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.
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.
- Struggles within Asian-American churches mirror the struggles of second-generation Asian-Americans asking “who am I?”
- Churches have explicit theology (what is preached) and implicit theology (what is lived).
- People are most influenced by implicit theology.
- Implicit theology is heavily influenced by the ethnic culture of the church, which may not be Biblical.
- Chapter 1: Grace-Filled Households
- When leaders in the Asian-American church fall, so often they are quietly removed and no one really knows what happened. This is not gracious (but does preserve the outward appearance of holiness).
- God’s grace is outrageous. It offended the older brother, who instead of rejoicing in his father’s generosity to everyone, believed that hard work should be rewarded (and vice-versa).
- Ex. of grace: pastor gets divorced, resigns. Finds a secular job and a gracious church. Joins a small group, becomes active, serves behind the scenes, meets with pastors periodically for counseling. Is invited to lead a small group. When a pastoral position becomes available, he is encouraged to take it.
- Asian-American churches primarily value hierarchy (security in order), community and family (identity in the collective, instead of as an individual), education and achievement, conformity and humility, respect for tradition and elders
- Gracious relationships invite people to a closer relationship with God, rather than point out their failings
- Ex. An unmarried couple with a long-standing and stable relationship begins attending the church. Do you address the issue of immorality somehow? This church never addressed it directly, but simply encouraged them to get married whenever the issue arose. When they did get married it was a celebration of devotion to God.
- Chapter 2: Truth-Embodying Households
- Many Asian-American churches a doing a good job of being Biblical, relevant, reaching their target audience, serving the congregation’s needs, etc. However, it often comes at the expense of daily living God’s truth. [I take this to mean that meeting people’s needs, for instance, is good, but if we ignore the sin behind it, we aren’t living with God’s truth. Jesus met people’s needs and confronted sin.]
- There has been emphasis on spiritual formation in American Protestantism, but often drifting away from sound theology.
- Mainline churches tend to view ethnic churches as a nuisance, and [the first-generation] tends to see Asian-American churches as quickening integration and the loss of culture.
- Ethnic ministries and contextualization have been important elements in missionary work (and in the American church, until recently)
- Western Christianity has tended to view our life as a Christian as an individual, yet the church is also Christ’s body, and more than just a collection of like-minded individuals.
- [Evangelical] sacrements [of baptism and the Lord’s supper] can be celebrated together. Cites the Scot’s practice of communion, where the elements are received sitting around a table, as in a family.
- “[Many seminary graduates] think that when they graduate from seminary, they’re done with theological education. They then go into ministry thinking that theology is to be left in a seminary for theologians to write about and teach. They think they are done with theology—they’ve passed their exams and their ordination exam—and now theology doesn’t matter. It’s almost the end of theological reflections. And it concerns me that churches are being guided by theologically unreflective pastors and leaders.” (p. 48)
- Just because it worked for another church doesn’t mean it’s Biblical or that it is a good idea for this church.
- “I’ve seen too many congregations that are solidly committed to right doctrine, doctrinal purity. They know all the doctrine, but it makes no difference in their practical lives. If their marriages are a wreck, or whatever the challenges happen to be, the right doctrine has no impact in their lives.” (p. 51)
- We tend to look at the Bible as a puzzle to be solved through scientific examination of the text.
- Two errors: use inductive study and come up with 3 points, but be devoid of impact; or go to the other extreme and treat the Bible as a group of stories.
- “The Bibles have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard and comprehended within the community of the church [as opposed to individually], and are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession, and other means by which Christ’s grace is communicated to his body.” (p. 56)
- Chapter 3: Healthy Leaders, Healthy Households 1
- Asian-American churches tend to view leadership through a Confucian set of values: hierarchy, saving face, and harmonious relations with people.
- Asians tend to defer to elders, and women defer to men. Sometimes Asians defer too much and do not confront sin in their leaders when it is necessary. Leaders may also expect deferring, which is not Biblical—Christian leaders are to be the servants of all.
- “When we consciously remember that we are shepherds, we remain humble. But when we start thinking of ourselves as leaders, humility tends to evaporate—sometimes along with the ministry.” (p. 62)
- False humility is refusing to accept a position you know you are qualified for, or not offering opinions in order to avoid conflict or embarrassment.
- Asian women have a particular challenge, since culturally the good woman is nice and kind. However, sometimes true humility requires being assertive (Jesus drove the merchants out of the temple).
- “We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.” (p. 66) Losing face is feeling like you did not measure up to other peoples’ expectations of you.
- The desire to not make trouble prevents a lot of conflict from being resolved. In fact, the prevalence of church splits among Korean-American churches is largely due to the inability to resolve conflict.
- Example of Moses: Moses was bi-cultural (Hebrew raised as an Egyptian), a reluctant leader, humility to receive negative feedback (e.g. from Jethro concerning his leadership), and faithfulness despite the Israelites’ repeated rejection of his leadership and God’s.
- Example of Jesus: He was a servant, spoke the truth, and had a vision of what would happen far beyond just his time.
- Example of speaking the truth: Part-time staff worker had an affair. Instead of just announcing her leave of absence without explaining it, like everything told him to do, he explained what had happened (with her permission) and asked for prayer for her.
- Potential good book; Leadership is an Art, by Max DePree.
- Chapter 4: Healthy Leaders, Healthy Households 2
- Building healthy leadership teams involves
- choosing the right people and getting them in the right roles. It is better to not fill a position than to fill it with someone who is not ready for leadership.
- This involves constant maintenance, because people change and their old role may no longer be where they need to be
- building trust between leaders.
- this takes a lot of time, but is essential. The pastor needs to invest in his lay-leadership.
- resolving conflict quickly and healthily
- Not resolving conflict is the biggest thing that destroys churches.
- Recommends talking about conflict frequently in order to instill the idea that conflict is normal and ok.
- Some practical guidelines of when to talk to someone: you can’t shake a bad feeling about them after 24 hrs, you can’t look them in the eye, you don’t want to touch them.
- Conflict is a sign that you are getting to the last 10% of a relationship, where things about the other person bother you. It is also a sign that the team (or relationship) is growing.
- Vision is created by God, not by us. It is essential (“without vision, the people perish”)
- “Our goal is not to maintain unity. Our goal is to move under the headship of Christ. Unity is simply the gift he gives us when we find his mind.” (p. 91)
- When leadership receives the vision from God, we need to build consensus for it in the congregation. This requires communicating it in a way that they can understand, and may require leadership modeling it, guest speakers, field trips, seminars, book reading, etc. You want to get the congregation to buy into the vision.
- Important leadership values
- Having a balanced life: “Killing oneself and one’s family in the name of ministry is never helping anybody.” (p. 93) First-generation leaders often gave too much to the ministry. Make sure you and your leadership team do not over commit or burn out (especially problematic in church plants, where there is so much to do). There is always more that can be done, but we need to let God worry about that.
- Demonstrating vulnerability: People want to see you be real. Be vulnerable about how you are struggling (for example, in sermon illustrations or topics).
- Vulnerability needs to start with the leaders.
- People in this post-modern culture want to see leaders who are real
- Valuing team ministry
- Recognizing God’s leadership
- Henri Nouwen: “I am getting in touch with the mystery that leadership, for a large part, means to be led.” (p. 97)
- “People pleasing is lethal in ministry. ... The way to combat that is to invest more time in God.” (p. 97)
- Building a healthy house is not the same as a healthy household. A healthy house is an orderly and attractive worship service, programs, people tithing and serving regularly, etc. A healthy household is a church where people have healthy relationships with each other and God.
- Chapter 5: Trusting Households
- People don’t want to change. We prefer to die the slow death of inaction rather than take the risk of failure.
- The Christian life is all about change: repentance, growth, etc. are all about us being changed.
- Change within the church requires that the church trust the leaders.
- We need to be discerning about the need for change.
- Some examples: pastor of Korean Orthodox Presbyterian Church recognized that the name brought serious limitations on who would come. A homeless man living in one church’s shed brought to light the need to be conscious about social welfare and justice. Reaching the limit of space and seeing the growth slow and decline, as well as the congregation become comfortable showed another church the need to split into two churches.
- “The genuine health of a congregation is not primarily evaluated on the basis of what it accomplishes or how much it achieves, but more so on who they are becoming and how they feel about that transformational process and about their community.” (p. 112)
- “Learning provokes change.” (p. 115)
- As we learn more of God’s values, we will be induced to change. If we are learning, we will be less resistant to change.
- Change starts from the top: the pastor must be learning.
- Change needs to have urgency (or people won’t risk it), a definite need, a compelling vision, and be appropriate for the maturity and needs of the congregation.
- Cultivating a culture that is willing to change requires
- Understanding what God’s purpose for them is—what is it they they can uniquely do?
- Have sufficient time to cultivate the desire and willingness for change
- Chapter 6: Hospitable Households
- Because of Asian-American community values, Asian-Americans tend to be more oriented towards one-on-one evangelism, rather than large meetings. (Which also happens to be what today’s post-modern culture prefers, too.)
- Asian-Americans generally find out about church from the Asian-American grapevine, not marketing-type advertising (e.g. newspaper ads, etc.)
- “Such an [one-on-one] approach resonates more comfortably with many Asian American personalities because it is less about confrontation and more about building trust and connections over time. ‘We had to be willing to re-examine the way we’ve traditionally done evangelism,’ says Ogimachi. ‘Evangelism isn’t going to work due to a big marketing push; it is going to be through people who know people. It’s very much a process that could take people months or years to come to Christ.’” (p. 130)
- Incarnational evangelism: “The best evangelism should be from people who know you as friends. Some of the best evangelism is done where people don’t see faith as a lofty idea but where it’s lived out in real world situations. So incarnational evangelism is about living in the culture, embracing the culture, knowing the culture, knowing the language and values of the culture.” (p. 130 from Gibbons)
- “Too many [evangelistic] programs or approaches do not afford the unconvinced much dignity, because they do not allow them enough room to let a relationship with Christ emerge gradually and naturally.” (p. 131, from Ken Fong)
- “When I see a church doing well, it’s highly invested in its community, either the one that surrounds them or the one they choose to get into. They are involved in the schools, the sports leagues, tutoring, everything. That’s where I see a church’s healthiness come out, when its people are invested in the neighborhood around them.” (p. 131, from Greg Yee)
- Asian-Americans value relationships, but do not tend to know how to build healthy relationships
- This partly due to unhealthy family relationships
- Partly due to fear of conflict—seeing conflict as bad, rather than natural
- Partly from not being transparent because of a fear of shame or loss of face from publicly revealing how messed up they are.
- “To truly understand God’s love you will have to think of yourself as a spiritual orphan and of God as a loving father intent on adopting as many orphaned children as possible into his family.” (p. 128, from Ken Fong)
- A focus on community can lead to an insider/outsider mentality, which was not God’s intention
- Sometimes Asian-Americans appear cliquish not because that don’t want to relate to people, but because they often do not know how to relate to someone they do not know.
- Jesus met felt needs as way of opening people’s hearts, yet we tend to view evangelism as solely a spiritual matter a la Four Spiritual Laws.
- People need to see us ministering to the widows and orphans of our day
- Having teaching on healthy relationships is one way of meeting felt-needs, or (relational-) healing ministries. There are lot of people who have abusive parents or addiction or brokenness.
- Ways some healthy Asian-American churches are evangelizing:
- Viewing it as a missions field: when you become a missionary, you spend a lot of time immersing yourself in the culture, finding its values, learning its language, etc. What is important to the people of our area?
- Understanding the influence of post-modernism:
- “Experience comes before explanation”: “We are trying to invite people into an environment where they can taste and see what new life in Christ is all about. It’s not just a rational, cognitive message. People often do need to experience before they can decide.” (p. 136)
- “Belonging comes before believing”: “Most people do not ‘decide’ to believe. In community, they ‘discover’ that they believe.” (p. 136)
- “Images comes before word”: recognizing that our culture is now a visual culture (because of television and movies). Not that this should replace the Bible, but is a way of illustrating it.
- Social justice: “Who are the widows and orphans in your neighborhood [or the neighborhoods where your members live]? Your church has to be known for serving them.” (p. 137)
- One church cleaned up people’s yards, alleyways, painted rooms and fences, trimmed bushes, etc. on a Sunday. One person expressed surprise that a church would do this on a Sunday!
- Pursue healthy relationships: let your congregation know your struggles. Be real with them. “We want the norm in our church to be acknowledging and admitting that we’re screwed up.” (p. 139, Gibbons)
- Have a good-quality, enjoyable worship service.
- Embrace diversity when it presents itself
- Don’t abandon traditional evangelism. (For example, altar-calls or altar-call-by-raising-your-hand)
- Chapter 7: Multigenerational Households
- Paul describes the church as the household of God in Ephesians. In a family we don’t get to pick our siblings or children. Likewise, the Church isn’t a supermarket where you find the congregation that best fits your needs.
- There is often conflict between generations in ethnic Asian churches because the older generation insists that the younger needs to honor and obey them, yet the younger generation has incorporated American egalitarian values.
- This often leads to the younger congregation splitting off and becoming its own church
- Healthy Asian churches need to promote healthy intergenerational relationships
- This starts with the pastoral staff: the staff needs to build strong relationships.
- Some ways of doing this are doing sports together, joint outings, sharing meals
- Description of Open Door Presbyterian Church, whose two congregations had been growing apart, but made the conscious move to be more interdependent. This started with joint services for important events (Easter, baptisms, etc.). The English congregation saw the need for care for disabled children, both congregations thought it was a great idea and the English congregation lead the project, which involved the older generation serving, too. They did a joint missions trip to Gambia and discovered that serving together brought the generations together and showed the younger generation that the older generation loved to Lord and showed the older generation that they could respect the younger generation’s skills and talents.
- Chapter 8: Gender Relations in Healthy Households
- Asian culture treats women as inferior to men. Jobs like washing the dishes and helping with kids are seen as women’s jobs and sometimes men who want to help out in those areas are belittled.
- Until the 1930s many conservative denominations, including the Evangelical Free Churchs and some Baptists, ordained women pastors. This probably stopped as a reaction to the rise of feminism.
- Paul’s writings indicate that many women were serving in leadership. Indeed, Gal 3:28 says that there is not distinction between slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and male and female.
- The questions that the post-modern generation is asking concern why the Church acts like it does: why does the Church impose its views on others, enforce a hierarchical patriarchy, etc. (In the past, people asked theological questions about God: does He exist, was Jesus really resurrected, etc.)
- Women tend to leave Asian-American churches more than men, likely because if they have been raised to be assertive, competent, and independent, they won’t find much of a home at a church that expects them to be passive and subservient.
- Churches need to study this issue; there are some compelling theological interpretations that would encourage women in leadership
- The pastoral team needs to set the example in encouraging women leaders and treating them with respect (including using their title; i.e. Rev., or Pastor).
- The Bible treats men and women as equals. Do our churches?
- Chapter 9: Households of Mercy and Justice
- The poor is the second most prominent theme in the Old Testament. One out of every ten verses in the Gospels are about the poor.
- Need to educate the congregation and also instill mercy and justice into the values of the church
- It might be easier to start with ministering to the needy people within the church: elderly, single-parent moms, etc. Once people see the need there, they may begin seeing needs outside the church, too.
- Immigrant churches already provide a lot of services to the immigrant community, which is a natural means of outreach.
- Before beginning a ministry in an urban poor area, it is wise to talk to key leaders in the community to find out the areas of need so as to not undermine the work of churches already in the area.