implicit theology which is revealed by what the church does. Often they do not match. In our case, we say we value life transformation through God’s work in our lives, yet the sermons, teaching, and church programs often have not seemed to work toward this. Our leadership team is identifying the key aspects of God’s calling for us, which will give a framework to ensure that the what we say we value matches our actions.

Another point that resonated with me is the assertion that Asian-Americans often do not know how to build healthy relationships. The authors claim that is partly because of unhealthy relationships in Asian families, partly because of unbiblical Asian rigid hierarchy, partly because of a lack of openness, transparency, and realness due to a desire to save face. However, I have personally been in the position of having no clue what healthy relationships look like (and even worse, not even realizing it). So while I the authors identify legitimate causes, unhealthy relationships is hardly just an Asian problem, but endemic to American culture (witness the high divorce rate, depression rate, and loneliness/suicide rate) and perhaps to mankind in general. I appreciate the authors drawing attention to this issue. I have usually only heard churches talk about relationships in the context of dating and marriage, but in my personal experience, I think I became much more effective at reflecting God when I realized that the goal of life is not to seek my satisfaction. The more I relate to others in the unselfish, giving way that God relates to me, the more my relationships blossom and are effective. The authors repeatedly address this point of having healthy relationships, and it is important in building a healthy congregation.

As a budding leader, the second chapter on leadership gave words to my emerging thinking. Leadership is primarily characterized by vision. Without vision the congregation merely maintains what is there. Great leaders seek to implement God’s vision of what could be. However, this vision cannot be realized unless the leadership team is unified. I had the opportunity to work on a small team with our singles fellowship where all three of us shared the same vision and values and could usually speak for each other if needed. We were effective and had a good time doing it. For a larger team, getting to know each other and learning to trust each other is probably required in order that a unified vision can result. As the authors say, this takes time and will probably require conflict resolution to get to that point, but once there, the team will be effective.

I also think that the authors’ minor point of the need for leaders to share their struggles (“be real”) and show that they are not perfect Christians is important. Without this, it is easy for leaders to come across as having it all together and with the result that people perceive a gulf between themselves and the leaders that demotivates change . Furthermore, it isolates leaders from the community that can be created by through compassion for each other’s failings and the desire to see our brothers and sisters overcome their sins. If the leaders demonstrate that it is safe to be real, hopefully the congregation as a whole will be encouraged to do so, too. I suspect this realness is an important aspect of Christian community (perhaps this is why Jesus said to confess to each other). And if we can demonstrate a community that is safe to be unwhole in, I imagine that it will be incredibly attractive to a world that may not even consciously realize its brokenness.

The problems the authors identify are real, and I can see some of them in my church (and I can see the lack of some of them, too!). However, much of what the book assumes to be a Asian-American problem is really a problem throughout evangelical churches. For instance, the ungracious handling of sin. Many evangelical churches place an importance on not having sin (after all, we preach that it is bad), so while it may be more prominent in Asian culture, it is certainly alive in American culture as well. The book also seems to take a rather post-modern approach to the solutions. Post-modernism is partly a reaction to the failings of modernism and the authors seem to have a similar reactionary approach. Rather than identifying what a church should be, they tend to point out what the problems are and how not to have them.

The writing is a little hard to get through. It often feels like the authors use a more formal language simply because it seems more scholarly. No surprise here; the scholarly academic papers do the same thing, and are notoriously hard to read. Unfortunately, the reader has a similar reaction to slogging through unnecessary verbiage, which is exacerbated by the (correct) feeling that the book was written by a committee. Nevertheless, the book is well organized, has good content, and is reasonably effective at communicating it. I think my church’s leadership team has benefited from reading it (at least, I have). It raises most, if not all, of the pertinate issues facing the Asian-American, and, likely, the evangelical, church. It is probably not a hundred-year book, as it does not identify the issues with the clarity of insight required for a timeless discussion (it feels more like a shotgun). However, the authors do fulfill their goal of identifying the areas Asian-American churches need to grow. Unless leaders of Asian-American—and evangelical—churches can clearly articulate the failings of their own church, reading Growing Healthy Asian-American Churches will serve them well.
Review: 8.5
Content is good, but seems a bit like an attempt to list all the issues. I think the book would be improved by crystallizing the essence of the problems. The problems seem to focus around unhealthy relationships, leadership, grace, compassion for the poor, and community (gender/age). It would be interesting to see if the failings in these areas are at all related, and if so to identify the sins, values, or world views that contribute to the problem. Such a book, while relevant to Asian-Americans, would be more timeless, since our the causes of our failings do not really change, although the manifestations of them will. Although this is a useful book, the ranking is lower due to the committee feel to the book and the failure to distill the problems into their essence.