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This is the first in our occasional series called, “Then and Now” in which we’ll feature interesting past Asian American Christian works, and ask the authors to reflect on how things are different now. Yesterday, we posted DJ Chuang’s 2003 piece describing Asian American Christians. Below are his present-day reflections.
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I had the opportunity on Monday to interview DJ Chuang who has been the most consistent and regular voice on the web on Asian American Christians. DJ’s been blogging since June 1999, at djchuang.com. He’s currently the Strategy Consultant for a church planting organization called the Ambassador Network and the host of the weekly podcast, Social Media Church.
I asked DJ to reflect on how and if things have changed since the original publication of his 2003 essay, “Where are my People?” in the now defunct Christian e-magazine, Phuture.
Can you tell me a little about your mindset in 2003? What inspired you to write this article?
Around 2000, this new conversation around church began to surface [often called the “Emerging Church”], and I was very excited to see where that conversation was going and what were the issues they were thinking about. The question underneath all the questions is: what is church? And related, how should we do church?
I was very engaged and interested in that conversation, but it was predominantly middle-class, suburban, white male. The burning question for me then was why were there not other people who looked like me in this conversation? So that’s why I wrote down some of my thoughts.
How do you think things are different now?
The situation though is pretty much the same. When I say that, I mean that though the church conversation has come and gone in some ways, but there still isn’t much interest in having Asian Americans ask questions about why we do church the way we do church and how could it be different.
The demographics back then, there were about 12 million Asian Americans, as we’re speaking today, there are up to 18.2 million.
What about Asian American churches like New Song in Los Angeles, don’t they seem like new ways to do church?
To some degree yes, but for me because I’m an ideas guy, I’d like more of a theological conversation, a more robust conversation around their ecclesiology [the study of church]. In ecclesiology, there are some things that are set, but there are also some things that are not. For the Asian American church, I’d like to think that there are some things in the Asian American church that could and should look different from an white American church or an African American Church. And it should be articulated as such.
I’m not wanting to ask questions about church just to ask questions about church. I think for us as Asian Americans, it can be tremendously helpful to inquire about how things are done in the mainstream evangelical church and how not everything is transferrable to our Asian American subculture. It’d be so much more helpful to see how the Gospel can be lived out in how we work through differences and conflicts as Asians, to honor those who are older yet not equate chronological age with spiritual maturity, to forgive and reconcile with those who have offended us, as Asians, to value being over doing, and there are so many more issues in our subculture that the Gospel can transform and redeem.
Are there any Asian Americans having these conversations?
Not in the open, from my conversations with church leaders around the country and in seminaries, they tend to happen around the coffee table or in armchairs. But it’s not happening in the pulpit. It’s happening in academia, but I don’t have access to it, because I’m not studying to get a degree. It’s not happening in the open, in the blog world, in the media, so there might be some minor difference here or there.
What you would like to see?
I’d like to see Asian Americans share more their convictions as well as their doubts and questions. I think part of Asian heritage is to respect authority to a fault, so we don’t raise questions or think about the things we’ve inherited. There should be room for dissent, and dissent is not disloyalty.
I once heard someone say: “I did give input, I talked with my feet. I walked out.” Isn’t that a way of raising questions or thinking about the things we’ve inherited?
But that’s more of a disengagement, not an engagement. It’s opting out rather than working together on a solution. I think when people burn their bridges and cut off contact, we’re all at a loss.
Eventually, I think it was five years later, I did find a few other young Asian Americans interested in post-modernism. We had fits and starts of conversation at the Next Gener.asian Church team blog.
Let’s return back to your comment that things are pretty much the same ten years later.
With regard to this particular issue, yes. I think what seems to me pretty similar is that there’s still not much interest among church leaders to question what is church. And secondly, based on the article, Asian Americans seem to be mostly pragmatic and practical. So they’re going to be busy with other things other than thinking how church can be different and better. And also to your point, I don’t think we have Asian American leaders having conversations in the open, and by the open I mean through traditional media as well as social media. So when we don’t hear our voice, we remain silent, and we wonder if we’re alone, and we remain where we’re are. There’s not a sense of movement or progress.
You mentioned that we talk around coffee tables and in arm chairs, don’t you think that’s still conversation?
When I meet people in person—I’m thinking of one guy in particular for example, he’s very engaged and conversant about these issues, but when I ask him who he talks to about this, or who he’s reading about this, he says he’s just talking about this with his friends.
Not to stereotype, but to give you a concrete example, there’s a number of second generation Asian Americans who have various issues and are very dissatisfied with how church is, and they might talk about it with a few friends, but they aren’t going to go on the record for saying those things. As you alluded to, they might talk with their feet—but that doesn’t solve their problem or come up with a solution. So that’s why conversations and raising our voice are so important, so we can work towards solutions.
The second thing I would say is that there is something about us that still relies on oral tradition, even though we’ve got the best of technology to distribute information. If and indeed we are the fastest minority group in America, ten years ago and even now, I would like to think there would be a stronger invisible presence online, particularly with those who are Christian. And we just don’t see it. We don’t see it in the proportion of the population that we are. Pew Research Center says we’re 42% of Asian Americans are Christian. I don’t see 42% of Asian Americans online talking about their faith. I’m looking to see 1% of Asian Americans talking about their faith.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I mean, I do, so I don’t know why people don’t. I think for my journey, I’ve realized that when I say something I will be misunderstood, and that is just part of communicating. And my solution to being misunderstood, is to communicate more, not communicate less.
Sometimes people say that they don’t know how to use technology—and that might be true for some older people. Younger people do use the technology. Statistics do tell us that Asian Americans are using the internet more than any other racial group. So they are using it, but not as they could, for voicing their faith.
If they aren’t voicing their faith, could it be that faith is not important to Asian American Christians?
That could be a factor, but if you look at Urbana 2012, the mission convention that just happened in St. Louis, 40% of them were Asian American, that’s over 6,000 Asian Americans. So it’s important enough for them to take a week out of their winter break and spend $600-1000 to go to this event. There’s also been a number of articles about the rise of Asian Americans at Christian ministries.
So you think it is important to them, but we’re just not talking? Why do you think that’s so?
I don’t want to misrepresent them, but I have asked people why directly. Some of the answers I’ve heard is that they don’t have time, they don’t know what to say (though they seem to say a lot in person), and shame and being misunderstood are issues.
When I talk to academic types, I think the written word has different meaning for them. They don’t want to be on the record for something they haven’t thoroughly researched or thought out. Whereas my perception of online media is: “We’re just having a conversation.” It’s something that’s in progress. I think social media rightly understood is a medium that allows people to voice their opinion while its in progress, rather than a propositional paper, it’s a thinking-a-loud mode of communication.
You say in 2003 that you’re “on the outside looking in” about Asian Americans in general. Do you still feel that way?
I’m keenly aware of my difference, and I do think my confusion aloud. When I’m in Asian American contexts, so let’s say I go to Asian American Leadership Conference in March, or I go worship at New Song, part of me feels like I belong, and part of me feels like I don’t. So, I’m open with the wrestling I have with that.
I think what’s changed in ten years is I’m embracing my Asian American-ness—these are my people, even though I don’t fit, the process in it, I think that is part of being in the mix. To contrast that with totally rejecting it. So I am embracing it, but also realizing that I’m just very different. Because I’m into ideas, I’m an experimenter, I’m not practical. I’m just going to be different from most Asian Americans. [Generationally,] I’m 1.5, since I was born in Taiwan and came to the US when I was 8, but I’m very Americanized, and I’m leading edge on innovation. I think about things that most people don’t think about, so I’m different in that sense. But I am embracing my Asian American-ness and realizing there is a lot of value there.
And I’m committing my life to do what I can to help Asian Americans, which is to help raise their voices and break the power over shame. I feel like it’s my ultimate contribution. I’m 46 now, my dad past away last year, and that was a very sobering moment for me to come to face to face with my mortality. And it surfaced the question for me, what is my life about? What is my life all about? And for me, given my life experience and my passion, if I can help Asian Americans to feel freedom from their shame, to help them face themselves, their questions and even their brokenness, I think that will be healing for us as a people.
Success for me is if I can see the Asian American church be a place of healing instead of judgement, that would be huge.
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This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity.
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