Cultivating Lasting Faith with Asian Teenagers

Sticky Faith in Multicultural Contexts

Photo by: Huilin Dai

This article is part of a series on Sticky Faith in multicultural contexts, born out of a recent think tank with leaders from Asian American, African American, Latino, Urban, and Multiethnic ministry contexts. The goal of the gathering and subsequent research is to help ministry leaders better understand and respond to particular cultural realities of these groups, as well as to help leaders within culturally specific contexts adapt Sticky Faith principles and practices in authentically contextual ways. Read part 1 of this article on Asian American contexts.

 

We’ve all heard the statistics that suggest about half of youth group graduates fail to stick with faith after high school.

No leader is content with these statistics, regardless of ethnic group or context. Most will agree that none of us are immune to it, either—sadly, it’s a reality for too many of our churches and youth ministries. In Asian and Asian American ministry contexts specifically, churches have spent decades trying to address the “silent exodus” of young people walking away from the church and from their faith. 

While many have simply pointed to cultural and language differences as the main reasons (and these are significant), there are also deeper issues for Asian American teenagers and families that contribute to this “not-so-sticky faith reality.” 

In Part 1 of this series, we explored a few of those critical issues for youth ministry in an Asian American context: difficulties with identity formation, performance/works-based understanding of faith development, and cultural and language barriers to engaging families and intergenerational relationships.  

So, where can we go from here?

Our hope is that Sticky Faith principles and practices can help address some of these issues and provide a way forward for churches and youth ministries to help teenagers develop a faith that lasts for a lifetime. At the start, we need to recognize that for some youth workers in Asian American church contexts, implementing Sticky Faith feels like rock climbing without much of a rope. Navigating all the challenges of culture, language, and being an ethnic minority can already feel overwhelming by itself, so the added pressure and expectation to “do Sticky Faith” as some kind of programmatic solution may feel daunting and out of reach.

Our goal isn’t to provide a “silver bullet” solution or a perfect template for youth ministry in Asian or Asian American church contexts. Instead, we believe that Sticky Faith can provide some handholds to gain ground as you care for and disciple Asian American teenagers and their parents. As you begin to engage Sticky Faith in your own context, consider starting with these three goals: focus on a Sticky Gospel, cultivate environments for intergenerational sharing of stories, and create safe spaces for struggle and doubt.

 

Focus on a Sticky Gospel

Mark was an Asian American high school student who was actively involved in our youth ministry. At one particular winter camp, Mark shared with an adult leader that, after having grown up in our church for his entire life, he had finally come to understand God’s grace for the first time. All of us were beyond thrilled and couldn’t wait to share this with Mark’s parents when we got back home. After all, Mark’s mom was a significant leader in both our children’s and youth ministries. She was even considering leading a parent study on Sticky Faith during that upcoming summer. But when his mom heard the news, her response was one of surprise and disappointment. “What? I can’t believe it,” she responded. “He should have already known that by now. It took him this long to understand grace?” 

For youth workers in an Asian American context, this story can be an all-too-familiar one. Though we may teach about God’s grace and forgiveness, this doesn’t always translate to the lived experience of Asian American teenagers and their families, which tend to be much more performance-driven than grace-oriented.

Whether it’s been actively engrained in them or something they have internalized unconsciously, many Asian American teenagers and their parents filter everything in their world through the lens of performance and achievement. This pressure to perform, succeed, and avoid bringing shame to the family infiltrates not only academic life, but also extracurricular activities, social interactions, and even their understanding and development of Christian faith. 

In an Asian American context, a Sticky Gospel that focuses on grace and forgiveness is that much more powerful and that much more important. When we clearly distinguish between the Sticky Gospel and the gospels of sin or shame management, we help students and parents discover the real message of Jesus. Instead of another source of shame where they might not be “measuring up,” the Christian faith and the church community can become a safe place (and maybe the only place) to experience acceptance and find worth apart from one’s achievement. 

What may be the most difficult part here for Asian/Asian American parents and youth workers is that we assume that this is already happening. We are often good at teaching God’s grace and forgiveness and asking our students to trust in a gracious God. The problem, though, is that our inherited cultural responses both to the failures and successes of students don’t always reflect what we’re asking them to believe. And, often, these are the responses that Asian American teenagers expect both at home and at church. 

What if these same teenagers could expect a more grace-oriented response to their mistakes and failures? 

A Sticky Gospel approach invites Asian/Asian American parents, youth workers, and adult leaders to start writing a cultural script for young people that may be different from the one with which they grew up. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it takes a community that together commits to introducing and reinforcing a message of God’s grace and forgiveness in which we invite students to put their trust.

 

Cultivate environments and opportunities for intergenerational story sharing

One of the most impactful ways that adults can convey a Sticky Gospel is by sharing their own stories of trusting God in the midst of struggle or failure. In this respect, Asian Americans carry an abundance of incredibly rich stories and testimonies to share with students. For many families, the story of immigrating to this country is a recent memory, if not a current reality. In every immigrant experience, there are countless moments of difficulty, struggle, and loss. Imagine the impact these stories could have on the perspective and faith development of young people struggling with their own identity formation as Asian Americans. 

Yet, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, language barriers and formal intergenerational relationship expectations often preclude the meaningful connections these stories could provide on a heart level. The stories of how hard it was “back in my day” fall on deaf ears because they only serve to perpetuate the ethics of performance and success.  

But what if we got creative in how we tell and share these stories? It’s not uncommon in an Asian church to hold a multigenerational and multilingual service once or twice each year. Instead of only following this model, what if we could also design intergenerational gatherings that focus on sharing stories of trusting God in the midst of struggle? Both young people and older adults could be invited to share their stories, hopefully finding commonality and building trust with one another.

Asian American youth need more opportunities to see adults express vulnerability in their stories and share how they connect with their faith in the midst of the messiness of life. How many Asian American students in our churches can tell you how their parents or grandparents came to faith in Christ? What do they pray about? What do they struggle with? Who were the adults that were significant in their lives growing up? Sharing these stories not only breaks down the formality of so many Asian cultural scripts, but it also gives permission for students to share their own struggles and areas of weakness and brokenness.

One of the ways I’d love to see these stories being told and shared is online and through digital and social media. Our students connect to stories online in words or videos nearly every moment of the day. What if some of those stories could belong to their parents or other believing adults in their church community? These videos could be subtitled to bridge the language barrier. Bridging the cultural barrier would depend largely on the themes and level of vulnerability of the adults who share. For instance, telling stories of adults in the church who have struggled with depression or addiction would break some traditional cultural taboos—those are issues we’re not supposed to speak publicly about, of course. But imagine how this could give permission to an Asian American teenager struggling with that same issue to share his or her own story.

Clearly, this is asking a lot of parents and adults in the church community. We’re inviting them to step out of what is normal and comfortable and into the world of teenagers in their community. We’re inviting them not only to be formal or instructional with students, but also to take opportunities to connect with students as real people with real stories. The more that Asian/Asian American parents and church communities can see that modeled, the greater the chances are that genuine intergenerational relationships can happen. 

 

Create safe spaces for struggle and doubt

As youth workers, we often get invited into the difficult, yet sacred moments in the lives of our students and their families. Most of us know the full range of those issues, from addiction and self-injury to dealing with issues of identity and sexuality. It’s difficult enough for any dominant-culture white American teenager to find a safe space to make sense of all he or she experiences, but we’ve discussed in Part 1 the added challenges that Asian American teenagers face in their identity formation. 

Asian American youth need safe spaces to express and make sense of struggle and doubt. To create this kind of environment, it often means that we’ll have to speak less and listen more as adult leaders. Our programs may need to be less teaching-driven and, instead, invite more conversation and dialogue. It’s in these spaces that we show our value for students’ words and stories without judgment or reward—we simply listen and invite them to bring these stories before God. 

This is a Sticky Faith practice you may already be doing in your youth ministry. If not, I encourage you to find room in your next small group session, youth group gathering, or retreat where students can be free to share questions, struggles, and doubts. Yes, it could very well be messy and uncomfortable, and you won’t have all the right answers. But the fact that you may not be able to answer every question and fix every problem may actually be a good thing for students to see. It shows them that struggle and doubt don’t exclude us from trusting God—in fact, they can help us learn to trust God even more. 

I can’t stress enough how profoundly important this is for Asian American youth, who are often dealing with some level of latent anxiety over expectations to perform and succeed. There may not be many places where they feel valued and accepted without first being asked to perform. Especially where Asian American students are a minority, there may be few contexts where they feel seen, known, and understood. What if the church community could be that safe place for them? 

 

What’s next?

As we serve and care for Asian American students and their families in our churches, Sticky Faith practices and principles can help us navigate both the challenges and the blessings of our cultural context. While I encourage you to begin with the three starting points mentioned above, I hope that you will further explore how other areas of Sticky Faith (such as engaging parents, participating in service and justice work, transitions, and more) can be implemented in the life of your ministry. For now, here are a few steps for reflection and action:

  • Ask students in your ministry to share their understanding of grace and where they have experienced grace in their lives. How would you share your own experience with grace as part of the church community?
  • Incorporate conversations about Sticky Gospel responses in your next volunteer leader or parent training. Help parents and adult leaders identify their own cultural scripts and discuss ways to develop new scripts that are grace-oriented.
  • What are some of the stories in your church community that you want young people to hear? How can you involve parents and other adults to begin to share their stories with students?
  • Make room in your next youth ministry program, small group, or retreat for students to share questions, struggles, and doubts. Modeling vulnerability through appropriate sharing from adult leaders can be a great way to break the ice.
  • Engage other youth workers who serve in a majority Asian/Asian American church or have Asian American students and their families in their ministry. Find out ways they may be wrestling with Sticky Faith issues and share your own. We need each other for support and prayer and to continue this important conversation together. 

Multicultural Youth Ministry Posts

  1. See Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin, Cheryl A. Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition, 15.
  2. For this article, “Asian” primarily refers to the first-generation Asian immigrant church, parent, or family context. “Asian American” primarily refers to churches or families of second- or subsequent-generation children of Asian immigrants, but for simplicity Asian American also will be used as shorthand to refer to mixed contexts or multiple possible other contexts. 
  3. See Helen Lee, “Silent Exodus,” Christianity Today, August 12, 1996 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/august12/6t9050.html
  4.  Sticky Faith, 11.
  5. Admittedly, we’re only scratching the surface of this broad cultural context and on a very limited scope. For example, the differences in the experiences of the children of Korean immigrants versus Indonesian immigrants deserve nuanced conversations. Nevertheless, we hope this article series offers some broad contextual understanding.
  6.  Can I Ask That? curriculum from the FYI team could be a great resource to get you started.