Most of us are aware that our personalities tend to develop through a series of distinct phases in life. For example, our childhood is often viewed as the "innocent" years where everything seemed so carefree; our teenage years are the "rebellious" years where we were searching for autonomy; and our adult years are the "accomplishment" years where we seek purpose. And while each of us may react differently to these phases, we all inevitably experience them.
Psychologists look at these different patterns of social behavior and create "developmental stage theories" - theories that describe how humans psychologically develop. During each of these stages, social conflicts arise that will either lead to personal growth or potential failure. In other words, there's everybody goes through a typical life cycle that's divided into different stages. The better we understand these stages, the better we can navigate through them.
Well, one thing I've been noticing is how there seems to be different stages of spiritual development that Asian American Christians tend to go through. During each of these stages, spiritual conflicts develop that will either lead to spiritual growth or stagnancy. In other words, it seems like Asian American Christians go through a typical spiritual life cycle that can also be divided into different stages.
What I want to propose is a developmental theory that most Asian Christians seem to go through. These stages are correlated with what I consider to be four common social stages that most Asian Americans seem to go through: college, post-college, young adult, and parenthood. Now I'm aware there are other ways to divide these social and spiritual stages of life, but I'm going off my Asian American Christian context.
I'm also aware these descriptions are very general and that there will always be exceptions. But like the different psychological developmental theories out there, I'd want to propose a framework that generally describes what a lot of Asians seem to go through spiritually in order to help us better navigate through these stages. So with that being said, here are the four spiritual stages.
[Note: I know high school is a critical spiritual stage. But for the sake of brevity and the lack of personal experience, I skipped this initial phase. So no offense youth pastors]
Stage 1: College (Ages 18-21)
Most Asian Americans attend college and tend to find their career, friends, and spouses during this stage of life. This is also the time where Asians tend to become spiritually awaken. While most Asians grew up in the church and profess to be Christians, they often enter college as "cultural Christians" who don't take their faith very seriously. That's why during freshmen year, a lot of Asian Christians tend to prioritize school, friendship, and romance over their faith. Sure they'll go to church on Sundays and check out a campus ministry. But Christianity won't really be a priority.
But something usually happens during their sophomore or junior year where God will become inexplicably real to them. It could be a crazy retreat or mission trip that wakes them up; it could be a secret sin that's finally revealed; or more often than not, it could be a broken dating relationship that makes them see their need for God. Whatever the case, a personal revival will take place in college where they begin to take their faith more seriously.
When this transpires, a couple of things happen. First, their social life will revolve around their rediscovered faith. They'll distance themselves from their "secular friends" and avoid blatantly sinful social settings and activities (e.g. drinking, clubbing, etc.). Second, they'll surround themselves with other Christians and get super-involved in their campus ministry. Lastly, they'll have a passionate zeal to grow in the faith. Notice it's often collegians who are taking notes during the sermon, posting bible verses on social media, and planning to do something radical for the kingdom.
Most Asian Americans will look back at their time in college as the peak of their spiritual lives because, well, that's when they were most spiritual. And you know what? There's something beautiful about this stags. Collegians tend to be idealistic, energetic, and passionate about their faith. They're usually flexible and willing to try new things. This is why most major spiritual revivals began with students and why most pastors love serving this age group. There's something special about this time.
At the same time though, college can set Christians up for spiritual failure. This is why I call college the "overtly spiritual" stage. Something tends to feel off. That's because for a lot of collegians, their spiritual lives look a little imbalanced. I mean, it's weird when collegians post bible verses on social media but struggle reading their bibles at home. It's strange when collegians serve hard at church but don't care about their grades. And it's bewildering when collegians are eager to make disciples globally but never care to make disciples locally.
In other words, a lot of collegians tend to act a lot more spiritual than they really are. Hence, they’re often overtly spiritual. It's almost as if they're trying to compensate for something outwardly that's not inwardly developed yet. Why does this happen? Well, my guess is it's due the "Christian bubble" most Asians find themselves in. When your entire social network is "Christian," you can't help but feel pressured to act a certain way, so collegians try to adopt a false persona to be accepted. Therefore, their faith ends up being more social than transformational.
Stage 2: Post-College (Ages 22-27)
A lot of people tend to categorize "young adult life" into one large, indiscriminate life stage that encapsulates life between college and marriage. But I've noticed an interesting period of time that a lot of Asian Americans go through that I'll call the "post-college" life. You see, for a lot of Asians, the first several years after college tend to be the most spiritually difficult years. I mean, after hanging out with Christians everyday and spend their free time serving, most post-collegians are living back home far away from their Christian friends while trying to apply for a job or school.
In other words, the Christian life looks really different after college. For a lot of Christians who were cloistered in their holy huddles, this can be spiritually traumatizing. They're not used to working a job with a bunch of secular co-workers who don't give a crap about Jesus. They're not used to fellowshipping with people who are outside the 18-21 age bracket. And they're definitely not used to their faith being more of a hindrance than benefit to them.
You see, in college, there were so many social advantages to being a Christian. You can hang out with nice people, date the good girls/guys, and have opportunities to serve as a leader. But post-college? Being a Christian has major social disadvantages. You "cant" go to bars with co-workers on Friday nights; you "have" to go to church on Sunday; and your beliefs that were once considered socially plausible by your peers are now weird and even bigoted by the culture at large.
As a result, a lot of Asian Christians feel confused. They were spiritually thriving in college, but now their faith is withering. Why does this discrepancy take place? Well, I think what a lot of Asians don't realize is that in college, they probably weren't as spiritually as mature as they thought. As I alluded to earlier, our faith in college is often based more on hype and excitement than biblical truth and conviction. It was more about the community and our self-esteem than it was about Christ. And without the crutch of a college ministry to support us, our faith is being revealed for what it is.
Post-college life confronts you with this reality, which is often why this is the most spiritually painful yet crucial stage that an Asian Christian goes through.
Stage 3: Young Adult (Ages 28-40)
If Christians are able to make it through the "confused" stage of life, they will often end up being solid members in the church who serve in various areas of the church. However, a lot of Asians falter. After going through a period of confusion and trying to survive as a Christian, something changes in your late-twenties. You grow spiritually jaded and simply live life. When this transpires, that's when you’ve become a young adult and entered the "nominal christian" stage.
This is a similar stage to "post-college," except young adults are no longer trying. Their spiritual lives have taken a major backseat to their career, romance, and traveling. Jesus just isn't a priority anymore. That doesn't mean they won't be at church. They'll still be there. But church will be much more about hanging out with their friends than growing in their faith. And you can tell this is the case because they'll struggle worshiping on Sundays; they'll be eyeing their phones throughout the sermon; and when service is over, they'll mingle with nobody but their close circle of friends.
But the rest of their weeks? It'll often look no different than a non-Christian's life. If they ever take a step back and examine themselves, they'll notice how unmotivated they've been to pray and read their bibles; they'll realize how unappealing it is to participate in any type of church function; they'll become aware of how foreign it is now to be "kingdom-minded" at work; and they'll recognize how distant they are from the God they once claimed to worship. They'll realize all of this and, apart from the grace of God, they won't care.
So how do Christians avoid the nominal stage? Well, the most popular is by being around a vibrant Christian community, which usually means serving in the church's youth or college ministry. Young adults who serve in ministries like these tend to do spiritually well, but this often a temporary solution. A more practical way to avoid nominalism is, quite simply, by remaining committed in your spiritual disciplines.
Yet this often is what's missing in the life of a young adult: a vibrant, consistent discipline of communing with God. They're "too busy" or "too tired" or "too jaded" to make time for God in their lives. And that's why God seems to be missing in their lives too.
Stage 4: Parents (late 30s-50s)
No matter what Asian Americans go through in their faith as a collegian or young adult, most of them tend to go to church after getting married and having kids. Why so? Well, for those who have always been faithful, it's because they love Jesus and want to serve His church. But these guys often end up being an elder or deacon in the church. But what about parents who don't really prioritize their faith? A lot of them still go to church, but it's often for moral reasons ("it's the right thing to do") or nostalgic ones ("I want my kids to experience church").
There are a couple of interesting thing about Asian American parents. First, a lot of them aren't really involved in the life of the church. They tend to be the least active in their church's bible study, fellowship activities, and serving ministries. It's almost like parents have "spiritually retired" from doing anything in the church. Why so? Well, it could be that they're just really busy with life (kids are no joke). But I feel like it also has to do with parents feeling like they've "paid their dues" - they've grown and served enough as a Christian - so they can now stand back and relax at church.
Second, a lot of Asian American parents tend to revolve their faith around their children. As I mentioned before, parents will often be missing from the general activities of the church. But the one time they come out of the shadows is when there's a church activity for the children. I sometimes wonder if Asian American parents tend are reacting to what we went through as children when our 1st-generation parents seemed to neglect our spiritual lives by making us sit through a non-English speaking worship service.
But most importantly, parents care a LOT about convenience. We're busy people and everything is viewed with a cost-benefit framework. And I think this is why so many Asian parents are starting to migrate towards the mega-church. It's not because mega-churches have a stronger theology or a more vibrant community. It's because they’re super-convenient to attend. I mean, you don't see Asian collegians or young adults flocking to mega-churches. It's mainly parents because convenience is important.
So Asian parents will always be attending church and be faithful members who won't be struggling with crazy sins. But the seem to carry a spirit of passivity and unteachability with them and their faith tends to only become activated when it revolves around their children.
Again I know I'm generalizing and there are exceptions to this spiritual life cycle. However, from my observation, these tend to be the spiritual patterns that Asian Americans go through. I don't mean to be fatalistic and think these are inevitable cycles that define a Christian's life. On the contrary, I think there are things that Christians can do in each stage.
For collegians who may be overtly spiritual, I'd recommend them to grounding themselves in solid, biblical truth. You avoid the "overtly" part by matching the faith you proclaim on the outside with a deeply rooted faith from the inside. The best way to do this is to find older mentors not to share your dating problems with but to go through God's word with.
For post-collegians who are confused, I'd encourage them to realize this is the time where the true maturity of their faith is being revealed. Spiritual truths that they've once presumed must now be explored and faith that was once based on the community must become personalized. Otherwise, post-collegians will become nominal Christians.
For young adults who are nominal, I'd encourage them to attend to their spiritual disciplines that they're probably neglecting. Before wondering why God seems so distant and unreal, go to the places where He promises to reveal Himself.
For parents who feel spiritually retired, I'd encourage them to remember that spiritual growth is a continual process that is meant to last a lifetime. We never stop growing. And when we realize this, we'll be the most effective disciplers to our children and the young people at church because of the life experience and wisdom that comes along with our spiritual growth.