Growing up in the Chinese immigrant Church in Toronto, Canada has been quite a unique journey! Here is some of my background before I begin this article: I spent my childhood in the first Chinese church founded in Greater Toronto Area (GTA), submitted my life to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade, participated in weekly church events, and later on, felt the calling for seminary and full-time pastoral ministry. I’ve lived in Toronto almost my whole life. It is quite a cosmopolitan city, yet ironically, I would argue you could actually spend a lifetime here staying inside your own cultural bubble! In particular, the Chinese Canadian immigrant church has stayed quite content in its own bubble for quite some time. However, with the advent of second and third generations, there has recently been a bigger push to engage people beyond our ethnic/cultural context.
Today, I want to share some of the challenges in church ministry from the perspective of a second Generation Canadian-Born Chinese pastor. I want to particularly share about these challenges through three lenses:
- Cocooning: The challenge of the suburbs
- Disenchantment: The challenge of pragmatism
- Reading Diversely: The challenge of reading beyond
First, I have found that one of the biggest challenges to ministry and mission, especially in my suburban context, is ministering in the suburbs themselves and the commuter culture that comes with it. Author Albert Hsu once wrote, “Cocooning means that people get out less and stay home more. Commuter culture limits our time at home, so we isolate ourselves with our nuclear families and have little time for outside service or ministry. I once heard a pastor say that community has been replaced by cocoonity” (Hsu, The Suburban Christian, 192).
Most members of my church commute to work, commute back home and also commute to build community and church ministries. With the tiring nature of commuting, paired with the “cocooning culture” of suburban living, it’s not always easy to build community. Most days you just want to stay home after a long day of work, binge-watch Netflix and relax. Some days, you just want to hang out with your friends or family because it’s too tiring to engage with others.
Well, the suburban church definitely needs the reminder that we aren’t called to be a social club for Christians or just the people we like. We’re supposed to be followers of Jesus who follow His great commandment: Love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. In general, many people in the suburbs want community, yet they also desire their own private space. The suburban, middle-upper class culture of the northern suburbs of Toronto I live in is a perplexing one that wants the best of both worlds. However, if we recognize that we are kingdom citizens that are sent as a church family to join God in His mission, we should also take seriously our responsibility to live faithfully to Christ to live our everyday lives in the land of suburbia. As Albert Hsu asks:
If you are a suburban Christian, you must determine what kind of suburban Christian you are going to be. Will you be virtually indistinguishable from your neighbors, consuming and commuting and striving and acquiring like everyone else? Or will you live out a missional suburban Christianity, where you are connecting and giving and sharing and practicing hospitality, generosity, community and self-sacrifice? (Hsu, The Suburban Christian, 192).
Secondly, I contend that one of the major challenges in church ministry today is the evaporation of the supernatural, or as philosopher Charles Taylor defines it: a “disenchanted” world. Taylor and author Andrew Root have convinced me, as a local church pastor, of the immanent frame that so many of us Western Evangelicals have been trapped inside of in this secular age. This basically means: we are immersed in this “disenchanted world” where the “buffered self” seemingly protects us from all things supernatural through rationality and self-sufficiency. However, this immersion has also tended to cause us to disengage from the transcendent or awareness of God (Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age, 64-72). One could argue that instead of being Spirit-driven in our ministry and mission, Western Evangelicals (this includes the Chinese immigrant church in Canada) today have become overly pragmatic and typically use the next popular church model or even business-oriented methods to try to control the outcomes of church ministry. There is a real danger that we can fall into this trap of pragmatism: finding the right church model to fix all of our issues, create a rational product or curriculum for our people to consume, and believe people will come out in droves. I believe that we need, more than ever, to patiently spend time to develop our inner lives together so that we can faithfully discern what the outward steps can be in our churches and ministries. The challenge is: Where will we start?
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” – Rom 12:1-2 (MSG)
Lastly, another important challenge for Christian leaders today more than ever is to take the time to read from more diverse authors and practitioners. First off, I want to clarify that I am not advocating for some kind of “affirmative action” to police what we read or what we shouldn’t read. However, what I believe many of us have come to understand in today’s context, is to become more aware of how little we Christian leaders have read from the wider universal church body. As a Chinese-Canadian Christian, I have come to realize that my main source of theological/missiological education has mostly been from white, male authors. Most of the top Christian living and theological books have come from mainly this group of authors… many of whom I am grateful for, but I have also come to realize how important it is to read from the perspectives of other ethnic experiences and from those on the margins. Heck, I’ve rarely read books from Chinese Christian authors!
Even more specifically, I want to say that there should be more authorship from the Chinese-Canadian Christian experience! Too much, our main diet comes from white, western authors and theologians, which doesn’t mean they are bad but we would do well to read from black, Hispanic, African, Asian, etc authors whom God is working in and through… and I fully believe this will give us so much life-giving perspective! For example, I remember when I was first introduced to the African Bible Commentary. I learned so much from theological work of so many African Christians who spent the time to help us interpret scripture from lens of African scholars. I was in so much awe and wonder about the their unique cultural experience and stories that provided me with so much wisdom and insights from a culture quite different from my own.
In short, I recognize there are many more challenges facing Christian leaders today than I could have mentioned. I also recognize I didn’t even touch on one of the biggest challenges in the whole world in regards to the Covid-19 Pandemic. However, I hope some of my sharing today may have given you some Holy Spirit inspired “food for thought”. Whatever context you may find yourself in today, may Christ remind you that His presence is with you wherever you go, this is His ministry, and He invites you to join Him in the abundant life He has promised. Be faithful and trust Him with the journey and outcome!
Shu-Ling Lee is the Downtown Markham Campus Pastor at Richmond Hill Christian Community Church. Serving over a decade as the Worship Pastor, God expanded his passion for worship to include a desire for discipleship and mission… challenging Sunday worshippers to join God in His mission, wherever He’s placed them in their everyday local context. Shu is also a Canadian-Asian, born and raised. He enjoys basketball, theology and all things geek & tech and on the side, also the co-host for the Canadian Asian Missional Podcast (C.A.M.P.). He is married to Monica and they have three energetic young children. He holds degrees from York University (B.A., Sociology), Tyndale Seminary (M.Div, Worship & Liturgy), and Northern Seminary in Chicago, IL (D.Min, Missional Leadership/Contextual Theology).