Asian Americans: Silent No More

Asian American Christians are growing in influence and audience. Will they be embraced by their broader church family?

Helen Lee/ OCTOBER 6, 2014

Peter Hong raises his voice to the congregation he pastors in Logan Square, a mixed-income neighborhood in Chicago. “Your entire debt is paid in full!” he shouts, as “Amen!” and “All right!” echo back from the pews. As he bounds across the stage, his red-checked shirt untucked over jeans, he exudes enough energy to fill the cavernous, high-ceilinged Seventh-day Adventist church that New Community Covenant rents on Sundays.

The pews are packed full, with a multiethnic, multigenerational gathering that includes more than Hong’s fellow Korean Americans. Hong is 44 but brims with youthfulness as he displays his own brand of impassioned preaching, a firebrand of grace. But then the tone of the service shifts as Hong jumps off the stage and confesses without pretense: He is bone-weary from more than 12 consecutive years of ministry. Congregants return the flow of grace, pouring down the aisles in droves to surround and pray for him.

One of the people who approaches Hong is Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Peter Cha, who has mentored countless Asian Americans as an educator, pastor, and former staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Decades ago, Cha doubted that Asian Americans could have this kind of influence in the broader church. “In the 1990s, Asian American pastors were asking, ‘Can an Asian American ever serve as lead pastor of a multiracial church?’” says Cha. “Now as we see the example of pastors like Hong and many others, we can laugh at the absurdity of that question. But back then it was a genuine concern.”

It’s still possible to miss the ways Asian Americans are shaping American Christianity. With just a few exceptions, Asian Americans rarely headline major conferences, attract media attention, or top Christian publishing’s bestseller lists. But thanks to their bicultural heritage and the particular challenges it brings, Asian American Christians are finding they have unique voices and gifts that allow them to connect with both non–Asian American audiences and segments of the church that no one else can reach.

A Broader Call

From the tonal Chinese spoken all around you as you walk into the modern, yellow-hued building of Bay Area Chinese Bible Church (BACBC), you might assume that you’d crossed an ocean to get there.

In fact, BACBC, right down the street from Oakland International Airport, began as a ministry to English-speaking Chinese Americans in the 1950s. It then developed a ministry for Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong, and added a service six years ago for migrants who speak Mandarin (as well as another campus). Every Sunday it attracts more than 1,000 attendees spanning multiple generations, languages, and cultures. Yet its senior pastor does not even speak Chinese.

Steve Quen is a fourth-generation, American-born Chinese whose father fought for the United States in the Korean War. Quen draws on both Western and Chinese culture to manage his culturally complex congregation, which he has attended for more than 40 years and led since 1997. “Here in the Bay Area is a huge unchurched Asian population. Who is reaching them? Not all Asian Americans are going to feel comfortable in an Anglo-evangelical church,” Quen says. “Our church can reach a Chinese American’s whole family, from his grandparents, to his parents, to himself and his kids.”

On the opposite coast, Jeanette Yep serves as global and regional outreach pastor at 66-year-old Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. She is the first American-born Asian American pastor on staff at Grace, which has moved over the past decade from being majority-white to one-third multiethnic. Yep represents a growing number of Asian American pastors who are called to staff prominent, historically Anglo churches.