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Why We Left the Chinese Church: A Story

March 19, 2014

By Milton Eng

ISAAC, East Coast Project Director



The individuals in the following story do not represent any particular persons but are fictional and composite sketches of people whom I’ve met, interviewed, and personally know.

Tim and Cindy are Chinese-Americans in their early thirties with an eighteen-month-old girl and reside in New York City. They became Christians in their college years while attending school in the Boston area and moved to the Big Apple for work. Like many transplants, they ended up attending Tim Keller’s church, Redeemer. With a young child and hoping to have another, they began the transition to a New Jersey suburb for more space and better schools.

After finally settling in to a modest 3-bedroom, 2 ½ bath home in a good area, they began asking themselves, “What about church?” Although they had been attending a predominantly white church for a number of years in the city, they felt a little more open this time to trying an ethnic Chinese-American congregation. After all, there were no Redeemer branches or church plants in their NJ area. With a few visits here and there of other churches, Tim and Cindy finally settled into a fairly large-sized Chinese church about thirty minutes away from their home. This church had been around for over twenty years, had purchased property and built their own church building, and of course had the three ‘C’s, “… Chinese Christian Church …,” in its name. The Chinese congregation was about two hundred and the English one hundred.

What really brought Tim and Cindy into the church was that they had friends there who, like themselves, were a young couple with a young child. So, in good company with a decent sized congregation and an openness to what Chinese-American spirituality might look like, Tim and Cindy began attending the English Service of CCC on a regular basis.

The English Congregation had begun to experience an upsurge in numbers due mainly to the children and young people brought in by new immigrant families moving into the area. The church hired an English Pastor from a traditional, conservative seminary but he was not Chinese but Caucasian-American. Tim and Cindy wondered why if the EC was a Chinese-American congregation, they couldn’t hire a Chinese-American? After all, part of their own spiritual journey was to be open to what role ethnicity might play in their spirituality. Nevertheless, it was not a make or break issue as long as he was a good speaker and expounded the Bible. Pastor Jeff settled in and began ministering to the needs of the English Congregation. Like most English Congregations, CCC had a large percentage of youth and the ministry was run mainly by a group of twenty-somethings. Tim and Cindy began to feel more and more out-of-place as the direction of English Ministry was moving more and more towards the younger generation. Pastor Jeff felt conflicted. He knew the future of the ministry was with the young couples in the congregation. But on the other hand he was feeling more and more pressure from Chinese parents to minister to their children. In the end, he could not do both.

Tim and Cindy continued attending CCC for another two years. More and more, the sermons were becoming topical and less expository, more ‘cute’ and less ‘deep’. After a while, they felt the worship and messages were speaking to someone else. They finally left the church after attending solidly for five years. Now, they are active and leading members in a Caucasian-American congregation.

This fictional narrative is written to illustrate some of the reasons why Chinese-Americans leave ethnic churches including (a) a lack of theological vision for the English Ministry, (b) a tendency to feed the youth, and (c) conflicting objectives for the English Pastor. It is the vision of ISAAC East to bridge the gap between ethnic and English congregations and to help Asian Americans be all they can be in Christ.  

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