Tag: china

Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches

Immigrant children at Ellis Island. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Multicultural churches are all the rage these days. Conferences are packed with pastors learning how to start multicultural churches, or how to turn the churches they pastor into one. That long-overdue trend is welcomed because God is the God of diversity. In light of God’s call to reconciliation, churches ought to reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.

But, we still need monocultural churches, particularly among newly-arrived immigrant populations. Here are six reasons why.

1. Monocultural churches can provide a safe haven for minorities within a dominant majority culture. After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipated African Americans left their former white masters’ churches to form black congregations. The rich history of the American black church is one not only of worship, but as the hub of the African American community. For minority populations, especially newly-arrived immigrant populations, monocultural churches can provide this same safe haven today.

2. Monocultural churches allow for minority perspectives to develop and be heard. On a national scale, American Christianity was shocked into reality with the publication of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The subtitle should have been Freeing the Church from White Cultural Captivity, because Professor Rah writes compellingly of the “white captivity of the church.” Dr. Rah’s advocacy for other voices — voices of minorities — to be heard and respected could be realized if white churches and leaders recognize and listen to the voices from Korean, Laotian, West African, African American, and other churches whose members are in the minority in American cultural life.

3. Monocultural churches can provide a connection to home, customs, language, ritual and power structures that generations of immigrants wish to retain. The myth of the American melting pot has been debunked as Americans of all ethnicities have attempted to connect with their ancestral roots. For those in the minority, the identity fostered by language, dress, ritual, and customs is difficult to retain, but important to remember.

4. Monocultural churches can become points of transition, assisting newcomers to America as they navigate their new culture. When I traveled in China, I was always interested in talking to Americans who had lived and worked in China to find out what restaurants they frequented, where they shopped, and how they learned the Chinese language. The same need exists in new immigrants to this country. Those from their own countries can help new immigrants negotiate the meaning and pace of American life.

5. Monocultural churches help resist the marginalization of minority groups. The danger any minority faces is not only being assimilated into their new culture, but being absorbed and marginalized by it. Monocultural churches, like the black church, have given rise to a unique expression of the Christian faith, and established a unique place for its people in American church life. White churches and denominations must reject outreach to minority populations because they are the answer to white church or denominational decline.

6. Finally, monocultural churches do not confirm the notorious church growth teaching called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Church growth studies advocated that because people (usually white) found it easier to be with people like them, it followed that homogeneous churches would grow more quickly and easily. However, monocultural churches are not excluders, but incubators that allow potentially fragile populations to establish themselves, grow, develop a unique witness, and thrive in the rich diversity of American church life.

Of course, none of these reasons is intended to sanction prejudice, discrimination, or exclusion in any church. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem cared for its Jewish widows and its Greek widows as well.

However, before you jump on the bandwagon of exclusive multiculturalism, remember that historically monocultural churches like German Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterian, British Anglican, and others established themselves in colonial America. These monocultural churches became incubators for those who came to these shores seeking freedom, which included the freedom to add their past to a new American future.

The global future: Chinese, pluralistic, young

Tom Friedman, author of The World is Flat and New York Times columnist, is big on China, but he’s not the only one.  The 21st century is being called the “China Century” as China’s economy is predicted to grow to three times the size of the US economy by 2040, only 30 years from now.  One book, When China Rules The World, foresees drastic cultural and political changes as China rises in world status.

What does this have to do with churches?  Just this — young people, including Chinese young people, are already exerting tremendous social pressure on the global culture.  Trends in China’s emerging generation are both reflecting and influencing  the world youth culture.  I track several emerging gen sites and blogs, and Chinese trends are appearing more often.

One site, enoVate, belongs to the company by the same name.  Headquartered in Shanghai, China, enoVate’s mission is “insights and creative solutions for China’s youth market.”  But look at their client page — Coca-Cola, Sprite, New Balance, Kraft, Unilever, Ticketmaster, and assorted other American and European corporations.  All of them are trying to expand their reach in the world’s largest youth market by understanding what makes Chinese youth tick.

A recent post on enoVate’s blog posed a provocative idea — ‘”I Want A Mixed-Race Baby”: Are Chinese Youth After a Mixed-Race Baby?’ The combination of Chinese features, augmented by those of another race, are seen as both exotic and desirable among Chinese youth.   The previously insular Chinese society has not only adopted the racial pluralism of the United States (we have a mixed race president now), but has given racial pluralism an uniquely Chinese twist, which is what China tends to do with any trend they adopt.

My point in this is not to build an airtight case for the rise of China, but to suggest that we tend to look only within ourselves and our own culture for insights into how to do church.  But there are other models that are taking a broader, more global view.  One example is Newsong church, with its international locations in California, India, London, Bangkok, Mexico City, and the other parts of the US, which has styled itself as a “third culture” church.  More churches will follow Newsong’s lead, and if you have traveled in Asia as I have, you recognize that China dominates the landscape.

With increasing global communication, world travel, and social networking, we need to pay attention to the trends driving China.  Because, to paraphrase Hollywood, these are coming soon to a community near you.

Breaking News: After I posted this article on Jan 20, the Jan 21 edition of the New York Times carried this headline and article — Foreign Languages Fade in Class – Except Chinese.  It appears that while other language subjects are declining, the teaching of Chinese in public and private schools is increasing, partially because China is paying the salaries of teachers to travel from China to teach in the US.  Remember when all Chinese wanted to learn English?  Interesting.

China’s Dead Sea Scrolls: An Ancient Case of Contextual Christianity

Paul Pelliott, French sinologist, spent weeks reading through ancient manuscripts in the Library Cave in Dunhuang.
Paul Pelliott, French sinologist, spent weeks reading through ancient manuscripts in the Library Cave in Dunhuang.

Contextualization is the buzzword in missional thinking today, but it’s not a new concept.  In 635 AD, Christianity followed the Silk Road and entered China’s capital city of Chang’an, now known as Xian.  Aleben, a bishop from Persia, led a contingent of two dozen monks on a 3,000 mile journey into the heart of China. The emperor of China, Taizong, welcomed Aleben and his monks, and the sacred scriptures Aleben carried.

The texts the emperor had translated into Chinese spoke of a “Luminous Religion” and of a savior who would free mankind.  The emperor embraced this new religion, commanded that monasteries and churches be built, and encouraged all under his reign to adopt this new faith.  A 12-foot-high stele — an engraved stone tablet — was erected to commemorate the coming of the “Teaching of Light” to the Middle Kingdom.

Unfortunately, subsequent emperors would purge China of all outside influence, including religion, in about 200 years, so the new beginning of Christianity in China was snuffed out.  Or so it seemed at the time.

In the late 1890s, another monk, a Taoist named Wang Yuanlu, found the ruins of a Buddhist monastery at Dunhuang, about 1,000-miles west of Xian.  Among the carved out caves where monks had lived, Wang discovered a Library Cave with thousands of manuscripts and manuscript fragments.  Eventually, Wang sold manuscripts to European explorers, who discovered writings that came to be called The Jesus Sutras.

Sutra is a Buddhist term for a teaching or saying, and some of these were undoubtedly sayings preserved from the work of Aleben and his band of Christian monks in the 7th century AD.  Selected sutras are contained in The Lost Sutras of Jesus, and have fascinating parallels to the New Testament.

Some passages read almost word-for-word like the Sermon on the Mount:

“Look at the birds in the air.  They don’t plant or harvest, they have no barns or cellars. In the wilderness the One Spirit provided for the people and will also provide for you.  You are more important than the birds and should not worry.”

In other passages, entirely new thoughts have a distinctive Buddhist flavor while communicating Christian ideas:

“All creatures seek the Higher Dharma (teaching). They long for the Way of Peace and Joy, which lies buried and cannot be seen.”

Still other sutras seem to reflect Biblical passages with a new twist:

“If you listen to these sutras and take pleasure in them, if you read them aloud and carry them in your mind, you will plant strong roots for many generations to come.  Your father and grandfathers, your mother and grandmothers, who cherished these teachings and found joy in them before you, have created a tradition you are continuing.”  (Compare to Deuteronomy 6)

These sayings, and others like them, may be the most original example of contextualization of the Gospel in the ancient church.  If not the oldest example, it is among the more fascinating.  Not all the Christian sutras reflect 21st century orthodoxy, but they at least provide an enlightening window into a world that was pre-scientific, but intellectually active.  Taizong’s library was reported to contain 200,000 volumes, and this before the invention of the printing press, at least in Europe.

For more information on China’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, google Dunhuang, Nestorian scrolls, Nestorian Christianity, or Nestorian stele. I discovered this amazing bit of history reading The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins.  I would highly recommend both books if you’re interested in Christian history.  I’ll review Jenkins’ book later, but both of these books will give you a new appreciation for the multiple forms the Christian message and Christian churches have taken in the past two millenia.