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Pioneers: our series where we meet Asian American Christians who have come before us
Rev. Dr. Andrew Lee is a rarity in the Chinese American immigrant church: he’s a Senior Pastor whose main language is English. Currently serving at Chinese Christian Union Church (CCUC) in Chicago’s Chinatown, the largest Chinese church in the Midwest, previously he was the English pastor and interim Senior Pastor at Oversea Chinese Mission (OCM), the largest Chinese church in New York City. Including his time as an Old Testament professor and seminary administrator, Andrew is entering his 35th year of ministry.
When did your family come to America?
I was 3 years old when we moved to Massachusetts. I came in the 1950s from Hong Kong on a boat that sailed to San Francisco. We then took the train to Massachusetts where we had relatives. Chinese were almost non-existent at the time. You had to learn English or sink. [There were 321,033 Asians in America in 1950. Today there are over 17 million.]
When I was eight, we moved to New York City where I grew up on the outskirts of Chinatown, between the Hispanics and the Jews. My family went to Trust in God Baptist Church in Chinatown, which later became Southern Baptist while I was away at college. My first ministry was at this church where I served for fourteen years.
Did you grow up Christian?
We go back several generations on my mother’s side, three generations dating from the early 1900s. I suppose that is unusual.
My great uncle was a professor at a Presbyterian seminary. He came to the US for education. He returned to China and then was later persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. We had no communication with him. I didn’t even know who he was or what he did. I found out about him much later. It turns out my uncle’s ThD is in Old Testament, which is what I studied for my PhD.
What was church like back then?
In the 60s? Growing up, the church was small—we came before 1965 [when the 1965 Immigration Act lifted restrictions from non-Western and Northern European nations]. So I was always one of the older ones who spoke English because I had come a lot earlier. English ministry consisted of Sunday School. There was no youth group, just Sunday School. Eventually there were translated services when there were enough English speaking. It’s the typical story of an immigrant church except these days you have enough youth to have a fellowship. But they didn’t have a fellowship when I was growing up much less an English worship service.
When and how did you receive your call?
In college. I had been entertaining the idea of being a pastor since high school. That’s an idea I kicked around for several years before finally accepting the call. I considered different careers—-I went to Stuyvesant High School, a science and math high school and then I switched completely into the liberal arts in college.
I wanted to work with the second generation because I knew what it was like growing up without an English speaking pastor. I just felt that any other career wouldn’t be as satisfying as being a pastor.
I liked the fact that ministry is never boring because you’re working with people. You can help connect them to God. Being able to teach God’s word is very satisfying. I enjoy helping people understand who God is and connecting them with God.
What’s the worst thing about ministry?
Personal conflicts. There are always misunderstandings in church but personal conflicts are always the worst, especially if it’s based on perceptions that are not completely accurate.
Church conflicts are unfortunate, but when they become personal attacks then that’s when it becomes really difficult for any pastor. Look at what the Apostle Paul went through—they made it very personal against him.
What’s the best thing about ministry?
Seeing the church community grow. Obviously seeing people grow is satisfying, but it is not as satisfying as seeing a community grow.
What kept you in ministry?
Seeing God at work. The fruit of ministry is what keeps you going because burnout doesn’t necessarily result from working long hours. It’s working long hours without seeing results. When you see God at work, that’s a real encouragement to keep going.
What are some things you’ve learned or observed over the years?
Several immediately come to mind.
1. Your own weaknesses get you.
And that’s true of every pastor because everyone has weaknesses. It shows itself in different ways. Let’s say a person hates conflict, so they avoid confrontation. This person may become a yes-man, and because he doesn’t want to say anything to offend people, he can’t make difficult decisions. Or someone doesn’t like socializing with people, so they don’t talk to people. People criticize him because, they wonder, “Where is he?” Everyone has his or her own weakness, and there has to be enough going on elsewhere in one’s ministry to help compensate for some of that. You have to find people to help you overcome them. You need to shore up your own weaknesses because eventually they’ll hurt you.
2. The sinfulness of the church.
Just how sinful we are and how God still uses us to preach the Gospel because we are the proclaimers of the Gospel to every generation; otherwise Christianity dies out. It’s amazing how sinful the church is, and yet God uses her despite her weaknesses.
3. The pride of so many Christian leaders
Whether we’re talking about the heads of Christian organizations or institutions or pastors, deacons, or elders of churches, I’m just amazed at how much pride there is. I’ll give you an illustration: How many churches want to bring in a consultant to help them? How many Asian churches will do that? Very few will because they don’t want to admit that they need help. They keep thinking they know what they’re doing, especially in English ministry. How many immigrant churches are doing it properly, in terms of English ministry? The proof is the mass exodus of young adults, and yet they don’t want help. Or when you tell them what they need to do, they say, “Well, we’ll do it our way. Our church is different.”
4. Church Health
I like what Rick Warren said about church growth. If a church is healthy, it will naturally grow. So the aim of ministry is not growth but church health. As church leaders, we need to aim for health.
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