Reality SF is a church in San Francisco. Based on what I’ve heard from friends and seen on their website, Reality SF is, by all accounts, a hipster church. I mean, their website is cool and interactive, they use words like “missional” and “relational” in their about section, and I’ve heard they even sing songs by All Sons & Daughters, which we all know is number one on the hipster church checklist. I have no problems with Reality SF. In fact, I’ve been planning on visiting and I am 96% sure that I’ll like it. What interests me most, however, is that people like myself–Chinese American young people–are, in increasing number, leaving their home churches and reestablishing their faiths in communities like Reality SF.
And who can blame them? I mean for crying out loud, compare Reality’s website with my home church’s website. For goodness’ sake! Are there no web designers in our congregation?? I really don’t need anything fancy, but can we please put together a website that doesn’t look like it was created with Geocities on dial up?? No duh if I’m young and looking for a church, I’m not going to the First Chinese Baptist Church with their stone age website; their congregation is probably made up of all Chinese Mr. Rogerses. No, I’m going to hang out with some tech savvy, fashionable, coffee-drinking hipsters at Reality SF. Easy choice.
Websites and branding aside, I think there are some much deeper reasons behind this trend. Chinese Americans in San Francisco who grew up in mostly mono-ethnic, immigrant churches are growing weary. Weary of what, exactly, is something I think we struggle to articulate. But there are big reasons that we are leaving our home churches and matriculating into more diverse, socially-conscious, theologically-focused churches like Reality. In general, I think most of us would cite differing values with the too-rigid and traditional older generation as our reason for departure. But to suggest such is to gloss over nuances in generational difference as well as dismiss the valuable things we lose when we leave our home churches. I believe that if we cannot have thoughtful engagement with the older generation at our home churches, then not only will our Chinese churches continue to suffer (in attendance and vitality), but we will lose an invaluable part of who we are as Chinese American Christians.
But before I go deeper, I would like to first acknowledge that some of my readers may not be familiar with the San Francisco Chinese church scene, so allow me to explain. If you grew up in an SF Chinese church, you know that any combination of the letters C, B, F can make a church name. For example, my church is FCBC, not to be confused with SFCBC or CCC or CBC or CUMC or SFCAC or PCCC or CEBC. Also, if you grew up in an SF Chinese church and you meet someone else who grew up in an SF Chinese church, you can already safely assume that you have at least five mutual friends with this person. Your mutual friends will either be from public high schools where all the Asians went, from BAAYF, a Christian summer camp where all the Asians went, or from CCU, where you played basketball against old Chinese men during the summers. If you grew up in an SF Chinese church, you probably also know that your congregation is relatively affluent, with many congregants living in the Sunset or Richmond districts or out in Daly City or Millbrae, and if you’re at a Chinatown church, very few people in the English service lives in Chinatown anymore. Unlike Chinese churches in the South Bay, the older generation at our churches probably speaks English primarily, and their parents and great grandparents came to the U.S. in the 30’s and 40’s before the Exclusion Acts. Most of them were uneducated, from small villages in Canton, and lived blue collar lives in the City as laundry workers, cooks, dishwashers, grocery store owners, or seamstresses. As our families gained more capital, so did our churches. Now, SF Chinese churches are generally middle to upper-middle class, educated, comfortable, family and food oriented, cliquish, and inward focused. Though I am quick to acknowledge many of our flaws, I have come to appreciate our churches for what they are.
However, many of us have caught glimpses of greener ecclesial grass. Tim Tseng has already documented what he is calling the “Silent Exodus” of young Asian American Christians leaving their home churches. Very few of these defectors are going from one Asian American church to another Asian American church. They’re going to more diverse (mostly Asian and white) churches like Reality. My question is: what about the traditional Chinese American church are people fed up with?
Anecdotally speaking, we’re fed up with a lot. We’re tired of serving the church dutifully and seeing things go nowhere. We’re tired of feeling like every Sunday is the same exact thing. We’re tired of a lack of innovation, a lack of creativity, a feeling that things are stuck this way forever. We’re tired of feeling like the church just sucks all the life out of us as they exploit our gifts. We’re tired of bureaucracy and committees. We’re tired of feeling like second class citizens to our parents’ generation. We’re tired of what we perceive as theological inadequacy built into superficial sermons. We’re tired of feeling like things (and people) are fake. We’re tired of rules. We’re tired of not being socially involved. We’re tired of what feels like a comfortable, lukewarm faith. We’re tired of things not being “Gospel-centric.” We’re tired of things not looking like our college ministries. We’re just tired of being tired. So we leave.
That was probably one of the most complainy paragraphs I’ve ever written. And regardless of the validity of the above statements or the heart behind them, at some point in the past eight years, I’ve thought all of those things. When I left for college and began attending a different church in Berkeley, I remember thinking for the first time in my life, “So this is what it’s like to actually look forward to going to church.” But after a short stint in a new community, I returned to FCBC. This was family, after all. They cared for me as a young Christian and despite my complaints and all the new Bible knowledge that I threw at my pastor when I returned, I ultimately recommitted to FCBC. Sometimes though, I break out of the routine and ask myself, “Why am I still here?” Why don’t I just go to a church that actually has similar values as me? Why not go somewhere that can actually give me life rather than suck me dry of it?
In a post from 2011, I wrote these words:
I used to be optimistic about change. Now, I’m not so sure. Asian churches are generational; children’s faiths often look a lot like parents’ faiths; we are set in our ways. I understand why, historically, the Asian American church is the way it is. Especially for folks in San Francisco, churches were (and are) literally, sanctuaries. For immigrants coming in without a grasp of English and without a lot of resources, church was a good community… No wonder Asian American churches have a strong sense of community, a big passion for inreach and a value for taking care of their own, but also typically ignore things like social justice, radical giving, and missions. The Asian church in America was built on self-centeredness.
Two years later, I can understand my reasoning, but I couldn’t disagree more with my conclusion. The Chinese church in San Francisco has a rich historical legacy that we would be remiss to desert. Churches like Reality SF are doing amazing and God-honoring things in this city, and I fully support my friends who go there (sorry if it feels like I’m hating on you!) but they have no category for our history and they cannot proclaim a Gospel that speaks the language (literal and heart language) of our parents and grandparents. If we choose to push into it, our Chinese home churches are one of the only communities that can speak specifically to both our Chinese and Christian consciousnesses. I cannot think of any other place where this can happen. When we leave our churches, we most likely enter into colorblind spaces of pseudo-reconciliation where superficial diversity is celebrated without having to ask hard questions about what makes a Chinese American Christian different than a white American Christian or a Latino Christian. That is, if Chinese American Christians do in fact believe that we are actually different than white American Christians…
And this is where I believe we must lament the most. Because I don’t think Chinese American young people leaving their home churches necessarily represents our hope for a “more authentic” expression of faith, despite what we might say. I think it more closely represents a generation of Chinese Americans who no longer have any latch point onto the Chinese-specific mission that these churches set out to accomplish (and in many ways did accomplish). So while I affirm our desires to develop a different expression of faith, I postulate that we wrestle (often subconsciously) with deeper feelings of resentment toward our home churches and, by proxy, our own Chinese heritage. Therefore, what I believe we’re experiencing is not a step into a more authentic faith, but a more assimilated one. That’s not to say that everyone who has left the Chinese church hates their own culture; God knows there are good reasons for leaving our stagnant home churches. But I hope for those of us who have already left or who are hanging on by a thread, that rather than simply running, we would still be willing to sit in the harsh tension of our cultural brokenness and the churches that embody it. Thoughtful dialogue with the older generation and our church leadership has the potential to lead to pockets of greater understanding (not necessarily agreement) both of who we are as a people and how God has a deep and rich involvement in our narrative.
This summer, I hope to explore more deeply the nuances of Chinese American Christianity, particularly in the Bay Area. If people are leaving the church, it is of no fault of their own–again, I understand and I don’t blame anyone for leaving–but it is a signpost telling us that the methods and language we use to proclaim Good News to our communities have grown stale; we no longer see it as good news. In 2005, a study showed that “Asian-American youth who attended church at least once a week reported 20 to 27 percent more symptoms of depression than their white and African-American peers who attended at the same level…. Asian-American adolescents who never attended [church] services… were the least likely to be depressed within their groups.” Something is wrong in the way we proclaim and live out the Gospel when church seems to foster and create depression among our people; this sounds more like bondage than the liberating hope of Jesus. Perhaps the entire existence of Chinese Christianity has been trying to fit a square people into a round faith, an Asian people into a Westernized religion. One of those things can change.
I hope this is compelling enough for those who continue to ask, “Does this even matter? Is culture even important? Shouldn’t we only focus on a person’s relationship with Christ?” This has everything to do with someone’s relationship with Christ. If the Gospel has nothing to say about who I am as a Chinese American, then it is unable to speak to my whole person and it ceases to be Good News. Change does need to happen in our Chinese American home churches, but we must be willing to endure the long journey to get there. My generation is losing much of what it means to be Chinese, and our churches are in strategic position to be the link that gives us a redeemed vision of how to live fully into our culture. It’ll take some time and a lot of discussion, but I think if we come together, we’ll get there. Join me in the coming months as I explore, write, and interview my way into the promised land. In the meantime, let us wander with courage in this ecclesial wilderness.
In no way am I trying to demean my friends who have decided to leave their home churches. This is not a call for everyone to stay at their home churches and I’m not trying to say that Chinese churches > Reality SF. The struggles and misunderstandings present in our home churches are real and many of my good friends have left for good reasons. My hope in this post is to discuss the growing issue of young Asian Americans leaving their churches; to make my argument, I use Reality SF as my point of departure and comparison. I use Reality as an example because it’s probably the easiest church I can use to illustrate my point. I hope no one gets stuck on the example and misses the bigger issue. Thanks for reading!