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Sharing Your Faith with Asian Americans (Parts 1-3)

by J. Isamu Yamamoto


After the Japanese air force treacherously decimated the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, considerable social and physical hostility erupted against Japanese Americans. In one case a mob of Anglo-Americans broke into a small store in Fresno, California, dragged the proprietor out into the street, and bludgeoned him to death with pipes and bottles. When one of the attackers was told that the victim was not a Japanese American but a Chinese American, he responded by declaring: "So what! They're all the same to me."

Although no true Christian of any race would demonstrate such violent racism, unfortunately there still persists a tendency among many Anglo-Americans to stereotype Asian Americans as being a single group of people with the same cultural background, behavioral characteristics, and religious beliefs. Having lived on the West Coast, the East Coast, and in the Midwest, and having visited 49 states, I can say from firsthand experience that this mentality does exist. What is grievous about this type of subtle prejudice is that it not only angers Asian Americans, it also closes their hearts and minds to the gospel, which they perceive as merely the dogma of the West.

In this three-part series we will consider several important steps in sharing the gospel effectively with Asian Americans. To begin with it is important that we establish some awareness of the many distinctions that exist among these people.

Cultural Diversity. For decades after the first Asian immigrants crossed the Pacific, Chinese and Japanese Americans would have nothing to do with each other. If one member of each culture married the other, they were treated as outcasts. Today, that barrier has for the most part vanished. Yet, we can still read about the gang wars in Southern California between the Cambodians and the Thais.

My point is that Asian Americans derive their heritage not from being Asian, but from being a descendent of a particular culture. It is much the same with Anglo-Americans who would not say their heritage is European, but rather Swiss or Italian or Russian. Can you imagine an Irish or English person wanting to be thought of as having the same culture, or a French person grouped with a German? That same feeling extends to Asian Americans as well.

Generational Diversity. My grandparents came to this country nearly a century ago. Not only were their experiences, attitudes, goals, and interests distinctly different from those of my parents, but they were even further removed from my own. For many of us who are third and fourth-generation Americans, we have been absorbed into the American melting pot.

Since most of the first generation and many of the second generation Chinese and Japanese Americans have passed away, this factor of generational diversity may not seem significant. We must realize, however, that a new wave of Asian immigrants are settling throughout the United States. Moreover, this population is large, and their struggles and needs are very different from those of my generation.

Doctrinal Diversity. Buddhism is the central belief system of most Asian countries, and most Asian Americans will say they are Buddhists no matter what their cultural heritage may be. It must be understood, however, that Buddhism was, and still is, quite successful in merging with the established religions of various Asian societies such as Boen in Tibet, Taoism in China, and Shinto in Japan. Thus, what we discover is that a Buddhist of one school is very different from a Buddhist of another school. The religious beliefs and practices of Tibetan Buddhists, for instance, can appear just as strange to my relatives (who are Jodo Buddhists) as to Christians.

Regarding religious diversity, one additional observation warrants mention. Buddhism is well known as a tolerant religion. Indeed, both Hinduism and Buddhism enjoy this reputation in the West, but Buddhism even more so. Quite frankly, however, this is a myth. I can still recall my experiences in Japan when I was able to observe the hostility between various sects of Japanese Buddhism, typified in a film that described the wars that have occurred between Buddhist monasteries throughout the centuries. There are not only differences, but also in some cases dislike between different Buddhists.

Religious Diversity. My paternal grandparents were devoutly religious, and trained their children to be strict Buddhists. My grandfather even helped establish a Buddhist church in California and received special recognition from the head monastery in Japan when he died. Consequently my relatives on my father's side are strong in their Buddhist convictions. My maternal grandparents, however, were nominal Buddhists who attended Buddhist services for only weddings and funerals. Their sons developed no interest in any religions while their daughters accepted the Christian faith.

Hence, if you want to witness to my cousins on my father's side, you better be armed with some basic knowledge of the Buddhist faith, particularly Amida Buddhism. If you are to witness to my nonbelieving cousins on my mother's side, however, no knowledge of Buddhism is really necessary. If you don't know my relatives, how would you be able to distinguish between the two groups? You wouldn't, unless you first developed a friendship with them.

When all is said and done, friendship must be the second step in effective evangelism. First realize that Asian Americans are quite diverse. And then, be good friends with them just as were my Anglo Christian brothers and sisters who led me to the Lord.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of the Christian Research Journal.


In the first article of this series I suggested two steps in sharing the gospel with Asian Americans: becoming sensitive to their diverse backgrounds, characteristics, and beliefs, and developing friendships with them. The third step that I recommend is to become aware of cultural influences that distinguish many Asian Americans from other ethnic groups. Understanding these powerful influences will help you avoid misunderstandings and resentment that can emerge as you try to be friends. (It should be noted that my remarks and insights are based on one Japanese American's experiences and observations and do not necessarily hold true for all Asian Americans.)

Indebtedness. Any favors that are done for my parents, and any presents that are given to them, always compel them to reciprocate. If you invite them for dinner, they will want you to come to their home for a meal; if you give them a gift for whatever occasion, you can certainly expect to receive one for some occasion; if you help them paint their house, my dad will be over to your place within a week to mow your lawn. It is not that they are just being polite; indeed, they feel indebted to you and they do not want to feel indebted to anyone. There are many Asian Americans who are just like them in this regard.

If you want to develop a friendship with people like my parents, go out of your way and do something for them, and keep doing things for them. They will be your friends for life.

Now, this may sound like manipulation. And if your motivation is to manipulate, then the results will be ultimately disastrous. Once they realize that you are doing these things only to proselytize them, they will not only despise you, but Christ as well.

If you sincerely want to become friends, however, it is important that you invite first, give first, take the first step. The reason for this is that many people like my parents are naturally shy. They prefer to stand back and see what you do first. If you treat them right they will warm up to you with open arms.

Shame Instead of Guilt. Shame and guilt are human qualities natural to all people. For whatever reason, however, shame seems to play a much more prominent role in affecting people of Asian descent than does guilt. Perhaps it is because Asian Americans are much more group-conscious than other Americans, who admire individualism.

While forming a relationship with an Asian American, it is important to remember that you are likely dealing with a person who makes decisions and behaves according to what her or his group and particularly family thinks and feels about something. For example, a few Christians I know had developed a friendship with a young Asian-American man. Although they socialized together, and he even attended church with them, they could never persuade him to become a Christian. They finally realized that his parents thought such a decision would bring shame to their family not because they belonged to another religion, but because they wanted him to pursue a medical career. They thought that becoming a Christian meant he would become a minister or missionary when most of their friends' children were becoming doctors, lawyers, or engineers.

Although the young man also aspired to become a surgeon, he did not want his parents' friends to think he might become something else and thus bring shame to his family. Therefore, he resisted conversion though he wanted to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Not until these Christians also befriended his parents and assured them that a devout Christian can serve Christ in any profession did that young man publicly commit his life to Christ.

I certainly am not saying that we must please or even accommodate the wishes of a family before a person can be saved. I am merely suggesting that being friends with an Asian American may demand that you take the extra step in being sensitive to his or her family. Who knows? Perhaps the whole household will become believers. I've seen it happen.

Saving Face. One of the most difficult considerations Christians need to understand while sharing the gospel with Asian Americans is the Asian concept of saving face. Let me share from my own experience.

Throughout my youth I believed I was a Christian, though I had little understanding of what being a Christian meant, and though I didn't attend any Christian church. After I started spending time with some Christians, they emphasized my need to become a Christian. I was inwardly resentful that they had ignored my claims that I was a Christian. At the same time, I realized more and more that they were right. Nevertheless, I continued to protest that I was right with God I was trying to save face.

It seemed that the more they hounded me about my faith, the more I resisted. Finally, the conviction of the Holy Spirit was so great that I had to either acknowledge my need to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior or depart from the presence of God. The decision I made is obvious, but I believe the ordeal would have been less bitter between those people and me had they understood what I was struggling with. Thank God, there were other Christian friends whose sensitivity helped me through it.

All three of these considerations entail theological difficulties while sharing the gospel. In the third and final segment of this series I will examine these problems and the solutions that are possible.

This article first appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of the Christian Research Journal.


In Part Two of this series I considered three important characteristics that distinguish many Asian Americans from other ethnic groups: indebtedness, shame, and saving face. Understanding how these instilled attitudes affect Asian Americans will not only help you build friendships with them, but also provide you with insights in how to share the gospel with them more effectively.

Theological difficulties might emerge while sharing your faith because of these characteristics. In this article I will discuss a few of those difficulties and possible solutions.

True Indebtedness. As I mentioned previously, many Asian Americans feel indebted to anyone who does them a favor, gives them help, or acts kindly toward them. They feel compelled to reciprocate. Doing these kinds of things can be a good first step in developing a friendship with them.

There is, however, a downside to this indebtedness. Many have difficulty in accepting a religious doctrine that teaches that salvation is a free gift from God to those who believe in Jesus Christ. To proclaim how wonderful this gift is, and yet say there is nothing they can do to merit it, is for them incomprehensible.

For many of my relatives this doctrine of grace is the biggest stumbling block in accepting the Christian faith. They cannot understand how a religion that repudiates any effort to achieve God's grace can effectively promote ethical behavior. What further causes them to dismiss Christianity is that they see many Christians who, from their perspective, proudly declare their Christian identity but demonstrate few of the Christian characteristics they talk about.

What they must come to see is God's great love for them not because of what they can do for Him, but because of what they are: His creatures created in His image, and, though fallen, capable of being fully restored to that image through faith in His Son. And, it will help them understand God's love if they can see this love working in our lives, motivating us to do good deeds, not because we are trying to earn our way to heaven, but because we are grateful that God loves us so dearly.

Overcoming Shame. In Part Two I discussed how because they are extremely group-conscious shame seems to have considerably more affect on many Asian Americans than does guilt. Bringing any kind of disgrace to their family would be worse than committing any kind of private sin.

The Christian doctrine of the Cross is particularly repulsive to them. In Shusaku Endo's great novel The Samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, the main character, is initially disgusted when he sees a picture of Jesus on the cross, because he sees Him as a weak god nailed to a post. This pathetic image possessed none of the Japanese qualities that he admired, such as serenity, strength, and honor. But as Hasekura came to know Christ through his own suffering, he realized that Christ is a living God who conquered death and who died in this way because of His great love for him.

Many Asian Americans possess similar misgivings about identifying themselves with someone who died so shamefully and dishonorably. They must come to realize what Hasekura finally realized that only a god who has suffered as He had can identify with their inner torments; only a god who really cares for them would allow himself to be so cruelly afflicted; and only a god who truly is God could rise from the tomb and give eternal life to those who believe in him.

And so, we should not be ashamed of the Cross. As Paul said, some will certainly stumble over it (Gal. 5:11). But how else will people see Jesus for who He truly is? Besides, I have known several who at first loathed this image of Christ but in time came to fall on their knees before this man and God on the cross.

Saving Face. What saving face really comes down to is refusing to admit we're wrong. Of course, this tendency is not unique to Asian Americans. And there are some Asian Americans who will freely confess their mistakes. Nevertheless, this kind of stubborn pride can be an important factor when you are sharing your faith with some Asian Americans.

I have observed that when Christians encounter this kind of pride in otherwise responsive Asian Americans they either argue that they must publicly repent of their sins if they want to become Christians, or they ignore the issue of repentance altogether. I think both approaches are incorrect. A better way of teaching the importance of public confession of faith is committing time and energy in studying the Bible with them and discussing from personal experience what certain statements of Christ mean to you such statements as: "And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man shall confess him also before the angels of God, but he who denies Me before men shall be denied before the angels of God" (Luke 12:8-9).

But, of course, you can only have this kind of study after you become friends. So, make a friend with an Asian American non-Christian, and in time you may be blessed with a dear brother or sister in Christ.


This article first appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of the Christian Research Journal.


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