Many people are familiar with the concept of the “Glass Ceiling,” namely that women still face obstacles in the workplace rising to certain levels of leadership or equality, despite historical movements that have made progress in the right direction. Jane Hyun wrote a book called The Bamboo Ceiling based on a similar idea, but with respect to Asian Americans. Silicon Valley is a prime example of this: Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders (sometimes abbreviated AANHPI—Asian American / Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander—or simply AAPI), despite comprising a large proportion of the workforce of the tech industry, have a significantly lower proportion of power and representation at the executive level. And it is not for lack of hard work, but Hyun argues it is mainly due to cultural differences. What do Western work ethics value? Individualism, outspokenness, thinking outside of the box, competition and climbing to the top. What do Eastern work ethics value? Cooperation, harmony, respecting and obeying those in positions of authority, listening before speaking. While both sets of values can be good, Western CEOs tend to mainly reward those who exhibit the former set of values, and misunderstand or denigrate the Eastern set of values as “lack of initiative” or “passivity.” And thus, the stagnation of AAPI leadership in secular companies continues unabated.
In issues of justice, too often the Church has sadly lagged behind the progress of the secular world. However, there are some areas where the Church can claim to have led the way. While there is still a long way to go, it is worth highlighting the great strides that the AAPI community has had in leadership within Christianity. It seems that the “Bamboo Cross” (the Bamboo Ceiling, but in Christian organizations) is finally coming down. This article is meant to capture a snapshot of where we are at the current moment. However, I would argue that there is both correlation and causation in the rise of AAPI leaders in global Christianity.
Why Asians and Asian Americans Are So Christian
Asian and Asian American adherence to Christianity can be explained by a multiplicity of factors, by circumstance or situation. There are at least three major causations and correlations that can be drawn:
1) Organizational affiliations. Because of the influence of the missionaries who gravitated toward certain countries, that is how their faith tended to manifest. For example, Koreans tend to be mainly Presbyterian or Methodist, which is not surprising considering that Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries—Horace G. Underwood and Henry G. Appenzeller, respectively—literally came together on the same ship to set foot in Korea at the same time. Filipinos tend to be Catholic because The Philippines was the only nation in Asia colonized by Spain (they even named the country after their King Philip II, 1527-98). These denominational allegiances largely transferred across the Pacific intact to the Americas as well. Within North America, Asian Americans tend to gravitate either toward explicitly AAPI parachurch organizations like JEMS (the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society), AACF (the Asian American Christian Fellowship), or non-ethnic-specific ones that historically tend to emphasize multiethnicity more (like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which also tends to concentrate and proliferate in more multiethnic geographic areas of North America). And this perpetuates itself as well, as those involved with IVCF (or its parent counterpart overseas, IFES—the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) would be more likely to serve as staff with them later.
2) Domestic trends parallel global trends. On May 7, 2003, The Washington Post featured an article (“On Campus, Spiritual Groups Witness a Cultural Conversion”), about religion on college campuses. They made what might seem like a startling observation to some (and perhaps many today—almost two decades later—will still be struck by these statistics):
the 120-member Christian fellowship [Campus Crusade for Christ at Yale] was about 85 percent Asian, while the Buddhist meditation meetings at Yale were almost entirely white. Yale is hardly the only university where this is occurring. Asian Americans are rapidly becoming the face of Christianity on many college campuses across the country, joining evangelical clubs in large numbers and, in some cases, starting their own Christian organizations. The trend is most pronounced at elite private universities, where Asian American enrollment is high, but it also has been evident at public colleges.
This statistic does not surprise me in the least, as I have seen this reality played out since I was in high school. I remember when I myself was an undergraduate at Yale University in the mid-’90s, and I can affirm the above observation to be entirely accurate. I have attended the Urbana missions conference (sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, for college students in North America) multiple times, and—while I do not know the exact statistic—anecdotally it always feels like at least 50% of the 18,000 undergrads there were of Asian ethnic heritage. And this from a population which comprises only 5% of the United States!
The above WaPo quote also parallels a quote from Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins who famously pronounced in his The Next Christendom:[T]he average Christian today is a poor Nigerian or Brazilian woman. Soon, the phrase “a White Christian” may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as “a Swedish Buddhist.” Such people can exist, but a slight eccentricity is implied.
It is no coincidence that we are seeing this phenomenon on the global as well as domestic front. Soong-Chan Rah pointed out this parallel in his The Next Evangelicalism: not only is the center of gravity of Christianity shifting away from the West to the Majority World (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), but in the United States it is shifting away from whites to People of Color and immigrants.
3) Absolute numbers, not statistics. There are many possibilities of explaining this phenomenon of so many Asian Americans in Christianity, but this seems like an unlikely manifestation given that Asia is the only continent on earth (excluding Antarctica, of course) in which Christianity is not the majority religion. But this is where statistics and data can mislead: percentages may sometimes be small but absolute numbers can still be large. A case in point is mainland China. Though it is notoriously hard to pinpoint exactly how many Christians are in the PRC, given the underground church and government suppression of information, reliable sources (such as The Atlas of Global Christianity, The World Christian Encyclopedia,or Operation World)range between 5-10% as an estimate. Five to ten percent seems quite small, but in a country which boasts the largest population in the world at 1.3 billion, this means that there are anywhere between 65 million to 130 million Christians in China, making it the second-largest Christian nation on earth by absolute numbers. So is China barely Christian, or is it overwhelmingly Christian? It depends on whether one looks at the percentage or the absolute numbers. If one takes the latter perspective, it seems logical that it follows that given the huge numbers of Christians in Asia, there would be a corresponding amount of Christians among Asian Americans.
Asian Americans Are Even More Christian Than Asians
Of course, it also needs to be said that Asia and Asia America are two vastly different environs. So, to make an extension of the former section, it may very well be that it is more likely that an Asian American is Christian than an Asian is. This could be explained by at least three major reasons:
1) Economic factors. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese immigration (which was the height of ingratitude immediately after the Chinese finished building the Trans-Continental Railroad; no Chinese were even featured in the famous photo of the “golden spike” when the railroad was completed). Thereafter, Asian immigration to the U.S. was largely limited to the “brain drain” (those who were highly intellectual or highly skilled), representing a fairly selective group of people. The disparity is felt even more greatly among those of South Asian descent. People who are ethnically Indian, for example, have the greatest median income in the United States (more than any other ethnic group, including those of East Asian descent, or white). Yet, India is far poorer on average than China.
The reason why this matters is because a direct line can be drawn between class and religion in Asia. A lot of wealthy, educated, upwardly-mobile Asians tend toward Christianity (as a pop cultural reference, note the Bible study in “Crazy Rich Asians” that the upper-class ladies were attending in Singapore), perhaps because of the frequent contact with the West via business and education. So, if upper-class Asians tend to be Christian, and U.S. immigration policy tends to favor upper-class Asians moving to the U.S., it makes sense that Asia has a large Christian population numbers-wise (although not percentage-wise), but Asian Americans have a large Christian population in both numbers and percentage.
2) Community. Of course, not all Asians who immigrate to the U.S. are upwardly-mobile. A large percentage have struggled to come over, ending up with jobs as dishwashers, laundromat owners, convenience store owners, etc. There is a history of indentured servitude via, for example, the coffee, pineapple, and sugar cane plantations in Hawaii and Brazil, to name just a couple of examples that brought droves of Asians over to the Americas. But what explains the large Christian impetus among the lower-class immigrants is the search for a community. Similar to my parents, they sought Asian communities in the U.S. and often found it in church. And so, community led to conversion. This is what George Hunter’s thesis in The Celtic Way of Evangelism was: rather than believing leading to belonging, it often is more effective the other way around, where belonging leads to believing.
3) Educational leanings. While the “model minority” may be a myth with regard to AAPI in the sense that not all people of Asian descent are good at STEM or classical music (for example), there is an undoubtable observation that many people of Asian descent do fit that mold, perhaps as a result of having Tiger Moms to push them in certain directions. I myself played the violin and attended an Ivy League university, and when I played violin in the Yale Symphony Orchestra, literally half of the orchestra were people of Asian descent (the other half seemed to mostly be of Jewish descent, but that’s another story; cf. Yale Law School professor Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package which may explain why). This hard work ethic, self-initiation, long-term perspective, and delayed gratification, all tend to lend itself well to people primed for missionary work. During the “Great Century of Missions” (the 19th century), many of the Christian leaders and missionaries around the world tended to be Ivy League or Oxbridge graduates such as Adoniram Judson, C.T. Studd and the Cambridge Seven, and the YMCA, among others. This led to the formation of the SVM (Student Volunteer Movement), and the Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary conference. It should be no surprise that there is an AAPI version of this happening today.
Regarding the explanation of their sudden rise to Christian leadership, it may be related to a combination of the above three points. Asian Americans occupy a unique niche in today’s extremely polarized political American landscape: they are People of Color yet in their educational drive and economic initiative may not necessarily occupy either political extreme. They are collectivistic but also navigate the individualism of Western society. The AAPI community does not neatly fit the usual black-white binary narrative, and as such they can occupy a liminal third way of doing things.
The Bamboo Cross No More
Regardless of the multitude of possible reasons, it is undeniable that Asians and Asian Americans are now comprising a noticeable leadership space within major Christian organizations. The following alphabetical list may not be exhaustive, but is considerable nonetheless:
- Susan Abraham is Dean and Vice-President of Academic Affairs of Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA) since 2017
- Derek Chinn is Dean of Multnomah Biblical Seminary and Graduate School (Portland, OR) since 2011
- Eugene Cho is President of Bread for the World (Washington, DC) since 2020
- Alexander Chow is co-director of Centre for the Study of World Christianity of New College, University of Edinburgh (Scotland), since 2018
- HyeRan Kim-Cragg is Principal of, and holds the inaugural Timothy Eaton Memorial Church Professorship in Preaching and serves as Graduate Studies Director of, Emmanuel College, University of Toronto (Canada) since 2021 [NB: she is the first Person of Color to be promoted to full professor in Emmanuel’s history]
- Joel E. Kim is President of Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, CA) since 2017
- Julius Kim is President of The Gospel Coalition (Deerfield, IL) since 2020
- Lloyd Kim is the coordinator of Mission to the World (the missions agency of the Presbyterian Church in America) (Lawrenceville, GA) since 2014
- Uriah Yong-Hwan Kim is President of the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) since 2020
- Walter Kim is President of the National Association of Evangelicals (Washington, D.C.) since 2020
- Paulus Budi Kleden is Superior General of the Society for the Divine Word (the largest missionary congregation within the Roman Catholic Church) since 2018
- Sharon Koh is Executive Director and CEO of International Ministries (the missions agency of American Baptist Churches USA) since 2016
- Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan is President of Claremont School of Theology (Claremont, CA) since 2013
- Jennifer Lau is Executive Director of Canadian Baptist Ministries (Toronto, Canada) since 2020
- Boyung Lee is Dean of the faculty and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs of Iliff School of Theology (Denver, CO) since 2017
- James Seung-Hyun Lee is President of International Theological Seminary (Covina, CA) since 2014
- John Y. Lee is Academic Dean of John Leland Center for Theological Studies (Arlington, VA) since 2014
- Karen An-Hwei Lee is Provost of Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL) since 2020
- Tom Lin is President and CEO of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA (Madison, WI) since 2016
- Wonsuk Ma is Dean of the College of Theology and Ministry of Oral Roberts University (Tulsa, OK) since 2018
- Rajan Mathews is President of Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary (New York, NY) since 2021
- Damayanthi Niles is Interim Academic Dean of Eden Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO) since 2020
- Michael Young-Suk Oh is CEO and Global Executive Director of the Lausanne Movement since 2013
- G. Sujin Pak is Dean of Boston University’s School of Theology (Boston, MA) since 2021
- David W. Pao is Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL) since 2021
- Rollin A. Ramsaran is Academic Dean of Emmanuel Christian Seminary of Milligan University (Milligan, TN) since 2014
- J. Jayakiran Sebastian is Dean of the Seminary and Vice-President of Student Services of United Lutheran Seminary (Philadelphia, PA) since 2011
- Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle is President of Caritas Internationalis (the main humanitarian arm of the Roman Catholic Church) since 2015, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (the main missionary congregation of the Vatican) since 2019 [NB: Tagle is often dubbed the “Asian Francis” and considered by many to be a strong candidate to be future Pope]
- Felix Theonugraha is President of Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI) since 2019
- Gerard Francisco Parco Timoner III, OP, is Master of the Dominican order (officially Order of Preachers) since 2019
- Nikki Toyama-Szeto is Executive Director of Christians for Social Action (St. Davids, PA) since 2017
- Mai-Anh Le Tran is Academic Dean and Vice-President for Academic Affairs of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, IL) since 2019
- Tim Tseng and Craig W. Wong are Co-Executive Directors of New College Berkeley (Berkeley, CA) since 2022
- Frank M. Yamada is former President of McCormick Theological Seminary (Chicago, IL) from 2011-17, and Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools (Pittsburgh, PA) since 2017
- Amos Yong is the first-ever double Dean (of the combined School of Theology and School of Intercultural Studies) of Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA) since 2019
A special note needs to be made about leaders of Asian-specific seminaries in North America. Though their leadership is naturally expected to be Asian, they are still worth mentioning (and, interestingly many are clustered together in the same general area in Southern California):
- Peter Chang is President of Neal T. Jones Seminary, Washington University of Virginia (Annandale, VA) [Korean]
- Isaac Chen is President of GETS Theological Seminary (formerly Global Enrichment Theological Seminary) (Covina, CA) [Chinese]
- Kyunam Choi is President of Grace Mission University (Fullerton, CA) [Korean]
- Min Chun is President of VIEW (Vancouver Institute for Evangelical Worldview) (Langley, BC, Canada) [Korean]
- James Hwang of Logos Evangelical Seminary (El Monte, CA) [Taiwanese]
- Inho Jung is President of Henry Appenzeller University (Claremont, CA) [Korean]
- Paul C. Kim, Founder and President of the School of Divinity of Georgia Central University (Duluth, GA) [Korean]
- Sung Soo Kim is President of Evangelia University (Anaheim, CA) [Korean]
- Sanghoon Lee is President of America Evangelical University Graduate School of Theology (Los Angeles, CA) [Korean]
- Sang Meyng Lee is President of Presbyterian Theological Seminary in America (Santa Fe Springs, CA) [Korean]
- Sung Jin Lim is President of World Mission University (Los Angeles, CA) [Korean]
- Samuel Liu is President of CESNA (China Evangelical Seminary North America) (West Covina, CA) [Taiwanese]
- Luke M. Tsai is President of Christian Witness Theological Seminary (San Jose, CA) [Chinese]
In fact, in 2017, the Association of Theological Schools helped to form an affinity group of Asian-descent leaders (Presidents and Deans) of ATS schools, following the model of previously-formed affinity groups by African American and Latinx ATS leaders.
As is apparent, the AAPI representation in today’s Christianity is diverse: they span many denominations, comprising Evangelical and mainline Protestant and Catholic. They exist both in North America and overseas. They consist of people of East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian descent. There is a significant proportion of women, not just men. However, there are some common threads: education (not surprising considering an Asian propensity to value higher education) which often leads to corresponding economics; missions and evangelism; global/international in their scope even if based in the West; and many are engaged in justice. These are gifts that the AAPI community can give to Christianity and the world. And let us not forget that Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion, originating on the Western end of the Asian continent. So in some sense, the Gospel is coming “home” again, for the last thousand years dominated by white Westerners but now increasingly embodied by those of Eastern (and of course, Southern) descent.