The future of the church is Asian

In Glen Waverley, southeast of Melbourne’s CBD, Adam Ch’ng is starting something new.

His church plant, called Cross and Crown, was launched in January and has a particular focus on reaching the Asian-Australian population in Glen Waverley.

“Asian immigration is saving the Australian church.” – Mike Raiter

“[The Asian-Australian focus] is born out of the fact that most of the people in our launch team are Asian-Australian. And also because we want to reach our friends with the gospel. Glen Waverley is really one of the Asian-Australian centres of Melbourne.”

According to the 2016 census, 34 per cent of Glen Waverley’s population has Chinese ancestry (defined as ethnic background going back three generations). Compare that with the population of Victoria, where the number of people of Chinese ancestry is 6.3 per cent. Since 2011, the number of people with Chinese ancestry in Glen Waverley has grown by 7.3 per cent.

“Melbourne is growing rapidly,” Ch’ng says. “The harvest really is plentiful, particularly when you look at the different subcultures that are in Melbourne. We need new churches, not just to reach new people but new churches to reach new cultures and new tribes as well.”

Ch’ng and his church team are responding to the changing face of Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, half of Australia’s population were either born overseas or had at least one parent who was, passing the 50 per cent mark during 2018.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find those figures reflected in our churches. The 2016 National Church Life Survey found that 51 per cent of church attenders were either born overseas or have a parent who was – slightly higher than the rest of the Australian population.

While the number of Christians in Australia is in decline (52.1 per cent according to the 2016 census compared with 61.1 per cent in 2011 and 88 per cent 50 years ago), preacher Mike Raiter told a crowd of ministry workers at the 2018 Oxygen Conference: “Asian immigration is saving the Australian church.”

Raiter told Eternity that he based his statement on anecdotal evidence and observations gleaned from many years of ministry including as principal of Melbourne School of Theology. It’s a sentiment echoed by the minister of Chatswood Presbyterian, Jeff Read, quoted in Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 Years On, as saying the Presbyterian Church in NSW had become heavily reliant on the “magnificent thing [God is doing] amongst Chinese people in Sydney” as well as Korean and Iranian people also in Sydney.

According to NCLS Research, “Census Christians” – the 52.1 per cent of Australians who tick “Christian” in the census – are more likely to be Australian-born than the rest of the population, but those who actually attend church are less likely to be Australian-born.

“This suggests those born overseas are more likely to be active in their faith, especially those born in non-English speaking countries,” posits an NCLS Research demographic profile report.

Not only are those from an Asian background more likely to be active in their faith, they are also more likely to be young. While NCLS Research statistics show two-thirds of the general Australian churchgoing population is over 50, the same research shows that the majority of churchgoers with a Chinese background are under 50 years old.

Adam Ch’ng, who is 29 and second-generation Asian Australian (his parents are from Malaysia), says he believes Christianity has a lot to offer people just like him.

“We inherit from our parents a culture that places a high emphasis on relationships, family, community – that collective sense of belonging,” Ch’ng says. “But being second-generation, we have a foot in both cultures, the Asian and the Australian, which is much more individualistic. And both cultures assume you belong to the other and both cultures disown you.

“I think that’s where the notion of church as the family of God, and just the simple gospel message, can be quite powerful. Because the gospel says that we are adopted into God’s family, not because we’re good enough, but in spite of the fact that we’re not. Christianity gives you a combination of forgiveness and belonging.”

Steve Chong, the founder of the RICE Movement, agrees there is a cultural distinctiveness to Asian people that “lends itself to church work.”

The RICE Movement was formed to raise up a new generation of people sharing the good news of Jesus. The non-denominational movement has attracted thousands of Asian Australians to its energetic, evangelistic rallies, first in Sydney and now in Melbourne and Perth, though Chong says he never set out to start an Asian-focused ministry.

“But Asians bring Asians,” he laughs. “That’s how it works – community is how we think.”

Chong is quick to say he truly believes that God is doing a “great work” in Australia’s Asian population.

“We’re going to start seeing more and more Asian people in positions of influence and leadership, so I’m not just interested in evangelistic rallies. I’m interested in Jesus’ lordship penetrating every aspect of society, and a large cross section of those people [in leadership] are going to look Asian and sound Aussie.”

Grace Lung works with RICE and is also a research fellow with Brisbane School of Theology’s Centre for Asian Christianity. She says RICE has played an important role in offering young Asian Christians a place to call their own.

“Some people do find that going to a church that is primarily Caucasian can still make you feel like you don’t belong. I don’t think most churchgoers are deliberately racist or prejudiced, but we still get paper cuts.” – Grace Lung

“They’re dealing with a Chinese context where they feel they’re ‘not Chinese enough’ and then on the Western side feeling they’re ‘not Western enough.’

“The RICE rallies are a place where Asian-Australian Christians can gather together and go, ‘Wow! It’s actually OK to just be me.’”

Lung says a generational clash is going on in many ethnic churches that can leave second-generation Asian Christians feeling confused about where they should go to church. “I think migrant churches have done quite well in helping other migrants and using the church as that place of community, helping migrants to settle into Australia and have a bridge between their home country and their new country,” says Lung, who attends Brisbane Chinese Alliance Church.

“It can be difficult for second-generation Asians to stay at their parents’ ethnic church because of the sense that you need to conform to Asian values, which are hierarchical and place a lot of emphasis on respecting your elders and being obedient.

“Some people do find that going to a church that is primarily Caucasian can still make you feel like you don’t belong. I don’t think most churchgoers are deliberately racist or prejudiced, but we still get paper cuts.”

Simple questions like “Where are you from?” or statements like “Your English is so good!” are the “paper cuts” Lung is talking about.

“My answers are: I was born here! If you accumulate a lot of those paper cuts, it can hurt quite a bit and it’s tiring.”

Presenting Christianity in a way that allows people to experience the gospel without having to cross racial or linguistic barriers is known as the “homogenous unit principle,” a controversial church growth strategy. The trouble with homogenous evangelism, writes John Sweetman from Bracken Ridge Baptist Church in Western Australia in a blog post for NCLS Research, is “it creates a homogeneous church, and many would see such a church as a distortion of the gospel where there is no such thing as Jew or Greek, rich or poor, slave or free.”

“So, I think if you’re doing a monoethnic church or ministry, we need to realise that that’s just a stop on the way towards something better.” – Steve Chong

In practice, however, Mike Raiter says that “like attracts like.” While he, too, warns of the potential to be exclusive, Raiter says that if you want to grow a church, targeting a particular ethnicity is “probably the way
to go.”

The monocultural nature of RICE doesn’t bother Steve Chong.

“You just work with the hand God deals you. If he’s dealing you all these Asian people, then that’s what you’re doing! For me, the picture of church at the end around Jesus’ throne is multiethnic – it’s all tribes and all nations worshipping Jesus. That’s where we should be heading for.

“So, I think if you’re doing a monoethnic church or ministry, we need to realise that that’s just a stop on the way towards something better.”

Faith Community Church (FCC) in Perth is one of the largest Asian churches in Australia, with weekly attendance at about 1800. It has historically been an Asian-immigrant church (fewer than 10 per cent of church attenders are non-Asian), though senior pastor Benny Ho told Eternity that is starting to change.

Ho attributes the fact that half of his congregation are under 50 to the strong discipleship mentality of the church, which he believes might be better cultivated because of the “communal nature of Asian people” and their desire for authenticity and sharing everyday life.

However, Ho warns that not all Asian churches are growing.

“That’s a big challenge for the future: we might have a growing number of Asian people in our churches but a paucity of pastors.” – Mike Raiter

There are already signs that fervour for Christianity among Asian Australians is beginning to wane. In an ABC Religion and Ethics article, Sean Lau said, “in 2011 an 18-year-old Chinese Australian had a one in three chance of describing him or herself as Christian. But in 2016, for 23-year-old Chinese Australians – that is, the same group, five years later – the odds were one in six.”

Ying Yee, a minister at Chinese Christian Church in Milsons Point in Sydney, says the need to raise up the Asian leaders for the Chinese churches is becoming urgent.

“A lot of the growth in our church at the moment is coming from Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants, and they are enthusiastic but young in the faith,” Yee says.

In many ways, Yee says it is strange to say that Asian immigration is saving the Australian church because a lot of the Mandarin-speaking people who arrive at his church are unbelievers looking for community.

“They’re not Christians yet. But there are a lot of opportunities.

“Finding Mandarin-speaking leaders who can help minister to these new arrivals is going to be really important.”

Even among the second generation, finding Asian-Australian Christian leaders can be difficult.

Mike Raiter says that, in his experience at the Melbourne School of Theology, the challenge is encouraging Asian people to go to Bible college when they’ve come from a context in which parents want their children to be doctors or engineers, not pastors.

“That’s a big challenge for the future: we might have a growing number of Asian people in our churches but a paucity of pastors.”

Adam Ch’ng, in Glen Waverley, knows that pressure all too well. He worked as a lawyer in a top Melbourne firm and then politics in Canberra before making the decision to go into ministry.

But Ch’ng says that while his parents struggled with his decision to go into ministry, “God has been wonderful in showing our family together how to understand what success really is. In many ways, that three-generation project can be a gospel investment.”

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