By Henrik Molintas
According to Pew Research and the U.S. Census, Asians are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. from 2000 to 2019. Among Southern Baptist churches, Asian American membership grew by more than 270% from 1990 to 2018.Asians are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. from 2000 to 2019. Among Southern Baptist churches, Asian American membership grew by more than 270% from 1990 to 2018. Click To Tweet
Many may not realize that most Asian American churches have two types of ministries and services—one that embraces the cultural heritage and language of that ethnicity and one that ministers in English to the second generation. This dual approach is an attempt to address the “Silent Exodus” and provides lessons from which leaders at all types of church can learn.
The Value of Cultural Language and Heritage Churches
For most Asian American churches, the main service and ministries are in their native languages. Korean American churches have Korean services and ministries; Chinese American churches have Mandarin and Cantonese services and ministries. (Filipino American churches, however, usually have their main services in English though hold on to cultural values for the first generation. This is due in large part to their high English proficiency and the influence of American missionaries during American colonialism.)
Some may say these Christian immigrants should just integrate with existing churches in the U.S. For new immigrants coming from countries with lower English proficiency, however, hearing from God through His Word in their own heart language is very important. These cultural churches often provide a sort of “home away from home” for newly immigrated Christians. Asian American churches are often places where new Asian immigrants can go and find fellow Christians who speak their language, know their culture, and understand their joys and struggles.For new immigrants coming from countries with lower English proficiency, hearing from God through His Word in their own heart language is very important. — Henrik Molintas Click To Tweet
From a practical standpoint, these churches also help ease the process of acculturation as well as preserve their cultural expression of Christianity. In other cases, these churches are even effective at reaching out to non-Christians of that same ethnicity who are just looking for a community that resembles their homeland communities or are just curious about Christianity. These cultural language and heritage churches break down cultural barriers that are in the way for non-Christian immigrants, making it easier for them to know and believe in Jesus Christ.
The Challenge of Being in America
Because these Asian churches are in America, however, they often see the need to have English services or ministries. The most apparent reason for this is because of their children. As Asian Americans, their children embody two cultures: their Asian culture and their American culture.
Growing up in America, English is often their heart language and so Asian American churches quickly see the need of having English or Second Gen ministries. “Second Gen” refers to the children of the first generation of immigrants who moved to America, usually born in the U.S, growing up with with a dual identity.
Second Gen ministries, then, naturally take the form of youth ministries, college ministries, and young adult ministries which may include those into their 30s. For English services that are not age-based, they often provide a special service that allows both parent and child to attend church together at the same time.
The other major reason for having English ministries is to minister to non-Asian members and visitors. English ministries are often the avenue through which Asian American churches can reach out to their surrounding local community of other ethnicities.
If a member wants to invite a non-Asian coworker to church, he or she can easily do so by inviting him or her to their English service. If a guest accepts Christ or is already a Christian, he or she can still join the church and continue growing in the faith at these services. In other instances, there may also be interracial marriages at the church where one spouse does not speak the Asian language. English ministries also exist to serve these families.
An Ecclesial Space for the Second Generation
A common phenomenon in Asian American churches is the leaving of the second generation, often referred to as the “Silent Exodus,” a term popularized in a Christianity Today article in 1996 by Helen Lee. Most of the time, second generation Asian American Christians grow up in an Asian American church; however, by college age, they eventually either leave the faith or find another church that understands them more. This is not just happening for Asian American churches.
In a Lifeway Research study, “Two-thirds (66%) of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.” English or Second Gen ministries often exist as a response or reaction to these tendencies of the second generation Asian American community.66% of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Second Gen ministries are even common among Asian American churches where everything is already in English, such as Filipino American churches. Even though the generations can communicate just fine in English, the larger church culture still appeals and caters more to the first generation. This happens naturally and understandably since most of the key leaders and core members are first generation.
Since there is both a generational and a cultural gap between the first and second generations, the latter may desire to have their own separate space within the church to worship God in their own cultural way.
The Value of English and Second Gen Ministries
Much like their parents who first sought out a “home” in America, the second generation also seeks a “home” in America. Although far from perfect or ideal, English and Second Gen ministries can often provide a kind of “home” for this second generation. In their larger church fellowship with the first generation, they may feel “too American” to belong. In American churches, they may still feel “too Asian.”
In Second Gen ministries, Asian Americans can fellowship with fellow Asian Americans who are in-between cultures just like them. Just like their parents, they can worship God together with people who speak their language, know their culture, and understand their joys and struggles. In these spaces, they can bond over their struggle of cultural identity formation and explore what it means to be an Asian American Christian.Second Gen ministries are a good start in helping ethnic minorities, their children and children's children learn about God and His Word in the cultural heritage that they're familiar with. — Henrik Molintas Click To Tweet
English and Second Gen Ministries are not the silver bullet solution for the “Silent Exodus.” They have been effective in some churches and not so much in others. There is still a lot to be learned about how to address it and the value of multi-cultural churches as well. But these ministries are a good start in helping ethnic minorities from Asian countries and their children and children’s children learn about God and His Word in the cultural heritage that they’re familiar with.
If you are pastor or leader of a non-Asian American church, learning about your local co-laborers in Christ from other ethnic churches is important for partnership and for seeing what God is doing in the community. Consider taking a pastor of an Asian American church (or other ethnicity) out for coffee. Learn from each other. Pray with each other. Partner together. In doing so, you will be reaching your community beyond what you could have imagined as God continues to work through His people for the glory of His Kingdom.
Henrik is a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary pursuing his M.Div. and co-hosts the Filipino American Ministry Podcast where they talk about Filipino American church and ministry topics.