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We’ve asked Tim Tseng, a historian and pastor, to guide us Asian American evangelicals through the intersections of Asia America, Asian American Studies and the Asian American Movement and Asian American Christians. This is one interview of five related to Asian America and Asian American Christians.
Post-1965 Asian American Christians
From what you’ve shared with us previously, it seems like our Christian heritage can be roughly separated into two main groups: pre-1965 and post-1965 Asian American Christians. Pre-1965, Christianity empowered, giving people so much agency that Buddhists modeled themselves after Christian structures. Being Christian was also entwined with being American and embracing America as home.
What about post-1965?
Everything’s changed. Diana Eck talks about religious pluralism in America that became much more evident in America after 1965. She gets a lot of flack for this, but she wrote a book almost 15 years ago, A New Religious America (2001) where she pointed out we can no longer rely on Christianity to be the default religion of the country [The book’s subtitle: How a “Christian Country” has now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.] And she’s right. Asians have brought their religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and many others. So even though Christianity is still a majority, things don’t feel the same anymore.
Post ‘65, Asian American Christians are Christian mostly because they were Christian in Asia. It’s not that white Americans missionized them.
Yes. The post-’65 generation were largely Christians who brought indigenous expressions of their faith with them or were converted in the U.S. by their fellow Asian American Christians, not by white American Christians.
When would they encounter white Christians?
Their children would more easily relate to white Christians because language was less of a barrier. Some of the leaders, like my dad [who was a pastor] for example, had to engage the white American Baptists because they were his denominational leaders and they provided some funding for our church plant.
A lot of these congregations were dependent on denominational funding?
Some of them were, but I would say that that dependency didn’t last very long. On one hand, the mainline churches were in decline, so their funds began to dry up in the 1980s. The Southern Baptists, on the other hand, were growing at the time, so [some Asian American Christians] bypassed the denominations that they were originally affiliated with and joined the Southern Baptists. The immigrant Asians who had to engage white denominational leaders often struggled with clear communication and trust, so many found it easier—in the end—to plant independent non-denominational Asian churches.
The children of immigrants who grew up in these churches never really connected to white mainline denominational leaders. When they became adults, most who stayed in their home churches did not rise to a level of leadership that required engagement with mainline denominational leaders. I was an exception because I went into ministry and got connected with the Asian American Baptist Caucus. Most of the immigrant kids who engaged white Christians left their immigrant churches and got connected with evangelical churches or para-church organizations like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. So one of the reasons why most of our Asian American churches are no longer connected to mainline denominations is because immigrant parents never had a cozy relationship with the denomination, and the kids had none at all.
By then denominations were losing their influence anyway.
Where did their Christianity come from? It seems like if you went through the Chinatown option, these different missionaries would work with you and reach out to you.
Chinese immigrants were more likely to have connected with the Indigenous Chinese evangelical movement in China and in the diaspora. The un-registered churches in China are related to this movement. They emerged out of a fundamentalist/charismatic, and staunchly independent indigenous faith [see Lian Xi, Redeemed By Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China]. Those folks have some connection to American Evangelicalism as well, but when they came to the United States, they were pretty much on their own. They were busy building new churches, establishing new communities in suburbs with growing Chinese populations, and largely by-passed the Chinatown experience.
As for Chinatown, by the post-65 era, mainline denominations had largely withdrawn missionary support of their Chinatown missions. This was because they believed that Chinatown missions would disappear after the next generation of Chinese American Christians assimilated. Furthermore, they encouraged remaining strong ethnic churches to not only become independent of denominational support, but to provide support for the denomination. So by the 1980s, the First Chinese Baptist Church of San Francisco became one of the leading sources of funding for the American Baptist denomination.
But among the overwhelming majority of Chinese churches planted by the waves of post-65 immigrants, their focus shifted away from a mainline Protestant theology that engaged society (urban or Chinatown issues, in particular) to a theology of ethnic church building. They started their own type of churches which received more and more educated and wealthier people as the decades went on. These churches have become the face of Chinese American Christianity today.
They didn’t go through Chinatowns? Before 1965, it seems like that’s how most people come in…and still some do today.
Yes, that’s because of [forced] segregation in mid-twentieth century America, but after 1965, everything changed. And yes, the Chinese working class immigrants (and some refugees from conflicted Southeast Asian countries) still go through Chinatown today. But the new norm among Chinese churches are professional folks who are well educated, like your family, my family, and could escape or bypass Chinatown all together. This where the post-65 wave of Chinese evangelicals were born – not in San Francisco’s Chinatown but in the suburbs of Detroit or Houston, or in suburban-like towns like Monterey Park and Silicon Valley in California or Elmhurst in New York City. In each of these regions, there are strong centers of Chinese (and Asian) oriented marketplaces which some have called suburban Chinatowns or ethnoburbs.
Now I’m speaking specifically of the Chinese. There are parallels with Koreans, but I need to look into that a little more closely.
But going back to the Chinatowns, the first wave of post-’65 Chinatown immigrants were more family based, i.e., they were relatives of the working class Cantonese speaking population that had settled in the U.S. even before World War II. In the 1970s and 1980s, the waves of Chinese immigrants from Taiwan and other parts of the Chinese diaspora were better educated and, as I mentioned earlier, settled outside of Chinatown. And over the last twenty years, well-to-do immigrants from Hong Kong and China have found their way into Chinese churches. So today, in some Chinese churches, there is tension between different social classes, dialects, and immigrant waves. Some of the Chinese who established churches outside of Chinatown are also looking for ways to do missions back in Chinatown. So there’s a give and take. There’s an attempt to try to maintain some Chinese unity, but the Chinese community is very diverse even when one does not take into account the Americanized generation.
I don’t know if this applies to the Koreans. I know with the Southeast Asians the refugee resettlement experience was real core to them, so many have either formed their own version of Chinatown (e.g., Little Saigon) or have transformed today’s Chinatowns and ethnoburbs. Each of these communities have different trajectories.
Since you’re also an English pastor at a Taiwanese American church, can you tell me more about the Taiwanese church? It’s so interesting that the EFC (Evangelical Formosan Church) started Inheritance Magazine and sponsored Logos, the first Asian American seminary officially credentialed in the US by the Association of Theological Schools.
There are two kinds of Taiwanese. There are those who formed churches and called themselves “Chinese” and tried to mix in with the Cantonese-speaking or diasporic Chinese and later, those from mainland China (e.g. Chinese For Christ Church of Hayward, California, where my family attended). And there are Taiwanese-specific churches. The people who started those churches were more interested in Taiwanese independence and affiliated politically with the Green party in Taiwan. They were concerned about the integrity of Taiwanese culture and many were shaped by the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church.
The Taiwanese Presbyterians in Taiwan were prime movers fighting against Japanese colonialism and the Nationalist government that came from China.
Right, exactly. So their legacy is very distinct. Because of that historical connection, Taiwanese churches like these have never been identified as very fundamentalistic. Some of their children complain about this and felt that their parents were not spiritual enough—all they cared about was Taiwan. The fact that they cared so much about Taiwan was influenced by a social gospel legacy within the Presbyterian church which believed that Christians have an important role to engage social issues. So, [this rubs against] Billy Graham-type of evangelicalism (or even more conservative Christians) who say we should primarily care about winning souls.
What about the EFC? Evangelical Formosan Church is surely “evangelical?” “Formosan” is the old name for Taiwan.
In the mid ‘80s there was a theological division among Taiwanese Christians in the U.S. A number of churches that were either independent or affiliated with Presbyterians felt that the Taiwanese Presbyterians were theologically too focused on Taiwan. So, the EFC was formed with a vision to be more evangelical and to counter what they considered the over-emphasis on Taiwanese political issues by the Presbyterians. EFC leaders were influenced by evangelical seminaries also and wanted to have a broader mission. I think it also had something to do with language. Whereas many of the Taiwanese Presbyterians insisted that all its services be done in Taiwanese, and their children learned Taiwanese, EFC folks probably felt that it was more important to accommodate their kids’ cultures and to try their best to reach non-Taiwanese Chinese people as well.
When I meet new more recent immigrants from Taiwan at Taiwanese churches, some of them seem more theologically conservative than more long time members. Where is this theological conservatism coming from?
I think in Taiwan, the Presbyterian church is in decline. The kind of social issues the Presbyterian Church supported is probably not as popular among the younger Christians there. I’m not completely certain, but when I look at our church, I see the same thing. [Fundamentalism] is still a part of the Chinese churches—this is part of the Chinese diaspora context that is more powerful and bigger than the Taiwanese church. If you go to any Chinese churches, this is the prevailing ethos overall.
They are going to Mandarin seminaries taught by people from these Chinese churches?
Right, exactly. In general, when you look at Taiwan itself, the predominant expression of Christianity is this younger, more evangelical looking and theologically conservative. So the same division between Mainline and Evangelical is happening there too.
Ideas from the West goes East, the East makes it own ideas with it, it comes back here to the West, it goes back and forth and get mixed up.
Yes! Now you can tell how hard this history is [to study]. You can’t really talk about the history of pan-Asian American evangelicalism until the 1980s, when the children of each of these immigrant ethnic strands start to connect with each other. Prior to that, the only pan-Asian Christian movement were in mainline Protestantism. Each post-65 Asian immigrant group was in its own silo and had its own distinct history. But these separate strands (including mainline Protestant Asian Americans) gave birth to the current Asian American evangelical movement.
This means to understand post-1965 Asian American Christians—of which we are the majority—we really need to understand the indigenous Christian movements they came from in Asian and their contexts. AsianAmericanChristian.org will keep this in mind in the future.
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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