Asian ≠ White

Articles like this make me want to celebrate and cringe. Change can be a very difficult, painful process. The desegregation of the church and a deeper and theologically rooted understanding of ethnicity, race and culture demands current systems, institutions and communities to change. I want to celebrate the steps taken at mega-churches like Willow Creek that acknowledge and recognize the world isn’t as White as their congregations have often been, but I can’t help but feel a teeeeeny bit annoyed.

Why? Well, maybe it’s because the arctic blast in the Midwest makes me annoyed at everything because I forget how fortunate I am to have heat in a house full of food and warm clothing. And, I’m a bit prickly. How does a congregation that is only 20% minority count as being integrated? (The Time magazine article cites 20% as “the quantitative threshold of a truly integrated congregation”.) It feels like some odd application of the one-drop rule. Maybe someone out there can help me understand the significance of the numbers and specifically the 20% threshold.

And then if you read on in the article, there is this:

Call it the desegregation of the megachurches — and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith. Such rapid change in such big institutions “blows my mind,” says Emerson. Some of the country’s largest churches are involved: the very biggest, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Community Church in Houston (43,500 members), is split evenly among blacks, Hispanics and a category containing whites and Asians. Hybels’ Willow Creek is at 20% minority. Megachurches serve only 7% of American churchgoers, but they are extraordinarily influential: Willow Creek, for instance, networks another 12,000 smaller congregations through its Willow Creek Association. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame studying the trend, says that “if tens of millions of Americans start sharing faith across racial boundaries, it could be one of the final steps transcending race as our great divider” — and it could help smooth America’s transition into a truly rainbow nation.

Go back. I do hope I’m reading this incorrectly: “and a category containing whites and Asians”? Um. Are we, and I think Asian here means Asian American, lumped together in a category with whites?

I’m not White.

And my parents would argue I’m not Asian either.

Sometimes words and labels matter because assumptions are going to be made. Asians are not white. Asian Americans are not white. If we were, my answer to “Where are you from?” would never be followed by “No, I mean where are you really from? You know. Like where were you born?”

My prickly response here is to get us thinking, and to remind me to think, critically about the statistics, initiatives and innovations. What are we celebrating here? And how can we appropriately celebrate, re-group, look critically and then respond accordingly?

For example, if we stop too long in amazement over the racial make-up of the congregation we forget that the up front leadership at WC, by and large, according to the article remains white (the article does not mention gender). Where and from whom are the white leaders of churches like WC going to learn about the non-white experience? How will congregations that are 80% white experience multiethnic leadership if they never see it, hear it and submit to it at their own church?

Press “publish”. Holding breath…


  1. Scot McKnight January 6, 2010

    Kathy, I was surprised by some of Willow’s numbers, most notably that only 4% is Asian (American!).

    Have you found out why 20% is a benchmark for “integrated”? I suspect it’s a number chosen by Michael Emerson. Since the USA is 75% white, one would have thought approximation of that number would constitute demographic correlation — that is, integrated (as in society at large).

    • Kathy Khang January 6, 2010

      Scot, do you know if that 4% number is based on the main campus alone or includes all of the sites? Just curious. I suspect that there are enough Asian American and non-mega churches out there for Asian Americans to find a regular place of worship. To the majority of churched Asian Americans (and this may be shifting with the younger generation) WC might be like some our major cities – great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

      I’ve been doing some searching and I think the 20% is based on an actual segregation or dissimilarity index formula, but because I do not enjoy math I cannot make heads or tails out of the actual formulas. Just doing my part to break the stereotypes.

      • Scot McKnight January 7, 2010

        Kathy, that would be all campuses. What now interests me is whether or not this is “members” stats or attendance stats.

  2. Felix January 6, 2010

    Wow. I guess Asians still have a long way to go in making our ethnic group stand out apart from the Whites. I think Asians need to follow the examples of the Latinos in how they’ve been able to raise their profile in television, movies, music and politics. The influence of Latinos have grown so much that they have their own award shows aired on prime time television. I wonder if there will be a day when Asians would have that much visibility. I wonder if not having a common language among Asians is a barrier to a unified movement toward making Asians a “recognizable” ethnic group.

  3. andybilhorn January 7, 2010

    Just a bit of information on the 20% number: It comes from Emerson and Smith’s research published 10 years ago in Divided by Faith, and Emerson later with Kim, DeYoung, and Yancey in 2003 in their response, United by Faith. How they came up with that number is a sociological issue that I think they actually address in Divided By Faith…if memory serves me correctly (and it may not), it’s in chapter 2 and noted in the endnotes of the book (I remember having the same question when I read it 10 years ago).

    And if memory serves me correctly again, during summers, Hybels does place himself under the authority of the pastoral leadership of the African-American church in South Haven in which he participates while on summer leave for a couple months. It’s a way he has tried to experience submitting to non-white leadership. How it has (or hasn’t) informed his capacity to connect and lead cross-culturally is one that I’m sure would be a good question.

    Sadly, it’s not just Time magazine that does this. Back in the Betty Brown Buffoonery in April, I realized the US Census places the less than 2% of what may or may not be Asians in the “other” category outside of Anglo, Black, and Hispanic in Mrs. Brown’s district:

    One note of of interest: at Urbana09, preliminary reports (not certain yet) indicate that the dominant ethnic group (at minimum 40%) was NOT Black, or Hispanic, or even Anglo. According to the categories in Mrs. Brown’s district, it would be designated as “other.”

    • Justin Fung January 7, 2010

      Do you know if IV/Urbana will release those numbers? It’d be interesting to see if the numbers back up our/my experiential tallies from the conference.

    • Ingrid January 7, 2010

      Might it also be a cultural value for the Asian community (and I use this term very broadly) not to bring a lot of attention to itself? Or is that changing with the younger generation?
      Why is this particular reporter in the Times even writing about this “possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith.” What makes this a pivotal moment and what defines it? Who is the author? If the author, coming from a large publication, is writing about this topic from the outside (or even from the inside) and is simply noting a big trend–one that may have taken years to gain some momentum for someone on the outside of it to generalize enough about it– then what is it that the mega-churches have been trending towards and does that speak about smaller congregations as well? In other words, are mega-churches what America watches to define church in this country? And if is a trend that just got attention, is it already a faddish trend, on it’s way out the back door?

  4. Kathy Khang January 7, 2010

    @Ingrid, thanks for stopping by! Yes, there is that cultural value, but it is changing, especially with the energy and global awareness of the younger generation. But I don’t think that’s the only thing at play here. Our cultural value to not stick out has often been “rewarded” by the majority culture – the model minority myth. If we sit silent, smile and nod in acceptance of that model minority label we should not be surprised to see ourselves disappear.

    As for the mega-church thing, I think there are things to learn from that model but with several sets of eyes and perspectives to give balance, especially in America where bigger is often thought to be better.

    I’m disappointed that the article focuses on what the mega-church is now trending towards, when this is something so many churches on the corner and faithful brothers and sisters through the ages have been dying for.

    Hopefully this is not a trend on its way out for WC or another other church just beginning on the journey. This is part of kingdom come…

  5. Pat January 9, 2010

    Kathy, as an African-American, I’ve often thought cynically to myself, “well, they’re (Asians) considered white anyway”. That thought comes from the ways in which I’ve seen some Asians more easily embraced than other minorities of color. Not that I want people to be prejudiced, but it’s felt so hypocritical and insulting to have one minority fawned over as being more acceptable than others. I’ve even known people to treat non-American black people better simply because of an accent. As though they’re somehow different than regular ol’ black folks. What it points out to me is how far we have to go when it comes to race. Why can’t Asian Americans be accepted as they are versus trying to make them somehow “acceptable” by lumping them in with another group? At the end of the day, we’re all human beings created in the image of God. Why can’t we appreciate the diversity that God has created in the human race rather than upholding one group as better than another?

    • Kathy Khang January 11, 2010

      Thanks for reading, Pat!

      Soong-Chan Rah in his book, The Next Evangelicalism, uses a great term to describe what has happened to Asian Americans; we have become “honorary White”. And it is hypocritical and insulting because it diminishes one ethnicity’s uniqueness, contributions, strengths, gifts, etc. to whatever fits in to the existing majority culture. For some, Asian Americans aren’t worth considering as different or distinct.

      I suppose that is where the challenge comes in for you, me and others – how will we accept others for who they are in the diversity God has created them?

      • Pat January 11, 2010

        I don’t foresee it happening until we get a revelation of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God and then accept that that applies to every single human being regardless of race or ethnicity. It’s an age old problem. Sigh….

  6. Literacygirl January 17, 2010

    I think 20 percent is pretty good, considering that Willow is in South Barrington!


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