Asian American Preaching
Asian American Preaching
In addressing the topic of Asian American preaching, we must start with the question: Who is Asian American? Asian American has commonly referred to East Asians: Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. This view has unfortunately excluded non-East Asian Americans.1 Like members of other ethnic and racial categories, Asian Americans vary by ethnicity, language, generation, class, and gender. Due to this extensive diversity, generalizations are inevitable, yet for the sake of specificity, I will comment briefly on the preaching of two distinct subgroups of Asian Americans: (1) first-generation Asian Americans, that is, foreign-born Asian immigrants and refugees, and (2) second and multi-generational U.S.-born Asian Americans.
All Asian Americans, regardless of the duration of their residence in America, experience marginalization. Sang Hyun Lee of Princeton Theological Seminary states that for Asian Americans marginality is a way of life: "In the Asian world, we are often criticized for not being Asian enough; in American society, we are looked down upon for not being American enough."2 In the words of Asian American author Mia Tuan, we are perceived by white Americans as "forever foreigners" who cannot and will not be accepted fully in America.3
David Gibbons, a biracial Korean and Caucasian American pastor in Southern California, shares a personal account of marginalization he faced during his undergraduate days at a southern Christian university: "As I entered his office, the dean greeted me cordially. He proceeded to inform me that I could date only Asian women because I looked Asian. Dating someone of another ethnic origin would be breaking the school's 'biblically based' rule of no interracial dating, he explained. The Catch-22 for the university was twofold. I was both Asian and Caucasian. Yet, my brother, who was of the same birth parents, was given the choice of dating either Asian or white women. Why? Because he looked more Anglo than I did."4
Gibbons recounts a common phenomenon for many Asian Americans. Consequently, Asian American preachers will often align their sermons with the marginalized experiences of biblical misfits like Noah, Joseph, Moses, the wandering Israelites, David, Daniel, the Samaritan women, Paul, and even Jesus himself, among others. The stories of these biblical figures help to assuage some of the psychological distress of many Asians who call America home. Asian American preachers should ask themselves, In what ways have I encountered marginalization in America, and how can I assist my congregants to embrace the narratives of biblical characters to cope with their pain?
First generation Asian Americans
Since most first generation Asian American churches serve primarily the people from their own ethnic background and who speak the same language, first generation Asian American preachers have an undying commitment to their places of origin. Many first generation preachers effectively employ illustrations and personal stories from their native countries.
The peril for some of them is the lessons their sermons impart may be a hybrid of both Christian and Asian religious and cultural values that are shaped by the country from which they came. Two dominant theological themes in first generation Asian American sermons are based on the dualistic relationship between suffering and blessing.
First, the importance of suffering is emphasized in the traditional tenets and practices of Buddhism and Hinduism.5 For Christians this suffering mentality is not only a continuation of the first generation's past experiences of foreign oppression and current discrimination in American society, but it is simultaneously a voluntary suffering as in experiencing oneness with God through Christ who serves as our co-sufferer.6 Imbalance comes when the willingness to suffer for Christ turns into a need to suffer, or a trust in our suffering as a means of merit before God.
In a recent conversation with my mother, she told me how my parents saw Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. My mother said, "When I saw how much Jesus suffered for me, I cried so much and so did your dad. Jesus suffered so much for me. I must go now and suffer for him." This example illustrates how the Buddhist-Hindu worldview of suffering infiltrates the consciousness of even my first generation Asian American Christian parents.
While evangelical first generation Asian American pastors preach that salvation can only be received through personal faith in Jesus' death and resurrection, many first generation Asian American Christians still believe their earthly suffering has some merit.
A second prominent theme for some first generation Asian American preachers is the shamanistic concept of blessing. Shamanism originated among Mongolic nations in northeast Asia and in some sections of Siberia. It is a religious faith based on superstition and shamanic ritual.
Engrained into Asian consciousness, the shamanistic ideology of blessing has gradually permeated some of the first generation Asian American church. First generation Asian Christians may be taught that God blesses his children richly with both material and spiritual wealth, in accordance with the concept of blessing in the Old Testament. Interestingly, this focus on blessings in this life corresponds directly with the immigrant mindset of pursuing the American Dream. Eunjoo Mary Kim, who teaches homiletics at Iliff School of Theology, says: "[Shamanistic] preaching gives the listeners the impression that the gospel itself is a present-centered and success-oriented message."7
Second- and multi-generational Asian Americans
While first generation Asian American churches are predominantly homogenous and monocultural, second and multi-generational Asian American congregations are becoming progressively multi-Asian and multi-ethnic.8Â In their quest for cultural sensitivity, many Asian American pastors deliver sermons that emphasize the ethnicity and culture of no particular ethnic group.9 These sermons convey orthodox teaching but lack contextualization for varied Asian American audiences.
The trend among many preachers of multi-Asian and multi-ethnic congregations has been to discourage the promotion of ethnic culture and tradition within church walls. For instance, one Korean American pastor expressed that his church was not a Korean church or an Asian church, but rather a place for everyone regardless of their ethnic-racial background. He proceeded to lay down ground rules for the many Korean Americans in the congregation. First, he banned eating kimchi and other types of Korean food in the church. Second, he refused to make announcements for any Asian events in the community. Third, he prevented his congregants from going to Korea town for lunch.10 Michael Luo observes:
Today, despite [this pastor's] efforts over six years to make people of all races feel welcome, the 250 to 300 worshippers who attend the church's three English services every week are almost all Koreans, with a scattering of other Asians. He has attracted only a handful of whites and blacks.11
By de-emphasizing ethnicity and culture from the pulpit, some Asian American preachers prevent ethnic people from being themselves and are in a sense rejecting the beautiful diversity of God's creative workmanship in human differences. Since every person innately possesses an ethnic and cultural tradition, Asian American preachers should make the most of illustrations that highlight examples from the various ethnicities, cultures, and traditions to which congregants belong.
It is important to contextualize sermons and assist congregants in embracing their ethnicities and cultures. For example, many Asian Americans dislike their physical characteristics and believe God made a mistake when creating Asians. Such ideas should be addressed and corrected through Asian American sermons. It is possible to overemphasize Christian identity to the complete neglect of ethnic and racial identities. Community will never be built in the Asian American church by shying away from our differences but rather by acknowledging them head on and conversing sincerely with those who are unlike us.
First generation Asian American preachers skillfully employ biblical narratives that relate to the immigrant and refugee experience. Asian American preachers know how to communicate stories at heart-level. Their hearers respond well to self-disclosure, to hearing personal accounts that represent either triumph or despair experienced by their pastors that reflect upon God's immense goodness and grace.
Asian American preachers in multi-Asian and multi-ethnic settings are effective biblical expositors who know how to explain theological truths in a cogent style. Many can articulate stories in powerful ways.
During my seminary training, I accepted a part-time position as a youth pastor serving second generation Korean Americans in Boston. After six months, I looked into my students' disinterested eyes and had a preacher's moment. I realized my sermons had not been addressing the needs of these Korean American teenagers. My sermons were not designed for my second generation Korean American teenage context.
My sermons required a complete makeover. Not only did I need to preach from my life experiences as a bi-cultural Korean American, but also my sermons needed to be shaped in a way that my second generation Korean American listeners would understand and embrace. I started to use illustrations from my life experiences growing up as a bicultural Korean American and all of the pleasures and baggage that go along with being an Americanized Asian American Christian. When I began to engage with my Korean and American DNA and my second generation Korean American teen-age listeners, my preaching took a positive turn.
David Ng suggests, "The church needs to support the search for and the recovery of ethnic and cultural identity and values … .Asian North American Christians believe that their identity, culture, language, religious heritage—their whole way of life—is good and is where God is present and at work."12
Asian American pastors must preach in a style that is unique to our culture so that our messages will connect with the minds and hearts of bicultural Asian American souls. By combining methodical biblical exposition with the exegesis of our Asian American listeners, we can present sermons with timeless Scriptural truths in a contextualized, personal, ethnic, and cultural style.
1. For example, non-East Asian Americans include the following groups: Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, Hmong, Indo Chinese, Indonesian, Iwo Jiman, Laotian, Malaysian, Maldivian, Napalese, Okinawan, Pakistani, Singaporean, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Vietnamese, and the 150,000 other Asian Americans who do not fit neatly into one of these prescribed Asian ethnic categories.Â For additional information, see the United States Census Bureau 2000 website at http://www.census.gove/prod/2002pubs/c2kbr01-16.pdf
2. Sang Hyun Lee, "Pilgrimage and Home in the Wilderness of Marginality: Symbols and Context in Asian American Theology," New Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans, edited by David K. Yoo (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999) 225.
3. See Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?Â The Asian Ethnic Experience Today (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
4. David Gibbons, Introduction, Losing Face and Finding Grace, by Tom Lin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996) 7.
5. Naomi P. F. Southard, "Recovery and Rediscovered Images: Spiritual Resources for Asian American Women," Asia Journal of Theology 3 (1989): 628.
6. Ibid., 625.
7. Eunjoo Mary Kim, Preaching the Presence of God: A Homiletic from an Asian American Perspective (Valley Forge: Judson, 1999) 32.
8. Ken Uyeda Fong, Pursuing the Pearl: A Comprehensive Resource for Multi-Asian Ministry (Valley Forge: Judson, 1999) 205-214.
9. Timothy Tseng, "Asian Pacific American Christianity in a Post-Ethnic Future," American Baptist Quarterly 21 (2002): 278.
10. Michael Luo, "For Asian-American Churches, Integration Proves Complicated," from http://www.imdiversity.com/Article_Detail.asp?Article_ID=8972
12. David Ng, "Introduction," People on the Way: Asian North Americans Discovering Christ, Culture, and Community, edited by David Ng (Valley Forge: Judson, 1995) xxiii.