By Esther Liu
I grew up in Taiwan, raised by two very non-traditional parents. My father loved girls and never put limitation on my sister and my hunger for education and growth. My mother was trained in Western medicine, a strong woman who worked in her own clinic, bought and sold stock when most Chinese women didn’t even know what stock was or it even existed. Therefore, in our family, being smart and capable as girls was encouraged, not teased. Being strong and able to lead as young women were praised, not condemned.
I came to the U.S. for my graduate school when I was 21 years-old. My husband and I have raised a family here for the past 30 years. Through my education and seminary training (two masters and a doctoral), my own life experiences (raising two ABCs –American-Born Chinese, a young man and a young woman), and ministries with both OBC (Overseas-Born Chinese) and ABC churches over the years, I became keenly aware of the powerful cultural influences on our Christian identity, our interpretation of the Bible, our ways of dealing with relationships, our views of the world, etc.
In short, all aspects of who we are as human beings and as Christians are impacted by our cultural contexts!
A simple but unfortunate example of the above fact would be the perpetuating painful conflicts observed between ABC and OBC. It manifests not only in relationships within the family (OBC parents with ABC teens/young adults, especially), but also in the area of faith development (OBC pastors with ABC parishioners and leaders). The common generation gaps between parents/children and older OBC senior pastors/their younger ABC pastors are intensified because of the fundamental cultural differences.
The following two stories illustrate the cultural influences in a church situation and in a family situation. You probably can easily recognize yourself in these two stories which repeat themselves over and over again in hundreds of Chinese churches and homes all over the US.
A Church Story
The monthly OBC church council meeting started quietly as it always does. Deacons, elders and pastors sat around a big office table, each at “his/her own place”: pastor in the chair at the head of the table, then the elders and then the younger deacons at the end. They talked seriously and solemnly about different issues, showing greater respect to the pastor and the older members of the council and yielding to their authority.
This month, an important issue came up for discussion. It was about the Chinese dance that was presented during the Chinese New Year Sunday celebration. Some mothers had gotten totally upset about the clothing because, as the little girls held up their hands, some of their bellies were showing.
“It is totally inappropriate for a Sunday worship service,” one mother angrily reacted. Then the people who supported the teacher (a new Christian), too, got upset. One thing had led to another; now the church council had to deal with it. Based on the fundamental principle of making decisions and dealing with conflict (to get things done AND keep the unity of the church) in the church council, different ideas were shared and discussed.
Since this particular incident did not totally fall under either worship or the children’s ministry, the council needed to have two people to carry out the final decision. Therefore, several names were mentioned as volunteers for the task.
As usual, most nominated candidates declined, claiming themselves not qualified. Only after some pushes, pulls and discussions about the responsibilities and obligations, one elder and one deacon humbly accepted the assignment. One elder jokingly said at the end of the meeting that one should never ask a group of Chinese to volunteer, because hardly anyone will (volunteering for a task, after all, is often seen as showing off and being prideful).
One day, one of the OBC pastors walked in on an ABC youth leadership meeting in his church. He was horrified to find music blasting in the background. Several of the young people were sitting on the table and debating loudly with those who were sitting on the floor. There were food and drink littered all over the place, and some people were laughing…in the meeting!
He motioned to one of the leaders to go outside with him and advised him that the whole situation was very improper. To his great dismay, the young ABC started to argue with him, the much older and respected pastor. Speechless, not fluent in English to carry on the conversation, and deeply offended by the “disrespectful back talk,” the OBC pastor walked away in disgust.
Conflicts like this, to different degrees, play over and over again in many Chinese churches, in meetings, between OBC and ABC pastors and leaders, and between OBC parents and ABC youth workers. As a result, Chinese churches with ABC congregations have lost many young ABC pastors or have had a hard time finding and keeping one.
To give you a clear comparison of the two cultures at play in this above story, a summary of the cultural differences is listed in table 1.
Table 1. ABC and OBC Distinctives
OBC (Overseas-Born Chinese)
ABC (American-Born Chinese)
–achievement of goals set by others
–obligation to group
–achievement of individual goal
–trained to be individual
2. Duty and Obligation:
–duty to others
–motivations based on obligation
2. Right and Privilege:
–responsibility to self
–motivations based on feelings
–submissive to authority
–emphasis on position in relationship
–accept rules and propriety
–dislike rules and control
–play down superior/inferior categories
–passivity and yieldedness
–adherence to social politeness
–emphasis on self effacement
–aggressive and expressive
–open and accessible to others
–reliance on group
–fear of dependence
–enjoy the unconventional
Hoover Wong, Lecture notes from “ABC and OBC Distinctions,” Fuller Theological Seminary, 1987.
A Family Story
John and Mary are OBC, came to the U.S. years ago to study, and became Christians through the Bible study group on campus. After graduation, they decided to stay and raise a family here in the States.
They have two children, Rebecca and Moses. Both children are the typical “good Chinese children,” obedient and good students. However, as the children grew older, the conflicts between parents and children started to show.
It first started with the children “talking back” to their parents. The absolute obedience of the children was quickly disappearing like the fading sunset as they inched closer to middle school (and entering into pre-teen and teen years).
Then, they “suddenly” started to have different opinions about a lot of things such as clothing, hair color, shoes (teenagers like to wear flip-flops, even to church!), use of time, even the understanding of God from their parents!
They demanded “privacy,” closing their room doors and setting passwords to everything so that their parents could not see what they were doing, even their homework. The children’s habit of calling their youth leaders and pastors by first names made John and Mary cringe every time they heard it.
Moses completely shut down toward his dad after one particularly heated argument at home about his first B in middle school. Rebecca is still communicating with her parents, but the exchanges between them are increasingly limited to just a few things such as food, schoolwork and cleaning her room.
Both children complain about going to church with their parents every Sunday, and Moses sometimes just refuses to go. John and Mary worry privately what other Christians would think of their family and their faith.
Another great contention between the parents and children is going to the weekly Chinese school and speaking Chinese at home. Rebecca and Moses have been going to Chinese school for as long as they can remember. Every Saturday morning has been devoted to Chinese school and its many activities.
Now, however, the children have started complaining (in English) about how it wastes their time, how boring the teacher is, how they already know enough about Chinese, and how they are American after all.
Table 2 frames the culture differences in a family setting that play out in the above story.
Table 2. ABC and OBC Differences
Lin, Losing Face and Finding Grace, 33. To read more about personal sharing and stories from Asian American young adults, please also check out Samuel Ling’s book The Chinese Way of Doing Things. 15-54; and chapter 2, “Agonies of the Heart: ABC Speaks Out” (in the same book), 135-160, of the same book.
Some Observation and Statistics
We can all laugh about the two stories and dismiss them as common struggles in families and in churches. However, allow me to share some observation and statistics about the true consequences of ignoring the power of culture have brought to Chinese Churches in America.
The retention and growth of the next generation: this is a long-standingbut much neglected topic. Helen Lee’s article on “Silent Exodus” points out that many of the young Asian Americans “find their immigrant churches irrelevant, culturally stifling, and ill-equipped to develop them spiritually for life in the multicultural 1990s.” The most alarming data is that those who have left their parents’ ethnic churches rarely join any other churches.
The following statistical data shows the disheartening detail of how Chinese churches have been consistently losing 80-90% of their youth.
In 1974, close to 60% of Chinese in the United States were American-born Chinese (ABC), and about 37.3% of ABC’s were in Chinese churches. (2)
By 1980, there were one million Chinese in the United States, and 53% of the Chinese population were ABC. However, the ABC Christian population dropped to 22% of the Chinese population. (3)
The latest data available from Samuel Ling in 1996,then director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton (IL) College, estimated that only about 4% of ABC’s, who constituted 50% of the United States Chinese population who were citizens, were integrated into the Chinese church. (4)
According to the 2000 census, there were 2.4 million Chinese in the United States, and ABC’s were still about 50% of all Chinese citizens in the United States.
The question would be how many ABC’s are now Christians? Why have they decided to leave? (5) How can the Chinese churches stop this “silent exodus” that has happened for the past few decades? What does the leadership in Chinese churches (mostly OBC) have to do to retain and grow our next generation?
The severe shortage of ABC pastors and the number of churches seeking ABC pastors far exceeds the number of candidates. The problem is exacerbated by the dropping out of ABC pastors, which has been a subject of alarm for pastors and church leaders. (6)
Last year, I sent out one e-mail (seeking youth pastor position) for one of my youth leader who was moving out of San Diego and within 30 min., he had 6 different offers in his inbox.
At the end of this article, I would like to propose a baby step toward finding a solution:
For OBC parents: LISTEN! We need to stop and listen to the voices of our ABC children, youth, and young adults. They are not the extension of their parents. They are individuals who have their own thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears…….and ways to approach God.
For ABC: spend time reflecting on how both cultures (Chinese and American) have influenced you. And allow the influences to come under God’s light.
Please visit ISSAC (Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity) for further data/study and information about Asian Christian Americans, their struggles and solutions.
Note 1. Helen Lee, “Silent Exodus,” Christianity Today 40, no. 9 (1996): 50.
Note 2: Owyang, Gregory Robert, “The ChineseChurch and the American-Born Chinese: An Exploration of the Issues and Problems Involved in Reaching and Serving Them” Course paper, 139. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1974.
Note 3: Pang, Wing Ning, “Build Up His Church for My Kinsman’s Sake: A Study of the North American Chinese Church.” Pasadena, CA: North American Congress for Chinese Evangelicals, 23-28 June 1980.
Note 5: According to James Theodore Pricskett, “Toward Retaining ABC Youth in the Chinese American Church” (ThM thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1997), 49, one of the biggest reasons that ABC left the OBC churches where they had grown up was the cultural differences.
Note 6: Justin Der, “ABC Pastor Discouragement and Dropout: A Study Based on the Responses of 64 Pastors” [information on-line] (Stanford University, 2001, accessed August 2006); available from www.geocities.com/justinder/abc.html; Internet. See also Samuel Ling, The Chinese Way of Doing Things (San Gabriel, CA: China Horizon, 1999), 15-48, 100.