(2012 Annual Newsletter)
AN INTERVIEW WITH PASTOR JOHN LO
I grew up in a Chinese church. As a child, I was expected to address adults as “auntie” or “uncle.” The cross that hung on the wall in the sanctuary was flanked by the same biblical truism on both sides, one version in English and the other in Chinese. Inter-congregational dinner potlucks, held during Christmas, Easter and the Lunar New Year alike, predictably consisted of an assortment of noodles, stir-fried vegetables, and hardboiled eggs saturated in soy sauce.
After service, people milled around the hallways drinking tea and exchanging bags of home-grown fruit. Two thirds of the conversations eluded me since I speak English but neither Mandarin nor Cantonese. My monolingualism proved particularly frustrating during combined services. I could never decide which required more patience: not understanding Chinese and thus having to tune in and out, always missing the jokes based on Chinese words or tones, or to understand the Chinese and essentially hear the same sermon two or even three times over in one morning.
Of course, the Chinese aspect of the church influenced more than my taste buds. Chinese culture, and Asian culture in general, can profoundly shape one’s experience of Christianity.
This is a phenomenon that John Lo, the pastor of Epicentre church in Pasadena, California, has explored for decades. John’s father, Eddie Lo, was the lead pastor at First Evangelical Church (FEC) of Glendale for some 30 years beginning in 1966, about the time that Chinese churches began cropping up in the United States following the relaxation of immigration policies. Early in his career, Eddie had a vision to pass on the ministry to the next generation. He made a point of preaching and conducting board meetings in English, aiming to bridge the gap between the first and subsequent generations. He studied and wrote articles about migration patterns from Hong Kong and Taiwan to North America, articles that John helped to proofread as early as his teenage years.
Most discussions about the interplay of faith and culture is oversimplified, John says. The topic cannot be reduced to, for example, Chinese versus Asian American culture. There are other forces at play—not only ethnic culture, but also generational culture and church culture. Together, these three cultural dimensions affect one’s personal faith journey and the operation of a church as a whole.
“I read all kinds of articles about Asian American Christian culture and Chinese culture—which one is ‘kingdom culture’—and I don’t think it’s quite that simple because you can never take a person out of their skin. But we can be intentional to bring in kingdom values that are not against culture, but infused within it,” John explains. “If Jesus was a 25-year old white person hanging out with a bunch of Asian people or Hispanic people, what would that look like? There are generational, ethnic, and kingdom values that are all intermixed there.”
Epicentre offers an example of how these three cultural axes intersect. Epicentre was planted in November 2003, and the congregation initially consisted of about 140 people from FEC Glendale. Since then, the church has grown in number to over 200, with approximately 70 percent of those in attendance being Asian American. But John has been intentional about not labeling Epicentre an Asian American church.
“I didn’t want to plant a church with a Chinese congregation because it’s too complicated and because I don’t even speak any Chinese,” John says of Epicentre’s inception. Nor did he target Asian Americans when planting and growing the church. “What we told people was simply to reach out to whoever was in front of them,” he describes. “We never called ourselves an Asian American church and I never use language like that because it turns off our non-Asian American people.”
“You could put us alongside a lot of Asian American churches, or churches that have the same percentage of Asian Americans as we do, and we look very, very different in a lot of ways,” he continues. “There are Asian American characteristics which are present, like an emphasis on food, but there are also lots of generational characteristics, like the volume of our music. And then there are a lot of characteristics that don’t have anything to do with that: our theology, our ecclesiology, our understanding of the doctrine of the church and what the identity of the church is. These things are somewhat related to ethnic culture, but they’re not nearly just that.”
“I think it would be an injustice to try and describe the process we’ve been through solely from an ethnic cultural lens,” he says. “What we’ve tried to do at Epicentre is create a church culture that’s not simply Asian American and not simply generational.”
Taking a step back to examine the bigger picture, John explains, “When Jesus showed up, he showed up as a first-century Jew. If he was born in China, he’d be a lot different than he was. Any expression of the spirit of God at a particular time is always going to have cultural features. There’s no such thing as an a-cultural faith. And what that means is that the spirit of God that’s working through 50-year-old Jews is going to look very different than when it’s working in a bunch of Hispanics in East LA, a bunch of 25-year-old Asian Americans or multiethnic, educated people in Pasadena.”
Though there are multiple forces at play, the question to ask with respect to ethnic, generational and church culture is the same: Are these dimensions of culture influencing our faith in a way that is consistent with the Bible? John emphasizes, “Culture is not a positive or a negative thing. It just is what it is. It’s important for Christians to think back and reflect and ask, ‘Is that biblical? What does the gospel say? What does it mean to be a child of Christ?’”
For example, with regard to the ethnic dimension, Asian culture offers many biblical values. “One thing I really appreciate about the Chinese or Asian culture is the focus on community as opposed to simply the individual. Asians are communal people, and I think that’s a very positive thing,” John says. “Secondly, I think Chinese churches especially are very good at focusing on truth and understanding of the gospel. The Chinese are really cognitive people—just a high value for education. So what that means is, in your classic Chinese churches, there’s good, solid theology.” Relatedly, John observes, “Another thing they pass on is the value of hard work.”
At the same time, some aspects of Asian culture may have a detrimental impact on one’s faith. For instance, the same value for education that produces sound theology can also result in overemphasis on knowing biblical truths as opposed to applying them. “The negative of this kind of apprehension of truth is that it can be very non-holistic,” John says, encouraging Asian churches to be intentional about taking the Bible beyond head knowledge for a more comprehensive spirituality.
He elaborates, “What that means is, we’re trying to tie in truth and cognition with emotional content, with community, with obedience, and accountability and action. So it’s not just what I think. It’s what I do. It’s how I’m relating to people. We want to have ministry. We want to have people working through their inner healing issues. It’s about thinking it through, talking it through, and having accountability for the action you want to take.”
Another aspect of culture, Asian and generational, that can come into conflict with Christianity is a tendency to avoid risk. “We’re what I call antibacterial,” John explains. “Asian culture can be very high in risk aversion, very high in control, and that makes people fearful. That’s partially ethnic, but there’s a bunch of it that’s also generational. This tends to be a real problem if we’re believing that the church is supposed to go out and affect the world. The church is the heart of God, and God’s not fearful of crazy things happening in the world. We believe that the gospel is light and that it’s not afraid of the dark. So there’s a lot of work we have to do to pull the risk aversion and anti-bacterialism and control out of our people.”
A third facet of Asian culture that often clashes with the Bible is how to deal with interpersonal conflict. “We want to keep the peace, so we repress things. We don’t talk with people when we have issues with them; we talk to uncle so-and-so or auntie so-andso,” John points out. “One of the places where the scripture is very clear is, if you know someone has something against you, you go talk to them. If you have something against somebody else, you go talk to them. Asians don’t do that, and it’s just not biblical. There are all kinds of crazy relational dynamics because people do not do conflict resolution in a biblical manner. You’ve got all these passive-aggressive people.”
Cultural values affect not only the individual, but the church as a whole. For example, varying expectations with regard to transparency and leadership styles can cause conflicts in Asian churches. “There’s a whole focus—and this is not simply Asian American versus Chinese, this is a generational thing—this whole focus on authenticity,” John says.” Young adults today have a nose to sniff out when somebody’s not being authentic. If you hear a person or pastor talk about their weaknesses you think, ‘Oh, this person’s real.’ The older generations don’t think about that; nobody’s asking that question.”
He continues, “There’s a very different sense of what it is leadership is supposed to look like and what it does. In the younger generation, there’s got to be a high focus on authenticity. There’s got to be a focus on ownership and group process. Things can’t be too hierarchical. As a leader I can’t just tell people what to do. Young Asian Americans respond very, very poorly if they don’t feel listened to, if they don’t feel appreciated, if they don’t feel ownership of the situation. Again, this is largely a generational thing, not simply a cultural thing.”
These expectations often cause tension when it comes to church governance. John explains, “When you put all these things together, in classic immigrant churches, there’s a huge variance in the expectation of what a Chinese congregation is thinking the English pastor is supposed to look like, sound like, the way they lead, the way they do things, versus what the English congregation actually wants. A lot of Asian Americans end up feeling very, very disempowered by Chinese congregations. A lot of English pastors can’t make it because after all these years they still feel disempowered by their Chinese congregations because they don’t listen, don’t take the time to ask you how you’re doing.”
So how can we address these differing cultural values and expectations? Being intentional about untangling those layers of culture is essential, John says. “We can’t uncritically take on any piece of culture. We’ve got to use the theological grid to look at ethnic culture and generational culture as well as church culture, and decode it,” John emphasizes. “There are these three dimensions of culture and we just have to be aware of them, and then be able to evaluate which ones are appropriate and which need to be changed.”
“I think the real key is for us to develop a rich, vibrant, wholehearted relationship with God so we are getting biblical conviction from God about the kind of people we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to live on the Earth. And then work in culture and practice in light of that vision and destiny.”