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A Missions Approach to the Chinatown Church in America

In writing this article, I'm aware of the fact that many ABC(American Born Chinese)s desire to do short-term missions. Some like to do it in a cross-cultural setting, while others desire to do it within the same culture (or language). Some (and I would strongly argue most) opt to do it in a foreign country. However, I would strongly encourage those born in America (either as a second-generation ABC or more) to consider the value of being a "missionary" in the Chinatowns of America.

The reasons are:

Despite the fact that many Americans (including foreigners outside the US) believe this nation is Christian, it is indeed far from it. We have had the American Civil Liberties Union and other lawyers threaten to remove the Ten Commandments from the walls of our courtrooms. In addition, the "under God" phrase in the pledge of allegiance has been challenged by atheists who want to remove it.

Our nation is becoming extremely pluralistic in terms of religion. Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as New Age, have become more popular and part of our American mindset and culture. How ironic that, despite the fact that 9/11 brought about more awareness of terrorism and its link to Muslim fanatics, Islam is held in a brighter light by the press than ever before.

We live in a post-modern (and post-Christian) age; the politically correct thing to believe is that all truths are equal: "your truth is as good as mine." To claim exclusivity to truth (John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life.") is to be "intolerant" and is held as a "bigoted" view.

More and more people all over the world are fleeing back to the cities for work, for living, etc. As many of the Chinese churches are historically rooted in the cities, especially in Chinatown, they become a geographically convenient place to attract Chinese and non-Chinese non-believers into the kingdom of God, as well as a fertile training ground and resource for future disciples.


I grew up in the Chinese immigrant culture. My parents were first generation immigrants (i.e. they came to America first) who opened and operated a Chinese restaurant for 25 years. Much of their activity involved going into Chinatown, picking up workers, buying groceries, and eating meals. During this time, I experienced Chinatown culture first hand.

My initial exposure to Christianity was through my mother bringing me to a Catholic church. Most of the mass was in Chinese, and Sunday school soon became irrelevant to my needs. At the time I was entering high school, I excelled academically, getting into the National Honor Society, and later entered a prestigious secular university (Tufts). I stayed away from smoking, drinking, and abstained from sex before marriage. I felt I did not need God. However, by the grace of God, I was saved by attending a college Bible study organized by Asian Christians.

Since becoming a believer in 1988, I've been participating in Chinese churches (in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, most recently).

When I first began coming to church as a believer, what surprised me were the Christian families. As the only Christian in my family (my mother is a Catholic, and my father was an atheist), I saw things differently from the Christians who grew up in the church, and presumably, were Christians since they were children.

As I began to be involved in the Chinese church, I saw much of what was "cultural Christianity": the buying of Christian books and music by Christian artists, attending Christian conferences, etc. Much of it was encouraging including developing friendships with Christian families. However, they often could not address my struggle with sharing my faith in Christ with my own unsaved family. I felt they were in a fairy-tale land, while I returned home to hell. I grew very envious of, even bitter at, families whose long heritages were Christian.

I began to steer more towards developing friendships with Christians and less with non-Christians. This approach led me to a Pharisee's attitude. That is, I did not want to hang around the "pagan" Chinese. I understood the process of sanctification as living a life which involved hanging around Christians and avoiding non-Christians. I attended many Christian missions conferences to be more spiritual.

However, as I was being challenged to evangelize and share the Gospel with the unreached, I realized that I was in trouble. The reason was that I had detached myself from relationships with nonbelievers. (Ironically, when I was a young believer, I enjoyed hanging around nonbelievers, even more than believers.) I had become a "closet Christian," sheltering myself with relationships with believers only. When I had opportunities to hang around nonbelievers, I shied away from them, instead of taking interest in their lives.

Learning to love family

One of the greatest challenges I've had to face is to witness to my unsaved family. Early in my faith, I must confess that my life with my family did not reflect my life with believers. I was not open and honest with them. I did not spend quality time with them. Much of that changed when, a few years ago, my father confronted me with the question, "Why are you spending so much time with people at church, when you don't spend enough with us?"

Prayer has been a vital key. I have spent the last few years seriously with the Lord, praying weekly for them. It has been difficult, but I have seen God work through my life.

Talking with them more frequently, listening to their needs, celebrating their birthdays, and calling attention to family gatherings has been a priority for me. During this process, even though they are not yet saved, I feel blessed because I sense God speaking to me more. He has challenged me to witness to what I believe is the toughest missions field, our unsaved relatives.

In this process of growth, I've also learned to be more effective in evangelizing other people. I've learned to understand the needs of nonbelievers better by becoming a more patient listener.

A few lessons I've learned

Christ calls us to share the Gospel with all people. As Jesus said, "I came to seek and save the lost." Often, many evangelistic strategies at church are geared to reach the unsaved, but what they mostly end up doing is attracting the already saved. While this is good, the purpose of the program is defeated.

Be cross-cultural in your own church. I've personally benefited greatly from participating in evangelism projects by the Cantonese-speaking members, as well as attending Bible studies with Mandarin-speaking intellectuals from China, even though I'm a member of the English-speaking congregation.

Love thy neighbor. As a challenge to ABC pastors, how many would dare venture out into making friendships with Chinese restauranteurs/businessmen -many of whom own shop right next to the church? Recently, I had to write a letter to the government on behalf of a Chinese hair-stylist who wanted to know why he had to pay an extra fee for his license to cut hair. In the process, I earned a friend in the community. Isn't this what "loving our neighbor" means when Christ commands us?

Be incarnational. Two years ago, I decided to move to Chinatown. Since moving there, I've been more keenly aware of the community's needs. As opposed to a commuter who lives in the suburbs, only to interact with the people on the weekends, I've been able to interact with people daily. To the young ABC, who says, "I'm going to be a missionary in China or Hong Kong (or for that matter, any foreign country during the summer), and then return from their experience as if it were a vacation only to return to their usual comfortable surroundings in church, I say, "Go and relocate, permanently, to the place where God is actually calling you to."

Learn the language. Often, I hear from an ABC, "I went to Mexico or a Spanish-speaking country for a month for a missions trip." Yet, when they return convicted, I ask them why they didn't learn Spanish in school. Often the reply is "Uh, it's too tough!" My challenge to those who want to minister to an unreached people group is the same as what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:23: "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." To the ABC pastors and deacons of the Chinese church, I say, learn to speak Chinese.

While I do not claim to be an expert (my only formal training I had was one year of studying Mandarin in college), I've tried to devote myself to: 1) reading the Scriptures in Chinese, and 2) developing ationships with people who feel more comfortable speaking in Chinese. I'm even considering taking formal studies in a university in the future. When James Hudson Taylor served as a missionary to people in China, did he make people speak in English? (Granted, this is not to criticize the need for people training in TOESL.) No, he learned the language and even dressed like the culture.

Ministering in a Chinese church in America is not easy. It certainly has its challenges, but, if one really wants to tackle such a mission field, here is one worth trying.

(Keith So attends the Chinese Christian Union Church in Chicago, and is a student at the Moody Graduate School.)

Article Link: http://ccmusa.org/read/read.aspx?id=chg20030104
To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Jan-Mar 2003. CCMUSA.