A Church For Us

Part of 4 of in
By Tim Tseng
Jul 19, 2019 | 8 min read
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From one perspective, my life has been like the Oscar-winning movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. Like Benjamin Button, my path in ministry went in reverse. I started as a theological educator and engaged academia for 12 years. Then I became a pastor. And now, I am a missionary for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The analogy is not perfect. I wish I was getting physically younger.

But all kidding aside, my unusual journey has given me a particular perspective on Asian and Pacific Islander Christianity. It is not a unique perspective, but it’s one that has been shaped by God’s unwillingness to allow me to inhabit the world of scholars. Thus, while my passion for the histories and theologies of API Christianity remains strong and I still hope to contribute to scholarly discourse, it will be the next generation of scholars who will bear fruit in this area (assuming they can survive the academic pigeonholing that comes with scholarly investments into ethnic studies). I’m eager to see who will step up!

In the meantime, I’m very content to invest the fourth quarter of my life into the next generation of Christians, API or otherwise. They will, hopefully, free the American church from white male normality and establish racial equality, gender mutuality, and biblical justice as new norms. I also hope that the next generation will articulate a more effective and relevant apologetic for a religiously pluralistic, identity fluid, and post-Christendom society. To that end, I believe that campus ministries are in the best position to cultivate a revival of “world changers” for Christ (as InterVarsity likes to say). Indeed, the more than 250 enthusiastic and thoughtful young people who attended InterVarsity’s national Asian American staff conference in February 2019 reignited my hope that API evangelical leaders can make positive impact on U.S. campuses and the wider church.

So, what can I say to or share with emerging API Christians? What perspective have I gained from my Benjamin Button ministry journey? I grew up in a tight-knit, family-oriented Chinese church in New York City that my dad planted in 1970. During the early 1980s, my college-aged peers participated in the Eastern Chinese Bible Conference and Sports for Christ, a basketball league of Chinese churches in the New York Metropolitan area. I joined the Chinese Christian Fellowship at New York University, where I served as chapter president twice and met my future wife, Betty. We were part of an emerging American-born and American-raised Chinese Christian community and we were tight-knit. Conversations about getting saved, having a personal relationship with Jesus, listening to family radio, Dallas or Westminster Seminary trained pastors, Christian musicians like Amy Grant, B.J. Thomas, the Imperials, Keith Green, and the Maranatha singers — these were the spiritual touchpoints that shaped our community. To us, our conservative evangelical identity surpassed all other claims, so we rarely thought about what it meant to be Chinese American or how to engage the wider community with our faith.

But college forced me to rethink the role of Christianity in the contemporary world. I was curious about my ethnic identity, so I minored in East Asian studies. As I was introduced to Chinese art, history, philosophy, and religion, I felt a growing dissonance between my Christian faith and Asian heritage. The main question that I wrestled with was whether it was desirable to identify as a Christian given Christianity’s complicity with Western imperialism and cultural colonization.

At the same time, we discovered that the Chinese Christian Fellowship was affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. IV staff encouraged me to explore this question more deeply. An anonymous donor paid for my trip to Urbana 1981, InterVarsity’s missions conference. There, I was introduced to Christianity as a multicultural and global phenomenon. I also encountered many evangelicals who were as passionate about social justice as they were about evangelism. I started to become convinced that only a pure biblical faith, unsullied by culture and history, could correct the mistakes of a Christianity that endorsed slavery and Western colonialism. Indeed, at Urbana, I was called to ministry and made a decision to go to seminary.

At seminary, I discovered that even though all truth is God’s truth, correct ideas don’t fall from the skies. All theologies and biblical interpretations emerge from historical, cultural, and social contexts, even the ones we’ve inherited from Europe. Furthermore, I learned that the theologies we’ve inherited tend to protect the current power arrangements and disenfranchise or silence the powerless. One way that this happens is by over-spiritualizing the Bible, a practice that was especially prominent among my evangelical peers. As a result, Christians become so heavenly-minded that they were no earthly good. I began to see the uncritical embrace of this type of biblical interpretation and theology as the reason why Chinese Christians isolate themselves from real world problems. Seminary taught me that this was a distortion of the gospel that the God of Israel and that Jesus Christ himself proclaimed. It was now up to a new generation of theologians, Bible scholars, pastors, and other Christian leaders to restore the liberating and holistic message of the prophets and the apostles. So, I heeded that call.

The greatest blessing that liberation theology has been to me was to expose how Christianity is used to justify the practices of the powerful and baptize the status quo. I still resonate with the cry of emancipation from the norms of presumed white, male, elite, Western, and other forms of privilege. And I’m not the only one. In 2012, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien wrote “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blindness to Better Understand the Bible” (IV Press). More recently, IV Press published a collection of essays in a book provocatively entitled, “Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?” (2018). Yes, this cry is being issued even in evangelical circles. I also continue to be inspired by the call to look at Scripture and theology through the eyes of the oppressed (see Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue and K. K. Yeo, eds., “The Trinity among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World” [Eerdmans, 2015]). But in the mid-1980s, I eagerly soaked up what I could learn from Phyllis Trible, James Cone, Cornel West, and Kosuke Koyama at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Though I was not a brilliant student by any means, American Baptist Church historian Robert T. Handy encouraged me to applied for Union’s doctoral program. “Who knows?” I thought, “God might want me to help future scholars and church leaders work for the transformation of the church and world.”

I was actually surprised to be accepted into Union’s Ph.D. in the History of Christianity. But once there, I was inspired by James M. Washington to embark on a journey to give voice to Asians and Asian Americans in the history of Christianity, much as he had done for the history of African American Christianity and Justo Gonzalez did for the history of Latino American Christianity.

In the process, I discovered nuance. First, I learned that the Christianity we inherited from Europe is not utterly unredeemable. The critique of Christianity’s complicity with Western colonization and complicity with the interests of political and economic elites did not start with liberation theology. Nor should it be confused with socialism or Marxism. Prophetic Christianity reaches back to the early history of Christianity and has deep roots in European social justice movements. Indeed, prophetic Christianity energized Roman Catholic labor movements and evangelical abolitionism. American Christians who advocated for civil rights and the liberalization of immigration policy in the mid-20th century have been influenced by this tradition. Today, many Christians who do not identify with or have departed from evangelicalism are beginning to reconnect with this Western tradition.

Second, I learned that most of today’s Asian and Asian American Christians do not contextualize their faith in a manner that was anticipated by liberation theologians and missiologists. What is often contextualized are aspects of Asian culture that resonate with prosperity-driven, politically conservative, and culturally authoritarian features of Western Christianity. Western theology, divorced from its prophetic tradition, is mimicked rather than critically assessed. This helps explain why a fundamentalist ethos is so pervasive among Asian and Asian American Christians today. Contextualization happens, but the prophetic dimensions of the gospel are often left out, especially among Asian and API evangelicals.

My discovery of nuance has forced me to wrestle with a couple of questions. First: What value is there in a contextualized API Christianity if it reinforces white male normality and refuses to speak out for racial equality, gender mutuality, and biblical justice? Some progressive-minded API Christians leave these evangelical churches because they cannot see any value in them. To them, it feels too much like a colonized Christianity. Others leave because these churches are not mainstream or multicultural enough. But I have a more difficult time abandoning the API evangelical community. It may not be conscious, intentional, or effective, but the existence of API Christianity still stands against the Western captivity of the church. Staying in an API evangelical church is not for the faint of heart, but it can be a laboratory for cultivating a faith community that can thrive in today’s post-colonial, post-Western, postmodern realities.

Nuance raises another question: What value is there in a social justice-oriented Christianity if it ignores the API experience? Progressive racial and economic justice public discourse in the U.S. largely ignores the API experience. At best, non-model minority APIs are highlighted to demonstrate social inequity. I think it will be a challenge for non-evangelical and evangelical Christians within the progressive movement to affirm anything positive about Asian Americans. They are saddled with the model minority label, perceived as cultural bubble dwellers, or associated with conservative evangelicalism. In fact, early in my Benjamin Button career, it was much easier to dissociate from my Asian American evangelical background than to stay connected. I shared with Asian American religious studies scholars and social justice advocates a commitment to progressive goals, but most did not share or understand my commitment to Asian American evangelicals. In my opinion, progressive-minded evangelicals and non-evangelicals need to retrieve the stories of Asian and Asian American Christians in the early and mid-20th century. They may discover that many of these Christians articulated a social justice-oriented gospel — sometimes through a liberal theological framework — but more often, through an evangelical idiom.

Retrieving API stories and building API communities is hard work. It involves contextualizing our faith and not merely mimicking what we’ve inherited from the West. But it also requires critically embracing aspects of Christianity from the West that are prophetic and life-affirming. Finally, it requires us to engage API Christians in the past who worked for justice and evangelization. Helping API Christians retrieve and redeem their histories and find their voices is what my life and ministry is all about. But I’m in my fourth quarter, and younger scholars and church leaders need to step up.

We live in an era where there is greater freedom than in the past for API Christians to choose which community to identify with and invest in. So, with humility and respect, I offer Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians as my exhortation to API Christians today:

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14, NIV).

In the original context of the letter, Paul defends the Gentile believer’s freedom from the Pharisaic legal requirement for male circumcision. But the freedom gained by faith is not the right to practice radical libertarianism and individualism. Rather, freedom in Christ is guided by a responsibility to love and serve one another within the community of faith. It is also framed by the command to love the neighbor. In sum, it is a freedom that seeks the common good.

I believe that API Christians need to use their freedom to invest in building API institutions, articulate API voices within the church, and pursue the common good, which includes liberation from colonizing tendencies in the dominant church culture. API Christians have the freedom to stay quiet and try to fit in today’s dominant church culture — progressive or conservative. But Paul did not encourage the Galatians to use their freedom to “fit into” Pharisaic Christianity. Nor did he think it wise to go the opposite extreme by indulging their private pursuits while abandoning the needs of the community. Rather, they were exhorted to pursue a responsive freedom within the church for the good of all. What would it mean for API Christians today to use their freedom for the common good? I still hold out hope that with time and effort, API Christianity may eventually stand in solidarity with the oppressed and identify itself among the marginalized.

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Tim Tseng

Dr. Tim Tseng is all about helping Jesus followers flourish wherever faith and life meet. He is currently the Pacific Area Director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries (GFM). His ministries have included being a seminary professor, scholar, founder of a nonprofit organization, and pastor. Tim’s heart aches for a generation of Asian American students and leaders who will awaken the world to God’s coming kingdom.

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