ABSTRACT: As one of the original endorsers of the Open Letter, Tseng discusses the network of leaders (including himself) that helped grow an emerging generation of Asian American evangelicals willing to speak out about race and ethnicity. An “earthquake” of mass cultural changes in the 1960s broke down evangelicalism’s assumption of white male dominance, exposing the inability of its worldview and theology to engage with human experiences like Asian American identity and racism. In the 1990s, “emergents” sought to change this worldview and theology, and the “aftershock” of vocal Asian American evangelicals stemmed from that. These Asian American evangelicals grew up with a mainline Protestant acknowledgement about race, and/or experienced or observed racial discrimination, and/or were exposed to it through parachurch organizations that pioneered pan-Asian American ministries.

. . .

I’m one of the original endorsers of the Open Letter.

There, I said it. That was hard. Not because I’m embarrassed. In fact, I admire the leadership that Kathy Khang and Helen Lee brought to this endeavor and was honored to play a supportive role.

However, it’s difficult for me to put my name out in the open because, as a historian, I’m aware that every history-changing event requires the confluence of many historical agents and the right socio-cultural conditions. For example, the Civil Rights movement was driven by the collective vision of many individuals, not just Martin Luther King, Jr.

Likewise, the Open Letter movement would have garnered little attention without social media and a rising generation of Asian American evangelicals who believe that speaking out against anti-Asian American racism and other forms of injustice is a central part of the gospel.

The Open Letter also benefited from a foundation laid by Soong Chan Rah and others who challenged American evangelical obduracy toward Asian American concerns (e.g., Rickshaw Rally and several lesser-known incidents).

To provide a better understanding of the history that preceded the Open Letter, I will discuss the network of leaders who helped cultivate this emerging generation of Asian American evangelicals who refuse to bow down before the idol of color-blindness.

First, a qualification: This is a rushed blog post that almost certainly overlooks many important people or events. I am drawing from my personal recollection and relationships; more thorough research will be necessary. I apologize in advance for any omissions or errors, and I invite feedback and updates.

 Asian American identity: A contested idea

Asian American identity is a contested concept in the North American context. Most people prefer color-blindness (as noted in But I Don’t See You as Asian, Bruce Reyes Chow’s excellent book about race conversations). Mainstream evangelicals compound this by asserting that one’s Christian identity makes any culturally or socially constructed identities irrelevant. Furthermore, any analyses that reveal structural injustice and social inequality are often dismissed as unbiblical or liberal.

Challenging this perspective has been a huge battle for Asian American evangelicals. In fact, even talking about racial identity remains difficult among Asian American evangelicals today.

Nevertheless, the tide seems to have changed over the last several years. These more recent discussions about race and structural racism are the aftershocks of an immense social North American earthquake that has finally reached the shores of mainstream American evangelicalism.

The Asian American “aftershock”

1. The earthquake

Since the 1960s, the assumption of white racial and male dominance in North American life has been challenged by the Civil Rights Movement, immigration, feminism, multiculturalism, the sexual revolution, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. Groups and organizations that ignored these changes, such as mainstream American evangelicalism (which actually grew during this time period), had a delayed reaction. But even these tectonic plates finally shifted, revealing a structural deformity within twentieth-century American evangelicalism, which, in turn, triggered an earthquake.

I believe American evangelicalism’s structural deformity is the inability of the evangelical worldview and theology to adequately engage human experience and the modern scientific worldview. In defense of pure biblical revelation, all other forms of knowledge or experience were trashed. Spiritual piety was allowed, but only within the boundaries of pure biblical authority. Remember the so-called “Worship Wars?” Is it any wonder that evangelicals had such a hard time embracing charismatic forms of worship and spiritual practice in the 1970s and 1980s?

Furthermore, since the experiences of social inequality by women and minorities were usually based on modern social sciences, these experiences were often dismissed or ignored. In fact, sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith concluded in their classic study, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2001), that evangelicals—because of their theology and worldview—had no “toolbox” for addressing structural racism. These evangelicals had difficulty empathizing with the daily experiences of African American evangelicals or even acknowledging racism as a real problem.

This structural deformity is also embedded in much of evangelical theology, which inherited a fundamentalist framework regarding biblical authority. This framework allowed no rival claims to truth if such claims contradicted a particular reading of Scripture and theology. Thus, when modern science appeared to contradict the Bible, tremendous efforts were made to defend the historical and scientific truth of the Bible. Ironically, as Gary Dorrien explains in The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (1998), this fundamentalist framework was itself based on a modern scientific methodology.

Kenneth J. Collins says in The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of an American Religion (2005), “This methodological preference among several leading evangelicals caused them to see certain aspects of the truth of the gospel clearly (its cognitive elements), whereas other aspects were largely neglected, especially those truths that could not easily be objectified through a rational, empirical lens” (page 89).

(By the way, if you want to read a sophisticated and nuanced history of this framework, take a gander at Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism [2013]. In addition, Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind [1995] remains a must-read.)

Does all of this sound familiar? Is it any wonder that mainstream North American evangelicals have a difficult time hearing the perspectives of people who don’t “fit” into their world and worldview?

But the earthquake happened; so-called “emergent” evangelicals emerged and unsettled evangelicalism in the 1990s. The emergents were a younger generation of evangelicals who sought to reform—and, in some cases, reject—the evangelical ethos, politics, and theology that they grew up in. Their attempts to “fix” the structural deformity within evangelicalism often felt like earthquake “aftershocks.”

Fearful that emergents were conceding biblical authority and abandoning the gospel, powerful leaders organized groups, like The Gospel Coalition, to serve as theological barriers against the emergent aftershock. These leaders also sought to present a neo-Calvinist brand of evangelicalism as a positive alternative while, to some extent, recognizing the structural deformity in traditional evangelicalism.

Nevertheless, many rank-and-file evangelicals have not dealt with the structural deformity of rejecting “experience” in theology and spiritual formation—especially the experiences that are the foundations for modern social and biological science. Is it any wonder that any discussion about Asian American identity or anti-Asian discrimination is often met with scorn or, at best, a yawn—even by Asian American evangelicals?

2. The sources of the Asian American aftershock

What really surprised me about the Open Letter movement was the large number of people who signed on. In my experience with Asian American evangelicals (both immigrant and American-born), very few care about identity and racial discrimination. The large number of Open Letter signatories shows that something has changed recently.

I believe that three overlapping influential groups of people combined to create the recent Asian American evangelical aftershock. Each group had a common characteristic of extensive engagement with the evangelical world outside its particular ethnic subculture and a subsequent sensitivity to the earthquake that was rocking mainstream evangelicalism.

a. The influence of mainline Protestantism
Most of the Asian American evangelicals that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s were raised in congregations with ties to mainline Protestant denominations. Ken Fong (Evergreen Baptist Church, Los Angeles), Jeanette Yep (formerly InterVarsity Christian Fellowship [IVCF]), Sam Tonomura (Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society [JEMS]), and I were raised in American Baptist churches. Peter Cha (IVCF), Stan Inouye (Iwa), and Tommy Dyo (Epic) were connected to the Presbyterian Church, USA.

In these denominations, Asian American caucuses promoted greater awareness of and representation for Asian Americans. Some, like myself, were active participants in efforts to give voice to Asian Americans. Regardless of their level of activism, these Asian American evangelicals knew that struggling against discrimination and acknowledging Asian American contributions to the church were part of the conversation within these denominations.

b. The influence of “earthquake-sensitive” evangelicals

Many Asian American evangelicals who were not part of a mainline Protestant denomination also became aware of the importance of their own experiences as they personally observed or experienced racial discrimination. Some of the older evangelicals who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s were profoundly shaped by the Civil Rights and Asian American movements.

These “earthquake-sensitive” evangelicals had less difficulty integrating the lived social reality with their faith. A generation later, Louis Lee (Ministry of English Speaking Asian Americans [MESA]) and DJ Chuang (L2 Foundation) continued this legacy by devoting themselves  to building networks among Asian American evangelicals.

c. The influence of parachurch organization leaders

Several parachurch organizations—such as IVCF; Asian American Christian Fellowship (AACF), a ministry of JEMS; and more recently Epic, a ministry of Cru—focused on specific racial groups. Because the leaders of these organizations were less embedded in Asian American congregational culture, they were able to broaden the outlook of the students they ministered to.

It is important to acknowledge ethnic-specific parachurch groups such as Ambassadors for Christ and the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE), while also noting that these ministries were less inclined toward a “pan-Asian” approach and had limited engagement with the mainstream American evangelical subculture.

Although the gap between pan-Asian and ethnic-specific parachurch ministries is no longer as wide today as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, each group still merits its own story. This is also true of campus ministries, which I will discuss later. Nevertheless, the core leadership for the current Asian American aftershock was composed primarily of individuals who ministered in a largely pan-Asian context.

3. How the aftershock happened

a. Pan-Asian American congregations

In the 1980s, a few thriving second-generation Chinese and Korean evangelical churches (e.g., Sunset Baptist in San Francisco, First Chinese Baptist Los Angeles, and Bay Area Chinese Bible Church) offered some hope that the “silent exodus” of English speakers from Asian ethnic-specific churches would be stemmed. Indeed, years prior to Helen Lee’s 1996 article in Christianity Today, there was already awareness of the attrition of younger Asian Americans.

These congregations were exceptional, however, because much of their leadership had been turned over to the second generation. The general consensus (even to this day) was that immigrant-dominant Asian churches would inevitably lose the next generation.

But the rise of pan-Asian American congregations like Evergreen Baptist (Los Angeles), Christian Layman (Oakland), and later Newsong (Irvine) generated a buzz (and some controversy with Asian ethnic-specific churches). Some of these churches have since moved away from a focus on Asian Americans.

Nevertheless, these congregations created a new environment for Asians from different ethnic backgrounds to fellowship and worship together. Relationships were formed, and leaders were raised, resulting in a new style of Asian American evangelical subculture. The pastors of these churches eventually started to gain recognition within the Asian American Christian and wider evangelical contexts.

b. Asian American evangelicals on campus

The high rate of East Asian American student enrollment in U.S. colleges resulted in greater opportunities for pan-Asian connections. While some language or ethnic campus ministries thrived (and continue to thrive), in the case of IVCF, staff workers Jeanette Yep, Donna Dong, Paul Tokunaga, Peter Cha, and others not only pioneered a pan-Asian American campus ministry, but also helped IVCF develop a brand of multicultural ministry that honors racial and cultural experiences.

AACF and IVCF provided space for Asian American evangelical women to play important leadership roles, thus engaging another aspect of “experience” ignored by most Asian American evangelical congregations. Furthermore, AACF (and JEMS) refined and introduced a nisei and sansei spirituality that was much more attuned and sensitive to the “Americanized” Asian American experience than what many Asian Americans had experienced in immigrant churches. Epic, the Asian American campus ministry of Cru, has recently embarked on this style of ministry. A generation of students influenced by these ministries is now a growing leadership presence within American evangelicalism.

I need to mention ethnic-specific and church oriented campus ministries such as KCPC, Berkland, Chinese Bible Study Groups, and many others, too. For the most part, these ministries did not engage with other Asian American ministries and were usually not asked to be part of pan-Asian or multiracial networks. Consequently, fewer of their leaders were represented in the Asian American movement discussed in this essay. Rebecca Kim’s book, God’s New Whiz Kids?: Korean American Evangelicals on Campus (2006), for example, shows how many Korean campus ministries tend to become more intensely Korean-focused over time. Therefore, students in these ministries have fewer pan-Asian and multicultural opportunities.

c. Asian American conferences and networks

In the 1980s and 1990s, leaders like Louis Lee (MESA) networked with a wide range of Asian American leaders and organized many regional and national pan-Asian American evangelical conferences. These conferences were intersection points for pastors, campus ministers, lay leaders, and students to network with one another and form cross-ethnic relationships. As a result, leaders were recognized, and a greater sense of Asian American evangelical unity was established.

Recently, conferences for Southeast Asian leaders (via Ken Kong) and South Asian Christians (via Sam George) have been organized. Like earlier Chinese and Korean conferences that catered to English speakers, these will continue to expand the ethnic range of pan-Asian American evangelicalism. However, unlike the earlier conferences, these will be more intentionally pan-Asian and multicultural.

d. Theological educators network

Less well-known was the network of evangelical Asian American theological educators that started in the late 1990s and has steadily increased. A more scholarly discussion about the role of the Asian American experience in theology and church ministry was embraced in these networks.

In the late 1990s, a Chinese American email list was started by seminary professors (Sze Kar Wan, me, others) and opened up to pastors (Ken Fong, Louis Lee, etc). DJ Chuang joined the list and then expanded and administered it under the title CAC_list. The topics and discussion created more opportunities for thoughtful reflection on Chinese (and Asian) American theology and ministry.

It is possible that this discussion list and subsequent networks of theological educators and pastors (e.g., the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity [ISAAC] and the Asian North American Consultations sponsored by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [2009 and 2013] via Peter Cha and by Seattle Pacific University [2011] via Billy Vo) have given younger Asian American evangelical leaders “permission” to engage the Asian American experience and identity in a manner that mainstream evangelicalism was less willing to embrace. If you are interested in a good overview of Asian American theology, read Jonathan Y. Tan’s Introducing Asian American Theologies (2008).

Another outgrowth of these networks was the creation of seminary programs for Asian Americans. Mainline Protestant seminaries established Asian American centers in the 1970s‒2000s. None of these centers are active today, but recently, evangelical seminaries like Logos, Talbot, Seattle Pacific, and Fuller have or are starting programs for Asian Americans.

e. The silent exodus and the L2 Foundation

One of the most significant developments was the organization of summits and conferences by the L2 Foundation. Established by the Chou Family Foundation and spearheaded by DJ Chuang, the L2 Foundation sought to galvanize and build up national Asian American evangelical leaders.

Like many other Asian Americans at the time, the Chous were alarmed by Helen Lee’s article, “The Silent Exodus” (1996) in Christianity Today. The article concluded that the prospects for second-generation return to Asian immigrant churches were not promising and called for new ways to reach younger Asian American evangelicals. Thus, the L2 Foundation underwrote several leadership summits and projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Leaders with “earthquake sensitivity” from all the previously mentioned networks met each other—many for the first time!

I believe that one of the most important outcomes of the L2 Foundation summits was the feeling that Asian American evangelical leaders had reached a new level of maturity. In addition to strengthening Asian American leaders and congregations, these summits helped leaders recognize their potential for influence outside their subcultures.

Namely, they realized that Asian American evangelicals could offer a collective witness to the North American church and culture. This optimism has been bolstered by creative young adults who are articulating their voices in publications like Inheritance Magazine and the artistic works of Jason Chu and others.

In the end, it is not surprising that Asian American evangelicals are beginning to speak more publicly, creatively, and vocally about their experiences and their expectations and hopes for the North American church. The Open Letter campaign rests on more than 20 years of Asian American evangelical networking and cooperation, which will increase in the foreseeable future.

Despite the continued ambivalence about Asian American identity within Asian American evangelicalism and mainstream Christianity, I believe that we are witnessing something truly exciting as leaders—both male and female—begin to exercise their gifts for the Kingdom!

 

Dr. Timothy Tseng, Pastor, former Professor of Religious History
Tim has done research in Chinese American Christianity, Asian American studies, and the history of race in the United States. Tim was also the founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (2005-2011). He currently is the Pastor of English Ministries at Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church in San Jose, CA. timtseng.net, @tim_tseng

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