Lifting Our North American Asian Voice in Worship

As a second-generation Chinese Canadian worshiping in a Chinese evangelical church in Canada, figuring out our local church’s worshiping identity has always been on my mind. Our ethnically Chinese church is composed of three culturally distinct congregations: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. With three different cultures worshiping under one roof, are there any unique contributions we can offer through our worship? More specifically, what can the English-speaking congregation of which I am a part—a hybrid of sorts between Asian and Western cultures—uniquely offer to the global worshiping community?

On the one hand, our being born and raised in a Western culture inevitably influences the form, content, and spirit of our liturgy. We borrow from leaders in contemporary worship, mimicking their style through instrumental arrangements (a five-piece band, electronics, etc.), liturgical flow (we would be considered “low church”), and aesthetics (informal and intimate). On the other hand, most of our English-speaking congregation is ethnically Chinese, and the unique distinctives of our Asian heritage cannot be overlooked despite being engulfed in the Western cultural milieu. What are some of these distinctives?

Community

Chinese church communities heavily emphasize familial community. It is not uncommon after Sunday morning gatherings for congregants to stick around, fellowship, catch up on their week, and then grab lunch afterward. This contrasts with many other worshiping communities I’ve been part of where soon after a worship service everybody goes their separate ways. After-service fellowship is so routine in our worshiping life that it may as well be considered part of our liturgy.

Why is there such a strong familial spirit in the North American Asian church? As I noted, our Chinese church has Cantonese-, Mandarin-and English-speaking members. The Cantonese for the most part are first-generation immigrants from Hong Kong (my parents are among this group). This newly formed Cantonese community recognized that its children would face different cultural prospects. They responded by creating an English-speaking congregation under the umbrella of a Chinese church to minister to second-generation Chinese Canadians like me. With a community banding together in a foreign cultural context, it is no wonder the familial sense is so strong.

The English-speaking congregation, while morphing into the Western worship culture, still has undeniable familial ties to the larger Chinese church despite our language differences. These familial ties do not merely disappear despite the apparent cultural differences. In an age of increasing individualism, when “self” is most important, the North American Asian church provides a much-needed counterbalance by promoting the community.

Honoring the Past

One of the major characteristics of the Asian honor/shame culture is the respect and honor naturally given to those who came before us. At its most extreme, this takes the form of ancestral worship, a practice still common among many first-generation parents or grandparents living here in Canada. Though one would not likely find ancestral worship in our services, the effects of this deeply rooted Asian attitude is apparent in our congregants. Honor and respect based merely on one’s age is evident in all our interactions and relations. It is not uncommon for younger people to call those from an earlier generation “Uncle” or “Auntie.” The elderly are always respected, and specific ministries deliberately cater to them.

Even in our joint congregational worship gatherings, the worship leader motions for congregants to sit midway through the song list as a courtesy to the elderly who cannot stand for too long. It is interesting to note that this reverence and honor for those who came before us is not foreign to other Christian traditions, including the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, where many saints (both biblical and extrabiblical) are intentionally remembered.

Meditation and Contemplation

I can’t help but notice the incredible emotional exuberance in worship when I visit African American congregations. From themes of groaning and lament to celebratory songs of praise, emotions overflow in their worship gatherings. But those attending a North American Asian service will likely find a different spirit.

A key influence in our Asian heritage is Confucianism and its emphasis on contemplation, meditation, and the written word. In practice, it means listening before responding, understanding before reacting, and passivity before aggression. This Asian cultural distinctive inescapably manifests itself in our worship gatherings, where the Spirit is generally more subdued, contemplative, and Word-oriented. In our particular worship gatherings, we typically have three deliberate moments of silence: during confession to reflect on personal sins, before the Lord’s Supper to reflect on Christ, and after the benediction to reflect on the Word and our response.

On its surface, the distinctiveness of a culturally Western yet ethnically Asian worship gathering in North America may not be obvious to an outside observer. We all speak English, the songs are either contemporary Christian music or traditional hymnody, and the liturgy follows the same shape as most evangelical churches. But there are unique features in such worshiping communities. From the close-knit familial community to honoring ancestors to the contemplative spirit of the gathering, North American Asian congregations do have a unique voice to offer in the context of the global church.

Josh Lee attended South Calgary Chinese Evangelical Free Church in Alberta, Canada, for ten years and is now serving in the worship ministry at New City Church in Calgary. He received a master of worship studies degree from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida.