AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. ANTHONY SO
(2012 Annual Newsletter)
The Apostle Paul devoted his life to spreading the Gospel with a mission and purpose to make known that salvation was not for the Jews only but available to all. He yearned to share this faith so that Gentiles would be an “offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” He would stop at nothing to spread the Good News, proclaiming, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b).
Similar to Paul’s desire to reach the Gentiles, Dr. Anthony So has a heart for the second-generation Chinese church, what he considers a mission field. So, assistant professor of practical theology and former director of the Asian American Ministry studies at Logos Evangelical Seminary, is convinced that the second-generation Chinese church needs focused attention, greater encouragement and an opportunity to grow. Second-generation Chinese church refers to American-born Chinese, the children, or younger generation of overseas-born, immigrant populations. Today’s Chinese churches are typically bicultural and bilingual, and some are multicultural and multilingual as populations continue to diversify. Conflicts often arise as generations and cultures clash, and the relational dynamics start to look similar to the relational issues recorded in the Bible between the Jewish and Greek Christians.
No church, of course, is without conflict, including today’s Chinese churches with first- and second generation congregations. How does a church handle diversity, especially one that doesn’t look so diverse at first glance? Why would So call the second generation a whole different “animal”? So helps us in examining how to approach diversity in our churches by looking into the Scriptures for comparable examples.
There are more than 1,000 Chinese churches now in the U.S. and Canada, according to historian and theologian Dr. Rev. Samuel Ling. The development of English ministries in Chinese and Asian American churches did not grow overnight but developed over decades. Some Asian American or multiethnic churches in the Los Angeles area include Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles, Epicentre Church in Pasadena, or Newsong churches throughout southern California and beyond.
Some conflicts that arise in immigrant churches with first- and second-generation congregations are cultural issues, though many may mistake them as disobedience, or biblical defiance. One of the dominant issues is the first generation’s desire to maintain the dominant culture and role as elder and leader, and the second generation’s desire to be autonomous, or independent in conducting worship services and having ownership of their expression of faith.
So began by considering a theological question from Genesis 11 when at the Tower of Babel, God scattered the peoples, having them speak in many languages. So asked if God’s intention is to have a homogeneous or heterogeneous world, a world with a dominant culture, or one that is diverse and multicultural. In Genesis 12, God promised Abram that he would make him into a great nation and that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through [Abram]” (v. 3). If God’s promise is true, we can interpret and understand God’s desire is to bless all peoples, not just one people, or one nation. Jesus’ last words to his disciples, recorded in Matthew 28, were a command to go into all the nations and make disciples of all people groups. Furthermore, in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit fell upon the early believers and each one spoke in a different language comprehensible to others, another indication of God’s mission for the early church to spread the Gospel in all parts of the world.
“For the sake of the Gospel, we need to understand that we should not let cultural issues come before our missional calling,” So said, echoing the Apostle Paul’s speech when he wrote about not letting anything hinder him from preaching the Good News. “That’s why I see this as a mission endeavor.”
A Confucius way of thinking and doing still greatly influences how Christian faith is lived and practiced in Chinese culture. For example, going to church and worshiping “together,” as in the same church building, is important in Chinese Christian culture. To have their children, or second-generation youth worship in a separate church may run counter to this important part of their faith – but is this a biblical or cultural issue?
“We hold strongly to our Chinese culture. I think that it supersedes the kingdom, so to speak, and so if that’s the case, it’s a big problem,” So said. “We are bringing in the mentality of preservation philosophy.”
When Chinese churches allow culture to lead, rather than “Kingdom” values, churches begin to look and feel more like social and cultural centers instead of places of worship. Clashes also occur when second generation children want to assimilate to Western culture, while the older immigrant population wants to preserve their ethnic roots and identity, culture, habits and customs. So further explained how churches are sometimes viewed as identification centers, or places to affirm one’s cultural identity, and how the older generation may have no intention to assimilate or acculturate.
Though generational and cultural issues are in play, so also is our biblical understanding of what God desires for his people to grow as a community of believers. To understand more fully diversity and cultural clashes inside intergenerational, cross-cultural Chinese immigrant churches today, So cited three examples in the New Testament that provide insight on how to approach these conflicts.
In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas entered a debate when some were teaching that one could not be saved unless he was circumcised. After much discussion, Peter explained to the people that God made the Gospel available to all who believed and proclaimed, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they [the Gentiles] are” (Acts 15: 11). So compares this debate with the expectations some first-generation congregants have for the younger, second-generation; and in some instances, the first-generation’s expectations beg the question, “Does one need to be Chinese to be Christian?”
“Does God require people to put on a certain cultural identity before they can become a Christian, or can the Gospel reach them in their own culture so that they don’t have to cross so many cultural barriers in order to actually know Christ?” asked Dr. So as he considered how we often expect believers to look and act a certain way before we accept them as true believers. Asking if one needs to be Chinese to be Christian may sound ridiculous, but is manifested by cultural expectations we may have on how one conducts a worship service, leadership meeting, or manages church ministries.
So looks back at the Reformation, which took place during the 1500s, and identifies the cultural revolution that occurred when Martin Luther wanted to make the Bible available to all. The Catholic Church, at that time, read the Scriptures in Latin and most people were illiterate, having to rely on stained glass images to understand the stories; their spiritual growth was limited and dependent on church authorities and leaders.
“By translating the Bible, by actually identifying with the language of the common people back then, they began to turn around and started to understand the truth and the Gospel and they began to grow in their faith,” So said. “I think it’s the same in second-generation ministry. We need to have a drastic change in how we look at the second-generation ministry from the cultural perspective that they are foreigners. They need to have the language, setting, and approach that’s comfortable in order that they might be able to experience God.”
The second example is from the book of John, where we can see how far the Gospel reaches when
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Jesus, the Word, enters the world as an infant child; Jesus, the One and Only, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords, humbles himself by coming to earth to not only die on the cross for the sin of the world, but to live among his people and to connect with man as a Teacher, friend and “servant of all” (Mark 9:35). “The Word became flesh and dwelled among men,” So said. “Man did not cross the barrier to reach the Word.”
Finally, in John 4, we see Jesus again demonstrate His love and call to cross cultures when he sparks a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the drinking well. Though Jews and Samaritans did not interact with each other because Jews viewed Samaritans as “unclean,” Jesus did not separate himself; instead he initiated a conversation and ultimately revealed himself to her as the Messiah. Through this interaction, Jesus reveals more about his mission to reach the lost, not just the Jews, but also the sick, the weak, the sinful and the marginalized.
So how can first- and second-generation congregants better understand each other, and thus work together in building God’s kingdom?
“Both groups need to learn each other’s culture. Without education, it will only lead to frustration,” So said. “We all need to learn from one another about the cultural issues. We need to communicate and learn from each other.”
In addition to taking time to learn each other’s personalities, So encouraged churches to consider several M’s: Mentality, Mission, Management, Model, as well as Manpower and Money, which all impact the potential for a healthy relationship between first and second-generation ministries.
Mentality refers to the paradigm shift that’s needed among first-generation leaders. The first generation does not know everything. Leadership does not have to be hierarchical; in fact, it should be horizontal. “In the post-modern age, what is passed on doesn’t have to be from older to younger,” So said. “We live in a global village and community knowledge is what counts.”
Mission is to build God’s kingdom, not to have more power than another group or congregation. From a first-generation perspective, So said, “If we see each other as a mission field, then we want to learn so that we might be effective and help [the second generation] grow in Christ, rather than try to control them or assimilate them into our way of thinking.”
Management concerns different structures of leadership. Does there need to be a senior pastor at the top, or could other leadership structures be put in place to help lead the congregation?
Model refers to different ways English ministries or second-generation churches can be supported; some may function within the same church as the first-generation but have their own governing board; some may function as their own entity in the same building; another model is to build two churches with one that’s geared to the first-generation and another for the second-generation.
Looking at the future of Chinese churches, So said that unless something is drastically changed, the future appears grim as more and more second-generation individuals leave the church.’
“Are we preparing our children to face the challenges ahead of them as Christians, or not? Are we just trying to keep them in our church, and as long as they’re here, everybody’s happy?”
“There is an urgency for us to really come together and face the music and recognize the decline of the second generation Christians,” So said, calling leaders to spend time vision casting and intentionally building up second-generation leaders.
“I think Asian American churches do a lot of good to absorb those who have run away from the Chinese church so I think we should continue to encourage people to build and start Asian American churches.”
“We need to let them go and also help them develop because we see it as a mission endeavor,” So said. With a missional perspective and desire to reach all peoples, particularly second-generation churches, So concluded with this vision from Revelation: “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9, my italics).