Discipling Asian-American Millennials

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In this video, Michael Lee, Steve Bang Lee, and Alex Choi talk about complexities of Asian-American ministry and how it shapes their explanation of Christian spirituality, practices of community, and approaches to discipleship.

The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check the video before quoting.

Michael Lee: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in ministering to Asian-American millennials?

Steve Bang Lee: One thing—speaking on behalf of Korean-Americans, obviously—every Korean-American has pretty much grown up in the church or had some church experience at some point in their life, and a lot of them think back to their youth days when at the last night of the retreat, things got emotional, and they cried, and they think something happened. The rest of their faith journey moving forward is an attempt to reclaim that experience.

They find themselves asking, “What was that experience? What happened there? How come it seems like, everything just fell off the map after that point?”

I think is there’s this utter confusion of what is Christian spirituality. What is biblical spirituality, and how come I don’t feel what I once felt? I think it’s kind of hard to map out a spirituality, a biblical one, where they’re trying not to go back to a past experience.

Steve Bang Lee: That’s good.

Alex Choi: I think for me there’s a couple of thoughts, a couple of things. One, there’s been a big challenge is being bicultural. Sometimes we’re the best of both worlds; sometimes we’re the worst of both worlds. Sometimes we just selectively choose when we’re Asian, and when we’re American. So for example, with our welcome ministry, I noticed that the Asians at our church, like Americans, like their autonomy. They don’t want you chasing them with clipboards. They don’t want you bothering them, haggling them for their info. They want that space. But when I go to a lot of white American churches, they have ministry booths, so when I’m ready to engage, I will engage. But for Asian-Americans, they want the autonomy on the front end like an American, but on the back end, when they’re ready, they want you to call them out. They want you to ask them to serve, ask them to help. So when they move between cultures like that, I find it hard to know what we are dealing with. Who are we dealing with?

The other thing too, for me, is the concept of becoming an adult, because if discipleship is helping people become fully formed Christians, we become adults very differently. In white American culture, the age 18 is a rite of passage into adulthood, but in Asian culture, it occurs when you get married. Then add to that the fact that millennials are getting married later. So you’re not seen as an adult by the first generation until you’re married, and so I think that just complicates becoming your own person, thinking about things on your own. I think that it’s been hard to kind of pinpoint how we then can help them become mature Christians.

Michael Lee: For me as a pastor, I think right now a big buzzword amongst young adults and millennials in the church is “community.” I think as Asian-Americans, the cultural, traditional, historic experience of community can get really confused. And so I think for some there’s almost an idolatry of community, and a real misunderstanding of what biblical community is when in reality, they’re just trying to replicate maybe a youth group experience. They have Confucian influences on what does it mean to be a neighbor, or friend, or to be in relationship with one another.

And so for me that’s been a difficult thing because I would say the number one reason why people are leaving their churches is a “lack of community.” They’ll tell me, “I’m looking for a different kind of community.” And you always have to flesh out, “What do you mean by that?” And it just means so many different things that as a pastor, for me, it’s been tricky to navigate. So I try to build up a biblical foundation of what a gospel-centered Christian community is.

Alex Choi: And not just community, but also, like Steve said, they’re looking for that experience or feeling again. So that’s another reason I think people leave church. They say, “I don’t get that feeling here, the community and experience.” Those are the responses that mark a lot of our exodus when people are transitioning out of our ministry.