2nd Generation Chinese Evangelical Use of the Bible in Identity Discourse in North America

Article excerpt from "Second-Generation Chinese Evangelical Use of the Bible in Identity Discourse in North America," by Timothy Tseng, published in Semeia 90/91 (2002) 251–67, copyright © 2002 by the Society of Biblical Literature. (pp. 255-257)

Since the 1970s, identity discourse among Chinese evangelicals in North America has focused on urging immigrant church leaders to accept their socialization into North American culture and to share power and resources more equitably. During the NACOCE conferences in 1972, 1974, and 1978, advocates for North American–born Chinese pressed for greater attention. In 1978, a small group of West Coast American-born pastors received endorsements from NACOCE to form the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE). This group sought to address the perceived problem of a high “drop out” rate among American-born Chinese (ABC) in Chinese churches, cultivate ABC church leadership, advocate for ABC ministries within Chinese churches, and support ABC laity toward “responsible leadership in the church.” In April 1979, they started publication of the AboutFACE newsletter. AboutFACE has— surprisingly for evangelicals—not devoted much attention to biblical interpretation or theological reflections upon ABC evangelical experience. But its goals were clear. It usually addressed one or two ABC evangelical issues, included some amateur sociological, psychological, or cultural analyses, and provided lots of practical suggestions for those involved with ministry among American-born Chinese evangelicals. Over the years, it has also served as a communication tool for ABC evangelical clergy and laity.

Interestingly, the first biblical passage to be highlighted was Acts 15 (AboutFACE, Aug. 1979). Wayland Wong suggested that ABCs drop out of Chinese churches because the Christian gospel was not contextualized enough for them to own the faith. Pointing to the difficulty that “Jewish Christians” had in accepting “Greek Christians,” Wong argued that the Asian culture within Chinese congregations, much like the Jewish Christians, has become a stumbling block for the American-born to fully participate in the life of the church. “For many ABCs, fitting into a transplanted Chinese church from Asia appears to be too great a hurdle,” Wong asserts. Thus, the solution “is not to make the children of the Chinese church culturally more Chinese in order to reach them. This is like the Jews requiring the Greeks to be more Jewish in order to become good Christians.” Rather, the Chinese church must make the gospel contextually relevant to each new culture it reaches—namely, the American-born Chinese. This is equivalent to Paul and the Jerusalem Council’s decision to embrace Gentiles without requiring circumcision. Wong concludes with a call for an “indigenous ministry” where “radical changes and creative innovations must take place.”

A few issues later (AboutFACE, Nov. 1979), Hoover Wong appropriated Acts 6:1–7 and referred to the same cultural tensions between Hellenist and Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians. Claiming that “FACE took its roots” from this passage, H. Wong drew clear parallels between the Hellenists and the American-born Chinese while identifying the Hebrews with the Chinese-speaking and overseas-born. In order to resolve the contemporary crisis, Chinese church leaders must empower the English-speaking to exercise their gifts for ministry.

AboutFACE’s challenge to the Chinese church in North America stirred up much discussion and some controversy in the early 1980s. Most theologically trained immigrant Chinese (or overseas-born Chinese [OBC]) evangelicals expressed sympathy for the American-born. They agreed that Chinese cultural identity should not be viewed as a fixed reality, since it had undergone many changes over time and in different cultural contexts. Rather, one’s North American Chinese identity falls along a wide continuum from the least to the most assimilated. Furthermore, they asserted that one’s identity moved back and forth along this continuum, depending on the contexts and length of time spent in North America. In spite of these pleas for reconciliation and unity, the real issue for AboutFACE editors was to persuade the congregations dominated by Chinese-speaking and overseas-born leaders to provide resources for ministries relevant to ABCs, and to share power more equitably. While the irenic OBC scholars were content to describe cultural identity issues of the American-born to help Chinese-speaking and overseas-born evangelicals better understand their children, ABC leaders viewed identity discourse as a means to achieve their desire for greater power and recognition in church congregations (Tan; Law; Ling).