Dr. Jonathan Tran of Baylor University urges holding onto history, identity, and theology
“Can Asian American churches do well considering what they’ve left behind? If they order their lives by first leaving behind their pasts, what gets lost in the transition?”
These were two of many challenging questions posed by speaker Jonathan Tran, assistant professor of theological ethics at Baylor University, at an “Asian American Leadership Equipping Symposium” held November 2 and 3 at Fuller Seminary’s Pasadena campus. The event, centered on the theme “Living Out the Gospel: Asian American Contributions and Challenges,” offered a time for learning, discussion, and connection between Asian American theologians and ministry practitioners.
The symposium featured two lectures from Dr. Tran along with an address by Fuller President Richard J. Mouw, panel responses, breakout sessions, and times of worship. It was sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC) along with Fuller’s Office of Alumni/ae and Church Relations and Office for Urban Initiatives.
In his first lecture, “Why Asian American Christianity Has No Future,” Tran offered a challenging assessment of the current state and outlook for the Asian American church; whereas in his second lecture, “Why Asian American Christianity Is the Future,” he described the opportunities he sees for the church and put forth a call to seize hold of them.
The future of the Asian American church is in danger, Tran said in his first lecture, for three reasons: “First, Asian American Christianity sits racially over against non-Asian American Christians; yet without its brothers and sisters, Asian American Christianity loses its past as a common faith,” he claimed. “Second, Asian American Christianity grew up by leaving behind its first generation forebears; but without its immigrant mother churches, it abandons its past as a common story. Third, Asian American Christianity separates itself from the academic theological tradition; but without theology, it surrenders its past as a common language.”
“Asian Americans have been quick, too quick, to relinquish their identity with Asian immigrants,” he stated. But if the second and third generations don’t remember God’s faithfulness to the first generation, leaving behind their pasts, “it is doubtful they will possess the resources to survive into the future,” he said. Defining themselves by what they are not—not fully Asian and yet not fully American—and measuring churches by their effectiveness rather than their theology, Asian American Christians are in a “betwixt and between” state, he believes.
Yet ultimately, said Tran in his second lecture, this situation holds promise. “The Asian American church has the very real ability to remind Christianity that it is not at home in America,” he said. “Rather like Asian immigrants, Christians come from another place and are on their way to another place. Though they live here, this is not their home.”
Having earlier commented on the question many Asian Americans hear when they identify themselves as American—“But where are you really from?”—Tran remarked: “What a thing it would be if, upon identifying yourself as American, someone asked you, ‘But where are you really from?’ because the goodness of your life seemed so foreign. The Asian American church,” he claimed, “can challenge the vast cultural accommodation that has become American Christianity.”
In conclusion, Tran urged his audience to hold onto their identity and their history as Asian Americans, while also claiming the truth and “the birthright” of good theology. The Asian American church can help transform Christianity as a whole, he declared, “because it will allow the church to more fully enter into the fullness of God’s gathered body, which is not yellow or white or black, but indeed yellow and white and black, holding together that which only God’s church can hold together.”