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Why Outreach Programs Rarely Work in Asian Churches

Quick, think of a church that's known for its outreach program i.e. a church that's really good at helping the poor, feeding the homeless, and renewing the city around them. If you were able to think of a church, my guess is that it's not a predominately Asian one. 

In fact, try to name an Asian church that's known for its mercy ministry. And I don't mean an Asian church that fed the homeless that one time or annually helps Operation Christmas. I'm talking about an Asian church where their outreach is as vibrant as their small group ministry. Tough right? 

Why does it seem like Asian churches struggle so much with mercy and justice?

Asian Churches and Outreach

I'm aware this isn't just an Asian church problem. Historically speaking, God's people (regardless of race) have always struggled loving their cities and serving the poor. I'm also aware that there are some churches out there that may have a thriving outreach program. But generally speaking, this is rare.

And from my experience, Asian churches in particular really struggle with outreach. And I don't think it's from a lack of trying. I'm sure some pastors go through a season where they read the Minor Prophets or listen to a Tim Keller podcast and feel convicted that their churches need to "reach the city." So they'll do a sermon series and try to get their church to love and serve their neighbors.

What ends up happening is that the church will have several large outreach events, but as time passes, the participation in such events will decrease. For some reason, a heart for outreach won't fully catch on with the congregation and the zeal to love the city will dissipate. At most, outreach will end up being relegated to a 1x a year activity.

For the record, I'm not one of those social justice guys frustrated with Asian churches for being too "inward-focus." But I can't help but notice that churches today seem to struggle seeking the peace and prosperity of a city (Jer 29:7) - especially Asian churches.

Why the Asian Struggle

So why do Asian churches struggle with outreach? I'm sure a lot of our struggles are common with other churches: it's hard; we don't know how to help; people don't care. However I want to suggest there are unique factors that Asians in particular face:

1) Asians Still Feel Like Foreigners
I've written this elsewhere, but most Asians (even 2nd generation) don't see America as their "home." That's why in the Olympics, we'll root for our native country rather than the U.S. Therefore a lot of Asians don't really identify with the city they live in. So when preachers tell us to "love the city," it's like telling a driver to love the car they leased. It's hard because it doesn’t really feel like it belongs to us.

2) Most Asian Churches Are Commuter Churches
Most Asian churches are commuter churches, meaning most Asian Christians don't go to churches around their neighborhood. Instead Asians will often commute to church. We are big on loyalty and commitment, so it's very normal to see an Asian person drive from Los Angeles to the Orange County for church or vice versa.

The consequence of this though is that any rally cry for members to "love and serve the city" is confusing. Should members love the city they live in? Or should they love the city where their church is located? To do the former feels scary because they're doing it alone; to do the latter seems strange because they're only there once a week. 

3) Second-Hand Organizations
A lot of Asian churches don't do outreach because they don't know how to do it or their city doesn't seem to have any pressing needs. That's why a lot of churches will just clean the city park or pick up trash and call it "outreach." Therefore some churches will instead partner with an established organization so that they can at least be doing something effective. 

The problem with this though is that it often creates a degree of separation between church members and the outreach program. When a church partners with another organization and simply inherits their cause, then the church is latching on to that organization's vision of mercy and justice. As a result, this will make members feel detached from the cause.

4) Asians Are Numb to Guilt-Trips
For better or worse, a lot of outreach programs recruit people by guilt-tripping. "How can you spend $200 on a new phone or five hours online but not spare $5 to the poor or one weekend to the homeless?" I don't think the intention is to guilt-trip, but that's how it often comes off like.

The problem though is that Asians already feel guilty. We are a shame-based culture so we feel guilty for just about everything (e.g. school, salary, marital status). "Not loving the poor" then is just another reminder on how we've failed in life. So while some dutiful Asians will respond positively, others will be numb and simply add this to their list of self-condemnations.

5) Conservative Church Backgrounds
I learned here that this lack of zeal for outreach may be due to an Asian church's conservative background. We like to focus inwardly on theology and doctrine. In the mean time, the churches that are leading the way in justice and mercy seem to be more liberally bent. After all, a lot of these churches partner with secular organizations. Therefore, some Asian pastors may be nervous to fully engage in ministries associated with such liberal traditions.

Things to Consider

I'm not saying these are good reasons why Asian churches don't practice justice and mercy. I just think this is the potential reality that may be preventing them from doing so. I also am not saying every Asian church ought to be practicing outreach (I'm very aware of the two kingdoms debate). But for any Asian church that wants to, I think they need to address the barriers that exist.

If you're that rare Asian Christian who's zealous for reaching the city and helping the poor but frustrated by your church's lack of effort, I'd encourage you to see that it's not as simple as "my church just doesn't care." There are a lot of issues that churches need to overcome and I'd encourage you to be understanding and compassionate rather than angry and frustrated.

And if you're that Asian church that struggles loving the city or have been trying to build an outreach program but with little momentum - I'd want to just nuance the struggle. We can't simply preach on the book of Amos and tell our church to go now go and serve the city. I believe there are obstacles that should first be addressed if a church wants outreach to be a sustainable ministry.

I don't think every Asian church should feel pressured to have a booming outreach program nor do I condemn them for not having one. But if an Asian church wants one, I think it's a mistake to simply adopt what Redeemer or other churches are doing. A more careful cultural discussion is needed because I believe there are cultural factors involved. 

And regardless of whether a church "ought" to do outreach, I do believe that we should be known for our justice and mercy - where a city recognizes a church's presence and is glad that church is nearby.