That's it. The Chinese immigrant church attempts to replicate the extended nuclear family of one's ancestry. It is the most redeeming aspect of the Chinese church in a nutshell.
It is best because of the unity, harmony, devotion, and respect inherent to the family unit. Nothing I have observed in mainstream evangelical culture rivals the Chinese church's ability to cultivate a family atmosphere. Chinese churches place tremendous value on unity, harmony, and conflict avoidance. There are five aspects to how a Chinese church builds a family: food, communal worship, caring, size, and resistance to change. As one woman put it, coming into a Chinese church/fellowship group has a "homey" feel - it's like returning home.
The family that eats together stays together: Like many immigrant churches, Chinese churches host lunch immediately after worship service and everyone dines together as a family. Food is pivotal in Chinese culture and a special bond occurs when you break bread with others. Mealtime is as
chaotic festive as any authentic Chinese restaurant (if the restroom doubles as a storage closet, it's authentic) and that's exactly how a Chinese family gathering should function. It's hard to over-state how important food is to Chinese people. People feel connected to being Chinese through the crazy stuff we eat. A woman in our church recognized my dad was from the same hometown in Guangdong because of a particular dish he brought to a church potluck. That's how diverse Chinese cuisine is.
The family that worships together stays together: A Chinese church's mid-week activities usually occur on the same night. Even though there are separate activities for children, youth, and adults, everyone gathers under the same roof at the same time. It's frenzy of laughter, shouting, and children running around, like any raucous family gathering. Where a number of parents who attend a mainstream church will elect not to have their kids participate in their church's children's program, the participation rate of families in a Chinese church's children's ministry gets close to 100% and the youth group participation rate lags closely behind. If you grow up in a Chinese church, it's assumed you'll be part of the youth group. You're family and you don't have another choice. Consequently, if you go to the same school with kids from the youth group and your parents are in the same small group, and you go on a vacation together as well, you will forge lifetime friendships. You do everything with your church - they literally function as your extended family. I still keep in touch with members of my youth group even though we didn't attend the same high school.
The family that cares for each other stays together: Just like in a Chinese family, you don't have individual rights in a Chinese church. Anyone can give you unsolicited advice about what you should wear, who you should date, and how you should raise your children. In a true sense, we belong to each other and we exercise privileges in how interact with each other. My wife received a tremendous amount of advice through four pregnancies - all of it well-intentioned and some of it helpful. But once we had the babies, our church came through amazingly in providing meals and even childcare. It almost goes without saying the food was incredible. Our kids got to the point they could taste a dish and determine who the cook was.
The family that doesn't grow too big stays together: I joined a Korean immigrant church in college. It was also like family but there was a strong spiritual hierarchy that I never experienced in a Chinese church. I also noticed there was greater ethnic solidarity among Koreans than Chinese. Lastly, Korean American Christians had a passion for God that I never experienced before. This manifested itself in a militant focus to expand the kingdom in whatever way possible, including opening the church to other ethnicities. Korean churches have a unique commitment to missions and evangelism. They are not content with the family staying the same size. Not so much with the Chinese church. In contrast to the Korean church in the US, there are few Chinese churches with over a thousand members. Instead, in the bay area with hundreds of thousands of Chinese, there are hundreds of small Chinese churches. Our commitment is to retain the intimacy and familiarity of the family atmosphere. I wonder if it's because China is such a populous nation and so easy to feel anonymous, that Chinese desperately want to re-create a hometown sentiment. My dad was an atheist when he started taking our family to church after we moved to Georgia in 1989. He wanted to meet other Chinese people and unconsciously yearned to replicate the Chinese family atmosphere. Chinese favor families not empires.
The family that doesn't change stays together: Most institutions resist change but the Chinese church is uniquely impervious to transition. A 6,000 year old culture is conditioned to withstand upheaval. Like any immigrant church, the Chinese church in America functions as a refuge for cultural exiles. That means most of its members are going to be conservative in their approach to assimilation. The role of the church is to retain cultural elements that immigrants do not want to lose. The Chinese church's resistance to change makes it an extremely stable institution. You always know your place and for better or worse, that place does not shift easily.
The best thing is also the worst thing: As with any culture, every positive aspect has it's corresponding dark side. The family unit aspect of a Chinese church is the worst because Chinese culture worships blood. Chinese people value kinship ties over other bonds. It idolizes the nuclear, biological family and all its accompanying pathologies - respect for elders, idolatry of parents and ancestors, the enmeshed family unit, obligation and duty, honor and shame, and worship of children. It's not difficult to recognize the fleshly elements of these qualities. I've spent a lot of my adult life bemoaning these negative aspects - the loss of individuality, shaming and saving face, the lack of privacy, the emphasis on tradition, the lack of evangelistic fire, and the emphasis on educational attainment and knowledge.
Gospel redemption of Chinese culture: On the other hand, many 2nd generation Chinese Americans like me often fail to recognize the value of our immigrant church upbringing. There's self-loathing because we can only see the dysfunctionality of what we've been through and our mainstream context does not know how to make sense of our church experience. I get it all the time - white people are surprised that I have an English-speaking ministry within a Chinese church. They have no clue what that might look like and their response makes me feel like my background is invisible.
It's easy to feel ashamed of who we are.
So without recognizing the positives of Chinese culture, many find themselves disillusioned or disconnected with their mainstream church experience. It might be because we're accustomed to a form of family that is difficult to replicate in the mainstream American church. I've noticed that my peers have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to do just that - replicate the intimacy of the Chinese church family in other church contexts. I applaud the effort. But many more peers have simply not made the effort and flounder around, seeking to belong in some other family context apart from the church. Some rely on their high school or college group of friends, other have a network of relationships through work or common interests. And sometimes it's there and sometimes it isn't but I'm convinced there is no better context to reproduce a spiritual family than within the body of Christ.
When Jesus saves us, he doesn't just save us as individuals. He saves us as a community. We enter into and become a new people. And contrary to what we might want, the gospel does not make our cultural background irrelevant. Rather the gospel redeems our culture into newness of life so that all the good aspects of our church culture are increasingly put on display and the broken aspects are healed.
Our unique contribution to the body of Christ in North America: The power of the gospel means our cultural background as both Chinese and American is a unique asset to both mainstream and Chinese churches in the US. That means the diversity of Chinese cuisine and emphasis on Chinese hospitality is a unique gift to the body of Christ universal.
If you're part of a mainstream church (white culture), then your commitment to unity and harmony is both a blessing and a rebuke to the individualism of western Christianity. Your leadership and communication style might not be fully appreciated so don't sell yourself short. Don't be discouraged because Western culture does not place high value consensus building and group harmony. You have much to offer if you're willing to invest in the redeemed community.
And if you're part of a Chinese church, then your individualistic mindset is a blessing and rebuke to the communalism of Eastern culture. You may simultaneously feel self-loathing and superiority because of your dual cultural citizenship. Learn to humble yourself and see the value of your context.
Wherever you are, you are free to stop playing the victim and from feeling like a second-class citizen. Your hunger for home and your commitment to fostering community is a blessing to believers everywhere. Your love for family is a gift to the church.