There are the “Nones” — people who don’t go to church or never have. And there are the “Dones” — people who are done with the church because they are tired of it. Although the Church hasn’t deliberately induced this mass exodus, there is a fine line between pushing out people, versus passively letting go of these orphaned adult Christians.
I LOVE MY CHURCH. This church is perfect. I don't know why anyone would want to leave, especially my three boys: Jimmy, John, and Joe. I was the proverbial broke college student when I came to the university where I met my wife, Ah Lam. My degree led me to the Bay Area and we found a church catered to Chinese speakers. We had our children in annual succession, and by our third, we were interwoven into the fabric of the church. We felt at home. They even served my favorite hot and sour soup during luncheons. This church is perfect.
Trouble began when Jimmy entered his senior year in high school. He had this ambitious notion of starting an English ministry to provide a worship service for those in college and beyond in the community. Outwardly, I applauded him for his evangelistic fervor. But inwardly, I wondered how his plan would affect our church when fully implemented. Around this time, our church decided to elect two fresh elders, Changpu (meaning "forever simple") and Bohai (meaning "elder brother sea"). Quiet and usually personable, they took their newly appointed posts seriously, perhaps too seriously.
Jimmy didn't mean to upset anyone, but many of the older folks began to murmur. Word eventually reached Changpu and Bohai. They quietly confronted me after Sunday luncheon. "You must understand: This is a Chinese church, and if we reach out, the church becomes messy. We can't control who comes in."
I was speechless. Just last night, I heard Jimmy's enthusiasm and dream. "If only we would step out of our comfort zone," he said. I snapped back to our current conversation with our elders, "I will speak to Jimmy, he's a reasonable boy." "Good," they both said, smiling and nodding, as if we had struck a deal.
Jimmy didn't take the news well. Wouldn't their efforts reach people for the Lord? Where would the college students go if we didn't have a service for them? It all came to a head at our next congregational meeting. The elders reluctantly decided that the English service would go on as planned, but only for a year before evaluation. Their main concerns: preserving the church's limited financial resources, focusing on the greater Chinese-speaking ministry, and making sure their kids remained "Chinese".
Their main concerns: preserving the church's limited financial resources, focusing on the greater Chinese-speaking ministry, and making sure their kids remained "Chinese".
Jimmy entered the local community college and loved that he had opportunities to worship with his church family and bring new friends. The English service doubled in size with every kind of nationality from the area. It was a struggle at first, but we were seeing fruit. Jimmy used his leadership gifts, John used his speaking gifts, and Joe led worship on keyboard. The growing diversity indicated that we were not closed to God's ultimate purpose of reaching all peoples. People came to Christ and a new energy seemed to grip the church. Our church was growing, everyone seemed happy, but little did we know that problems were just around the corner.
One year passed quickly; it came time for the church to evaluate.
At our annual congregational meeting, the only things mentioned about the English service were incidental. Sure, our new guests were different from us. Some used colorful language and others smoked outside the building. But the new congregation grew, and groups met at different times and spaces throughout the week. The Chinese congregation felt edged-out of our building.
But the kicker was something I never suspected. You see, we gathered occasionally for an all-church lunch after service. But just last week, we ran out of food. Immediately, people blamed all those new people eating up our food. While this was the stated reason, the truth was that resentment had been building up for some time. At their monthly elders meeting, Changpu and Bohai made the decision to phase out the English service.
Last week, we ran out of food. Immediately, people blamed all those new people eating up our food.
Changpu began, "We started as a Chinese church years ago and we remain a Chinese church. Due to the economic downturn, we are forced to make tough decisions. We have limited resources and need to maximize our efforts. As elders, we have decided to concentrate on the Chinese ministry. We encourage our English-speaking adults to freely look into other community churches in the area. As long as they are going to a church, we feel we have done our job."
"But some of them are our children. Don't you care about them?"
"We do, but our hands are tied. Are there any other questions? If not, thank you for coming."
People filed out, some never returning. Jimmy and his friends left and the English ministry was no more. The church made a strong push for our Awana ministry, children's program, and youth ministries, but it felt like a critical organ had been ripped out of the body.
• • •
John, now a senior, tried to make the most of it. He honored what Jimmy had done but wanted to forge his own way. He thought he could reform the system from the inside, through the sheer power of his will. He volunteered to be a leader in the youth ministry, but this would depend on the elders.
Once more, I was called in and they began, "Jun, you are a good man. You raised some fine sons. Jimmy is not here anymore and we want to give John this opportunity, but we want to make sure we do not have a repeat episode. Tell John to put his head down and serve. Don't cause trouble."
Was it a question or a command? I couldn't tell, but like many of our conversations, I said, "Yes, of course." The elders smiled, our eyes met, and we struck another agreement.
Was it a question or a command? I couldn't tell, but like many of our conversations, I said, "Yes, of course."
John's maturity and speaking gifts made him a big brother to many. But inside, he knew the graduating seniors wouldn't return — they couldn't. John graduated and went off to college, coming back in the summers to help. I could see the fire he had with his new friends and the joy he had in serving at church, but there was nothing our church offered him. Years passed and John got a job in another state and served faithfully in a community church. Our church heard the reports and quietly congratulated themselves on raising a fine Christian boy, cheering their success.
• • •
When our youngest son, Joe, entered his senior year, he challenged our church and nearly caused us to seek a new church. Joe was very musical and met a beautiful, talented girl at school named Natalie. She led worship and loved the Lord. My wife and I loved her from the beginning.
Joe couldn't wait for her to meet everyone, including our church family. Joe and Natalie were natural worship leaders and talked about how it would be great if they served together during worship — except we no longer had an English ministry.
They didn't seek the easy alternative: worshiping elsewhere. Joe and Natalie attended the local community college and wanted desperately to stay in our church. This was their church and they wanted a service of their own. Love is colorblind and they thought church was, too. Natalie is African American — others referred to her as "black ghost". Sensing what was developing, Changpu and Bohai arranged a meeting with me and my wife.
"You must understand: We are a Chinese church. Natalie is welcome as long as she partakes in the ministries we offer. If she can do that, she can stay. Maybe she can learn Chinese and learn to be great at children's ministry. Know that people are free to come and go as they please. We simply cannot jeopardize the Chinese ministry for a new English service. We have tried that once already and clearly it was a failure!" Failure? Was he speaking about our church?
"We simply cannot jeopardize the Chinese ministry for a new English service. We have tried that once already and clearly it was a failure!"
The usually reserved Bohai dropped the hammer, "We love Natalie, but you have to understand — she is different than the people in this church. Many people feel uncomfortable with Black people in the church. What if she brings a whole group of them? Please tell Natalie she is welcome and encourage her to make friends here. Please inform Joe and Natalie of our decision." Decision? What decision, and was there ever a discussion?
My wife, the peacemaker, replied before my words could get out. "Of course we will, sorry to trouble you with this matter. Thank you for meeting with us." I wasn't pleased with her response, but it appeased them. They smiled and shook our hands; another deal.
I announced the elders' decision that evening during dinner. We saw the surprise in Natalie's eyes. "Do they think we are harming the church? What did we do? We only want to serve and help!" Joe couldn't help but step in, inadvertently cutting off Natalie, "This is my church, too! I have a right to be here, but I feel like I'm forced to go. The way they are treating Natalie is terrible! Who gives them the right to set a standard different from God's? How is this God's church?"
"Who gives them the right to set a standard different from God's? How is this God's church?"
Joe and Natalie started noticing every glare and passing look. It became too much. One Sunday evening, they announced, "Mom, Dad, we love you, love God, and our church, but we can no longer stay. For our own sanity, spiritual health, and future, we need to look for another place to worship. I hope you will understand."
Word got out — you would think there would be a great commotion, but for many, there was a sigh of relief. The church didn't skip a beat, eventually finding a part-time youth guy who had no ambition of ever starting an English service. The church outwardly praised Joe and Natalie for their service. No one asked why they left; no one wanted to know. Yet again, another had left our perfect church intact.
The following Sunday during communion, I needed forgiveness. I wept for words unspoken, things I should have said to support my boys more. No — to support what the true church is supposed to be, not some country club or Tong Association. I prayed that God would forgive my sin, the sins of my church — our inward focus and lack of compassion for our own kids who were now grown adults.
I prayed that God would forgive my sin, the sins of my church — our inward focus and lack of compassion for our own kids who were now grown adults.
I then took the bread from a serious-looking Bohai. I took a plastic cup of grape juice from an equally serious Changpu. I held the elements in my hands, but I could only weep and pray for my little perfect church.