Unity, Anger, Conversion, and Hillsong

Unity, Anger, Conversion, and Hillsong

Well, that escalated quickly.

Whether you engaged or ignored, agreed or disagreed, got angry with me or at me, it’s all good. In the digital world, talk is cheap; the hard part is the what now? Some folks are happy that at least people are talking about this. I don’t care so much that a conversation was started than the right kind of conversation would start, that folks would actually reach across the table, or across communities, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities, and denominations. I’ve always been afraid that this blog would be just another redundant wavelength in a world that can’t stop buzzing. But there are times that you have to speak. When it comes time to do that, I’ve committed to always speak honestly, locally, and out of my own story.

Some folks have criticized me for criticizing Hillsong, and for doing it so angrily. I concede that the Church is splintering these days (well, it always has), polarized over politics, constantly bickering because we’re safe behind our computer screens and we surround ourselves with people who think and talk like us so we feel justified in our outrage. I’m not beyond this, not in the slightest. Despite what some folks might think, I genuinely desire unity for the church in San Francisco and beyond. But let’s not get it twisted: my anger and criticism cannot damage a unity that never existed in the first place. I don’t know what Ben Houston’s intentions are and I don’t speak as if I can read his mind. I only know the words he spoke and the context into which they were spoken. His intentions matter not; there were plenty of well-intentioned missionaries who destroyed communities and Ben Houston is (unwittingly) using the same theological principles that undergirded the colonial endeavor. That’s not to say anything is remarkable about Ben Houston—we all use these theological principles because they are embedded in our broken Christianity. Nonetheless, they are deeply harmful, especially to the poor, especially to folks of color, and it’s time that we recognize it.

Yes, my post was about Hillsong Church and their crazy video. But that was only the tip of a very large, even more imposing iceberg. We need to talk about the iceberg! Hillsong just made it easier to do that. No one would have been mad at me if wrote a post called “Supersessionism and its effects on modern day missiology.” Two people would have read that blog post and then they’d go right back to Buzzfeed. But of course people will throw a fit if you come at Hillsong. But this is really about something much bigger than all of that; it’s about how we engage power, how we use language to reinforce systems of oppression and domination, and how the American church is blind to its own privilege, the ways in which we harm people on our way to accomplishing what we believe is God’s mission.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everyone, every single word we speak, every action and reaction happens along a backdrop that is racialized, gendered, cultural, geographical, and laced with power dynamics. Context is everything.

Jesus didn’t just march into the world as a grown man demanding that the world worship him, though he certainly had that right. The God of the universe could have enacted salvation thunderously, powerfully, with a super nice video projected in the sky showing the 7 wonders of the world. But instead, he joined us quietly, in deep intimacy, as a person of little relevance. He spent 30 years learning the rhythms of the Jewish world under Roman imperialism. Almost his entire life occurred outside the lines of “formal ministry” but it was ministry in its deepest sense. Jesus engaged the social and religious power dynamics of his world, emptying himself of his God-given right to judge, becoming a servant to all and inviting those around him to do the exact same. He asked the crowds to leave, saved his harshest words for the religious elite, and his ministry was one centered on the margins, inviting those with power to seriously engage those without, to look them in the face as image-bearing children of God who deserved no less than they did. Jesus reoriented long held assumptions about power to reflect a Kingdom that made no sense to those most accustomed to the benefits of power, a Kingdom that makes no sense to us, one that locates salvific potential among those most quickly assumed to be “lost,” “cursed,” and “beyond redemption” by those who established the rubric for spiritual success around themselves, their own identities, and their own racialized bodies. The American empire will not tolerate this Jesus. We have rejected him. I reject him every day in my attempts to accumulate, to be seen and known, to obtain more wealth, to exploit and conquer. But I’ve encountered a Jesus whose Gospel is like living water in this American desert. And I’ve caught glimpses of a Kingdom that casts a vision beyond anything the empire has allowed me to ask for or imagine. It’s taken my breath away, and I haven’t been able to breathe right since.

This American empire and the church at its hip have cast a flaccid vision for humanity’s restoration. Many of us believe that getting someone to say the right kind of prayer is the kind of conversion that God desires. This is rooted in a numbers-obsessed, consumer-driven Christianity that sells Jesus as a product without any desire to enact the kind of redemption Jesus displayed, a holistic redemption that restored people in spirit, in body, in society, in relationship, in culture, in gender, and in race. I gave up counting conversions a long time ago. If this is the metric by which we measure spiritual success, then I am resolved to be a lifelong failure. I believe deeply, with everything that I am, that an encounter with Jesus and his love and truth is the thing that restores all of us to the fullest sense of our humanity. But my hope for my friends is not merely a heaven in the hereafter inasmuch as it is divorced from wholeness in the eternity we experience here and now. If our gospel necessitates the destruction of good, God-honoring parts of our culture, then I want nothing to do with it. Yes, I believe there are parts of our culture that must be put to death when we encounter Jesus, and I believe that following Jesus doesn’t mean everything about who we inherently are is good and should be encouraged all the time, but I also believe many of us have bought into a culturally destructive Christianity, a lie that does not honor the ways that God has been part of our history before missionaries came, a Eurocentric, syncretistic faith blinded by its inability to see God outside of anything but itself and its own cultural forms. This, ultimately, is what I rage against, not only as it is embedded in Hillsong’s theology, not only as it is embedded in my own Chinese-American church and its ties to colonial Christianity, not only as it is embedded in the worship songs that I sing, but as it is embedded within myself, in the distorted ways that I picture the God I pray to, and the ways that I have learned to hate myself because God was too small to be found in our history and culture.

And this is why, five minutes after being completely bewildered by Ben Houston’s Hillsong SF announcement, my rage folded into a deep sadness. For those of us with eyes to see it, who have learned to identify colonial Christianity and its deeply harmful effects in our lives, we lament. We throw our hands up. We cry and grieve because we realize that in all our years going to church and praying and singing and worshipping, we haven’t been worshipping YHWH God at all, but a counterfeit idol built with the broken pieces of whiteness and patriarchy. So we speak out. And we get confused responses from white folks and other Christians who don’t understand why we can’t just “focus on the Gospel” or be “one in Christ.” Hear me out—I want to be one in Christ too. The whole Hillsong post, despite what others thought, was written with a vision for unity. But Jesus-shaped unity has dire implications attached to its beautiful promises: it demands all of us. It doesn’t just mean we’re nice and docile and we let ourselves get walked on; it reorients the very foundations of relationship and challenges our deeply held assumptions about power. It means that we must surrender our blindly-held power for the sake of those who have been silenced. It means we stop singing songs written exclusively by white men. It means that we perform liturgy in Spanish. It means when I go to seminary, I’ll be reading books by African and Asian women theologians. It means that poor folks, homeless folks, drug addicts, black and brown folks, queer folks, and all the dispossessed people of the world, those with their backs against the wall—they’re going to be the ones leading the movement. Not me. Not Hillsong. Focus on the Gospel? One in Christ? That’s exactly what I want. But real reconciliation, true unity, might be the costliest call that we ever hear. This is a call that we will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out. And I struggle and fail every single day to seriously navigate the power and privilege I have as a man, as a third-gen Chinese American, as a college-educated straight dude who works among “the poor.” I don’t claim to have it figured out, but I know the cost. It’s more costly than a prayer, a video, or even a few good conversations. This demands our lives.

Concretely, my greatest hope is for church planters and missionaries to recognize that the very notion of mobility is a terrific and terrible privilege. Not everyone gets to choose where and to whom they share the Gospel. And this choice, this access to mobility in and of itself, creates a power dynamic that we must reckon with seriously: with great power comes great, grave responsibility. Soong Chan Rah talks about how 20 years ago, the city was deemed beyond salvation because all the white wealthy churches fled to the suburbs. But now that cities are renovating and redeveloping, all of a sudden these churches want back in. Did God randomly change his mind about cities? Of course not. There is much more going on here than we’d like to admit, much more than prayers, visions, and messages from God. Let’s acknowledge that. Let’s acknowledge that God has always been here and that poor communities of color have known that better than anyone else, partly because they had no choice but to find God where wealthy churches had already given up. I honor our black, brown, and Asian pastors and leaders. They are the spiritual backbone of the city. Big churches coming into San Francisco never cared about them or sought their counsel. No cool, hip church is ever going to come into Chinatown to talk to our pastors because they have no idea where to even start; we are too painstakingly other. But they will use video footage of Grant St. and the homie playing the erhu because it feels authentic. Please don’t pimp us. Instead, join us in real, honest, excruciating communion.

So please, church planters, missionaries, me, all of us Jesus folk with hopes to share the Good News, let’s slow down. We don’t have to tone down our convictions, but they have to come out of a place of deep listening, understanding, locality, and–here’s the big one–mutuality. We need each other, but this is going to take a long time. It took Jesus 30 years; let’s not be so arrogant as to believe it’ll take us any less. And at the end of the day, I’ll be happy for us to sit down together as partners as we bear witness to God’s Shalom—his people-honoring, community-restoring, culture-loving, power-leveling peace and presence—in San Francisco. I’ll gladly get Ben Houston some coffee, he’ll give me some Vegemite, and he’ll ask Rev. Franzo King and his wife Rev. Marina King what John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme reveals about God’s character. He’ll also give Rev. King some money so his church doesn’t get evicted. We’ll sing together (limit one Hillsong joint per set), pray together, laugh together, and lament together over the ways this city continues to dispose of poor people and people of color. And then we’ll act. We’ll be one, embodying the Good News of a Triune God, experiencing conversion anew every time Coltrane’s lips hit the sax.