I have long been fascinated with pastor, author, and evangelical leader Francis Chan. I first “discovered” the man in 2005 when I was still relatively new to the Christian faith and already getting bored with my church’s sermons. I was captivated by this pastor with a Chinese name who preached, quite powerfully, to huge crowds of white people. When I heard those first audio-only sermons, I closed my eyes and imagined a short, pale Chinese guy with glasses — someone who looked like me — commanding an auditorium and changing lives.
Little did I know that Francis Chan looked more like the Chinese version of Montel Williams than the nerdy guy I first imagined, but at that point it didn’t matter. I was already sold. The man fundamentally changed the way I understood faith. I found the website for his church — a mostly white, affluent, suburban church in Simi Valley, California called Cornerstone — and downloaded his sermons every week without fail for the next several years. His sermon “Lukewarm and Loving It” absolutely wrecked my entire 2006. I owe much to Francis Chan.
Recently, I wrote in my blog that Francis Chan was “the patron saint of Asian American Christianity,” which drew the ire of a couple prominent Asian American Christian leaders on Twitter. I get it. I get why some people have given up on Francis Chan. I get why there was heated debate over an article in 2009 that asked, “Is Francis Chan a sell out?” That question still needs to be answered. Because in all the years I’ve been listening to Chan preach, I have never heard even a hint that he cares that he is Chinese in an American evangelical world where it is precisely his Chinese-ness that distinguishes him from all the white faces he ministers with and to.
This is the tension I’ve discovered in my (one-way) relationship with Francis Chan: I was first drawn to him so powerfully because I believed I could identify with him as a Chinese American. His very appearance validated my experience. However, it has become increasingly apparent to me over the years that Francis Chan does not seem to care that he is Chinese. In fact, it seems that it is precisely the abandonment of his Chinese-American identity that has afforded him such great influence.
Nonetheless, I believe that Chan’s Christianity is profoundly affected by his ethnicity — affected in ways that he has never been able to articulate.
Searching Chan’s sermons for ethnic identity clues
To test this hypothesis, I put my Francis Chan devotion to good use: I combed through all the sermons I’ve downloaded over the years to find all the times Chan mentioned being Chinese, or at the very least expressed some kind of conscientiousness regarding his race or otherness. This is what I found:
The oldest example was from a sermon in 2004, where Chan reflected on growing up with his Buddhist grandmother in Hong Kong:
I remember when I was in college, I went back to Hong Kong to visit my grandmother and we went to see where I grew up and stuff like that. And my grandma, every time there was a Buddha, she would, like, bow down to it . . . . And then we got to this place where there was this giant, iron Buddha, it was about as big as this ceiling; it was this huge thing. So my grandma’s all fired up. She’s like “Aahhh” and comes up to this Buddha, but this time after she goes and pays respect to Buddha, she looks at [me and my siblings] and says, “I want you guys to pay respect to Buddha now.” And there’s something about, in our culture, you always respect the elderly. You don’t ever tell them no when they ask you to do something . . . . But then she looks at me and is waiting for me to go up to this idol to worship. And I looked at her and said, “I can’t do it. I’m not going to do it.” And I told her, “I believe in Jesus Christ and therefore I can’t bow down to some idol.” (“John 1,” 7/5/2004)
Chan, speaking to a mostly white audience (we can assume as much moving forward), shares about how his faith in Jesus separated him from his Buddhist grandmother. The subtext here is the pairing of Chan’s American and Christian identities over and against the pairing of his grandmother’s Asian and Buddhist identities, almost as if to say that becoming Christian necessitated not only the abandonment of Buddhism, but also his Asian roots. Chan continues in his telling of the story:
And I’ll never forget what she said to me. She looked me in the eyes and she says, “[Francis speaks in Chinese]” . . . Can you believe that? So what would you do, y’know? I had to learn your language! No, what she said was, “You go your way, I’ll go my way, we’ll both get there.” And it’s sad because that’s so much of what the world believes is, y’know, whatever you believe to be true is true. But y’know, the truth is, there is a truth. (“1 John,” 7/5/2004)
Chan’s telling of his story in this way gives me pause. What is the point of speaking in Chinese to his white audience except for it to be laughed at or to further accentuate the otherness of his grandmother’s culture and religion relative to his American Christianity? His grandmother’s Buddhism, tied inextricably with her indelible Asian-ness, is used as an example of the world’s folly, and, coupled with a Confucian-style aphorism, is shown to be backwards and false. In this short reflection on his trip to Hong Kong, Chan seems to cut all ties to his family background.
When it comes to his ethnic identity, Chan only jokes
Using his Asian-ness as a joke becomes an uncomfortable pattern throughout his preaching:
Some of you go, “It’s weird that your pastor’s Chinese.” No. It’s weird that you’re not! (“Lukewarm and Loving It,” 10/1/2006)
You see, spiritual knowledge isn’t just about intellect . . . you don’t get to know things of God just through pure intellect and just through studying enough. If that were true, then y’know, all the most intelligent — all the Asians — would know God the best. (“Grace, Grace, Grace,” 11/4/2007)
When I was a kid, all I cared about was what everyone thought about me. Because after my mom died they sent me to Hong Kong, so I only spoke Chinese when I came back to America and it was just weird trying to make friends. Because all your friends have sandwiches in their lunch box and you have sticky rice covered in green leaves . . . it was so hard to fit in. And all I cared about is, “Oh, I want people to rike me.” (“Identity Unleashed,” 9/7/2013)
Especially in the last example, Chan actually has an opportunity to say something insightful about his desire to fit in amongst his white friends. He notices his difference. He feels his otherness. This particular sermon, “Identity Unleashed,” was held in San Francisco with NBA star Jeremy Lin. There were tons of Asians in attendance. Chan began to share something that I’m sure a lot of the audience could relate to and understand, but he cuts the reflection short with a cheap, tasteless joke about Chinese accents.
This is what I see in Francis Chan repeatedly in his reflections on his Asian-ness — he never properly identifies what is important about his ethnicity, how it makes him who he is, or how it informs the way he understands the God he professes. When it comes to his ethnic identity, all he ever does is tell jokes.
When Chan speaks of his inability to fully understand God’s grace and Good News, he lists distinctly cultural reasons, he just doesn’t see them as such. And as long as he remains in an evangelical world that does not value cultural or ethnic difference, he will continue to be blinded to his own cultural brokenness. If Chan would own his ethnic identity, he could become an even more powerful witness to the gospel.
In 2007, Chan offered this assessment of himself:
I’ve been realizing I’ve got so many insecurities in myself just as a person. And I don’t want to get all psychological on you, but I know some of it, you know, my mom died giving birth to me, and so I always felt like my dad resented me being born. Like, I just really believe that if he could live his life over, he would have just wished I was never born . . . . I feel like he never really wanted me alive. He would just get so ticked off at me. Everything I did wrong, he would just go after me. And just, I don’t know. And maybe he loved me, maybe he wanted me there, but I didn’t think that way. So when I read in the Bible about God being this fatherly figure, it’s hard for me to get past some of this stuff, naturally. It’s hard for me to just think, “Oh, cool. He’s a father figure. That means he loves me.” Because the only picture I really have is, well then he’s ticked off at my existence. I bug him. I do things that he still hasn’t forgiven me of. And I better not doing anything wrong or he’ll be really angry. And really punish me. And so that’s the only picture I really had in my mind of God. (“Grace, Grace,” 10/28/2007)
This is one of Chan’s most powerful and self-aware moments in his entire preaching career. And it has everything to do with his and his family’s ethnic identity. It turns out that Chan, like many of us, has dad issues — Asian dad issues. In other sermons, Francis tells stories about how his father would beat him, once tying him to a tree and beating him with sticks until his older brother Paul (also a Bay Area pastor) came to untie him. In this excerpt, Francis tells his story which is, in many ways, our story.
What Asian Americans need from Francis Chan
How can we possibly understand a God whose name is Love when our fathers were abusive, insecure, and emotionally distant? And what is there to be done for insecure fathers when all the images of Asian-American men in media are timid, repressed, courage-less tools? Is it any mystery, then, why so many of us serve our churches lifelessly, robotically, in hopes that we can enter into our Father’s good graces if we simply served loyally enough? Is it any surprise that one of my best friends says the goal of his faith is “not to grieve God”? Which is qualitatively different than its positive, more-Western corollary, making God happy, or, as we say in more progressive circles, joining with God’s purposes in the world.
We worship, therefore, often subconsciously, a God who wags the finger, one who waits for the smallest slip up just so he can express his disappointment, a God who is abusive at worst and emotionally neutral at best, never fully happy or pleased with us, who, in his proudest moments, just nods his head in acknowledgement when we are fortunate enough to prove our worthiness to him. And as long as this is our understanding of God our Father, how could we ever have love for ourselves, we who are made in his image? And if this is who we imagine God to be, how could we ever appropriately understand even the basics of our faith — things like grace, redemption, and love? And how could our love and worship of God ever be divorced from our deeply embedded fear of him?
But this is the God that Francis and I know. This is ethnic identity brokenness. And I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed powerful enough to redeem even our deepest places of brokenness, but emotional and cultural wounds often need to be named before they can be healed.
This is the kind of powerful narrative I think so many Asian Americans need to hear from a pastor with as much spiritual capital and influence as Francis Chan.
Francis, named after San Francisco where he was born, has returned home (like LeBron). And there are Asian Americans everywhere who flock to hear the Chinese pastor who made it in the evangelical world. Francis, more than any other person in the world, has the opportunity to revitalize an Asian-American Christian community in San Francisco — and we are many — hungry for a faith that matters and desperate for a gospel that includes our stories and affirms who we are.
But Francis is insistent on staying under the radar. I don’t mind this; in fact, it’s part of the reason I respect the man so much. I am not asking Francis Chan to be the Moses of Asian Americans. But I am hoping that his move to Daly City is his Midian, his personal exodus before the Exodus of his people. I am hoping that he finds his burning bush that reminds him of who he is and what his voice can mean.
His most recent comments on the Chinese church, however, do not offer me much hope:
I don’t wanna be racist here . . . . When I was in China, in the underground church, I was blown away by the passion of these people. There were these 20-sometings, they were just crying and they were praying and screaming out to God and saying, “God send me to the most dangerous places on earth.” They were literally standing up and begging God, “Please send me somewhere dangerous. I want to die in your name. I want to die preaching the gospel . . . . ”
But it bothered me because I thought, “Man, why is it that the church in China is so fired up and nothing is holding them back and they’re reaching millions of people, but then I go back to the Chinese churches in America and I go, “Where is the fire?” — and again, I don’t mean — I grew up in these kinds of churches and I go, “Man, how come you guys aren’t fired up about this? How come you’re not concerned about your friends and where they might go if they don’t know God?” and just pray, “God, I know there’s gonna be a lot of people from the Asian community here tonight.”
And I go, “God, would you just light a fire in us again?” Could it happen right here in America? See I thought I was gonna stay in China and just thought, man this is where I love it — I feel like I just fit in and I’m not looked at like I’m crazy and I just feel like God was saying, “Go back. Go back to America, because I’m going to do something there.” And I gotta believe that he can stir something up in this group. (“Identity Unleashed,” 9/7/2013)
This is the most explicit I have heard Francis comment on the abstraction that is the “Chinese church.” But again, it reveals a shallow, limited understanding of our churches and what is necessary for our progress.
“Where is your fire?” is not the question of someone who understands the complex story of the Chinese-American church. It is the question of someone who prefers not to face the cultural brokenness present in both our churches and ourselves. The problem is not that we have “lost the fire.” The problem is that we never knew there was a fire present in us in the first place. The problem is that our faith experience has been marginalized to the point that we are no longer convinced of our own creative potential or the power of our voices in the movement of God’s Kingdom. The problem is that we are forgetting who we are and the God who calls us good.
The problem is not that the fire needs to be started. The problem is that it needs to be noticed. It needs to be recognized and cultivated.
My open letter to Francis Chan
I am grateful for you and the difference you have made in my life. It was nice meeting you that one time at that random Mexican restaurant in the Bayview. You probably don’t remember.
I am convinced that God moved you from Simi Valley to the Bay Area because he is indeed “going to do something here” with the church in San Francisco, as you suggested last year. There are Asian-American Christians who are capable of renewing this city, capable of transforming their families and neighborhoods for the Kingdom of God, but they are afraid. And they are waiting for someone who understands them who can speak a truth that cuts deep enough to reach our calloused, over-achieving Asian-American hearts. I am not sure if you are that person, but I am praying for you. I am hoping that you can believe in a gospel big enough to include your family’s story, your dark skin, and your father. I am hoping that you can come to terms with your ethnic identity, your Chinese-ness, and that you could live fully into who God has created you to be.
I believe that God takes people on journeys like these. He took a Jewish man named Saul and transformed him from seeing Christianity as a threat to his Jewish-ness to seeing it as the completion of his Jewish-ness. He showed the Apostle Peter in a dream a renewed vision for what the church could look like if both Jews and Gentiles could worship together, and he radically transformed his understanding of his ethnic identity and what that meant in the world. Finally, he took a Jewish girl named Esther, too afraid to use her voice on behalf of her people, to ultimately rescue the Jewish people once she was reminded who she was. Maybe God has brought you to the Bay Area for such a time as this, to begin this journey. May it be so.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of William Hartz.