By Steven Siu
On May 14-16th, 2019, twenty-five English-speaking pastors from the United States, Canada, and England gathered together for the first Chinese Heritage Church Colloquium to share about, discuss, and envision the ways in which God uses Chinese heritage churches(1) to advance his kingdom. This paper was written with the help of these pastors, represents some of the best thoughts from this conference, and is dedicated to God, our churches, and fellow Chinese heritage church pastors, who often labor unnoticed in a challenging harvest field. Our prayer is that this paper brings encouragement, inspiration, and hope for the future, to God’s glory.
Over the last two decades, the movement among evangelical churches in the United States to become more multiethnic has grown. According to Dr. Michael Emerson of Baylor University, the number of evangelical multiethnic churches, where the congregation is composed of at least 20% ethnic minorities within a multiethnic context, increased from 7% in 1998 to 23% in 2019, and the percentage of Asian American Christians attending multiethnic churches in the United States also increased from 6% to 8% during this same time period.(2)
In light of this movement towards multiethnic churches, some have argued that English- speaking Chinese American Christians should attend multiethnic churches and that Chinese heritage churches are only for those who speak Chinese. All churches should try to fulfill on earth the heavenly vision of a multiethnic gathering of God’s people in heaven.
God is the Lord of the Harvest. He establishes every church; he establishes both multiethnic churches and Chinese heritage churches to reach his harvest field. This paper is not an argument against multiethnic churches, but an apologetic for Chinese heritage churches, which are often misunderstood. It is our belief that Chinese heritage churches are not just for first generation(3) Chinese immigrants but play an important role in contributing to the beauty of the body of Christ. In this paper, we will explore how God continues to use Chinese heritage churches to fulfill his purposes to further his kingdom, and we’ll also explore the potential future of Chinese heritage churches.
Chinese heritage churches are missional. God uses Chinese heritage churches for missional purposes to fulfill the Great Commission through diaspora missions. Dr. Enoch Wan defines diaspora missions as Christian participation in God’s mission to evangelize their kinsmen on the move, and through them to reach out to natives in their homeland and beyond.(4) This diaspora missional calling is reflected in Paul’s writings. In Romans 1:14, Paul writes about his obligation to reach both the Jews and Gentiles, and in Romans 9:3, Paul writes about his deep longing to reach his fellow Jew and his willingness to suffer on their behalf so that they might be saved. Throughout Paul’s missionary journeys, he often shared the gospel first with the Jews, a diaspora people clustered in cities throughout Asia Minor and Greece, and then with the Gentiles. Paul practiced diaspora missions.
Paul’s background as a diaspora Jew prepared him to practice diaspora missions. He grew up as a Hellenistic Jew in Tarsus in Asia Minor. In Acts 21:37, Paul spoke Greek, and in Acts 16:37, he was familiar with Roman law and customs. In Acts 22:3, Paul also trained in Jerusalem under Gamaliel as a Pharisee and was familiar with Jewish laws and customs. He was equipped to minister to both Jews and Gentiles. In Acts 11:25, Barnabas, who was also a Hellenistic Jew, brought Paul to help him in his work among the Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles at Antioch. Paul was the best equipped of the Apostles to reach the Gentiles and became the Apostle to the Gentiles, yet he shared the gospel to his kinsmen, the Jews first. Paul practiced diaspora missions in reaching his own people, the Jews first, before reaching the Gentiles.
Likewise, Chinese heritage churches have been practicing diaspora missions by reaching the Chinese in America first. Per a 2012 Pew Research study, 22 percent of the Chinese in America are Protestants,(5) which may be up to 5 times greater than the percentage of Christians in China.(6) Many if not most multiethnic and majority culture churches in America are not equipped to minister to Mandarin-speaking or Cantonese-speaking individuals. As a result, the vast majority of conversions of first generation Chinese in America happen through Chinese heritage churches practicing diaspora missions. In addition, the vast majority of conversions of the second generation children of Christian Chinese immigrants also happen in Chinese heritage churches through diaspora missions. At many Chinese heritage churches, it is the English- speaking adults, many of whom are second generation Chinese, who evangelize and disciple the second and third generation children, youth and college students; they sow and harvest doing the work of diaspora missions without knowing it.
Engaging in diaspora missions is also reaching beyond your ethnic group. The English-speaking congregations of many Chinese heritage churches can reach beyond their own kinsmen to other diaspora and majority culture people. This cross-cultural work reflects God’s heartbeat. In Genesis 18:18, God blessed Abraham and his descendants so that they would be a blessing to the nations. My church is predominantly of Chinese ethnicity, but we have also reached out to other ethnic groups and included them. We have Mexican, Vietnamese, and Irish Americans attending my church and participating in leadership.
As a result of practicing diaspora missions, Chinese heritage churches are uniquely positioned in their mission to reach first, second, and third generation Chinese Americans and also non- Chinese, who are receptive to their mission. Dr. Andrew Lee of the Global Diaspora Institute noted, “The world is coming to our doorsteps as Diaspora Missions is a hot area right now in Christianity. There is a mass movement of people around the world and America will be one prime destination place for refugees if immigration doors are re-opened under the current administration. So that means more heritage churches and second generational ministries in the years to come if this holds true.”
Chinese heritage churches are intergenerational, and God uses Chinese heritage churches to foster intergenerational relationships, discipleship, and evangelism within the church, which produces strong Christian families. In Ephesians 2:19, through Christ, we are no longer strangers but we are now members of God’s household. The church is a family. This sense of family is also important in the Chinese culture where adults are addressed as uncles and aunties by the youth and children, and the elderly are addressed as grandpas and grandmas. When these family relationships are also seen within the Chinese heritage church, church feels like home or one large extended family. Several years ago, my church surveyed our people asking them about what they enjoyed most about the church. The number one answer across all age groups and languages was that our people loved that the church was a family church. The spiritual relationships in the context of family mattered. I think this answer is echoed in many Chinese heritage churches.
In addition, a sense of shared values, culture, and background allows for individuals across age groups to serve together. There is an inherent base of trust due to familiarity. In Acts 18, Priscilla and Aquila quickly became effective co-workers with and companions of Paul. They were Hellenistic Jews in Asia Minor like Paul, and they also shared the same profession of tent making. Their shared backgrounds made it easier for them to serve together. Similarly, the shared values of family and Christian values in a Chinese heritage church help bring different generations to serve together and use their spiritual gifts. For instance, college students, young adults, and older adults may all be drawn to serve together as advisors in the youth ministry. People of all ages may enjoy serving together in missions, on various committees, in choirs/worship teams, in the children’s ministry, in worship services, or in planning special events for the church. There is a beauty to seeing different generations serve together especially in the United States where people are often segregated by age at church.
Importantly, because many Chinese heritage churches have ministries across generations and languages, these churches can evangelize an entire family unit. In my church, I’ve seen a Christian grandmother, who attends the Cantonese service, invite her adult believing daughter and non-believing son-in-law to the English service. They in turn bring their daughter to the children’s program. I’ve also seen adults who attend the English service invite their non- believing parents to Cantonese and Mandarin services where some eventually become Christians. The entire family can be evangelized in ways that leverage language and culture.
Chinese heritage churches are educational. God uses Chinese heritage churches as instruments to grow his people’s Biblical and theological understanding in hopes that they will live a life more pleasing to God. Chinese people, who are heavily influenced by Confucianism, value education. Not surprisingly, Chinese heritage churches tend to place a high value on teaching the word of God and transformation through the word, because they believe that God’s word is God breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Many Chinese heritage churches focus on the importance of a proper Biblical understanding. Expository preaching is often the primary method of preaching. Pastors are encouraged to be faithful to God’s word and to exegete properly. Topical messages tend to be secondary to expository preaching. Like my church, many Chinese heritage churches may spend much of the year covering books from the Old Testament, the gospels, and the epistles in the hopes that our people gain an understanding of and appreciation for God’s work of redemption in all of Scripture.
Many Chinese heritage churches also focus on the importance of a proper theological understanding. There is a high view of God where God is the all sufficient, holy, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent creator and redeemer of the universe. Human beings, in contrast, are limited, idolatrous, and depraved. God in his amazing grace saved us through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The goal of greater theological understanding is not knowledge that puffs up, but a renewal of mind and heart to live a life of worship to God because of who he is and what he has done to save us. Like many Chinese heritage churches, my church has an appreciation for the works of those who have a high view of God.
Because of this high value on Biblical and theological education, Chinese heritage churches tend to call pastors, including youth pastors, with a Master of Divinity degree from a seminary.
Some of these pastors have even returned to seminary to pursue a Doctor of Ministry degree so that they can better equip their churches. I am thankful that God uses Chinese heritage churches to help his people know him and be transformed by his word.
Chinese heritage churches are multicultural, and God uses Chinese heritage churches to help develop inclusive, multicultural models of ministry. Chinese heritage churches are surprisingly complex; they may not be multiethnic, but they are multicultural and multilingual. In many Chinese heritage churches, there may be Cantonese-speaking believers raised in the culture of Hong Kong or Vietnam, Mandarin-speaking believers raised in the culture of Taiwan or China, and English-speaking believers raised in the mainstream culture of their countries and/or the Chinese cultures of their families, amongst other cultures. What is seemingly a monolithic ethnic church is a culturally and linguistically diverse church. In this sense, Chinese heritage churches are multicultural in their own way that is different than a majority culture church’s idea of being multicultural.
Chinese heritage churches are similar to the Church of Jerusalem which was also mono-ethnic but multicultural and multilingual. The church was composed of Hebraic Jews, who were more culturally Jewish and primarily spoke Aramaic, and Hellenistic Jews, who were more culturally Greek and spoke Greek as well as the language of their country of origin. Members of both of these groups were saved on Pentecost in Acts 2:8-12.
The Church of Jerusalem had to develop a new inclusive model of ministry to more effectively minister to the Hellenistic Jews. In Acts 6, the inequitable distribution of food to Hellenistic Jewish widows highlighted this deficiency. Hellenistic Jews did not receive the same resources as Hebraic Jews, and there were no positions of leadership available to them to be a voice for the Hellenistic Jews. In response, the apostles, who were Hebraic Jews, asked the church to choose individuals to lead the food distribution effort, and the people chose seven Hellenistic Jews. The twelve apostles continued to teach and pray, and the seven Hellenistic Jews oversaw the distribution of food. As a result of the decision, the entire church was pleased. The unity seen in Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews leading the church together and sharing resources was beautiful not only to the church but to the world. More people became disciples of Christ and a number of priests, who were Hellenistic Jews, became Christians.
Similarly, Chinese heritage churches have had to develop new inclusive models of ministry over time to more effectively reach and minister to the Chinese population and beyond. Starting in 1853, American denominations started planting the first Chinese heritage churches as missions churches in Chinatowns; most of these churches were pastored by former American missionaries to China, and by the 1950’s, they were pastored primarily by Chinese ministers.(7) Some of these churches changed their main service to a bilingual service to meet the growing needs of their English-speaking children. Others added an English-speaking service because their English-speaking children found translated services unbearable. In the late 1950’s, overseas born Chinese started planting Chinese heritage churches.(8) Like the Chinatown churches, a number of these churches later added English-speaking services to meet the needs of their English-speaking children or adults. As these churches grew, one recurrent struggle was whether to invite English-speaking adults into their executive leadership. A number did not, which made it difficult for the American born Chinese to have a voice in the direction of these churches. Other Chinese heritage churches made the decision to include American born Chinese into their executive leadership by making English the spoken language at their elder council, deacon board, or executive meetings. They also allocated equal resources to grow their English-speaking congregations just as they would their Chinese congregations. This willingness to share the executive leadership and resources with the English-speaking is one common trait in most of the Chinese heritage churches with large English congregations, and it has been used by God to raise up many Chinese Christian leaders and co-workers. This desire to develop an inclusive model of ministry makes multicultural and multilingual Chinese heritage churches beautiful.
Chinese heritage churches are home, a place of belonging and acceptance for Chinese American Christians. According to a Pew Research study on racial and ethnic composition of evangelical churches, 94% of those who attend evangelical churches identify as Caucasian.(9) Multiethnic evangelical churches are slightly better. In 2019, 23% of evangelical churches could claim that their congregation was multiethnic with at least 20% of racial/ethnic groups aside from Caucasian.(10) The vast majority of evangelical churches in America are majority culture dominated. Without knowing it, the issues that are discussed and the values that are espoused are those that the majority culture cares about. As a result, Dr. Michael Emerson writes that sometimes people of color in these churches start to feel, “Do we really matter? Do we really belong?”(11) Chinese heritage churches provide a home where the culture, values and people of Chinese American Christian communities are celebrated and accepted.
Chinese heritage churches provide space for Chinese Americans Christians to follow Christ in culturally appropriate ways. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, the Roman and Corinthian churches struggled with what types of behaviors or foods were acceptable due to the cultural sensitivities of Jews and Gentiles. Oftentimes when Chinese Americans attend majority culture or multiethnic churches, they are forced to accept majority culture values. Erin Ding writes, “Recent research has supported the notion that large, multiracial churches with largely white pastoral leadership can unintentionally pressure worshipers to conform to culturally white behaviors.”(12) In order to reduce conflict in multiethnic churches, churches tend to choose what works for the majority. Korie Edwards shares from her experience as an ethnic minority in a majority culture church, “Because people who are ethnically similar share similar ideas of how church should look: the length of worship services, the music sung, the preaching style, the appropriate clothing, the languages spoken, and the food served … Without this commonality, more conflict arises, and those with more power set church culture and structure.”(13) Chinese heritage churches provide an alternate environment that may satisfy the cultural preferences of first, second, and third generation immigrant believers. Ding writes, “As they [the second and third generation children of immigrants] raise their own children, many are pondering the type of faith and cultural environment they want to bestow on their kids. That often means a search for churches that will incorporate their stories, embrace their heritage, and hire leaders who look like them.”(14)
Chinese heritage churches foster belonging by espousing the values of Chinese American Christians. During the COVID19 pandemic, a number of new families and individuals joined my church. When I asked them why they chose to worship at my church, I was surprised at their response. A number responded that they appreciated our church for taking COVID19 seriously and for requiring those attending the indoor service to wear masks. They no longer felt safe worshiping at majority culture churches, and they felt looked down upon when they wore their masks. Like many Chinese American Christians, my church values the opinions of our medical professionals. One of our elders, who is an infectious disease doctor, encouraged us to maintain masks indoors until the infection rate dropped. This value on safety helped our newcomers feel comfortable worshiping with us, and they felt a sense of belonging because everyone shared the same values. In addition, over the years, my church has had an inflow of Chinese American Christian youths from majority culture churches. Although the parents of the youths felt comfort in majority culture churches, the youths were not comfortable. A number of these youths mentioned to me that if they aspired to attend a good college, they were often seen as overachievers and felt like misfits in majority culture churches. These majority culture “misfits” found a safe home in my church where it is normative to pursue Christ and education. There was also a greater sense of acceptance in the group due to shared communication styles, family values, and background. The body of Christ needs churches that celebrate values that majority culture churches may not.
Chinese heritage churches are one of the few church settings where Chinese American Christians are encouraged to lead at the highest level. The Harvard Business Review reported that Asian Americans were the least likely group to be promoted to management.(15) Oftentimes, Asian American Christians face similar barriers in the religious realm. In a 2019 Pew Research study, Asian Americans made up 7% of the population in the United States,(16) but also in 2019, only 4% of multiethnic churches in the U.S. were led by Asians.(17) Most of the multiethnic churches with Asian American leadership, with whom I am familiar, are multi-Asian churches led by Korean and Japanese American pastors. The number of majority culture and multiethnic churches led by Chinese American pastors may be below 1%. Assuming that God shows no favoritism (Romans 2:11), God should be gifting pastors from every ethnicity alike with teaching and leadership gifts. Because of the barriers that Chinese American pastors seem to encounter in expressing their gifts in majority culture or multiethnic churches at the highest levels, Chinese heritage churches are needed. Chinese heritage churches may be one of the few places where Chinese American pastors are valued as leaders and invited to be the lead pastors of either a congregation or the entire church. Chinese heritage churches are a home for these pastors to express their teaching and leadership gifts at the highest level. They can also serve as examples of culturally congruent Christian leadership for the next generations.
Chinese heritage churches also provide a place for many Chinese American Christians to exercise their spiritual gifts. Most Chinese heritage churches tend to be small or midsized with a small professional staff; the needs of the church cannot be satisfied by the professional staff alone. As a result, it is common for all parishioners to pitch in and serve the family of believers. It is amazingly beautiful to watch the ethos of humble service expressed. On any given Sunday, we may have a doctor involved in the children’s ministry, a lawyer or an engineer lead worship with a stay-at-home parent, or a college professor teaching Sunday School. I’ve noticed over the years that many Chinese American Christians, who leave Chinese heritage churches for large majority culture dominated churches, tend to cluster with each other at these churches and frequently do not serve there. However, when they return to Chinese heritage churches, many start using their spiritual gifts in the church again. There’s something special about Chinese heritage churches that empowers Chinese American Christians to exercise their spiritual gifts.
Whether it is providing space for Chinese American Christians to pursue Christ in culturally appropriate ways, espousing the values of Chinese American Christians, encouraging Chinese American Christians to lead at the highest level, or empowering Chinese American Christians to serve the church family, Chinese heritage churches provide a spiritual home for Chinese American Christians. They celebrate the people, culture, and values that majority culture churches may overlook or may not see. Likewise, majority culture and multiethnic churches may celebrate the people, culture, and values that Chinese heritage churches may overlook or may not see. Both types of churches are needed in God’s kingdom.
In the 21st century, many English-speaking congregations of Chinese heritage churches have now grown to include people of other ethnic groups. In order to increase inclusion, they have experimented with changing their model of ministry. Many have remained Chinese heritage churches but have invited non-Chinese Christians to serve on their pastoral staff or elder council, which signals to everyone in the church that they are included. Others have tried to rename their English congregation to a non-Chinese name so that the non-Chinese attendees feel more included. A few have merged their English congregation with a majority culture church to create a new multiethnic church. Still others have planted a new multiethnic church to get a fresh start. There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on the best path forward. The journey of each Chinese heritage church is unique, based on history, the demographics of the church, and location. There is excitement in this journey, and I hope to one day document the journey of various churches as they experiment with changing their model of ministry.
With many Chinese heritage churches seeking to intentionally shift to multiethnicity, the question arises, “Will they succeed because there are already large majority culture led multiethnic churches and multi-Asian churches in existence?” I believe the answer is, “Yes, but in a narrower and uniquely Chinese American way.” Each church will attract a particular group due to its familiarity. Let’s use grocery stores from Southern California as an analogy. Many large majority culture led multiethnic churches are kind of like Vons or Safeway grocery stores, which carry every day American products throughout their stores and some Chinese products in their international aisles. These churches attract Chinese Americans who prefer to be in a majority culture setting. Many multi-Asian churches are like H-Marts, which is a chain of large Korean supermarkets that focuses on goods from all over Asia with a limited selection of American products. These churches may primarily attract Asian Americans, Chinese Americans, and some non-Asians, who enjoy worshiping God with Asian Americans. Finally, Chinese heritage churches that start multiethnic ministries are like 99 Ranch, which is a chain of modernized Chinese grocery stores and focuses on Chinese products but also includes Asian and American staples. These churches primarily attract Chinese Americans, and some Asian and non-Asian Americans, who enjoy worshiping God with Chinese Americans. Each type of church is needed to reach our complex multicultural and multiethnic country.
God has and continues to use Chinese heritage churches to fulfill his missional, intergeneration, educational, multicultural purposes to provide a home for Chinese American Christians and other Americans. Most Chinese heritage churches may start off ethnic specific, but they may broaden over time. Regardless of whether they become ethnically diverse or not, they are generationally, linguistically, and culturally diverse and have already made a positive contribution in reaching certain ethnic minorities, whom majority culture or multiethnic churches may not have been able to reach. In closing, Ed Stetzer writes, “We must understand that sometimes ethnic or minority churches do more to further God’s kingdom than any effort majority culture churches could make to blend multiple ethnicities into a single church. When we fully comprehend this, we are freed to do more work that empowers all members of Christ’s kingdom.”(18)
1 The term “Chinese heritage church” was coined by Enoch Liao, and it is a church whose history flows out of but is not limited to a Chinese heritage. This term will be used in this paper and is broader than “Chinese church.” In addition, although this paper uses specific examples from Chinese heritage churches in America, many of the principles may be applicable to ethnic heritage churches in the United States and other countries.
2 Emerson, M. (2020, January 8). New 2020 Statistics on Multiracial Churches. Multiethnic.Church. https://multiethnic.church/released-new-2020-statistics-on-multiracial-churches/
3 In this paper, the term “first generation immigrants” refers to foreign-born individuals who relocate to America, and “second generation” refers to those born in America to foreign-born parents.
4 Wan, E. (2011). Diaspora Missiology. Institute of Diaspora Studies – U.S. @ Western Seminary, Oregon, 5.
5 Funk, C. (2012, July 19). Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. https://www.pewforum.org/2012/07/19/asian-americans-a-mosaic-of-faiths-overview/
6 Hackett, Conrad. (2011, December 19). The Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/
7 Fanggang, Yang, 1999. Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities. The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 5-6.
8 Ibid., 6.
9 Cooperman, A. (2015, May). Religious Landscape Study. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/racial-and-ethnic-composition/white/religious-tradition/evangelical-protestant/#demographic-information
10 Emerson, M. (2020, January 8). New 2020 Statistics on Multiracial Churches. Multiethnic.Church, 1.
11 Ding, E. (2021, February 16). Why the Children of Immigrants Are Returning to Their Religious Roots. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/march/children-of-immigrants-multiethnic-church.html
13 Edwards, K. (2021, February 16). The Multiethnic Church Movement Hasn’t Lived up to Its Promise. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/march/race-diversity-multiethnic-church-movement-promise.html
14 Ding, E. Why the Children of Immigrants Are Returning to Their Religious Roots.
15 Gee, B. and Peck, D. (2018, May 31). Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to Be Promoted to Management. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/05/asian-americans-are-the-least-likely-group-in-the-u-s-to-be-promoted-to-management.
16 Budiman, A. and Ruiz, N. (2021, April 29). Key Facts about Asian Americans, a Diverse and Growing Population. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/29/key-facts-about-asian-americans
17 Emerson, M. New 2020 Statistics on Multiracial Churches.
18 Stetzer, Ed and Chiang, Samuel. (2019, October 27). Why Minority Churches Matter in the Multiethnic Church Discussion. The Exchange with Ed Stetzer.