Can the Asian American Church Survive Alongside the White Megachurch?
A few months ago, the New York Times published an article titled "A Quiet Exodus" that explains how black worshippers are starting to leave the white evangelical megachurch. The article reports how in 2012, more than two-thirds of predominately white churches had a significant black population. However, after the 2016 election, a trend is taking place where black Christians are "divorcing" white evangelicalism and returning to predominately African-American congregations.
But while African Americans are slowly starting to leave the white megachurch and making their way back to ethnic-specific congregations, the reverse seems to be happening with Asian Americans. The trend these days is that Asians are slowly leaving their predominately Asian congregations. As I mentioned before, Asian Americans today seem to find Asian churches less appealing. That's why you don't see many English Ministries (EMs) filled with older families but are comprised mainly of young folks who are in their 20s-30s. EMs serve almost as holding cells until people get older and leave for bigger and better things.
But while some Asians may be leaving their Asian church because of faith issues, I find that most of them are simply worshipping in another place: the white megachurch. That's why if you visit any white megachurch, you'll often notice a sizable Asian American demographic. And if talk to any of these Asians, chances are that they came from a small Asian church context. They'll tell you that even though they loved their old church, they got "burnt out" from serving or grew tired of their church's insular culture. So now they're attending a megachurch so they can "experience something different."
Now technically speaking, Asian churches and white megachurches are part of the same team (God's kingdom), so we should rejoice no matter which church a Christian attends. But the reality is that many of these megachurches are attracting members whom these small Asian churches desperately depend on. Therefore, I'm sure many of Asian pastors can't help but feel a bit weary when a new megachurch opens down the street. It's like a small mom-and-pop shop seeing a Target or Walmart opening next door. How can they possibly "compete" in keeping their members?
Why the Sudden Appeal of Megachurches?
I remember back when I was in my early 20's, I never saw the megachurch as an option. They all seemed so shallow and superficial to me. However, as I got older and had a chance to visit different mainline churches, I now understand the appeal.
Megachurches are just better.
Now when I say "better," I'm primarily thinking about the Sunday experience. When you compare them to a typical Asian church, there's just no competition. I mean, in your typical Asian church, it can be challenging to attend a Sunday service. After all, there are probably only 1-2 service times offered. When you actually go to church, the parking tends to be rough. The church building can be weird and feel embarrassingly oriental. The AC is often conveniently not working during the summer. And the sermons - man, they're long. Then afterwards, you find yourself having to stick around to talk and loiter in the parking lot for hours. As a result, Sundays are draining.
But visiting a megachurch is such a different experience. There are 4-6 service times to choose from. Parking is easy and often have parking attendants to guide or shuttle you into the main sanctuary. The church building itself is huge and beautifully renovated. The AC is blasting. The sermons are 25-30 minutes. The worship is top-notch. And the children's ministry? Absolutely amazing. Professional sign-ins and check-outs. Plus, since Sunday service is so big, you can blend in the crowd and do your church-thing while quietly exiting the premises.
In other words, the megachurch tends to be appealing because it's so convenient and professional. And because of this, they expose just how ghetto Asian churches tend to be. Now when you're young, you don't really mind ghetto-ness, which explains why you don't see many younger Asians visiting megachurches. Instead, it's Asian families that are checking them out. That’s because when you're a parent, there are already so many obstacles to go through just to get to church. Loading the car. Screaming kids. Meals. Nap times. Parents can't help but think, "Church better be worth it today."
But when your small Asian church has wretched parking, a ghetto Sunday service, and super-long fellowship, it makes that megachurch down the street look pretty enticing. And that's why I think we're starting to see a slow Asian exodus into large mainstream churches.
Can Asian Churches Survive?
So if the megachurch is so great, why would any Asian American choose to stay in their small Asian church? Why don't they just leave to a megachurch? I'm sure there are a variety of reasons. Some probably don't want to approach church as consumers and think there are more important qualities than "convenience." Others don't feel comfortable around white-majority churches because they still feel most at home around other Asians. And still others are just simply loyal to their church.
However, most of these reasons actually depends on the individual Christian. It presumes that commitment, comfort, and loyalty are all that an Christians need in order to stay at church. But this probably won't last forever. As this next generation of Asians gets older and starts raising families, they'll probably hear from friends how great Saddleback or Rock Harbor are; they'll see from social media all the amazing events and children programs these churches offer; and they'll look at their Asian church and see all they're doing is drinking boba together and setting up a tiny Hallelujah Night on Halloween.
And this will make them ask themselves, "Why am I still here?"
And so Asian churches should ask themselves this question. Why should any of our members stay in our church? What reasons can we provide on why our churches should still exist alongside these "better" megachurches out there that seem have so many more resources and seem to be doing so much? I can only think of three.
Three Qualities That Can Distinguish Asian Churches
If you ever attend a megachurch, you'll notice the pastor is usually a dynamic speaker who preaches very clearly while emphasizing the practical applications of a biblical passage. The sermons are often short, engaging, and sprinkled with funny anecdotes. And while some Christians like this kind of stuff, others find this type of preaching to be pretty shallow.
That's because most megachurches seem to have blurry theological distinctives. I mean, what specific doctrines do these churches hold to? You get the sense that most of them are loosely baptists and probably have a statement of faith hidden somewhere on their website. But for the most part, a megachurch's theology tend to be overly general. And that's likely because megachurches are trying to reach the general public, so their theological distinctives can't help but get de-emphasized for the sake of mission. But the unfortunate consequence of this is that the preaching gets watered down and lacks biblical depth.
So this is why it's so important for Asian churches to clarify their theological distinctives and emphasize biblical growth. Asian Christians may stay in Asian churches if they realize this church follows a biblical tradition or provides spiritual growth that they can't experience elsewhere. But in order for this to happen, Asian churches need to clarify their theological leanings and disciple their members in biblical knowledge.
I'm not saying the culture of an Asian church should be overtly doctrinal, but I do think distinctives need to be clarified and spiritual depth needs to be emphasized. Because if Asian churches don't do this, their theology will be just as general and shallow as that megachurch down the street - and what will stop Asians from going there?
Some people like the megachurch because you go in, you perform your spiritual duty, and then you go out. Apart from the awkward "say hi to your neighbor" portion of the service, you don't really interact with anybody. Nobody asks those annoyingly invasive questions like, "How are you doing?" or "Where have you been?" or "Dating anyone?" Going to a church like this is so nice (esp. for introverts like me). And yet I can't help but think going to church like this is so sad and unhealthy.
The church is called the body of Christ for a reason. Every part is supposed to need one another (1 Cor 12:27) and bear one another's burdens (Gal 6:2). And while I'm not saying megachurches can’t provide this type of community for its members, I do think it's much more difficult to find this type of a community in a church comprised of a thousands of people. Plus for Asians who start attending a megachurch, many of them tend to lament the lack of community aspect of their church. Sure they're part of a cell group, but it's still really different and far more impersonal than what they're used to.
In my opinion, community is actually the strength that Asian churches naturally have. While Western churches tend to be handicapped by their individualistic tendencies, Asian churches are communal by nature. In fact, Asian churches are so communal that many Asians only go to church for the community. And while this is probably not good for Christians to do, it shows the potential strength Asians have in their ability to build relationships. So Asian churches should probably emphasize the community life of their church that looks different than the shallow community life of the megachurch.
The last thing I can think of on why an Asian Christian would stay at in a predominately Asian church is if that church has a unique vision. Most Asian churches out there die because they're simply "playing church." They come to worship; sing songs; listen to a sermon; go out to eat; and then repeat. There's no reason to go to church other than to simply go to church. And if that's the case, then why would they keep going to this particular church when a larger, better one exists nearby?
I think this is where Asian churches need to clarify their vision. Why do they exist? What do they feel like God wants them to uniquely do? It's not enough to say, "We're here to make disciples" or "We're here to share the gospel." These generic vision statements drive me nuts because they can be applied to any church - and that's because every church should be doing this! And it's not enough for churches to simply be known as the "Asian church" anymore because Asian Christians today have more broadened spiritual palette.
This is where I think churches need to look at themselves - their staff, congregation, giftings, and location - and see what in particular God really wants them to do. What's your church's niche? It's a given that your church is here to make disciples and share the gospel. But how? And to whom? Is your church here to exposit the Bible verse-by-verse together? Well, at least you have a niche. Is your church here to minister to the poor in the city? Not sure if that's the mission of the church, but at least you have a unique vision.
And it's this God-given uniqueness that Asian churches need or they will rightfully lose all their members to the generic large church down the street.
A couple of final thoughts re: this topic
- Contrary to how I may sound, I don't hate the megachurch. But I do think the reasons a lot of Asians run to the megachurch tend to be short-sighted and they will often realize this after the honeymoon period is over.
- I'm not writing this as a strategic way for Asian churches to survive. Rather, I think the generic nature of the megachurch reveals how much more biblical Asian churches need to become.
- Some pastors think Asian churches should learn from the megachurch by also being professional and programmatic. While I think quality is important, focusing on this is a mistake. Asian churches that do this come off as cheap imitations of the real deal
- Some may question why we even need to have Asian churches around. After all, isn't it biblical for a church to be diverse? Aren't megachurches creating such diverse communities? I can see this point. But I still think there's a need for Asian churches. But that’s for another blog.
- I trust that no matter what, God will build up His church and will ordain some to die while others survive. But I also believe it tends to be the biblically healthy ones that stick around.