…. they were unschooled, ordinary men …. they had been with Jesus …. the crippled man healed standing with them – Acts 4:13,14
Sometime ago, stumbled into some unusual challenges in an inter-generational migrant chinese congregation, and was trying to make sense of what was happening. The church consists of Cantonese, Mandarin and English congregations, mainly ethnic Chinese in a Western society.
As such challenges was something I’ve never encountered before, I wondered if this was a local problem unique to this church, or a systemic problem. The crux of the issue was how does a first generation mother-land speaking Chinese cultured congregation co-exist with a second generation mainly English speaking, Western cultured congregation? How do such churches embrace multiculturalism ?
In a Western society, besides the Chinese, there are also churches clustered around ethnicity, language and culture (eg Korean, Indian/Sri Lankan, African churches). There are also English speaking “international congregations” made up predominantly of certain ethnicity/s or culture/s, with very few Westerners in the church. Such ethnic churches may be overseas church plants, or independent local startups, or local church plants. Churches with multi-cultural English congregations with diverse multicultural senior leadership are not that common; similar to diversity profiles of leadership in other sectors of society.
For the first generation Chinese, Chinese is the preferred language, social circle is mainly Chinese. They feel its good to preserve their cultural roots, traditional manners and values, and share them with their children … and may be in the future their children will find Chinese spouses in church. The church becomes a cultural oasis in a Western society, and a port of call for new migrants.
They try to replicate a “back home” feel in church — community feel, predictable, formal, hierarchical, structured, top-down. However, this ‘back home’ nostalgia may be cast back years ago, when these first generation leaders moved to the West.
For the second generation, English is the preferred language and social circle may include other ethnic groups. They grew up in a Western environment. For some, English is the only language. They are exposed to embracing change, progressive church formats/worship, democratic informal social media, management/ marketing/ media approaches, and would like to invite their non-Chinese friends to church.
While one generation is used to direct communication with eye contact, (‘speak your mind’; let your ‘Yes’ be yes and ‘No’ be no) …. the other generation prefers in-direct communication nuances, hints and protocols (a statement is sometimes an invitation; ‘I think about it’ means no), giving-face/saving-face.
Sometimes, a ‘Chinese silence‘ is hard to interprete correctly 🙂 .
In terms of sermon delivery styles – point-form delivery … and ‘flow of thoughts’ discourse prose delivery
By the way, such generational challenges do not just exist amongst the Chinese …. here’s a Korean example as described by a Korean pastor (click here). Here’s some good advice from one Korean pastor on bridging the generations (click here), and another Korean pastor on serving the generations (click here)
Through a chance conversation with some English speaking second generation pastors, I learnt that they are neither entirely Western nor Asian, a unique sub-culture. They feel they need their own kind of churches to address their unique needs. At that time, I could not understand, and they proceeded to share their experiences. They also shared the historical types of culturised second generation local-born Chinese — from being the only few Chinese/Asian kids in school and neighborhood … to having more Chinese/Asian kids … to having a handful or no Western kids in the school and neighborhood. Hence from being very westernized to evolving their own unique sub-culture, identity (eg. its ok to not be interested in certain national sports like their western peers).
How Westernized or Chinese one is, is in some ways dependent on the language spoken and way of life at home, as culture is embedded in the language words. Though it may sometimes be amusing to hear parents tell their children that they cannot do such and such at home, because this is a Chinese home.
On a train, I once heard a mother’s conversation with her young child. She spoke in Chinese, and the boy replied in English. Intergenerationally, Chinese-speaking grandparents and English- speaking grandchildren.
Through other interactions …. one second generation Chinese shared that they have their own brand of jokes. Another shared that in his parent’s home country, his cousins considered him Western, while in the West, his peers considered him Asian.
Language and culture plays a role in bridging the cultural divide between the generations. Culture refers to both in terms of ethnicity, mindset, worldview, attitudes, as well as way of life.
Some months ago, heard the sharing of an overseas-born Chinese couple who moved to China to be tentmakers, having grown up in the West; supported by a well-known missions organisation. From their personal experiences, issues and dilemmas encountered, it really felt like they were seriously crossing into a foreign culture
Hence, its also a question of identity or what is ‘normal'(?!?! whatever than means 🙂 ).
Both generations share similar core beliefs of the Christian faith.
Language and culture are the lens through people from Chinese and Western backgrounds read & understand a book; similarly for the Bible. Due to culture, worldviews, and English and Chinese translations of the Bible, there are some nuances in teaching emphasis. An example is the meaning of church as one family (一家). Another example is the use of the word 拣 选 (chosen) in some Chinese congregations. Furthermore, discipleship programs, and Bible school training emphasis/approach may differ between the 2 generations who grew up in different parts of the world.
One comment I’ve heard from some English speaking overseas Chinese Christians (i.e. not born in China) is that they view migrant Chinese churches as only interested in reaching out to Chinese people.
I believe … this is a language issue, as most first generation folks are most comfortable in their mother tongue. To reach out to the non-Chinese in a English-speaking Western country, they have to use English. This means learning to communicate, effectively hold a conversation, pray and share God’s word confidently and fluently in English (including reading the Bible in English). Crossing any culture, and confidently using another language fluently is not easy for any of us. Besides, there are so many Chinese to reach out to (more than a billion). In general, most migrant Chinese believers are actively evangelistic in their own ethnic communities.
On a side note, for anyone from a mono-culture to move into cross-cultural ministry or missions, involves a learning curve — learn a native language, and be cultural sensitive and respectful of other cultures.
The Chinese in Western countries can come from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, overseas Chinese from other Asian countries and elsewhere. They may be broadly grouped as the following.
* Tourists, visiting relatives
* Business people, Investors
* Professionals, skilled workers
* Homemakers, i.e. one spouse is in their home country earning, while another cares for their school-going children overseas.
* Retirees, i.e. parents of the other groups
* Guest professionals/workers (on-site outsourcing), Working Holidays (factories, restaurants, farms, etc)
* Not sure … people with 2 names – a full name known by those in church, .. until they are hospitalized in hospital, and one finds them registered under a different full name (?).
Each group has varying proficiency in English or Western language. They may be monolingual to trilingual or more. For some, the preferred conversational language is a Chinese language (eg Mandarin, Cantonese, Chinese dialect). For some overseas Chinese from other Asian countries, the preferred language may be their home country language, eg Bahasa Indonesia. Some Chinese do not speak any Chinese, due to opportunities to learn the language in their home country.
China is a vast country, and how well Chinese from different regions interact, mix and collaborate varies; not to mention mixing with Hong Kong and Taiwan Chinese. Some factors are communication styles/etiquette, unspoken stereotypes, values, dialects. In general, people prefer others who are similar. In the church mentioned at the beginning of this post, there were also political/cultural issues between the Cantonese and Mandarin congregations.
Having interacted with overseas born Chinese (OBC) … from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South East Asia …. the Chinese-ness is in some ways similar … while in other ways dis-similar. Though, some pride themselves as being more “authentic” Chinese than others. At best, Chinese-ness is a spectrum. Add to this mix are overseas raised Chinese (ORC) and western society born Chinese (ABC, CBC, AA, etc) … is another spectrum. Hence, Chinese covers people from fully assimilated Westernised worldview, … to traditional/Confucian Chinese.
In a Chinese speaking church, migrants come from various countries. Language ability may vary depending on where they come from. When a sermon message is painted with Chinese background, idiomic phrases and literary expressions … these phrases and expressions do strike a chord in a Chinese heart (from Chinese speaking societies), … but may be unfamiliar to others (born elsewhere) who may not fully appreciate the message and its nuances.
Hence, the Chinese is not a homogeneous group.
Because of the diverse background … there are also shades of Chinese Christians … like cultural Christians, confucian Christians, buddhist Christians, taoist Christians. (See Dr Fenggang Yang’s sharing in an earlier blog post on Revival in China (Click here).)
There are great opportunites of migrant ministry (Click here) as shared in an earlier blog post.
When the local church is described by the metaphor ‘family’ (家) , due to culture language nuancs, tacitly the following is implied:
** obligations/expectations, duties, responsibilities to the extended family (家). Sometimes these obligations/expectations are not verbalized, i.e. the other person ‘should know what to do the right thing’. Sometimes, in a Chinese family, these unwritten obligations keeps the family together and preserves harmony.
** loyalty and submission in the family hierachy.
** moving church? … one does not leave a family (家), one has to be sent by a family to another family.
** decision making process. Respect the seniors
** where there are events/challenges, everyone in the family should informally assist, … just chip in. Sometimes, there is little organizational planning or management. Sometimes, communal ‘togetherness’ participation is more important than the quality of the delivery.
** The ‘family’ is the way to get things done.
** sometimes, in the family (家) , when boundaries & discreetness are not consciously observed … gossip brews through nosy family members who feel they have a right to know everything that is going on in someone else’s life. In a worse case, family members may even dictate what another family member should do; unhealthy misunderstandings may arise out of such situations.
** In events, … lapses in inviting someone or someone senior may be taken as an offence.
** giving-face, saving-face communication nuances
** always address one by their name & title (not first name only).
By the way, the pastor’s spouse has a title in Chinese churches … (did observed an unfortunate situation when there were more than one pastor at a Chinese congregation, and one lady clearly coveted this title greatly).
** There is a thin line between ‘being concerned‘
and ‘overbearing, controlling‘.
** Sometimes, the outward signs of conformity or support,
are more important than the inner reality; sadly sometimes, one is judged (rightly or unjustly) this way.
Expectations (spoken or unspoken), respect, and a sense of obligation, are sometimes driving forces, subtlely, causing divisions and disagreements.
In the worse case, expectations may be imposing.
Understanding some of this helps one navigate through the workings of a Chinese church.
In 1 Samuel 18, 19, Jonathan was torn between loyalties to his father, Saul, or to support his friend, David (Saul’s subordinate). Jonathan objectively decided based on truth and facts. Jonathan chose to do the right thing, at a cost to himself.
Here’s an excerpt from a previous blog post on Submission, Authority and Abuse (click here) in church.
“Some authoritarian pastors may have been misled by a historical mentor. Watchman Nee 倪柝声, noted Chinese pastor and author, wrote a book entitled Spiritual Authority. Nee argued that God delegates his authority to human leaders who represent God to their followers. The response of the people should be unquestioned obedience; authority replaces reason, right, and wrong. Even if the authority is wrong, Nee argues, one should obey them unto the Lord. Though Nee provided many helpful resources to the Body of Christ, this one teaching has probably added to much confusion and misuse among spiritual leaders” – Rhett Wilson:
‘Saving each other’s face’ in Chinese culture also sometimes results in politeness, suppressed feedback, festering wounds and unresolved problems, … viral ‘chinese whispers’ … To avoid confrontation and unfruitful conflict, some folks simply just leave. (more on this in earlier blog post on Forgiveness, a Chinese perspective (Click here))
In a conversation with a pastor, he shared his experience in ministering to Chinese – most Chinese don’t readily tell everything, due to “saving face”. There is also the use of indirect, nuanced communication and hints. A process of peeling the onion; rather than straight to the core.
Mainland Chinese can easily spot insincerity, hypocrisy; having lived and worked amongst all kinds of leadership. Its wise to heed Jesus words, “Say only yes if you mean yes, and no if you mean no. …” Matthew 5:37 (NCV). Walk the talk.
The following are some interesting Chinese paradigms.
After encountering a number of sharings by different Chinese folks seeking for advice on relationship issues (which initially was confusing to me), I’m led to conclude the following in order to understand such problems:
In a Chinese community, when someone makes a mistake, the community or family bands together to shame the person to conform/change … and in the worst case, ex-communicate the person from relationship.
As a consequence, members of the community or family who are not injured at all by the mistake, also feel injured by the mistake, as the mistake directly shames or humiliates our community, our family; loss of face, a serious matter.
By unconsciously acting this way, it shifts the focus from the mistaken deed, to the mistaken person, and the mistake becomes personal.
Another consequence of this ethos is that if one of the family/community was offended by someone through a mistake/misunderstanding, the whole family/community may feel offended with this person.
Sometimes, all this is not verbalized, but subconsciously expressed.
Hence, in order for Christians to untangle such forms of unforgiveness, and restore relationships, a Biblical understanding of mercy, grace, relationships and forgiveness helps.
Sometimes, Chinese feel that when someone disagrees with their view, the other person disagrees with them personally. That is, … the matter becomes personal, and not just about a difference of views. This impacts on objectivity during discussions.
Disagreements sometimes also gets colored by seniority or pecking order.
Humility, tact, patience and wisdom helps.
Besides not taking things personally, reconciliatory approaches to conflict management and articulation is needed;
such as, “agree to disagree”, compromise, “win-win”, collaboration, open peer-communications. Such reconciliatory approaches to conflict should be taught.
In some Chinese settings, apologies may not be verbalized,
but relationships are restored through actions;
having a meal together, or visiting someone’s home, or inviting them to our home.
In Chinese homes, shame is sometimes used to push children towards academic excellence. This ‘never good enough’ or ‘not as good as so-and-so‘ attitude is unconscious, … the result is it drives performance and conformity. Unconsciously, this sometimes causes envy … or, causes one’s self-worth be measured by the approval of others, rather than how much God values each of us, our identity in Christ.
As a result, this causes a lack of verbal appreciation, compliments and praise in inter-personal relationships.
This also affects one’s understanding of God’s unearned, unmerited grace for us through Jesus, resulting in a performance-based Christianity. An appreciation of God’s grace instead of human appeasing works. Serving others not out of duty or obligation, … but rather with joy, passion and love in Christ.
To untangle our mindsets and behaviours in churches, we need to recognise
… what is cultural, traditional or progressive, and biblically coherent
…. & what is cultural, traditional or progressive, but NOT biblically coherent.
A renewal of our minds through God’s word, that focuses on life/character transformation to be more like Jesus in thoughts, word & deeds.
A deeper appreciation of God’s unmerited favor and grace.
A biblical understanding of marriage, family, and conflict management/reconciliation.
For some, there may also be a need to face the past,
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.” Mark 12:17 (NKJV)
Let’s also bear in mind that cultures do not remain static.
Sometime back, heard 2 young adults from India discussed about social norms. One grew up in India and the other in a Western society. It was interesting to hear the one who grew up in India correcting the other about his stereotype views of India. In her words, “The culture has moved on, since your parents time”.
There’s much that can be said, but let’s have a look at the Bible ….
In the New Testament, examples of cross-cultural challenges in church appeared as early as Acts 6:1 (Greek speaking and Hebrew speaking believers). When the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles, Peter had to explain to his Jewish friends about visiting a Gentile home (Acts 11), as it was not kosher.
There’s even an example of an ethnic slur in Titus 1:12.
27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
In this situation in Acts, the ‘new’ Gentile believers served the ‘older’ Jewish believers in a practical way, … and built a bridge. The amazing wisdom of the Lord.
Paul also spent a fair bit of his letters helping everyone understand the one church made up of both Jews and Gentiles (eg Ephesians 2, 3, Galatians).
He reiterated that it was not about making the Gentiles believers more Jewish
… but Christ-like in Christ (Galatians 6); not to mix religious/cultural traditions with faith in Christ (Galatians).
Paul also celebrated the diversity in the body of Christ with many parts, gifts and ministries (1 Corinthians 12).
Beyond culture, language, ethnicity, mindset, or methodology or liturgy,
is living out Biblical thought, Christlike character,
our shared identity in Christ,
all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body
—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free … (etc, etc etc)
1 Corinthians 12:13 (NIV)
Paul’s approach to multi-cultural/ethnic, inter-generational ministry was:
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Romans 15:1 (NIV)
We who are strong ought to bear
with the failings of the weak
and not to please ourselves.
Interestingly, Paul wrote To the weak I became weak
not ‘I became <strong>’
rather I have become all things to all people … a slave to everyone;
just like Jesus who came to earth to be one of us,
to reveal the heart of God.
1Accept the one whose faith is weak,
without quarreling over disputable matters.
12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking,
but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,
18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God
and receives human approval.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Romans 14:1, 12,13, 17-19 (NIV)
And Jesus said,
the greatest among you should be like the youngest,
and the one who rules like the one who serves
Luke 22:26 (NIV)
when His disciples were disputing “Who was the greatest?“,
at the last supper … just before Jesus faced the cross.
Perhaps, the way forward is humility and serving one another in love and reconciliation.
you want them to treat you
Luke 6:31 (TLB)
Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.
For where two or three have gathered together in My name,
I am there in their midst.
Matthew 18:20 (NIV)
Be devoted to one another in love.
Honor one another above yourselves.
Romans 12:10 (NIV)
In Corinth, Paul, a Jew, led a predominantly Gentile congregation. Perhaps, its wise for us to follow his example in ministering to cross-cultural, inter-generational groups,
2 Corinthians 1:24 (NASB, MSG)
Not that we lord it over your faith,
but are workers with you for your joy;
for in your faith you are standing firm.
We’re not in charge of how you live out the faith, looking over your shoulders, suspiciously critical. We’re partners, working alongside you, joyfully expectant. I know that you stand by your own faith, not by ours.
Attitude – Not that we lord it over your faith
Relationship – We’re partners, working alongside you, joyfully expectant
Goal – you stand by your own faith, not by ours.
5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you
the same attitude of mind toward each other
that Christ Jesus had,
6 so that with one mind and one voice
you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Accept one another, then,
just as Christ accepted you,
in order to bring praise to God
Romans 15:5-7 (NIV)
What follows are some worthwhile resources from brethren in Canada, US and Australia who share about the challenges in Chinese migrant churches in Western countries …
In Samuel Ling’s book, The “Chinese” Way of Doing Things, there is a chapter which gives an interesting snapshot of the views and perspectives of second generation Chinese youths growing up in Chinese churches. He also has a well-written chapter which gives suggestions on how to bridge and navigate through the generations, by understanding how each generation thinks and the unspoken cultural nuances.
The problem is that this transition must take its course through a whole generation. Some of us cannot wait that long. I can understand their feelings. However, we are talking about moving a whole culture, deeply entrenched in a millennia old tradition to a modern, Western style of organization and leadership. It is no small task. It is going to be painful for those who cherish the tradition; it will be a tremendous responsibility for the new generation to pick up the baton.
— Samuel Ling
(A living post, will add more useful links in the future as they are found 🙂 )
Cross, culture, confusion: conflict and community in a Chinese church in Canada (Click here) – Tan, Weichong Joshua, M.A thesis, 2007, Simon Fraser University, Canada
Abstract – Through oral history, this project studies a church congregation consisting of families from Hong Kong who came to Canada after the 1970s, professing Chinese ethnicity, while laying claims also to Canadian and Christian identities. As congregants made lives and raised children in both Chinese and Canadian cultures, they changed the way they imagined themselves as a community. Their divergent Chinese, Christian, and Canadian self-identifications affected their varied understandings and experiences of community life at the church. Members conflicted in 2006 when they could not agree whether being Chinese was a defining characteristic of the congregation. Research suggests that the church was for many older, Cantonese-speaking members an important community institution that kept alive their sense of being Chinese. Younger, English-speaking congregants, however, saw a community rooted in multicultural Vancouver. This study can offer insight into questions of personal and national identities, and the role community institutions play in sustaining identity
Based on a lecture by Dr. Benjamin Shin, for the Doctor of Ministry in Asian American Ministry at Talbot School of Theology, Pastor Daniel K Eng has articulated very clearly the various models in his blog.
Pastor Steven Chin – Working under an Asian Chinese Senior Pastor (Click here)
I really like Pastor Steven’s sharing on practical humility and servanthood when working with an Asian/Chinese leader.
Pastor Ying Yee – Serving in a Chinese church – A forgotten key (Click here) (MP3)
Samuel Ling, The “Chinese” Way of Doing Things (Click here), China Horizon, 1999.
Jim-Bob Park, The Need for a Mutual Understanding (Click here)
Tom Lin, Losing Face & Finding Grace, 12 Bible Studies for Asian-Americans (Click here), InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Dr. Richard J. Krejcir, Why People in Church Fight? (Click here)
by 林弟兄, bro Lim
July 15, 2014
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