What is a “Chinese Heritage Church?”

By Enoch Liao

May 18, 2022

Soon after I joined the pastoral staff of my current church family, I ran into a problem. You see, our church has the word “Chinese” in it, as our church name is “Boston Chinese Evangelical Church.”

Many churches in the US which were started by immigrants included their origins in their church names, such as “Japanese Methodists” or “Korean Presbyterian” or “Arabic Evangelical” or “Haitian Baptist.” And as Chinese immigrated to the States and started churches, they would employ the same practice.

Furthermore, such ethnic identifiers in church names was useful, especially since most of those immigrant churches would use their mother tongue as their primary language for their church programs and services.

But in the milieu of the early 2000s in the US, I began to feel the limitation of such a name. I felt this limitation when my church members would tell their friends or neighbors “I go to a Chinese church.” Now, on one level, this was a true statement. After all, the word “Chinese” was in our church name. But I felt describing our church as a “Chinese church” seemed to give the impression that our church was only for Chinese people.

“I go to a Chinese Church”

This came to a tipping point for me in a comical but also sad way through various experiences. One such experience was when a friend of mine started attending our church and would eventually become a Christian through the ministries of our church. One day, I was with him and some of his family and friends, and he told his family and friends, “I go to a Chinese church.” The funny thing about that statement is that this brother is Caucasian. Upon hearing that this Caucasian man belonged to a “Chinese church,” his family members—who were all Caucasian– responded, “Wait, you go to a Chinese church?” They were puzzled, “How can you, a white guy, go to a Chinese church?” they would ask.

In another example, a young woman started attending our church and getting involved in our ministries. She would eventually tell me that she wanted to become a Christian and get baptized. I told her, “That’s wonderful!” Then she asked me, “Would it be OK for me to join the church… even though I’m not Chinese?” I felt bad that she had she even asked this question. But I saw why she asked the question. People called us a “Chinese church” and the phrase “Chinese Church” was in our church name.

Through the years, these and other similar encounters led me to question whether our labeling our church as a “Chinese church” was creating confusion.

While many non-Chinese would join our church without raising any concerns, stories like these happened frequently enough that I began searching for a way to address this. I believe we are not the only church to have encountered these types of issues. And I believe other churches have tried to come up with ways to address this. And in the past decade or so, I have observed a number of churches employ one particular solution. I call this solution Changing the “C.”

Changing the C

One way to address this problematic terminology involves expanding the target or scope of the church. Rather than just minister to ethnic Chinese, many churches intentionally sought to reach “all peoples.” This also fits the cultural moment in American Christianity. In 2020, we can observe an evangelical landscape in the States in which churches seem to be trying to reach all people all the time in the name of “diversity.”

Remember how I mentioned above that many churches started by Chinese immigrants had names with the word “Chinese” in it? Well, with this goal in mind, some churches who had the word “Chinese” in their names would change their names by replacing the word “Chinese” with another word, such as the word “Community.” Thus, if a church was named “Chinese Christian Church” they might rebrand themselves “Community Christian Church.” I refer to this phenomenon as “Changing the C”.

Now, changing the name of any church is no small thing. One can imagine the numerous conversations, disagreements, arguments, and lengthy meetings involved. For example, many people may say that “changing the C” is tantamount to sacrificing one’s roots. Or people may feel hurt because it seems like you’re ashamed of being Chinese.

As challenging it can be for a church to change its name, this is not the end of that process. It is only the beginning. Indeed, “changing the C” could mark the beginning of a significant shift in the direction of the church. A Chinese church that changes (or removes) any hint of “Chinese” from its name has to decide how thorough they will be in this goal to be more “diverse.” Will they also change the Chinese name of the church? Will the signage for the outside of the church change? Will the website also change? Will leadership meetings no longer be held in Chinese (if they previously were)? These are structural matters, but there are also cultural matters. Will the organizational or leadership culture of the church also intentionally shift away from being “Chinese” to… something else? Will this change influence hiring by seeking ethnic/racial diversity in the pastoral staff? In the elders, deacons, council, or presbytery? Each of these matters is weighty and worthy of much thought, deliberation, and prayer. Thus, “changing the C’ is no small matter.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with changing a church’s name to better reach a target or describe their organization. Often, Chinese churches that change the C do so to signal a symbolic change in the church’s outreach. They may create an English speaking ministry brand which is distinct from the rest of the “Chinese-ness” of the church. For instance, my own church embarked on such a rebranding back in 1999 when we created a second English speaking service and gave it a name that did not identify it as part of a “Chinese Church.” And in 2003 we would actually launch another church campus and congregation, and that second campus’s English congregation launched with a moniker that did not reveal its Chinese connections. I regularly hear of more churches who have employed a similar strategy.

As with all tactics, this one raises additional challenges even while addressing others. One challenge involves confusion as to make up of the church. If a “Chinese church” changed their name to remove any hint of “Chinese,” what can happen is a visitor shows up to church surprised by how the church is mostly comprised of ethnic Chinese people. At the best, this is confusion. At the worst, people feel misled or even deceived. Another challenge with this method is that it may give the impression of trying to hide or erase the church’s past. One can imagine how people may take such a name change negatively, especially those who have been with the church for a long time, or even from the start of the church. They have contributed monetarily and in many other ways to build the church.

For some, perhaps “Changing the C” seems a viable way forward. But if so, then changing the church name should be just one piece of a larger, long term strategy. Otherwise, if a church changes their name but nothing else changes—not the culture, not the ministry philosophy, etc.—then they will likely fall short of their goals for which they changed their name in the first place.

It’s not my purpose offer an evaluation or critique of “changing the C.” Nor am I in a position to offer predictions about the future. But I would share my own journey in seeking the Lord to help guide us forward as immigrant churches seeking to flourish in our land.

A Search for a New Term

Since much of my awareness of this issue manifested in the form of confusion with language, I long thought about ways to clarify the issue through more helpful, more clear language.

Sometime in the early 2000s, I began searching and praying about coming up with a descriptor for our church. As I wrestled with what a new descriptor would provide, I settled upon three criteria for any new terminology. Here are the three criteria I came up.

First, I hoped for a term that would acknowledge and honor the past. Sometimes churches would change their name as to seem to almost mask their origins. Sometimes this was in aspiration to be welcoming to all peoples. Sometimes, this seems to have been done to avoid the past. After all, we don’t use the terms “Irish church” or “German church” or “Dutch church” these days to describe churches founded by those immigrant groups. Nowadays we refer to them as “white churches.” Sometimes we call them “American churches.” (This seems to be extremely problematic because my “Chinese church” has more US citizens than most churches in our area!) So I didn’t want to erase our ethnic roots. Could there be a term that acknowledges, and indeed, honors our ethnic roots?

Second, I sought for a term that reflected an open future. I do not know what the future holds for those churches started in the last 50 years by immigrants. Will they assimilate and become generic “American” churches? Would they eventually close down as the need to hold services in other languages goes away? Would they continue as they are, because of the ongoing influx of new immigrants? I don’t know the future, so I sought a term that would allow for whatever the future would hold.

Third, I believed that this challenge of finding a helpful descriptor is not just limited to “Chinese churches.” Indeed, other immigrant groups have encountered the same questions. Or, if they have not yet, then they likely would.

One day I posed the question to myself this way: What term could we find that would capture the Chinese heritage of our church? And that’s when I realized, the word “heritage” might be useful.

The idea of “heritage” has positive connotations and refers to the past. But having a certain heritage does not dictate a specific future. For example, some folks have a heritage of being a military family. But that does not necessitate that every generation will continue to have those who serve in our military. The same goes for an ethnic heritage church. Even if my church with a Chinese heritage continues for 100 years, and by then there are no ethnic Chinese church members, it’s still the case that this church has a Chinese heritage.

I began to consider how this term could capture the history of many types of churches. Some churches have a working class heritage. Other churches have an immigrant heritage. Some churches have a heritage of being started by farmers.

I had happened upon a term that may serve our purposes. And now I began to use the term.

What is a “Chinese Heritage Church”?

What is a Chinese heritage church? It is a church with a Chinese heritage. That is, a church whose history flows out of a Chinese heritage. In the US, that usually involves a church started by Chinese people, typically immigrants, and held services only in Chinese dialects.

I’m struck by the common conversation I have with people when I tell them I belong to a “Chinese heritage church.” They say, “What do you mean a ‘Chinese heritage church’? Is that like the name of your church?”

I say, “No, I mean that my church is a church with a Chinese heritage. It’s original attendees were of Chinese descent.”

Then they usually say, “Oh! Well, that makes sense!”

Ours is a Chinese Heritage Church

So I began using this term. I used the term “Chinese heritage church” in sermons. The earliest written record I could find of using the term “heritage church” is in my preaching notes for a sermon I gave in 2008. My guess is that I had been using the term earlier than that.

I began to refer to our church as a “Chinese heritage church” in conversation with other pastors. When they asked me where I pastored, I would say “I pastor a Chinese heritage church in Boston… that is, a church with a Chinese heritage.

When I would speak at Asian American ministry settings such a InterVarsity of Cru events, I would not use terms like “Korean churches” or “Chinese churches” or “Asian churches.” Instead, I would start using terms like “Korean heritage churches” and so on.

And when I used the term “Chinese heritage church” in conversations with my own church members, here is my sense of how people responded.

The older folks who are more likely to be immigrants heard the word “Chinese” and they seemed to appreciate that it acknowledged an unchanging truth: that our church has Chinese roots. Indeed, this term not only acknowledges a Chinese heritage, but I trust embraces it with gratitude. We can be thankful and even proud of our roots. The Chinese diaspora sought to plant churches and we should thank God for these local expressions of the body of Christ

The younger folks, as well as anyone who may not identify ethnically as Chinese, heard the word “heritage” and thought “Oh, right. The church has a Chinese heritage, yet the future is still open. I don’t have to be of Chinese descent to be a part of this church.”

Of course, there are potential drawbacks when one attempts to introduce new terms. The obvious one being that it takes more time to say the three words “Chinese heritage church” rather than the two words of “Chinese church.” Another drawback is that it may smack of being too sensitive or politically correct in the most tedious sense. But perhaps the biggest downside is that we may be trying to “force” people to use a new set of terms. Change is rarely easy, and people may ask if it’s worth the change.

I sympathize with those concerns. But in my experience, using “Chinese heritage church” has produced enough helpful impact that I’m willing to take the extra time and effort to say it. As I articulated above, as our church wrestles with our past and tries to discern the future, I appreciate being clear with our church members and our broader community.

So while it takes more time to say the three words “Chinese heritage church” compared to the two words “Chinese church,” it seems that using this term may be more helpful, more clear, and more open to what God may have in store.

Please understand that I am not suggesting people actually change the name of the church to include the word “heritage.” Though, I suppose I would not be opposed to that. My point is for us to develop helpful language so that we can discuss and work on these important matters with clarity and understanding.

What’s the Future of the “Chinese Heritage Church”?

Another reason I find the term “Chinese heritage church” more helpful than “Chinese church” has to do with the future of churches like mine. Specifically, as immigrant Christians settle in the States and raise kids, those kids will likely be less fluent in the language and culture of their immigrant parents and grandparents. This raises the question, what will become of these churches started by immigrants when the offspring grow up?

While I cannot see the future of Chinese heritage churches in the US, there seems to be three possible outcomes for any particular Chinese heritage church.

One outcome is that Chinese heritage churches evolve or are replaced by churches comprised of multiple Asian ethnicities– sometimes referred to as “pan-Asian” or “Asian American” churches. In places in the country with a higher percentage of Asians among the population, those Asian Americans can find themselves surrounded with other types of Asian Americans. This would include places like southern California, the Bay Area (California), the metropolitan New York area or Chicago. In such places, there seem to be enough Asian Americans to keep English speaking congregations going. Those also are places where we observe many Asian American churches planted with just English speaking services. Perhaps the future will be these pan-Asian churches?

Another outcome is that a particular Chinese heritage church will get smaller and smaller over time. This could happen in places where the flow of immigrants is decreasing or all but stopped. In such places, after the children of those immigrant church founders grow up, what becomes of the church? Do those children continue attending the “Chinese church” of their parents and grandparents? We have observed churches of various immigrant heritages become fewer and smaller overtime as immigration patterns change. Perhaps in such areas the children of those immigrants will wind up in majority culture churches around them and become assimilated.

Or yet another potential outcome is that such churches formally merge with other churches to form a new church made up predominantly of two ethnicities. We observe this when a newer, younger church of immigrants merges with, say, an aging white church. Perhaps the immigrant church began renting space in an older white church. And overtime, the two churches forged a partnership that seemed to allow both original churches to flourish in a new, combined church.

Some argue that, biblically, that English speaking congregations in immigrant churches exist to disciple the next generation, but only as long as there continue to be new immigrants coming into the country. And that the next generation not only will plant new multiethnic churches, but that they should plant new, multiethnic churches. For multiethnic churches are, according to this view, the biblical portrait and way of the future in the US.

People have strong views about these potential futures. And dialogue—even debate— is ongoing. But for now, I think it helpful to have clear terms and concepts for which to engage in the conversation about the future of ethnic heritage churches started by immigrants.

Do I think this term is without drawbacks? Definitely not. Do I hope the term catches on? Not necessarily. In fact, I pray and hope that someone will come up with a better term or concept as the Church continues to serve our world for Christ. If, as some argue, the future of all churches in the US is multiethnic and multicultural , perhaps we will not even have need for such a term. But for now, I would rather think and describe my church as a Chinese heritage church, which leaves thefuture open as to what will happen. After all, the future is up to the Lord, and I am so glad that it is because the Lord knows best.

Post Script – the term in usage

Besides my own Boston area, I have tested out this term in other places. At the time of this writing in January 2020, I have used this term in my ministry travels in places such as the Nordic Chinese Christian Churches in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. I have used this term in east coast regional Christian church conferences such as in the UK/Ireland, New York area, Delaware Valley area, the Chinese heritage churches in Texas. I’ve found the term helpful in speaking at various parachurch gatherings such as Chinese Missions Convention (East), InterVarsity’s Asian American conferences (Northeast region), or Epic (Cru)East Coast Leadership Conference. This term was also the subject of a recent Pastors’ Colloquium held in Boston in spring 2019. And this term is used by Andrew Lee in a forthcoming chapter in the book Asian Disapora Christianity.

What’s the Vision and Why does this Matter?

I believe God has a common call for all of His churches to love and serve the world. At the same time, I believe God has a unique call for each particular church in whatever context that church finds itself in. The unique call is often discerned through considering each church’s unique set of strengths, opportunities, and history. It stands to reason, then, that part of discerning each church’s particular call includes reflecting upon any ethnic and/or cultural heritage of that church, and how such a heritage would inform and enrich that church’s particular role in God’s kingdom for the present and the future.

I would go further and say that a healthy church is one that takes into account its history—both good and bad—and celebrates the good while humbly learning from the bad. If that is so, then reflecting on one’s ethnic, cultural, and racial heritage is a necessary part of the journey for a church to pursue its particular calling with faithfulness and joy.

If God has called us to understand and leverage our ethnic and cultural heritage for the kingdom, then I envision a robust community of pastors and churches who share in common this unique heritage so that we may learn from one another. The immigrant/diaspora experience means Chinese heritage churches from different regions nevertheless have much in common. We could encourage one another and learn together for the vision of seeing healthy Chinese heritage churches throughout the Chinese diaspora.

This community could speak to and from. That is, This community could speak to other Chinese heritage churches to encourage and equip one another. Also, this community could speak from the perspective of Chinese heritage churches to the broader evangelical Christian community for the building up of God’s universal church.

*This paper adopted by the Chinese Heritage Church Collaborative at the 2022 Pastors’ Colloquium.