Dynamics of Chinese-American Churches in the U.S.

How they address and resolve certain key issues that are commonly faced by Chinese-American churches (CACs) in the U.S. will determine the successful evolution of these Christian churches, in particular, whether they will continue to exist and flourish or whether they will wither and lose their vibrancy.  This article discusses these key issues and proposes how these issues should be resolved.

Major Constituents: The most important issue is who are the major constituents of these CACs?  Should they be oversea-born Chinese (OBCs), or American-born Chinese (ABCs) with the latter including those who may be OBCs but came to the U.S. at a very young age (say, before they reached their teenage years)?   The question can be rephrased as:  Should these churches be Chinese churches focusing on the OBCs, or should they be “American” churches focusing on the ABCs?  Chinese churches would mean that the service would be conducted in Chinese, and the ministry would basically be a Chinese ministry.  American churches would mean that the service would be conducted in English, and the ministry would basically be an English ministry.

When the Chinese first came to the U.S., either as immigrants or as foreign students, for various reasons such as language, culture, and racism, they established their own churches.  Initially the issue of the major constituents of CACs was a non-issue, because essentially all the church founders were OBCs and the large majority of the Chinese in the U.S. during the early years (like the 1950s, 1960s, and even the early 1970s[1]) were OBCs.  These churches would naturally focus on the OBCs.  When these OBCs began to have children and as these children became older to become teenagers and especially later as young adults, this issue became more and more important.  In addition, there are now more and more mixed marriages, and there are many more mixed couples and their families attending CACs.

The CACs began to address this issue by adding an English service, in addition to the Chinese service.  The children and the young people would attend the English service.  In order to be with their children, some of the parents with children would also attend the English service.  Some of the other parents with children would send their children to attend the English service, while they attend the Chinese service.  The older members of the congregation would of course attend the Chinese service.  Thus, most CACs became hybrid churches, offering a Chinese ministry mixed in with some kind of English ministry.

With the continuing changing demographics, the English ministry has become more and more important.  As a matter of fact, some people even argue that as the CACs move forward, the English ministry should be the most important.  In my opinion, for the next 15-20 years, CACs should essentially put equal emphasis on both the Chinese ministry and the English ministry.  My rationale is based on the following.  For the next 15-20 years, there will still be substantial immigration of Chinese into the U.S.  Even though immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan has decreased significantly during the last 10 years or so, there will still be a large amount of immigration from Mainland China.  Significant immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the U.S. lasted for about 40+ years, from the mid-to-late 1950s to the end of the 20th century.  Immigration from Mainland China to the U.S. started in the early 1980s, but didn’t really become more than a trickle until the early 1990s.  If we use the Hong Kong and Taiwan immigration as a guide, then we should expect significant immigration from Mainland China to around 2030.  Therefore, even though the very long-term target of CACs should focus on the ABCs, during the next 15-20 years, they should focus equally on both OBCs and ABCs.  In other words, even though eventually CACs need to make the fundamental transition so that the English ministry is the most important ministry, we are still about another 10-15 years before we need to make that transition.

Major Decision Making Authority:  A corollary to the issue of the major constituents of CACs is whether the major decision making authority should reside with the leaders of the Chinese ministry, the leaders of the English ministry, or equally with both?  The differences of opinion among the church leaders could be due to genuine differences arising from different culture, background experience, generational differences, and style, or due to insubstantial differences arising mostly from human frailties associated with the competition for control and power.

To be consistent with the previous conclusion that CACs in the first one-third of the 21st century should place equal emphasis on the English ministry and the Chinese ministry, the major decision making authority should then reside equally with the leaders of the Chinese ministry and the leaders of the English ministry.  This equal emphasis means that there should be a major change in the governance structure of many CACs, since in the traditional governance structure the decision making authority always resided with the leaders of the Chinese ministry.

There is more than one method of implementing equal emphasis on the English ministry and the Chinese ministry and equal leadership responsibility.  One method is equal and separate ministries under the same roof, i.e., the English ministry and the Chinese ministry are essentially independent churches but sharing the same church facilities.  The other method is providing some degree of autonomy to each ministry, but expecting a lot of synergy and joint activities between the Chinese ministry and the English ministry.  Personally, I strongly prefer the second method, because it can provide value added from each of the other culture by taking advantage of the dual cultures of both the OBCs and the ABCs.  The second method can also result in greater efficiency via sharing of staff and volunteers.

Community Outreach:  The change in constituents and leadership structure also affects the issue of community outreach.  The Bible emphasizes that Christians should go into the community and serve the community.  Church goers cannot call themselves true Christians if they just attend church services and involve in only church activities, but ignore what is happening in the community.  Although many CACs are very good in involving in the community in Taiwan and Mainland China, they often have done very little as far as the local community in the U.S.  I think this is related to the constituent issue, because when a CAC thinks of itself as a Chinese church and its target constituents are OBCs, then it is not surprising that the community it wants to outreach would be the communities where they came from.  Now that the membership of CACs has changed so that equal focus is also given to the ABCs, more outreach focus should also be put on the local community.

Decision Review/Appeal Mechanism:  Most American churches are members of a larger church hierarchy, e.g., a member of the Presbyterian denomination, Methodist denomination, Baptist denomination.  Decisions made by the leadership of a local church can be appealed or reviewed, when necessary, by the leadership higher up in the church hierarchy.  However, many CACs are independent churches; they are not member churches in a hierarchy of churches.  Therefore, there is no obvious review or appeal process.  Church decisions are usually made by a small leadership board [e.g., the minister(s) and the elders] which in principle could be reviewed and overturned by the general membership.  However, it is impractical and unrealistic to expect the general membership to be knowledgeable about the details of the many issues faced by their church.  Therefore, it is important to set up a larger review or oversight board consisting of, e.g., the minister(s), elders, deacons, and other key influential and active members of the church, to review or receive appeals from the general membership when necessary. This of course does not remove the ultimate authority from the general membership as a whole.

Unanimity Versus Majority in Decision Making:  Another issue that CACs need to address is whether unanimity is required in making decisions; a corollary of that is how quickly decisions need to be made. Until recently when the need for change in the CACs was not as urgent, it was not as critical in delaying the decision making process.  If unanimity was not reached, then the decision was postponed to a future date.  However, now that CACs are facing several fundamental issues which are critical in their continuing evolution and their future success, I believe they can no longer afford a very slow decision making process.  On any decision, it is of course best to have unanimity.  But if there is no unanimity, then a decision should still be made, because no decision is also a decision, i.e., just a decision for the status quo.  For most decisions, a simple majority should suffice.  On certain critical issues, a two-thirds majority may be required.  A side benefit of a quicker decision making process is increased efficiency, and more people will be willing to volunteer their time to assume various leadership positions within the church, because issues are no longer discussed again and again and again when there is no unanimity, carrying over from one meeting to another to another.

Summary: Due to changing demographics, there are at least five fundamental issues that CACs need to address:

  • Who are the major constituents?
  • Where should the decision making authority reside?
  • Where should be the focus of community outreach?
  • How a review/appeal process should be set up in the absence of a denominational hierarchy?
  • Whether decision making should require unanimity?

In this article, we propose that for the next 15-20 years, CACs should put equal emphasis on the OBCs and the ABCs, or equal emphasis on the Chinese ministry and the English ministry.  The decision making authority should reside equally with the leaders of the Chinese ministry and the leaders of the English ministry.  Synergy should be cultivated between the two ministries.  More outreach emphasis should be given to the local community.  In light of the general independence of many CACs and not part of a denominational hierarchy, a review/appeal mechanism should be set up between the leadership board and the general membership.  A quicker decision making process that does not require unanimity should be adopted. 

Even if we adopt all of the above, if the people involved do not exhibit sincerity, honesty, humility, respect, and love in doing their work and in interacting with their colleagues and fellow church members, we will not have a successful church.  In the final analysis, a successful church requires both a suitable structure and a proper mental attitude.  I believe making these changes and adopting the proper mental attitude would greatly help CACs to evolve to meet the changing needs due to the changing demographics.


[1] For many years until around the mid-20th century, the U.S. immigration laws were very much discriminatory against the Chinese, resulting in very few Chinese women and Chinese children in the U.S.

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