Blog Entries

Bridging the Divide in Asian American Churches

A Book Review


Shin, Benjamin C. and Takagi Silzer, Sheryl, Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities in Asian American Life and Ministry (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), pp. xvi + 197, paper. Available from Wipf and Stock and Amazon.

A recent Christianity Today article looked at how unrest in Hong Kong is spilling over into Chinese churches on the other side of the world. Divided sharply in their political views, congregations in North America comprising believers from China, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia find themselves struggling to deal with events that, although far away geographically, are close to the hearts of many in the church. Often the answer given is to simply stay away from politics altogether, maintaining a veneer of unity while tension simmers beneath the surface.

While the immediate cause of the tension—in this case distinctly political—may be fairly recent, the struggle of different groups within diaspora Chinese churches to get along with one another is not new. Nor, as Benjamin Shin and Sheryl Takagi Silzer remind us in Tapestry of Grace, is this phenomenon unique to Chinese congregations; immigrant Korean and Japanese churches face similar struggles.

Shin and Takagi Silzer, both professors of Asian American ministry at Talbot School of Theology in California, approach their topic by examining the cultural roots, both Asian and Western, underlying the conflict between what they call “Americanized Asians” and “Asianized Americans.” These two types, the former referring to first-generation Asian language speakers and the latter to second- and later-generation English speakers, constitute two poles in a generational divide that often results in power struggles, hurt feelings, and split churches. The purpose of the book, according to the authors is “to untangle the Asian and American cultural complexities that hinder and prevent Asian American Christians from experiencing the grace of God in their lives and ministries.” (p. 1)

Following a thorough survey of the various church models that have resulted from the divide, the authors take a deep dive into the Western and Asian roots of two key concepts, shame and grace. Drawing on contemporary honor/shame literature, the authors examine the biblical concept of shame rooted in the cultures of the Old Testament and first-century Rome. Primarily relational, shame is seen as a public commodity that manifests itself in the Asian context in the pursuit and prominent display of personal achievement (e.g. theological degrees), pressure to perform, and, for those who do not measure up, feelings of failure and inadequacy. Not dealing with shame, the authors assert, prevents Asian American believers from accessing the grace, forgiveness, and restoration available in Christ.

For their understanding of grace the authors likewise reach back into first century Roman culture, using the concept of patronage to differentiate between what they call Western Grace and Global Grace. Rooted in Reformation thinking, Western Grace is unilateral in nature, while Global Grace is reciprocal, involving a response from the client to the patron, the giver of grace. While many have faulted Asian Christian culture for a lack of grace, the authors argue that it is “a different kind of grace,” more relational and more complex than the oversimplified concept prevalent in Western churches.

In order to understand the different views of what it means to be made in the image of God, rooted in culture, that underlie the conflicts between Americanized Asians and Asianized Americans, the authors resort to a structure-community theory of culture. The resulting four types—institutionalizing, hierarching, individuating, and interrelating—provide the starting point for “untangling” cultural differences and responding with grace. Additional chapters examine the relationship between language and cultural values, as well as the contributions of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist thought to the formation and preservation of these values in the Asian Christian context. Here they cover familiar themes such as propriety in relationships, face and the need for “facework” in community, and reciprocity.

The authors close with recommendations for future Asian American ministry, including a greater emphasis on counseling and on leadership development that is more specifically suited to the Asian context. While acknowledging that the younger generation of leaders may have very different ideas from their predecessors, they caution against neglecting the valuable insights that can be gleaned by entering into mentoring relationships with those who have paved the way in ministry.

Through their careful exegesis and cultural analysis, Shin and Takagi Silzer bring a fresh approach to a dilemma that, as mentioned earlier in this review, has been around for as long as there have been immigrant churches.

Their work calls to mind an earlier book, A Winning Combination: OBC/ABC: Understanding the Cultural Tensions in Chinese Churches, published 30 years earlier by Chinese Christian Mission as a new generation of American-born leaders struggled to find their roles in very traditional Chinese settings.[1] Similar to the present work, CCM’s book also provided a typology of Asian American church models (considerably fewer at that time), dissected the salient differences between the “Chinese way of doing things” and American cultural norms, and sought to provide a theological response. In the Postscript, CCM Associate General Secretary Wally Yew pleaded with both overseas-born and American-born Chinese church leaders to put aside their differences and get on with the task of evangelism:

It has been good knowing we need each other. Now shall we move on? Move on beyond the issue of ABC and OBC. The world is still waiting for us to bring the Good News. Shall we get on with it? Together?

In the past three decades, many have. New and healthy models of overseas Chinese churches and ministries have emerged. Yet the same questions remain. For every generation that has worked through the generational and cultural issues, another has just arrived, or is on the way. Contemporary events serve to trigger anew the conflict that simmers beneath the surface. Hence the need to revisit the perennial questions in a new light. Tapestry of Grace provides a great place to begin (or continue) the conversation.

Our thanks to Wipf and Stock for providing a copy of Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities in Asian American Life and Ministry for this review.

Notes

  1. ^ Cecilia Yau, ed., A Winning Combination: ABC/OBC: Understanding the Cultural Tensions in Chinese Churches (Petaluma, CA: Chinese Christian Mission) pp. xiii + 174, paper.
Image credit: Chinese Church by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.