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Revised December 1, 2014
Given that American evangelical history is a relatively nascent subject, Asian American evangelical history is even more so. While there are articles about Asian American Christians—Evangelical or not—research has been mostly sociological and piecemeal. Much more remains to be done.
Tim Tseng is a rare historian of Asian American Christians. He’s been an Assistant Professor of Church History at Denver Seminary, and Associate Professor of American Religious History at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and at the American Baptist Seminary of the West. Among his many published works, he facilitated the publication of “Asian American Religious Leadership Today: A Preliminary Inquiry” on behalf of Duke Divinity School’s Pulpit and Pew Project.
Tim is both a scholar and an advocate, connecting leaders and leading as an evangelical in mainline settings as a past President of the Asian American Baptist Caucus and founder of the Asian American Studies Center at American Baptist Seminary of the West. He also co-founded ISAAC (the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity). Tim also is an advisor to AsianAmericanChristian.org.
Because the history of Asian American Christians has yet to be truly studied and told, and we can think of no other person who has as much knowledge on the subject, we recently interviewed Tim Tseng for an brief account of Asian American Christian history.
See also Tim’s other historical piece: background on the Open Letter.
Interview with Tim Tseng: History of Asian American Christians
The term “Asian American” wasn’t really used until the late 1960s, right? How were Asian Christians organized or thought of before then?
That’s right, the term “Asian American” doesn’t come about until the late 1960s. Most Asian ethnic groups were isolated and didn’t interact with each other until then. The more common term used to describe Asians was “Oriental.” Therefore many mainline Protestant denominations would call their work among diverse Asians Americans, “Oriental Missions in America.” When they came together, they would fellowship and talk about their ministries. But they wouldn’t necessarily have any on-going “Asian American” project. Ethnic Asians rarely worked together as a collective group.
The Methodists might be the only example of inter-ethnic cooperation. They developed a really strong network of pan-Asian Americans in the early to mid-twentieth century: the “Oriental Missionary Conference.” All the Asian churches, except for the Japanese, were part of that: Korean, Chinese, Indian. The Japanese had their own Conference because there so many in the Methodist Church; they outnumbered all the other Asians. Today’s National Federation of Asian American United Methodists is, in part, an outgrowth of that collective memory.
But in other denominations, ethnic Asian groups had to take the initiative to meet together as a pan-ethnic group on their own. For example, with the American Baptists, the Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and others had to make a special effort to meet each other and form a caucus.
In practice, inter-denominatonal ethnic-specific gatherings were of greater interest to Asian churches. Thus, Chinese and Japanese church leaders would fellowship with their own ethnic population even though each church was generally more involved with its denomination than churches are today. For example, church leaders in San Francisco’s Chinatown organized a National Conference of Chinese Christian Churches (more commonly known as CONFAB) in 1955; and the Japanese churches connected with one another and through various inter-denominational organizations (including JEMS). They fellowshipped separately largely because of differences in language and culture.
After World War II, there’s a period of non-recognition of ethnicity. In the name of racial integration many mainline denominations de-emphasize race and ethnicity. In order to combat racial segregation, they attempted to merge ethnic-specific congregations into predominantly white churches. Many succeeded. The Methodists dismantled the Japanese Conference in 1962. All the Japanese churches had to relate to their regional conferences, so they stopped having national gatherings of Japanese Methodists until the formation of the Asian American Federation in the 1970s.
The elimination of the racial and ethnic conferences yielded a mixed responses from Asian Methodists. Roy Sano [an early leader of JEMS] expressed some misgivings in 1963, even though many of his peers supported its elimination. The latter felt that the way for Asian Americans to deal with the race problem was to integrate. So they agreed with the idea of racial assimilation and integration. I think the majority of them went that route—especially among the younger Chinese. The ones who didn’t want racial assimilation were mostly limited by language barriers. For example, a Japanese church with a significant population of Issei [first generation] didn’t operate strictly in English and could not easily integrate into a mainline denomination or White congregation. Nevertheless, even though Mainline churches started and supported these ethnic specific missions at the turn of the twentieth century, by mid-century, they assumed that the second generation were all English-speakers and therefore it made sense to assimilate everyone (except first generation non-English speakers) into the mainstream. Most believed that was the best way to fix the race problem at the time.
The rise of racial consciousness didn’t really begin to emerge until the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, and then, that began to find its way into mainline denominations. Many believed that racial integration did not go far enough. Inspired by anti-colonial efforts around the world, advocates of racial-ethnic identity sought to dismantle the legacy of White (and Western) Supremacy that they believed was still present in racial integration efforts. Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and other Asian Americans banded together and organized themselves under the Asian American banner as an act of self-empowerment. It wasn’t all that surprising that a new generation of Asian American mainline Protestant leaders would form caucuses and clamor for justice, fair representation, and affirmations of Asian American identity.
This was mostly in Mainline churches. What happened on the evangelical side?
In the 1950s, the rise of Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, Carl Henry, Christianity Today and others re-energized evangelicals. This was post-World War II America and there was a great optimism about reforming the nation and re-Christianizing America. Any Asian Americans that attended Dallas Theological Seminary, Fuller, Moody, etc would have been immersed in all that. They too became concerned about liberal theologies, and created ethnic specific organizations and groups that mirrored those of their white evangelical cousins. Like white evangelicals, many sought to counter what they considered to be an unhealthy liberal influence in Asian American mainline Protestant churches. JEMS (Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society) was an example of this, though the Chinese Bible Churches that emerged in the 1960s are more clear cut instances. Rather than seeking justice and identity, these Asian American evangelicals organized for the sake of evangelistic mission and biblical ministries.
In addition to starting new organizations, many would join and attempt to reclaim Asian American mainline churches for evangelicalism. A typical mainline Chinese American church at the time was not necessarily liberal in theology, but its pastor was not likely to have been trained in a Bible school. There were a number of Chinese churches that were led by pastors trained in mainline Protestant seminaries. These churches gained (or were given) the reputation of being “liberal” or unspiritual “social clubs.” In some cases, conservative pastors and young lay people joined and eventually took over churches. One example is Chicago Chinatown’s Chinese Christian Union Church. The reason why it’s called “union church” is because it was a merger of several mainline Protestant missions to the Chinese. And for a little while, the leadership was more ecumenical, which was typical for mainline Protestant leaders. Then Moody Bible Institute trained a bunch of younger Chinese Americans who joined that church. Along with graduates of nearby Wheaton College they turned CCU into a distinctly evangelical congregation.
What Asian American Christians stood for back then was based on their primary contexts, i.e., which Evangelical or Mainline seminaries or organizations they were exposed to.
This was in the 1950s and 1960s. What happened in the 1970s and 1980s?
You have to remember, there were very few Asian Americans around [only 0.08% of US population in 1970]. You begin to see the first mainline second generation Asian Americans come of age in the 1970s and 1980s. The strength of these Asian American churches was still in their ethnic orientation and first generation, but these younger leaders got very involved with their denominations and ecumenical agencies and organized caucuses. Among English speakers, these mainline Protestant Asian Americans [began to become] more visible. The English-speaking Asian evangelicals, however, were growing rapidly.
During this time, as Asian immigration grew, indigenous Christian leaders and pastors planted hundreds of immigrant Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean churches (most Filipinos were Roman Catholic and joined local parishes). These churches and their leaders were overwhelmingly fundamentalist or evangelical, largely influenced by indigenous cultural expressions of faith and a little less so by conservative missionaries in Asia. They differed from American evangelicals not only by language use, but also with a pragmatic preference for cultural relevance than theological purity. Thus, many Chinese immigrant churches, for example, did not restrict women in leadership until complementarian theology was introduced into these congregations (often by second generation English-speaking leaders).
It would not be long before conflict would emerge between mainline and evangelical leaders, between immigrant and American-born evangelicals, and between generations within immigrant Asian American churches. One can say that ultimately, evangelicals have come to dominate the Asian American Protestant scene, but the conflicts have continued. In the meantime, Asian American Christianity as a whole, has become even more ethnically diverse.
In the 1970s, there was a big evangelical push as seen in the Lausanne Movement [that gathered evangelicals from 150 countries to partner in global mission], Campus Crusade for Christ’s [now Cru] Explo ‘72 [(80,000 students in Dallas, Texas) and Explo ‘74 in Seoul, South Korea, 300,000+ in attendance]. Some second generation Asian American evangelicals got a taste of that, and believed they could do more among their own people. A few got involved with these organizations that were (and still are) dominated by white evangelicals. But there still were not enough adult Asian American evangelicals around to demonstrate the viability of pan-Asian congregations or gain visibility within the white evangelical world.
In 1981, Ken Fong began ministering at Evergreen Baptist Church (Los Angeles, California) with a vision for ministering to just [English-speaking] Asian Americans. In 1983, Wayne Ogimachi began to serve an increasingly Asian American group at Christian Layman Church (in Oakland, California). Evergreen and Christian Layman proved it was possible [to form pan-Asian American English speaking churches]—they were the first models.
But even today, there are few pan-Asian congregations outside the Western metropolitan regions. There literally were not enough second generation Asian Americans on the East Coast, the Mid-West, or even the South until the 1990s. This is why some people talk about the East Coast and the Midwest as a generation behind in Asian American church growth. The South seems to be even another generation behind them. I think Asian Americans in these regions have unique histories and experiences, so it’s not really fair to characterize them as “lagging behind.”
Having said this, there is a new dynamic today that may render pan-Asian and especially ethnic-specific ministries irrelevant for Asian Americans. The trend towards multi-ethnic or multi-racial ministries has captivated the hearts and minds of most Asian American evangelicals today. While English-speaking Pan-Asian churches are still looked upon with some favor—largely because they appear to be in transition towards multi-ethnicity—ethnic-specific churches are becoming the “black sheep” among Asian American evangelicals. But this new dynamic deserves some critical appraisal.
On the surface, multiculturalism can be seen as an outgrowth of the racial-ethnic consciousness movements in the 1960s and 1970s, but in many ways, it can also be viewed as a zombie-like resuscitation of White Supremacy. In other words, in many so-called multi-ethnic ministries and churches, the default culture is still the dominant culture as evidenced by language and common lifestyle preferences. Very few of these ministries have enough space for each of its sub-cultures to create and articulate their unique voices and legacies. Consequently, what appears to be multicultural often silences or renders invisible its subcultures and projects a community that may be more culturally homogenous than many immigrant churches.
When I think Asian American ministries, I mostly think of students. What about student ministries? How do they fit in?
InterVarsity (IV) became a ministry venue for Asian American leaders who did not fit in the ethnic church. In the 1980s parachurches [like IV and Campus Crusade] were more attractive and accommodating places to grow in ministry than ethnic churches, especially for women. As the Asian American population on campuses grew, IV began to think of ethnic specific ministries.
AACF (Asian American Christian Fellowship), a ministry of JEMS, preceded IV. I remember meeting AACF folks through the Asian American Baptist Caucus in the mid-1980s. I was doing ministry with Chinese churches in New York City at the time and recall feeling that AACF leaders were spiritually refreshing because they were socially sensitive and not as rigid about beliefs and church practices. I had not met Asian American Christians who were like that previously.
Epic, is much newer, [they formally created a national staff team in 2006]. I am not aware of the latest developments within this ministry.
There are other student ministries of course, more ethnic based, and church based outreaches like FACE (Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals), and Korean outreaches. But FACE is no longer operating today. And, as I mentioned earlier, ethnic-specific ministries are no longer given much attention by English-speaking Asian Americans.
A lot of Asian American ministries seems like it was done in response to the rising second generation numbers—by other second generation Asian Americans and by first generation leaders as well.
You discuss in your background to the Open Letter an organization called L2 Foundation. Along with student ministries, it seemed to have a strong role in gathering Asian American Christians.
L2 Foundation took a different approach [than parachurch ministries and churches]. Like a think tank, it wanted to host conferences and from those conferences, create a movement. Its summits were significant because it brought leaders of various networks together for the first time. It gave many of us a sense of Asian American Christian unity. It tended to exclude first generation ethnic immigrant leaders and had a tendency to draw theologically moderate to theologically progressive evangelical Christians, which may have exacerbated some of the current theological divide we see among Asian American evangelicals.
Can you tell me more about Korean American ministries?
I’m not as familiar with the Korean scene as the Chinese one, but we really must talk about Korean Americans. Lots of denominations have seen the rise of Korean American dominance—dominance not just in sheer numbers, but in every Christian group that involves Asian Americans. In fact, one of my [non-Asian American] colleagues who taught at a seminary in Chicago didn’t grasp the concept of Asian American because the only ones he knew were Korean. So in an article that he wrote, he would list racial groups as White, Blacks, Hispanic, and Korean! Korean dominance in seminaries is in part because of career choices: more Korean Americans enter theological education than other Asians.
Who have we left out?
Southeast Asians! CMA (Christian Missionary Alliance) probably is the strongest denomination among Southeast Asians. They’ve been wrestling with how to transition their second generation leaders for a while. Not sure how that is going. The rise of Ken Kong’s leadership, the gathering of second generation Southeast Asian American leaders nationwide through SEAC (Southeast Asian Catalyst) is quite notable! SEAC has very much been trying to mobilize leaders.
South Asians are the newest kids on the block. Through ISAAC, I’ve had the privilege of working with an Asian Indian evangelical woman pastor. We helped publish a book about Asian Indian ministry in the U.S. I’ve had opportunity to connect with Sam George, who has a wealth of knowledge about this growing group. Many years ago (1996), Raymond Williams wrote a book that alluded to a generational shift away from historic Asian Indian Christianity (whether Thomas, Catholic, or mainline Protestant) towards an evangelical and charismatic—dare I say “Americanized”—style. It’ll be interesting to see what happens!
Any closing thoughts?
As I look to the future, I think it will be increasingly difficult to do ethnic and pan-Asian American ministries. Mainstream America and evangelicalism, in general, is inoculated against serious discussion about ethnicity and race. When the dominant voices in our culture still focus on assimilation or a shallow multiculturalism, it destroys the ethnic or race-centered “brand.” But in order for America and the American church to authentically be multi-ethnic and multi-racial, all the groups must have room to express themselves. This is not very likely to happen in multi-ethnic and multi-racial ministries which have enough of a challenge to bring different people together. The Asian American “brand” won’t make sense unless someone articulates it. I believe this responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Asian American Christians who are aware of the importance of their identities, cultures, and histories.
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 and revised for clarity.
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