My religious life began with attending Buddhist temples in Singapore, but after my mother joined a Christian church, I entered a long period of searching for churches that aligned with my changing values, theological beliefs, and increasingly multi-layered background. Overall, this has meant that I have attended both megachurches in conference halls and small services in rented rooms; staunchly conservative and equally fiercely progressive congregations; younger, older, mixed, Asian, white churches, and many of the others in between.
Today, I am a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC), a relatively small denomination that has made it a central mission to house many of these differences in its polity. It is often a somewhat tricky fit, but one that I am optimistic will set the stage for truly creating a church that feels like home.
When I first started attending church services with my mother in Singapore, we joined a loud, nondenominational megachurch that believed deeply in weekly prophecies, speaking in tongues, and being so overcome with the Spirit that people would regularly fall to the ground — to be “slain in the Spirit”, in Charismatic or Pentecostal speak. The congregation was almost entirely Singaporean Chinese. And while the Sunday experience was couched in some uniquely Singaporean rituals — breakfast with pan-fried rice noodle rolls before church, or curry noodle laksa after church — the services were a different world altogether.
Indeed, we were often encouraged to be “in the world, but not of the world”. Inside the rental hall we used for church services, people were unusually expressive — moved to dance, tears, and exclamations by the ever-present, overwhelming Spirit and the 12-piece live worship band. Services varied greatly in length, depending on the week and the particular influence of the Spirit that day. Not of my day-to-day world indeed.
After moving to Southern California and during my subsequent high school years, I attended a much smaller nondenominational, Evangelical, Chinese church that doubled as the social hub for many in the Chinese immigrant community in our mostly white suburb. This church worshipped very reservedly, with its lone guitarist and pianist, or the occasional student drummer if it was feeling especially adventurous. No one worshipped very loudly here, and certainly no one waved their arms in the air while singing from their regular Sunday seat. And while the congregation looked physically similar in its ethnic makeup to our church in Singapore, this church felt entirely confined within the world of Chinese social expectations and respectability. While it served an important social purpose for my family, I suspect even my mother felt stifled by the sedate rhythms of this church with its “frozen chosen”, as some would say.
While a student at the University of California, Berkeley, my now-wife introduced me to the church tradition of her own upbringing: Roman Catholicism. I discovered candlelit masses, pew kneelers, founts of holy water, and the fine-tuned logistics of daily 60-minute services. I was deeply struck by the sense of tradition, ritual, and global connectedness that had developed through the centuries. For example, a friend once described to me a fixed-hour prayer practice — the Liturgy of the Hours — which essentially allows each person who participates to continue an unceasing prayer that had already lasted for ages. Here, too, was where I first encountered an impressively diverse congregation: in age, race, social class, and more. The Roman Catholic Church is perhaps underrated for its diversity, resources dedicated to social work, and much larger impact as a church than any Protestant megachurches. In the same way its failings are amplified by its size, so are its strengths.
These experiences all led me unexpectedly to my current denominational home, the UCC: a million-member denomination that I learned about while studying in seminary, and that is almost exclusively located in the United States. Today, I participate in our regional Committee on Ministry, a governing and advisory board. Nevertheless, it is an unlikely fit for someone like me at first glance (and maybe even after a second or third).
According to its own 2018 statistics, the UCC is 83.1 percent white/Euro-American, and only 3.8 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Though I live in California, most UCC congregations are located in the Great Lakes, Middle Atlantic, and New England regions of the country. It is even a denomination caught in the general trend of declining membership among mainline Protestant denominations. This has meant that when I have attended our region’s Annual Gathering, the mostly white, mostly older, mostly done-with-dinner-at-5 p.m. crowd looks, sounds, and eats very differently from nearly every other church environment that I have found comfortable. Once, when I was 26, I was asked very enthusiastically by another Committee member if I was under 35 — the threshold to be counted as a “young adult”.
And yet, because the UCC itself was formed only in 1957 as a merger between several very old and different church denominations, it has held deeply to its identity as both a “United and Uniting” denomination. While each church and congregation elects to participate covenantally with other UCC churches through regional and national associations, each congregation ultimately reserves the right to make all of its own decisions. In practice, this means that no national or regional setting can speak for the churches in its territory, only that they can speak to other UCC churches and make non-binding recommendations. Thus, even though the UCC was the first Protestant denomination to ordain an openly gay man, the first mainline Christian denomination to support same-gender marriage, and the only Christian church to have published a hymnbook that equally utilizes both male and female depictions of God, the beliefs of its individual congregations still span the spectrum. When I first started visiting UCC churches, I was told, “If you’ve visited one UCC church … well, you’ve visited one UCC church.”
So why did I take up membership with a largely older, largely whiter, somewhat declining, seemingly less efficient organization? Ultimately, I believe that creating and shaping a new version of church that truly serves the still-emerging and historically under-recognized needs of people like me will be best facilitated by a church structure that is mature enough to offer resources, connections, and recommendations when necessary, but flexible enough to allow for new ideas to be made possible.
For now, I believe that UCC most closely reflects what I would like to see in the evolving practice of Asian and Asian American church. It is a denomination that is able to hold within its membership autonomous churches of vastly different opinions and traditions, while still being able to champion a progressive commitment to justice through its national office. Pastors in the UCC, for example, are ideally able to make all their own decisions about which churches they want to serve while also receiving support from the regional and national settings of the denomination. Realistically, this can often be complicated by the strength of the regional office and the willingness of churches to engage according to wider UCC recommendations.
However, this tension between individual agency and regional/national presence also means that the UCC’s structure would allow it to honor both the vast diversity of Asians and Asian Americans while still calling for social justice with at least one loud voice from its national setting.
Since 2004, the UCC has heavily promoted the idea that “God is still speaking” — that there is yet more being revealed to us by God, and in ways beyond the Bible and sermons as we have known them. In the global landscape of Asian churches, there is likely no good answer for how a denomination can hold together all the best pieces of what I have appreciated from the churches I have attended: spontaneity, ritual, shared cultural practices, diversity, social community, and meaningful resources. In the personal landscape of my own history, I have yet — and will probably never — find a church that resonates fully with me and my family.
But I believe that at least theoretically, a denominational framework like that of the UCC can model some of the way forward. After all, as much as “God is still speaking”, Asian and Asian American communities are also still bringing forth new voices and visions of how we can be or perform church.