I was having a conversation with Chinglican the other day, and we were discussing the problem with Asian-American churches. He pointed me to important article by Dr. Jonathan Tran, associate professor of theology and ethics at Baylor, which became the center of our conversation. This is an important article that has delighted a few Asian-Americans while angering quite a few others. Its title is “Why Asian-American Christianity has No Future.” It is paired with another article of the opposite title, “Why Asian-American Christianity is the Future.” I will focus this blog on the first and not the second, but if we understand the first, the second article becomes an inevitable answer without even talking bout it. This is an important article for another reason. Whatever is said about the Asian-American church can be said equally about MANY US evangelical churches. Let me summarize Tran’s argument below.
The best statement that represents Tran’s hypothesis is that Asian American churches are so focused on the future that they had very little concern for the past. This goes against just about all the popular chatter on internet and in churches about Asian-American churches. The obsession with “innovation” and fresh approaches has relegated any meaningful history to the museum called the rubbish bin. The very same can be said about SOME US evangelical churches. Why then is it important to remember the past?
Tran’s reasoning is that the past is not just the past but it is God’s work in history. The Bible is the best example. I think it was Cicero who said that to remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child. By abandoning all that God had done in the past, we risk learning nothing for our future. In so, doing the concern is not merely about repeating past mistakes, though that should also concern us. The concern is about ignoring the fact that God had worked in the past in our subjective interpretation of the present moment as the only time God is really working. How often do we hear people say that the present is a “God moment”? Sometimes such statements are made in light wholesale and arrogant abandonment of the past. This is neither orthodox nor safe. How then did God work in history in terms of immigrants in the US?
Tran points out that God has worked in the way we’re separated into different races. The US is highly racialized, whether we like it or not. Tran gives a great example of a Uganda priest saying that he didn’t realize that he was “black” until he came to the US. I didn’t realize there’s a generic thing called Chinese food until I got here as a little child. We just called it food overseas. I do realize that when I answer someone the question, “Where are you from?” S/he means “Where are you REALLY from?” Because we’re a recialized nation, each race unique brings a story on how God has worked in each group that may be different from other groups. In immigrant churches, God worked often in the first generation through non-Asian denominations. Besides our cultural legacy, this is an important spiritual legacy because how these denominational activities receive new cultural clothing becomes our churches today.
The very same thing has happened in some US evangelical churches that are non-Asian. Many non-denominational churches (i.e. Bible churches) and some denominational churches have also made the same move of leaving the past behind in favor of a “Bible only” approach. The net result is a kind of personality worship of these church leaders. The church expresses a mishmash of theology formed by that particular personality cult. We now have Reformed Baptists (does anyone see a contradiction in terms here in light of church history?) or independent Presbyterians or Calvinistic Methodists. This is largely an American phenomenon because we like to pick and choose our religion the way we experiment with fusion cuisine. Without denominational and creedal attachment to history, whatever these leaders say is “biblical.” The leaders themselves make the rules because after all, God has ordained these leaders to lead, and after all, these churches are growing in huge numbers.
The problem with this kind of mentality is that it is a business model. Numbers generate offering. Offering generates good business revenue. Good revenue is good business. Church is business. I’m not saying such churches lack spiritual content. I’m just saying that the model by which they operate is secular. Whoever has the biggest, richest and prettiest company wins. No matter how biblical the leaders are in these churches, there’ll be a time when these leaders will pass on. When that happens, we will only have a business model left. We will become orphans, living in a theological ghetto, because we have not set up a home in historic Christianity. We have no past; we will have no future.
In summary, there are two kinds of past that we can’t afford to ignore. First, we can’t afford to ignore our cultural past where God has worked in our ancestors, whether through missionaries or other means. The second is the result of the first because the first was where the point of contact between our culture and the gospel happened. All that involves denominational association in one point of history. We need to know that history to know why we’re the way we are. Second, we cannot afford to ignore our spiritual past. Our spiritual past is the result of that tie to denominational history. The critical understanding of that denominational history teaches us both our strengths and weaknesses. In this way, the AA churches are worse off than, say, the original German-speaking Lutherans because when Lutheranism receives its English-speaking clothing, it still has theological link with German Lutheranism. We can multiple the German examples by dozens. The AAs often have no such theological root. We’re flying blind with no instruments. Without keeping these two pasts in mind, we’ll end up with only business models of measuring all manners of success ONLY by number and finance. As a result, many of our churches have already become secularized to a religious business rather than an organic Christianity.
What am I worried about? I’m not worried about whether we still have church buildings to worship in. I’m worried about what kind of “church” the next generation may become. Can THAT be called Christianity?
 Tran, “Why Asian-American Christianity has No Future,” Society of Asian North American Christian Studies 2 (2101): 13-36.