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Passing the Faith to the Next Generation

Reaching American-Born/Second-Generation Chinese

Sam George in “Chinese Christians of Chicagoland: The Experience of One American City” states, “One of the surprising finds [of his research] was a cluster of nearly 10,000 Chinese students in the Urbana-Champaign region without any Chinese church in the university town.” George continues by exhorting the American Chinese church to reach out to the generation of young Chinese living on our doorstep. The question then arises as to how we should share our Christian faith to this second generation.

In my review, I would like to consider how Chinese American churches might pass the Christian faith to the next generation. In my suggestions towards reaching American-born Chinese (ABC) or second-generation Chinese, I will highlight the tensions of living in two cultures, the importance of parents living the faith, the necessity of providing opportunities of purposeful church leadership, and the need of mentoring love.

Squeezed Between Two Cultures

Two cultures try to squeeze American-born Chinese into their respective molds: Chinese and American cultures. Second-generation Chinese do not fully fit in the American cultural template, yet they also do not fit the Chinese pattern. It is a struggle for the second generation; this feeling of being a part of two cultures—the assimilated culture in tension with the ethnic culture—and yet, not fully belonging to either. For ABC to feel that they belong in a Chinese church, both the first and second generations need to be open to learning and embracing church together—ABC learning that they are in a Chinese setting, and the first-generation not pressuring the ABC to do ministry in the Chinese way only.

Chinese churches need to recognize that a ministry style that works for their first-generation parents does not necessarily work for their second-generation children. At the same time, the ministry style of the Anglo church next door may not adequately meet the needs of the second generation either. Churches need to find a healthy rhythm between the two where the second generation can flourish through innovative ways of reaching them that bridges the gap between the two cultures.

Parents Living the Faith

How might the Chinese church pass the Christian faith to the next generation? One of the most influential ways is for the children to experience their parents living the faith. Parents have the greatest effect on the Christian development of a young person: for better or for worse. In a first/second generation church, this can be difficult because of the language barriers. It is a challenge for families to communicate about their spiritual lives, especially when the heart languages of the two generations are different.

Even though it might be problematic, it is important to share our Christian devotion, however. Jonathan Mann (worship and young adults’ pastor at San Jose Christian Alliance Church in San Jose, California) affirms,

Young people need to hear the stories of how God has worked in the lives of their parents, both in the past and the present. They need to know about the hopes and trust that their parents have in what God is doing in their lives.

In addition, the second generation needs to see their parents wrestle with and turn from their sin—certainly, a difficult task in a shame/honor culture. Parents should lead their children to understand that the deeper life with Jesus is the most valuable idea that they could pursue. Instead of worshiping the idols of achievement and success for their children, parents need to model the authentic pursuit of a life in Christ.

Purposeful Church Leadership

As the second generation begins to integrate with the assembly, the leadership needs to find creative ways to invite them into the life of the church. This includes day-to-day life such as the ministry blending of young people into the Sunday church service, together with opportunities to lead. It takes humility and trust on the part of the church leadership to give the second generation space and freedom to lead in their own style—not copying the cutouts of the first generation.

Often, there is an ecclesial ceiling where ABC leadership only extends to their own ministries, and not to other leadership roles within the church. Passing leadership onto the second generation must include leadership of the entire church, not only their own ministry contexts. While a church may have a thriving youth/young adult ministry, delegating leadership responsibilities beyond the first generation will allow the congregation to continue to minister to upcoming generations. For this to eventuate, it requires future-perfect thinking by the first generation. They need to see beyond the immediate needs to the requirements of the generations forthcoming. The church that fails to develop the second generation will limit its growth to the present dominant monopoly.

Ben Tzeng (pastor of evangelism and community at Central Presbyterian Church, Clayton, Missouri) contends,

American-born Chinese need to belong. Elders need to provide leadership positions within the church for people to hear the voice and values of the second generation: a space where second-generation Chinese feel that they matter. Rather than feel like outsiders to their parents’ culture and the American society, the second generation should find a place in the church where they are affirmed and included.

In other words, ABC need a meaningful purpose. They want to be included in the vision of the people of God. They need the sense that there is a reason for them to be part of the Chinese church other than because of their family’s attendance. ABC want to know how they can serve and contribute to the church. Thus, we need to find gatekeepers within the church whose task is to locate, welcome, and involve second-generation people in roles of significant commitment.

Need of Mentoring Love

Along with ABC being valued and included in purposeful service, they also need love.

They yearn for relationship—a place where people care for them and that they belong. Unfortunately, if they do not find relationship and connection in the Chinese church they will search elsewhere.

By providing a mentoring community of love, the American Chinese church allows the second generation to find spiritual-life mentors through different people and/or groups. This could mean providing a mentor or a small group who would walk alongside the individual. It is important that this mentoring community be cross-cultural and diverse (Chinese and non-Chinese) since the cultural identity of the second-generation is already ethnically varied.


In conclusion, how does the American Chinese church pass the Christian faith to the next generation? In my essay, I have suggested that the way to move forward in reaching American-born/second-generation Chinese is for the church leaders to be aware of the tensions of living in two cultures, and the importance of parents living the faith, as well as providing opportunities of purposeful church leadership, and communities of mentoring love.

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Robert L. Gallagher

Robert L. Gallagher

Robert L. Gallagher (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is a professor emeritus of intercultural studies at Wheaton College Graduate School in Chicago where he has taught since 1998. He has served as the president of the Midwest Mission Study Fellowship (2019-20) and the American Society of Missiology (2010-2011), an executive pastor …View Full Bio

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