The morning after a mass shooting by a Chinese gunman killed 11 people in a predominantly Chinese suburb during Lunar New Year festivities last month, news and commentators buzzed about the weight of the tragedy for the Asian American community. But many Chinese churches in the US didn’t bring it up.
Current events rarely make it into sermons or public statements from the pulpits at Chinese congregations, a reality that makes them outliers among American churches.
At James Hwang’s Chinese church in Southern California, the pastor brought up the shooting in the area only during the announcements, when he suggested that congregants pray for those affected by the tragedy.
“Most of the brothers and sisters didn’t seem to talk about it either,” said Hwang, a retired pastor and ministry leader.
The majority of Chinese churches in the US leave current events at the door. For some, it’s a deliberate decision to avoid politics in the pulpit for the sake of unity among their flock. They are concerned that discussion of current events may become a distraction or cause divisiveness. They believe that Sunday gatherings should focus on worship, God’s Word, and gospel proclamation, and it’s important to keep that a priority over what’s happening outside the church.
“Jesus’ focus was always on the gospel. He wanted to talk about sin and judgment,” said Kris Wang, who serves as an elder in a Chinese church in Lansing, Michigan. “He didn’t want to blur the focus of the gospel by talking about current events, theology, or political issues.
“I am not opposed to talking about current events in church, but I think we need to be careful about the negative effects of losing focus when responding to current events,” he said.
The immigrant experience
Overall, a majority of American churches address current events from the pulpit. In 2020, 41 percent of evangelical congregations reported that their pastors mentioned the issue of racism in a sermon. More than two thirds of congregations heard about the elections (71%) and the pandemic (82%).
Researchers also analyzed 100,000 sermons preached over a period of 15 years by a representative sample of more than 5,000 pastors. While only 1 percent of sermons mentioned elections, the 2020 report found, more than 70 percent of pastors addressed a political topic from the pulpit.
But the majority (55%) of Protestant churchgoers strongly or somewhat agree that their political views match those of the rest of the congregation, according to a 2022 Lifeway report. Chinese American believers are unlikely to say the same.
Scholar Fenggang Yang interviewed immigrant Christians from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other parts of Southeast Asia while doing research for his 1999 book, Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities. He found that one of the sensitive political issues was the relationship between China and Taiwan, with sharp divides between those who want to see the island reunified with mainland China and those who want independence.
“Everyone had some political positions, but they just couldn’t talk about it,” said Yang, who is also the director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University. “When they talked about it, it could result in heated debates without reaching any agreement.”
Instead, Yang says, pastors tried to meet everyone in the middle by calling for “prayers for peace, without mentioning any specifics.”
Twenty-five years later, even though the majority of those in America’s Chinese churches are now from mainland China, the range of political diversity has persisted, with some Christians calling for political reforms in China and others supporting the current government led by the Communist Party.
At one church, “someone just offered a prayer for the situation in Hong Kong and there were members who complained immediately after the service,” Yang said.
Beyond disagreements tied immediately to Chinese politics, whether it’s due to a language barrier, education divide, or the popularity of “self media,” Chinese immigrants are also less likely to be as connected to mainstream US news as native-born Americans, according to Andrew Ong, a Bay Area pastor whose PhD focused on Chinese American evangelicals.
“The news that is important to these communities just may be very different than what is making the front page of The New York Times,” Ong said.
“Immigrants have very different reference points,” said Yang. “Yes, they see [the US] as home, but they have close family members, relatives in China or Greater China, so they are more emotionally invested in that part of the world.”
Asian immigrants are often targets of fake news and propaganda about the US in their native language, and WeChat users are overwhelmingly likely to only be getting their news on the site from Chinese sources. Chinese immigrants may inadvertently join bad-faith WeChat groups, like ones that during the 2020 election attempted to frighten the community out of voting.
Though there may be some spaces where Chinese Christians discuss American elections or where culture wars issues get discussed, “I tend to see these political voices as the outliers,” Ong said.
As the number of attacks on Asian Americans increased in recent years, many Asian American Christians who were born and raised in the US have been quick to speak out. But many immigrant Chinese Christian leaders haven’t joined the chorus.
The contrast in their approach to societal issues and grief around current events reveals different priorities in ministry. Some who grew up in immigrant churches have moved on to other congregations where it’s more of a focus.
“In my experience, the ones who felt the most frustrated have left their churches and sought a better fit,” said Ong.
Chinese Christianity in the US has been shaped in part by a pietism that emphasized “saving souls” as the top priority and saw everything else as a distraction from evangelism. Yang sees a possible link between this theology and Buddhism.
“Buddhists would say, ‘Salvation is all about your own peace of mind. Don’t be disturbed by social, political, or cultural issues around you. When you express opinions as attachment to the world, then that will be an obstacle for you to reach the enlightenment.’ I think that there is that kind of spiritual heritage, The idea of ‘Once you become religious, you stay away from world things,’” said Yang.
Connections to their context
Many Chinese immigrant church leaders still believe that pastors engaging with the news can be valuable to their congregations.
“Talking about current events from the pulpit gives brothers and sisters a biblical or Christian guide and connects them to our own context,” said Calvin Chin, who serves as a minister at Chinese Community Church of Indianapolis. “At the same time, if the pulpit talks too much about current affairs, it can give the congregants an impression that the sermon is just another kind of news broadcast or a commentary on current affairs.”
Pastorally, church leaders can address the emotional needs of the congregation by referencing what people are experiencing and then pointing people to the Word of God, says Daode Chen, a Southern Baptist pastor in Los Angeles.
“Certain current events may bring confusion to the congregation about their faith, so it makes sense to have a minister in the pulpit to interpret that from a biblical perspective,” Chen said. “From a homiletical point of view, public events that are recent and known to the congregation are the most effective in terms of helping communication. Even if the public event is only cited as an example, it can be a blessing for the pulpit.”
Chen also worries about what type of theological message is being sent by not discussing the news.
“By not talking about current events, the pastor brings a dualistic view into the church, limiting the Word of God to the realm of the church,” he said.
Rutgers Community Church in New Jersey was among the minority of Chinese churches that repeatedly made explicit mention of the California dance hall attack, with references in subsequent church prayer letters and scheduled time to remember the community during prayer.
Elder Rumin Zhang believes current events should also prompt churches to take their discipleship responsibilities seriously.
“Jesus reminds us that it is only because of the increase in lawlessness that the love of many people has grown cold (Matt. 24:12),” he said. “In the wake of major social incidents, the church has a responsibility to lead brothers and sisters not to lose their initial love, to care more about those around them, and to let the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy replace all kinds of hatred and grudges in human relationships.”
Pastors should take caution about speaking beyond their expertise, especially when the facts around a particular news item are not yet known, said Tsun-en Lu, who teaches public theology among Chinese churches and ministers to Chinese young professionals in the US.
“When the majority of the congregation has shared the basic understanding of current events, the pastor can make good use of the common concerns to lead the congregation to reflect deeply on their faith,” Lu said.
“However, when it comes to current events that most people do not yet understand, there is too much a risk that the pastor may unconsciously mislead the congregants by interpreting the reality. Unless the pastor himself is an expert on the subject, it is better not to talk about things he does not know enough about.”
Hwang, the California leader who previously oversaw Chinese ministries for the Far East Broadcasting Company, said that while he rarely hears Chinese preachers mention current events, “When they do, even just in a prayer for the needs, I feel the pastor actually cares about people.”
He also sees how important it can be for Christians to think through the news from their grounding in Scripture. Karl Barth famously said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
“Without knowing and mentioning what is happening in this world,” Hwang said, “sermons become irrelevant.”