Since 1965, the story of Chinese Christianity in North America has been about the awakening and dominance of independent-minded and indigenous evangelicalism.1 Over the last sixty years, Chinese Christians have built several parachurch organizations and have planted hundreds of churches. Between 1953 and 1984, the number of Chinese congregations in the United States increased almost tenfold to 523. By 2001, there were over 1,200 Chinese Christian churches and organizations in the United States and Canada (819 in the United States alone). Much of this can be attributed to the large number of Chinese immigrants during this period. Five million Chinese now live in the United States which remains the largest ethnic group of Asian Americans (25.9% of the Asian American population as of 2010) and constitute 1.5% of the total US population as of 2017. The Chinese American community is the third largest community in the Chinese diaspora (after the Chinese communities in Thailand and Malaysia), but it is the largest overseas Chinese community outside Asia. Chinese in Canada make up about five percent of the Canadian population or about 1.77 million people according to the 2016 census. The Chinese community is the largest ethnic group of Asian Canadians, consisting of approximately 40% of the Asian Canadian population.2
At least five factors created Chinese evangelicalism in North America. First are its radical populist origins. Second, the Cold War Chinese diaspora was an essential context out of which evangelical leaders formed a non-territorialized, ethno-religious identity. Third, fundamentalist and evangelical American-born Chinese leaders in midcentury separated themselves from mainline Protestantism to form their own networks of English-speaking leaders. Fourth, evangelicals often gained the upper hand in conflicts within mainline Chinese congregations. Fifth, indigenous parachurch organizations were created that functioned as surrogate denominations for Chinese congregations that connected these churches to global Chinese Christian networks.
In a 1965 report of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, Harry Haines observed:
In many countries, particularly Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong, there are many independent Chinese churches unrelated to any denomination, any National Christian Council, or any ecumenical body such as the East Asia Christian Conference. Some of the indigenous churches have their roots in mainland China in groups such as the Little Flock, Fishermen of Christ Fellowship, and the Chinese Native Evangelistic Crusade, while others are the fruit of itinerant independent evangelists such as Andrew Gih, Leland Wong, John Sung, and Timothy Chao. Nearly all are characterized by strong feelings of independence, deep pietism, and ultraconservative theological beliefs.3
The report complained about the exclusiveness and suspicion with which Chinese Christians in the diaspora treated other Christian groups. It blamed missionaries of independent evangelical missions, the receipt by the independent churches of large amounts of money from the United States, the divisiveness of Dr. Carl McIntyre and the International Council of Churches, and the lack of support for these independent Chinese churches from “major churches” in the form of personnel and ecumenical literature.4 American evangelical missions indeed expanded during the Cold War era and were partners with Chinese Christians in the diaspora,5 but the report understates the significance of indigenous Chinese leaders and their experiences.
Indeed, the spiritual roots of Chinese evangelicalism in North American are found in the ecstatic, millenarian, and indigenous revivals that swept through rural China in the early twentieth century and in the Chinese diaspora in midcentury. Their religious practices involved weeping, screaming, glossolalia, miraculous healings, and demanding disciplinary rituals such as tithing, exorcisms, foot washing, mass public confessions, and communal sharing of goods. The fundamentalist leaders of these revivals often issued fierce denunciations of mainline Christianity and liberal theology. According to Lian Xi, this radical Christianity flourished because it met the spiritual needs of the marginalized people in a period of great social dislocation, but also because it distanced itself from the real and perceived imperiousness and ethnocentrism of the mainline Western missionary establishment.6
While many of the more extreme characteristics of this radical religion are no longer manifest today, its exclusivist and fundamentalist tenor can still be found in Chinese Christianity in North America.
A Non-territorialized Identity: Baptism in the Diasporic Wilderness
The “loss” of China to the Communists in 1949 muffled the political voices of Chinese Protestants throughout the diaspora and greatly deflated their civic and patriotic participation. Whether they lived under the Nationalist Regime in Taiwan, British-controlled Hong Kong, the United States, or in societies ripe for ethno-religious conflict such as Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines, nine million diasporic Chinese were without a nation they could call their own. This alone sharply differentiated their experience from the experience of Chinese in the People’s Republic.7
From the ashes of failed religious nationalism emerged a vibrant young cohort of evangelicals who pinned their hopes on the Chinese diaspora rather than on the Chinese state. Given their radical popularism, it was always centered on Chinese people rather than the Chinese nation state. There was always hope that China would once again allow the free proclamation of their gospel. But because political forms of nationalism were circumscribed, their nationalist impulse was redirected through ethno-cultural and religious practices and organizations.
Most of the leaders responsible for the reconstruction of Chinese American Protestantism spent considerable time in the Chinese diaspora even if they were born and raised in China. Though the Chinese population in the United States was not large in the 1950s, the revivalists saw opportunities to build support for their ministries from Chinese Protestants and the growing American evangelical networks there. Chinese students who studied at North American colleges between the 1950s and 1970s “came mostly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and other places in Southeast Asia.”8 Many with Christian backgrounds formed Chinese Bible Study Groups (CBSGs) or Chinese Christian Fellowships (CCFs). According to Samuel Ling, the CBSG was “a unique phenomenon among all the foreign students in North America; no other group of foreign students formed as many spontaneous, student-run, and independent Christian fellowships as the Chinese.”9 Those who settled in the United States and Canada either joined existing congregations or formed independent Chinese congregations. Students from the Chinese diaspora also reconstructed Chinese American Protestantism as “separatist” and evangelical.10
More Than a Social Club: American-born Chinese Evangelicals
During the postwar years, not every American-born Chinese was comfortable in mainline Chinese Protestant churches. One repeated criticism of mainline Protestantism was its lack of religious zeal. Evelyn Shih did not like “social gospelers” and the older ministers who preached cold, rationalistic messages. Leland Chinn recalled that many members of the Chinese Union Church in Chicago attended merely to socialize in the early 1950s. Bernadine Wong grew up in a mainline Baptist church, but required a “full[er]” conversion before she could claim her faith.11
American-born Chinese with fundamentalist and dispensational roots organized the Eastern Chinese Bible Conference, Midwest Chinese Bible Conference, and West Coast Christian Conference. The term “Bible conference” was a conscious alternative to the “unbiblical” ecumenical Chinese Christian youth conferences where participants merely “socialized.” Over the years, these Bible conferences have drawn hundreds of participants from local congregations. Their ethos has broadened to reflect the theological diversity within Chinese American evangelicalism.12
Another network of English-speaking Chinese evangelical leaders with broader theological representation was organized during the North American Consultation of Chinese Evangelicals (NACOCE) conferences in the 1970s. Advocates for North American-born Chinese concerns such as Hoover Wong, Joseph Wong, Wayland Wong, Peter Yuen, William Eng, and others pressed for devoting greater attention to the perceived problem of a high “drop-out” rate among American-born Chinese (ABC) in Chinese churches. By 1978, this group had received endorsements from NACOCE to form the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE), a direct result of efforts to give greater voice to English-speaking Chinese evangelicals.13 FACE sought to cultivate ABC church leadership, advocate for ABC ministries within Chinese churches, and support ABC laity toward “responsible leadership in the church.” In April 1979, they started publishing the AboutFACE newsletter. Each issue of AboutFACE addresses a couple of ABC sociological, psychological, or cultural issues and provides plenty of practical suggestions for those involved with ministry among American-born Chinese evangelicals. Over the years, it has served as a communication tool for ABC evangelical leaders and has developed a strident posture that often grates against the sensibilities of overseas-born leaders.14
There are indications, however, that an emerging generation of Chinese American evangelicals is gaining prominence, who are supportive of women in leadership, willing to embrace a pan-ethnic or multiracial approach to congregational ministry, and more responsive to postmodern culture. At the vanguard of this growing network are InterVarsity Christian Fellowship leaders and a growing number of pastors in North American Chinese evangelical churches. This cohort is unwilling to be limited by the ethnic Chinese church and seeks to embrace either a pan-Asian or multicultural vision for the church. It remains to be seen whether this emerging group will develop a concept of pan-Asian ministry that is inclusive of immigrant Chinese or inadvertently lead their followers to a “color-blind” multiculturalism.15
Congregational Conflicts and Evangelical Ascendancy
In 1955, the leaders of mainline Protestant Chinese North American churches gathered in San Francisco under the auspices of the National Council of the Churches of Christ and formed the National Council of Christian Workers among the Chinese North America (nicknamed CONFAB).16 Five years later, CONFAB presented a report that expressed alarm about the growing influence of evangelicals among the Chinese churches:
While the church leaders in our major denominations are in sympathy for integration, many of the ”Sects” and conservative groups are going ”all out” to win our people by helping them to organize into small fellowship groups which will help them to strengthen their own racial identity, by care-taking to their special needs. More often than not, these groups of zealous evangelists would come to “re-convert” our church members into their particular way of belief instead of going out to win people of other faiths to Christ.17
As mainline Chinese churches became predominantly English-speaking, there was a sense that they were “definitely losing ground so far as…reaching out to the Chinese-speaking people is concerned.”18 Indeed, the language gap between the American-born mainline Protestants and the growing immigrant population was one of the more convenient excuses for evangelical separatists to plant their own congregations. The other solutions to the language gap problem were less palatable: split a congregation or gradually replace one ethno-religious ethos with another.
In Washington, D.C., the easiest course was taken when the Mandarin-speaking Chinese Bible Study Group decided to organize the Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C. in 1962. The existing congregation, the Chinese Community Church, had been organized in 1935 in Washington’s Chinatown with a Cantonese base and as an interdenominational effort.19 According to Fenggang Yang, this church “has continuously provided social services to the Chinatown community, frequently expressed concerns about the welfare of the whole ethnic Chinese community, and sometimes participated in political actions cooperatively organized by inner-city churches.”20 Clearly, dialect and other demographic factors were important considerations for starting a new congregation.21 However, a theological bifurcation also underlays this decision.
Congregational conflicts illustrate how theological differences can amplify ethno-religious divergence. In 1960, Pastor James Tan resigned from the Chinese Christian Church of New England after only a two-year stint as associate pastor. Theological differences with the senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Peter Yue-Fang Shih (1904–1986), were cited as the main reason for his departure. Dr. Shih was clearly aligned with mainline Protestant ecumenism. A graduate of Nanjing Jinling Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary in New York, Dr. Shih was dean and professor at West China Union Theological Seminary in Chengdu. In 1953, he was appointed by the National Council of Churches’ research bureau to conduct the survey of Chinese churches in the United States and Hawaii. Despite his commitment to the evangelization of the urban Chinese in Boston, he embraced higher criticism of the Bible and expended much energy providing social services. Pastor Tan’s departure resulted in the planting of the Chinese Evangelical Church of Boston, a large and vibrant ministry today.22
The formation of alternative congregations and church splits were two means by which evangelical separatists were able to reconstruct Chinese Protestantism and thus reshape the ethno-religious landscape. The conflicts that took place in the 1970s and 1980s were undoubtedly related to linguistic, ethnic, political, and national differences among Chinese immigrants. An influx of Taiwanese students and immigrants in the early 1970s not only established the Evangelical Formosan Church denominational network but also created tensions in existing congregations over Taiwan and People’s Republic of China politics. It also spawned conflicts over Taiwanese independence. Since the 1980s, a large influx of migrants from the People’s Republic has introduced a new dynamic within many Chinese congregations. One of the consequences of the increasing diversity within Chinese evangelicalism is an inability to maintain a single national network such as NACOCE. Thus, the evangelical reconstruction of Chinese American Protestantism has not resulted in a more united religious community. Rather, Chinese American Protestantism is a patchwork of diverse congregations and networks that, to varying degrees, identify with being Chinese. Indeed, parachurch organizations have become the most important loci for a sense of common identity.
Participating in a Global Network: Parachurch Organizations
Since the 1950s, Chinese evangelicals have created flexible, transnational parachurch organizations, most of which originated and/or maintain their base of operation in North America.23 Unlike the historic Chinese churches that originated on the Pacific West Coast with the support of mainline denominations and white missionaries, the two Chinese parachurch ministries indigenous to North America were started in Washington, D.C. and Detroit, Michigan: Ambassadors for Christ, Inc. (AFC), which began as a campus ministry to Chinese students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora in the late 1950s and early 1960s,24 and Chinese Christian Mission (CCM). Like Ambassadors for Christ, Chinese Christian Mission experienced significant growth in the 1970s and 1980s. Both organizations provide local church resources, but CCM has placed greater emphasis on sending missionaries to the Chinese diaspora.
According to Sam Ling, there are almost 200 Chinese parachurch organizations with offices in North America.25 Through their literature, programs, and networks, these organizations have played central roles in shaping contemporary Chinese evangelicalism. Insofar as they provide practical resources and prod congregations to step outside the narrow confines of their own cultural niches, they function much like denominations. Indeed, the repeated rhetoric of para-church leaders about engaging “missions” or becoming “missions minded” is an attempt to broaden the visions of local churches to include the cross-cultural and global reality of the church. It is also an effort to resist the temptation of becoming enmeshed in the demands of secular Chinese and North American cultures.
By connecting Chinese North American congregations to a global evangelical network in the Chinese diaspora, these parachurch organizations are reshaping their transnational ethno-religious identity. The normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China in the late 1970s triggered the migration of a large number of students, scholars, and laborers to the United States and other countries worldwide. Chinese parachurch organizations have shifted their focus to evangelizing these populations. Given the flexibility of these organizations, it would not be farfetched to suggest that Christianity in the People’s Republic will be greatly influenced by the Chinese evangelical ethno-religious culture forged in the diaspora.
In sum, the evangelical reconstruction of Chinese Christianity in North America has been shaped by indigenous Chinese revivalism, the postwar Chinese diaspora, North American-born leaders, congregational conflicts, and parachurch organizations. Looking to the future, the impact of three additional developments have yet to be clearly seen: (1) how the recent wave of immigration from China is reshaping Chinese Christianity in North America; (2) the changing governmental policy in the People’s Republic of China towards Christianity and other religious groups; and (3) the geopolitical consequences of China’s increasing power and influence. Since all these factors are in flux, one should anticipate further transformations. Despite (or perhaps because of) these changes, there is a cautious hope for Chinese Christianity in the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese diaspora, and the Chinese community in North America.
- This evangelical shift parallels the “restructuring” of twentieth-century American Protestantism described by Stephen R. Warner in New Wine in Old Wineskins: Evangelicals and Liberals in a Small-Town Church (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988) and Robert Wuthnow in The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). See also George M. Marsden in Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) and Joel A. Carpenter in Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 33–56.
- Sources: “Chinese Americans” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Americans and “Chinese Canadians” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Canadians [accessed August 25, 2020]
- J. Harry Haines, Chinese of the Diaspora (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1965), 25.
- Ibid., 28, 32, 33.
- Joel A. Carpenter, “Propagating the Faith Once Delivered: The Fundamentalist Missionary Enterprise, 1920-1945,” and Richard V. Pierard, “Pax Americanaand the Evangelical Missionary Advance,” both in Earthen Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions, 1880-1980, Joel A. Carpenter and Wilbert R. Shenk, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990),
- Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Daniel Bays, “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900-1937,” in Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Daniel Bays, ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 307–316; Daniel Bays, “Christian Revival in China, 1900-1937,” in Modern Christian Revivals, Edith L. Blumhofer and Randall Balmer, eds. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 161–179; Daniel Bays, “Chinese Popular Religion and Christianity Before and After the 1949 Revolution: A Retrospective View,” in Fides et Historia: Journal of the Conference on Faith and History XXIII:1 (Winter/Spring, 1991), 69–77.
- Daniel Chirot and Anthony Reid, Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation of Southeast Asia and Central Europe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Wang Ling-chi and Wang Gungwu, eds., The Chinese Diaspora: Selected Essays, vol. 1 (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998).
- Ibid., 81–82. Between 1953 and 1975, 23,540 students from Taiwan alone came to the United States. See T. K. Chu, “150 Years of Chinese Students in America,” Harvard China Review (Spring 2004), 18.
- Samuel Ling, “Three Short Pieces: The Metamorphosis of Chinese Church Growth in North America, 1943–1983,” Chinese Around the World (October 1983).
- Leo A. Orleans, Chinese Students in America: Policies, Issues, and Numbers (Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1988).
- Evelyn O. Shih, Love is Forever (Hong Kong: Chinese Alliance Press, 1981), 25; Evelyn O. Shih, Torrey Shih: The Lord’s Servant (Kowloon: China Alliance Press, 1994); Leland Chinn, “Abounding in the Work of the Lord for Seventy-five Years,” in Diamond Anniversary Commemorative Issue of the Chinese Christian Union Church of Chicago: 1915 to 1990 (Chicago: Chinese Christian Union Church, 1990); Author interview with Bernardine Wong (July 1, 1996).
- American-born Chinese youth and young adults from mainline Protestant churches had organized youth conferences in Lake Tahoe, California and Silver Bay, New York since the 1930s. In addition to recreation, these conferences discussed social issues, matters of “Chinese-American identity,” and theological questions. The youth were exposed to a brand of religious liberalism that encouraged the youth to devote their lives to civic service in China or the United States. See Paul Louie, “Chinese Christian Youth Conferences in America, with a Focus on the East Coast,” History and Perspectives 2001: Chinese America (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 2001), 47–58.
- The dialogue and debate were covered by Chinese Christian Mission’s Challenger magazine and FACE’s AboutFace (Oakland, CA). Some of the articles were compiled in A Winning Combination: Understanding the Cultural Tensions in Chinese Churches (Chinese Christian Missions, 1986). AboutFACE ceased publication in 2005.
- Timothy Tseng, “Second Generation Chinese North American Evangelical Use of the Bible in Identity Discourse,” Semeia, vol. 90–91, ed. Tat-siong Benny Liew (Atlanta, Ga., 2002).
- Russell Jeung, Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2004).
- The occasion for the 1955 gathering was to receive the report of a survey of Chinese churches in the U.S. sponsored by the NCCC. See Horace R. Cayton and Anne O. Lively, The Chinese in the United States and the Chinese Christian Churches: A Statement Condensed for the National Conference on the Chinese Christian Churches (National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1955) and Wilbur W. Y. Choy, “Survey Needs of Christian Chinese,” Christian Century, 72 (June 15, 1955); 14. The conference was organized by a core of San Francisco-based Chinese clergy. Chinese clergy in San Francisco have worked collaboratively since 1916. See Chinese Christian Union of San Francisco, USA: 80th Anniversary Souvenir Book (Chinese Christian Union of San Francisco, 1996).
- Teng Kiat Chiu to Wilbur W. Y. Choy, August 22, 1960, Edward Lee Collection (folder 12), Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley.
- Chinese Community Church of Washington: An Inter-denominational Enterprise of the Christian Organizations in the Nation’s Capital (pamphlet, no date, possibly 1943).
- Fenggang Yang, Chinese Christians in America, (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1999) 70.
- Moses C. Chow, with Leona Choy, Let My People Go! An Autobiography (Paradise, PA: Ambassadors for Christ, Inc., 1995), 77.
- Zhongxin Wang, “A History of Chinese Churches in Boston (1876-1994)” (ThD dissertation, Boston University School of Theology, 2000), 101–144; James Y. K. Tan, Grace Upon Grace, 149-154; Timothy Tseng, “Trans-Pacific Transpositions: Continuities and discontinuities in Chinese North American Protestantism,” Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America edited by Jane Naomi Iwamura and Paul Spickard (Routledge, 2003): 241–271.
- Pál Nyíri, “Moving Targets: Chinese Christian Proselytizing Among Transnational Migrants from the People’s Republic of China,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 2, no. 2 (2003), 263–301.
- Ted Choy, with Leona Choy, My Dreams and Visions: An Autobiography (Winchester, VA: Golden Morning Publishing, 1997); Moses C. Chow, with Leona Choy, Let My People Go!, 77–78.
- Sam Ling, “Confessing Christ in the 21st Century” (unpublished, January 1, 1998), http://www.chinahorizon.org/Articles/CONESSING%20CHRIST%20IN%20THE%2021ST%20CENTURY.doc
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Timothy Tseng is the Pacific Area Director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries (GFM). His has served as a seminary professor, scholar, founder of a non-profit organization, and pastor. Tim is all about helping Jesus followers flourish wherever faith and life intersect. Over the years, he has worked …View Full Bio