Francis Chan's Ethnic Identity Journey

Francis Chan’s Ethnic Identity Journey

I have long been fascinated with Francis Chan. I first “discovered” the man in 2005 when I was a pimply high school sophomore, still relatively new to faith and already getting bored with my church’s sermons. I was captivated by this pastor with a Chinese name who preached, quite powerfully, to huge crowds of white people. When I heard those first audio-only sermons—a 5-message series preached at Forest Home  Ministry—I imagined a short pale Chinese guy with glasses commanding a huge auditorium of eager white folks.

Little did I know, Francis Chan looked more like the Chinese version of Montel Williams than the nerdy guy I first imagined, but by that point it didn’t matter.

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I had already been sold. The man fundamentally changed the way I understood who Jesus was. I found his church online—a mostly white, affluent suburban church in Simi Valley called Cornerstone—and downloaded his sermons every week for the remainder of high school without fail. His 2006 sermon, “Lukewarm and Loving It” absolutely wrecked my entire senior year of high school. I owe much to Francis Chan.

Last month, I wrote, without thinking much of it, that Francis Chan was “somewhat of the patron saint of Asian American Christianity,” which drew the ire of a couple prominent Asian American Christian leaders on Twitter. I get it. It’s the same reason an article came out in 2009 that asked, “Is Francis Chan a sell out?” So consider this post a response to that question, five years overdue. Because in all the years I’ve been listening to Francis preach, I have never heard even a hint that he cares that he is Chinese in an American Evangelical world where it is precisely his Chinese-ness that separates him from all the white faces he ministers with and to.

This is the tension I’ve discovered in my (one-way) relationship with Francis Chan over the years: I was first powerfully drawn to him because I believed I could identify with him as a Chinese American. His very appearance validated my experience. This is why, as I’ve written previously, Francis Chan’s guest sermon at Reality SF catalyzed an influx of Asian Americans in their congregation—that’s how powerful Francis Chan’s face is. But I am becoming more and more convinced that Francis Chan couldn’t care less that he is Chinese. Nonetheless, I do believe that his Christianity is profoundly affected by his ethnicity in ways that he is unable to articulate. To test this hypothesis, I figured I would put my Francis devotion to good use: I combed through all the sermons I’ve downloaded over the years, including a few of his newer sermons, to find all the times Francis Chan mentioned being Chinese, or at the very least expressed some kind of conscientiousness regarding his race or otherness. This is what I found:

The oldest example I could find was from a sermon in 2004, where Francis reflected on growing up in Hong Kong:

I grew up in Hong Kong the first 5 years of my life and I was raised by a bunch of monks and my grandma. It’s kinda cool. I grew up in this little temple and my grandma was a very devout Buddhist. And I remember when I was in college, I went back to Hong Kong to visit my grandmother and we went to see where I grew up and stuff like that. And my grandma, every time there was a Buddha, she would, like, bow down to it… And then we got to this place where there was this giant, iron Buddha, it was about as big as this ceiling; it was this huge thing. So my grandma’s all fired up. She’s like “Aahhh” and comes up to this Buddha, but this time after she goes and pays respect to Buddha, she looks at [me and my siblings] and says, “I want you guys to pay respect to Buddha now.” And there’s something about, in our culture, you always respect the elderly. You don’t ever tell them no when they ask you to do something… But then she looks at me and is waiting for me to go up to this idol to worship. And I looked at her and said “I can’t do it. I’m not going to do it.” And I told her, “I believe in Jesus Christ and therefore I can’t bow down to some idol. (John 1, 7/5/2004)

Francis, speaking to a mostly-white audience (we can assume as much moving forward), shares about how his faith in Jesus separated him from his Buddhist grandmother. The subtext here is the pairing of Francis’s American and Christian identities over and against the pairing of his grandmother’s Asian and Buddhist identities, almost as if to say that becoming Christian necessitated the abandonment of his Asian roots, lest he worship an idol. Francis continues in his telling of the story:

And I’ll never forget what she said to me. She looked me in the eyes and she says, “[Francis speaks in Chinese]” … Can you believe that? So what would you do, y’know? [To the mostly-white audience, now laughing] I had to learn your language! No, what she said was, “You go your way, I’ll go my way, we’ll both get there.” And it’s sad because that’s so much of what the world believes is, y’know, whatever you believe to be true is true. But y’know, the truth is, there is a truth. (1 John, 7/5/2004)

Francis’s choice of telling his story in this way gives me pause. Because what is the point of speaking in Chinese to his white audience except for it to be laughed at or to further accentuate the otherness of his grandmother’s culture and religion relative to his American Christianity? His grandmother’s Buddhism, tied inextricably with her indelible Asianness, is used as an example of the world’s folly, and coupled with a Confucian-style aphorism, is shown to be backwards and false. Francis’s single minded faith in Jesus comes through powerfully in this story, trumping both family affiliation and culture (which it should), but at what expense? In this short reflection on his trip to Hong Kong, he happily cuts all ties to his family background.

And this theme of using his Asianness as a joke appeared to come up an uncomfortable amount:

Some of you go, “It’s weird that your pastor’s Chinese.” No. It’s weird that you’re not! (Lukewarm and Loving It, 10/1/2006)

You see, spiritual knowledge isn’t just about intellect… you don’t get to know things of God just through pure intellect and just through studying enough. If that were true, then y’know, all the most intelligent—all the Asians would know God the best. Just kidding. (Grace, Grace, Grace, 11/4/2007)

When I was a kid, all I cared about was what everyone thought about me. Because after my mom died they sent me to HK, so I only spoke Chinese when I came back to America and it was just weird trying to make friends. Because all your friends have sandwiches in their lunch box and you have sticky rice covered in green leaves… it was so hard to fit in. And all I cared about is “Oh I want people to rike me.” (Identity Unleashed, 9/7/2013)

Especially with the last example, Francis actually has an opportunity to say something insightful about his desire to fit in amongst his white friends. He notices his difference. He feels his otherness. This particular sermon, Identity Unleashed, was held in San Francisco with the homie Jeremy Lin. There were mobs of Asians in attendance, and Francis knew this. Francis began to share something that I’m sure a lot of the audience could relate to and understand, but he cuts the reflection short with a cheap, tasteless joke about Chinese accents.

What’s the point?? Why in God’s name would you even say rike instead of “like” except for cheap laughs, except to reveal a deep insecurity in regards to your ethnic identity the moment you start to share with even just a little depth about your otherness? And this is what I see in Francis repeatedly in his reflections on Asianness, and we will see this in the remaining examples: he knows that he is Chinese but he is unable to properly identify what about his Chinese-ness makes him who he is or how it nuances the way he understands how to follow Jesus. All he is capable of doing with his ethnic identity is telling jokes.

This is my exceptionally profound thesis regarding Francis Chan’s ethnic identity: he’s got issues! But I believe that if he were to work through them, he would become an even more powerful witness to the Gospel. I know this because it is readily apparent to me that the reasons Francis has listed regarding his inability to fully understand God’s Grace and Good News are distinctly cultural reasons. Francis just doesn’t see them as such. And his persistence in an Evangelical theology that does not value sociological or anthropological principles, a theology that pays no mind to cultural or ethnic difference, will only continue to blind him to his own cultural brokenness. Until Francis owns his ethnic identity, he will not live into the full Gospel he is trying to proclaim. Here is his self-evaluation:

I’ve been realizing I’ve got so many insecurities in myself just as a person. And I don’t want to get all psychological on you, but I know some of it, you know, my mom died giving birth to me, and so I always felt like my dad resented me being born. Like, I just really believe that if he could live his life over, he would have just wished I was never born. And we never had a conversation, my dad and I never had—one conversation I could remember—when I was born he sent me off to Hong Kong to grow up with my grandmother and he got remarried and reestablished here so I moved back to the states. And then when I was 8 or 9 years old my step mom died in a car accident and my dad got married again and then he died when I was 12. And that’s just the way I feel—I feel like he never really wanted me alive. He would just get so ticked off at me. Everything I did wrong, he would just go after me. And just, I don’t know. And maybe he loved me, maybe he wanted me there, but I didn’t think that way. So when I read in the bible about God being this fatherly figure, it’s hard for me to get past some of this stuff, naturally. It’s hard for me to just think, oh cool he’s a father figure, that means he loves me. Because the only picture I really have is, well then he’s ticked off at my existence. I bug him. I do things that he still hasn’t forgiven me of. And I better not doing anything wrong or he’ll be really angry. And really punish me. And so that’s the only picture I really had in my mind of God. (Grace, Grace, 10/28/2007)

This, to me, is one of Francis’s most powerful and self-aware moments in his entire preaching career. And it has everything to do with his and his family’s ethnic identity (though he does not identify it as such). It turns out that Francis, like many of us, has dad issues—Asian dad issues to be more precise. Francis Chan’s father, Pak-Sum Chan, was the pastor of Leighton Road Baptist Church in Hong Kong. In other sermons, Francis tells stories about how his father would beat him, once tying him to a tree and beating him with sticks until his older brother Paul (also a Bay Area pastor) came to untie him. In this excerpt, Francis tells his story which is, in many ways, our story. And I think this idea is close to the core of the pathology of the Asian American Christian. How can we possibly understand a God whose name is Love when our fathers were abusive, insecure, and emotionally distant? And what is there to be done for insecure fathers when all the images of Asian American men in media are timid, repressed, courage-less tools? Is it any mystery, then, why so many of us serve our churches lifelessly, robotically, in hopes that we can enter into our Father’s good graces if we simply served loyally enough? Is it any surprise that one of my best friends says the goal of his faith is “not to grieve God”? Which is qualitatively different than its positive more-Western corollary, making God happy, or, as we say in more progressive circles, joining with God’s purposes in the world. We worship, therefore, often subconsciously, a God who wags the finger, one who waits for the smallest slip up just so he can express his disappointment, a God who is abusive at worst and emotionally neutral at best, never fully happy or pleased with us, who, at his proudest moments, just nods his head in acknowledgement when we are fortunate enough to prove our worthiness to him. And as long as this is our understanding of God our Father, how could we ever have love for ourselves, we who are made in his image? And if this is who we imagine God to be, how could we ever appropriately understand even the basics of our faith, things like grace, redemption, and love? And how could our love and worship of God ever be divorced from our deeply embedded fear of him? But this is the God that Francis and I know. This is ethnic identity brokenness. And I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed powerful enough to redeem even our deepest places of brokenness, but emotional and cultural wounds often need to be named before they can be healed.

This is the kind of powerful narrative I think so many Asian Americans need to hear from a pastor with as much spiritual capital and influence as Francis Chan. Francis, named after San Francisco where he was born, has returned home (like LeBron). And there are Asian Americans everywhere who flock to hear the Chinese pastor who made it in the Evangelical world. Francis, more than any other person in the world, has the opportunity to revitalize an Asian American Christian community in San Francisco—and we are many—hungry for a faith that matters and desperate for a Gospel that includes our stories and affirms who we are. But Francis is insistent on staying under the radar. I don’t mind this; in fact, it’s part of the reason I respect the man so much. I am not asking Francis Chan to be the Moses of Asian Americans. I have already accepted that he most likely will not be. But I am hoping that his move to Daly City is his Midian, his personal exodus before the Exodus of his people. I am hoping that he finds his burning bush that reminds him of who he is and what his voice can mean. His most recent comments on the Chinese church, however, do not offer me much hope:

I don’t wanna be racist here… When I was in china, in the underground church, I was blown away by the passion of these people. There were these 20sometings, they were just crying and they were praying and screaming out to God and saying, “God send me to the most dangerous places on earth.” They were literally standing up and begging God, “Please send me somewhere dangerous, I want to die in your name, I want to die preaching the gospel.” And I remember I took my oldest daughter and we were going, “Wow, look at the passion of these people.” But it bothered me because I thought, “Man, why is it that the church in China is so fired up and nothing is holding them back and they’re reaching millions of people, but then I go back to the Chinese churches in America and I go, “Where is the fire?”—and again I don’t mean—I grew up in these kinds of churches and I go “Man, how come you guys aren’t fired up about this? How come you’re not concerned about your friends and where they might go if they don’t know God?” I and just pray, “God, I know there’s gonna be a lot of people from the Asian community here tonight. And I go, “God, would you just light a fire in us again?” Could it happen right here in America? See I thought I was gonna stay in China and just thought, man this is where I love it—I feel like I just fit in and I’m not looked at like I’m crazy and I just feel like God was saying, “Go back, go back to America because I’m going to do something there.” And I gotta believe that he can stir something up in this group. (Identity Unleashed, 9/7/2013)

This is the most explicit I have heard Francis comment on the abstraction that is the “Chinese church.” But again, it reveals a shallow, limited understanding of our churches and what is necessary for our progress. “Where is your fire?” is not the question of someone who understands the complex story of the Chinese American church. It is the question of someone who prefers not to face the cultural brokenness present in both our churches and ourselves. The problem is not that we have “lost the fire.” The problem is that we never knew there was a fire present in us in the first place. The problem is that our faith experience has been marginalized to the point that we are no longer convinced of our own creative potential or the power of our voices in the movement of God’s Kingdom. The problem is that we are forgetting who we are and the God who calls us good. The problem is not that the fire needs to be started. The problem is that it needs to be noticed. It needs to be recognized and cultivated.

Dear Francis,

I am grateful for you and the difference you have made in my life. It was nice meeting you that one time at that random Mexican restaurant in the Bayview. You probably don’t remember.

I am convinced that God moved you from Simi Valley to the Bay Area because he is indeed “going to do something here” with the Church in San Francisco, as you suggested last year. There are Asian American Christians who are capable of renewing this city, capable of transforming their families and neighborhoods for the Kingdom of God, but they are afraid. And they are waiting for someone who understands them who can speak a Truth that cuts deep enough to reach our calloused, over-achieving Asian American hearts. I am not sure if you are that person, but I am praying for you. I am hoping that you can believe in a Gospel big enough to include your family’s story, your dark skin, and your father. I am hoping that you can come to terms with your ethnic identity, your Chinese-ness, and that you could live fully into who God has created you to be.

I believe that God takes people on journeys like these. He took a Jewish man named Saul and transformed him from seeing Christianity as a threat to his Jewish-ness to seeing it as the completion of his Jewish-ness. He showed the Apostle Peter in a dream a renewed vision for what the Church could look like if both Jews and Gentiles could worship together and he radically transformed his understanding of his ethnic identity and what that meant in the world. Finally, he took a Jewish girl named Esther, too afraid to use her voice on behalf of her people, to ultimately rescue the Jewish people once she was reminded who she was. Maybe God has brought you to the Bay Area for such a time as this, to begin this journey. May it be so.