During my high-school and college years in Southern California, my Korean parents gave me permission to leave my family’s immigrant church. I joined a larger, white-majority church with excellent teaching. I was involved as I could be and appreciated many aspects of the church. But I found it difficult to fully feel at home there.
My experience was not unique. Though many Asian-American Christians like me recognize and aspire to the ideal of multicultural ministry, many of us struggle to feel at home in white-majority churches. We don’t often discuss this dynamic, but it’s a widespread feeling. Why is this the case?
White Churches Are More White than They Realize
Most ethnic-specific churches in America understand they operate out of a unique culture. But most white-majority churches in America mistakenly believe they operate out of an a-cultural, “gospel” culture. The reality is every church has its own unique culture. Though not as obvious to the white majority, the average non-white churchgoer who walks into a white-majority evangelical church can clearly discern the culture of white evangelicalism.
American history is one cause of this blind spot. The culture of both nation and church revolved and evolved around the white European immigrants. Many still view whites as true Americans, and Asian-Americans (among others) as hyphenated Americans.
Certainly America has become more multicultural following the Immigration Act of 1965. Yet the dominant voices in evangelical institutions, conferences, book publishing, and blogging still tend to be white. And evangelical books, articles, and seminars about reaching the newest demographic (millennials, Gen Z, and so on) still focus on the cultural patterns and preferences of the white majority.
In other words, the evangelical church in America can tend to be for the majority by the majority.
White-majority churches often don’t recognize that many of their “white evangelical” cultural attributes aren’t necessarily shared by other cultures: for example, an usher offering a hug to a newcomer, a pastor preaching in holey jeans, an attendee asking a stranger, “Where are you from?” The result is many Asian Americans faithfully attend and even serve at white-majority churches, but never feel truly at home.
We are told to “make yourself at home!” while not being able to take our shoes off. (Even this analogy is something Asian Americans can fully understand.)
Asian Americans are More Asian than We Admit
Just as white-majority churches are often whiter than they realize, Asian Americans are often more Asian than we like to admit. Many Asian Americans desire to belong in a white-majority church culture, but we keep the church at arm’s length and withdraw when the culture makes us uncomfortable.
Asian Americans come from a more collectivistic culture. Because of this, as immigrants and minorities in America, we have grown up traveling farther and staying longer at our immigrant churches. They served as second homes. But many white-majority churches are designed for individualistic attendees. When Asian Americans attend white-majority churches, we are often pleased with the ability to hide but dissatisfied with the lack of connectedness.
Asian Americans, especially the second and third generations, are often a third-culture people—belonging neither to the white-majority culture nor the Asian-immigrant culture. We may set our culture aside when we have no choice (for example, work, school, children’s education), but we long for a church where we can be ourselves.
As Asian Americans, we must be honest that we are a people in transition in a country in transition. As America is quickly becoming multicultural, Asian Americans need to stop hiding our cultural backgrounds. Rather, we should celebrate our heritage and listen to God for how we might bring the best of our culture to the broader evangelical community.
What Does the Gospel Say?
The gospel is not color- or culture-blind. The church of Jesus Christ began with people from different regions worshiping in their unique languages (Acts 2), and it ends with distinct ethnic groups worshiping in their unique languages (Rev. 7:9, 13). The Bible recognizes that culture is part of human identity. Instead of claiming the church should be a-cultural, we should recognize that every church—whether ethnic or white-majority—has a culture, and that every person changes and is changed by that culture.
When the early church had an opportunity to either accept or reject Gentiles into a Jewish community, they had to decide how to mesh two radically different cultures. Their solution was not that Gentiles should become Jews or Jews become Gentiles. Rather, they took up the challenge of being sensitive to culture (Acts 15), forsaking liberty for the weaker brother (1 Cor. 8), and proactively giving voice to outsiders (Acts 6).
The priority of Jewish and Gentile Christians became the advance of the gospel over the comfort of culture.
So how can both white-majority churches and Asian Americans apply this truth? Here are two brief suggestions:
1. White-majority churches should proactively reach out to Asian Americans in their congregations, inviting them to play key roles, understanding that they respond better when they are given this type of invitation. And Asian Americans attending different-culture churches should be proactive in getting involved and becoming part of the solution, even if it is uncomfortable.
2. White leaders should develop mutual, two-way friendships with Asian-American leaders who serve in Asian-American churches, recognizing the value in learning from and encouraging one another in ministry. And Asian-American leaders should also be willing to build friendships outside their cultural comfort zones. The gospel should foster partnerships and friendships that celebrate cultural difference as an asset, not a deficit, for gospel advance.
As did the early church, so must the 21st-century church prioritize gospel advancement over cultural comfort.