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A Response to Progressive Asian-Americans Who Are Lonely in Traditional Churches

The Huffington Post recently published an article entitled "It's Lonely Being a Liberal Asian-American Christian" that's been drawing some social media buzz. When reading it, it's easy to see why. Written by Liz Lin, the article is clear, honest, and fair. But more importantly, it articulates what a lot of Asian Americans are feeling these days. 

You see there's a growing group of Asian American Christians (whom she calls "progressive") that feels alone and frustrated by the Asian churches around them. Like most of us, they grew up sheltered in their Asian Christian bubbles. However unlike a lot of us, they're also engaged in the real world. They've met liberal professors, conversed with non-Christian co-workers, and encountered Christians from different traditions. In other words, they have a diverse perspective of life, which makes them look at their Christian faith a bit differently.

And this also makes them look at their churches a bit differently too. They now notice the traditional norms that Asian churches seem to presume, and they wonder why more modern practices aren't being considered. What makes it worse is that no one else seems to notice. They all just blindly accept the status quo. That's why this group of Asian Americans feels alone and frustrated. And that's why finding an article like Lin's is a breath of fresh air. It's like reading a chapter from an Amy Tan novel where a character who resembles us finds her voice and speaks on our behalf.

Personally I think I see what Lin sees and I feel what she feels. But while I agree with many of her premises, I have different conclusions. Therefore while I want to affirm a lot of the thoughts she has, I also want to respectfully point out areas of disagreement.

I'm not looking to debate; I just want to dialogue - particularly with other Asian Americans who resonate with her article and are tempted to hop on a bandwagon filled with lonely/frustrated Asian Christians looking to remove the conservative shackles of our forefathers. Before you do that, I'd ask you to reconsider a few things.

Important Asian American Issues That We Should Pay Attention To

One observation Lin makes that I completely agree with is her description of the Asian American church landscape. While most Asian churches are conservative, a growing number of Asian Americans are not. And they're asking questions that conservative Asian churches just aren't answering. They have questions about race, politics, and gender - but they're more likely to hear a five-part sermon series on "How to Know You're Saved."

It's not just the pulpit though. As Lin notes, most Asians in the congregation don't seem interested in discussing these issues either. They're more interested in talking about Christian dating or the recent church potluck. But when it comes to how our faith applies to important social issues, it's difficult for them to find a conversation partner.

Perhaps the most important issue though that Lin points out is how Asian churches make it uncomfortable to even raise such questions. That's because most Asian churches already presuppose the answer. They presuppose that every Asian who walks into church should know that abortion is wrong, male-headship is normal, and same-sex marriage is sinful. That's why they never explain these views; instead they simply declare or presuppose the answer. There's no recognition that people in the congregation may actually have contrary viewpoints.

As a result, it feels unsafe to ask questions because there's an expectation that you're supposed to already know and agree with the traditional values of the church. And if you do actually raise questions, Lin accurately notes that "your perspective may not be warmly received." In other words, Asian churches are (ironically) almost the last place a person would want to talk about these social issues because there seems to be no room for honest dialogue.

And that's why when you read the comment section of Lin's article, you see so many people writing, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one." We have cultivated a culture of silence to a race that's already known for its silence. This is an important issue that Lin raises and is something that Asian Christian leaders need to really consider or they'll end up losing a lot of young Asian Americans.

Why Asian Churches Hold to Conservative Values

Though there is much to appreciate about Lin's article, I do have some disagreements. One example is her explanation of why Asian churches are conservative in the first place.

Like a lot of suspicious Asians I know, Lin argues that Asian churches are often conservative to "maintain the social mores of their home culture, which are more conservative than broader American culture." She also points to the influence of the "play-it-safe" mentality passed down by our first generation parents and the impact that conservative white evangelicalism has on us.

So why don't you see women preaching in conservative Asian churches? It's due to the "patriarchal values that still permeate Asian cultures." Why are Asian churches "behind" on LGBT issues? It's due to a traditional view of marriage that Asians have long adopted. In other words, Lin argues that conservative Asian churches hold to conservative values because they view everything through their cultural lenses. So when you see pastors use biblical passages to support their beliefs, you need to realize that "these [traditional] values...shape how Asian clergy interpret the Bible."

While I agree that some Asian churches hold conservative beliefs due simply to their cultural backgrounds, I think it's presumptuous to conclude this about all Asian churches. So a conservative Asian church's doctrinal statement has nothing to do with their exegesis, research, and studies? It's simply due to a stubborn cultural bias that they refuse to change or are unable to recognize?

If that's the case, then shouldn't this work both ways? If a conservative church's interpretation of the Bible is doomed to cultural bias, then aren't liberal churches just as susceptible? As much as conservative churches may be blinded by the traditional influences of the past, aren't liberal churches just as blinded by the modern influences of the present? The scalpel works both ways.

In other words, I think Lin gives a false and overly simplistic characterization of why conservative churches are the way they are. It's true that we all carry cultural baggage into our interpretation of the Bible. But it's unfair to imply that only one side (conservatives) are at the mercy to such influences while the other side (liberals) are completely neutral.

How Liberal Churches May Solve Our Lonely Problems

Another disagreement I have is the implied solution to a progressive Asian's spiritual loneliness. Though she never explicitly states this, Lin seems to wish there were more Asian communities out there that followed a liberal tradition. That's why she recommends churches such as City Church San Francisco and Vox Veniae - churches with a "progressive" stance on women in ministry and LGBT issues. 

I can understand how such spaces would make some Asians feel more free to ask the questions they have. And of course if you've already made up your mind on the answer to these questions, then liberal churches with a sizable Asian population would be an attractive destination.

But from my experience, there are a lot of progressive Asians who haven't made conclusions about these issues. Rather they are still in the process of asking questions and searching for answers. Should Christians be against same-sex unions? Can you be a Christian and pro-choice? Is it misogynistic to believe in male leadership? Progressive Asians don't want cliche answers ("Because the Bible says so"; "Because love wins"); they want honest dialogue about these topics from the pulpit and in the community.

However, as mentioned above, conservative Asian churches tend to not create enough intentional spaces to have such dialogue. In the meantime, it seems like liberal churches are actually addressing these issues, which make them seem like an attractive destination. In other words, liberal churches seem to be answering the questions that this group of Asian Americans are asking.

But just because liberal churches are answering the right questions doesn't mean they're providing the right answers. In fact, it seems like Christians who turn to such churches are finding themselves disappointed. That's because a lot of Asians - even progressive ones - are still looking for transcendent answers that come from a divine source. They want their faith to still challenge them and their beliefs rather than simply affirming what they want to believe.

So to the progressive Asians out there: I don't think you'll necessarily resolve your spiritual loneliness by finding liberal-minded communities because, to be frank, their answers aren't really that impressive. But progressive Asians can't find a home in traditional Asian communities either because they aren't paying enough attention to social topics. So we're kind of stuck and in need of a better alternative.

The Central Focus of Jesus' Message

When reading Lin's story, I couldn't help but notice that her perspective of Asian churches changed when her view of Jesus and the Christian life changed. As Lin writes, "It was no longer just about Jesus as my personal Savior and helping people like me; it was about Jesus as a revolutionary who came to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18), and it was about using my voice and my privilege on behalf of those who don't have those things."

I may be mistaken, but it seems like Lin's view of the Christian faith is similar to the Social Gospel movement of the 20th century that focuses on the ethical problems of social life. Advocates of this movement see Jesus primarily as a liberator of the less fortunate and calls for His disciples to do the same. So if this is really Jesus' core message, then our main concern as Christians should be to engage the social injustices of the world. And if we believe this, then of course we're frustrated by traditional churches that seem to only focus on "spiritual issues" rather than on social issues like race, gender, and other arenas where inequality may exist. 

But is this really the main point of Jesus' message? Is this really the central focus of the Christian faith? The Social Gospel seems to confuse the implications of the gospel with the message of the gospel. It equates the gospel with cultural restoration. But as other Christians point out, the gospel is larger than this. While cultural restoration is important, we need to see that this is only possible when Jesus personally restores us. Jesus came not only to save the world from suffering but to save people from their sins (1 Tim 1:15).

But if Jesus came mainly to relieve the poor and marginal, then why did He need to die? What was the purpose of the cross? Why does the Bible speak so much about our need for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God? As important as justice and mercy is, Jesus' death addressed something even deeper than those issues.

And this makes me also realize why liberal churches seem far more interested in issues like justice, race, gender, and human rights than their conservative brethren. I think liberal churches tend to focus on social issues because their gospel focuses more on social issues. But conservative churches tend to focus on spiritual issues because their gospel focuses more on spiritual issues. Of course the legitimacy of these focuses needs further discussion, but it now makes more sense to me why this is often the case.

So if you're that Asian American who feels alone in a traditional church, just know I feel you. I also seem to have questions that many people around me don't care about. I also wish social issues were addressed more at the pulpit and in the community. And I also resonated with Lin's article and find myself applauding a lot of what she says.

But I also realize that she's not really saying anything new. Rather she seems to be applying an old message (social gospel) into a new context (Asian American). To her credit, I don't think she's trying to push a "liberal agenda" but simply wants to create space for dialogue. I guess I'm also trying to do just that.