Updated: Jul 24, 2022
Playing by the Rules:
As a young man I spent countless hours trying to teach preteens and early teens the wonderful game of basketball. One of the many difficulties in coaching players who had no prior knowledge of the game was the idea of “traveling.” The uncanny skill of wisely utilizing the dribble while trying to avoid defenders and, at the same time, manipulating the defense to achieve what they call on the hardwood “buckets” is an artform in and of itself. Many long for the ability; few ever master it. What you graciously do under these circumstances, especially with players of this age, is to grant minor mishaps while the game progressively slows down. As their skills improve, stricter requirements are enforced.
Imagine for a moment that those rules were never imposed upon such players. Would this expression of the game truly be considered basketball? Imagine, again, if you were playing a pickup game against one of these players and she continuously traveled while you operated in conventional form. What if your teammates, in turn, became irate at your inability to defend her Barry Sanders-like maneuvers? Yes, adjustments could be made defensively, but after a while you would have to start asking the question: “Is this even basketball anymore?”
Similarly, the notion of second and third generation leadership within the Hmong church context, or the lack thereof, is being discussed under the same inferences. The dissolve of young families connected to the local church is heart wrenching and mournful. Yet, is our assessment and, consequently, our remedies congruent with the phenomena that is before us? Meaning, are we even measuring the dilemma in proper fashion? Furthermore, is our response even within the biblical scope of the heart of the matter? It is as if we are trying to play church by using different sets of rules and/or suppositions. It begs the question: is it even “biblical church” anymore?
The church is the redeemed people of God. The visible church is the gathered assembly who profess faith in Christ and seek to live out that conviction as and with His covenant people. Though we can never infallibly assess the genuineness of one’s profession, the covenantal Lord has given us His Spirit as well as biblical markers to guide our discernment as priest/kings upon these matters.
Yet, the remedies construed in concert to the grievous predicament of the Hmong context, i.e., the exodus of second and third generations from the local church, tend to have a fleshly sentiment; that is, there are greater emphases staked upon institutional reordering to the neglect and dismay of spiritual reformation. Not to polarize one notion over the other; that is, institution versus spiritual, for each serves the other in proper understanding and expression. Yet, to overemphasize one spectrum over the other is to produce an imbalance that is detrimental to the hope of tempering the cause. Simultaneously, I am a firm believer that theology informs practice. Thus, there is a sequential ordering to a biblical understanding which appropriates practical outworking. To shut our spiritual eyes, then, to the anemic posture of our generation for the resourcing of positional leadership within the institutional church is to disregard the cancerous tumor plaguing our welfare. Simply put, we are totally missing the point! Thus, in order to posture ourselves with a fighting chance, we must reevaluate our presuppositions on the matter of ecclesiology, i.e., the church. The premise of this article, then, is twofold: examining our Gospel assumptions as well as our institutional proposals.
Gospel Assumptions. It should not be downplayed that the cultural landscape of our Hmong people has drastically changed. Assimilation to a Western context is apparent and the difficulties of generational strife are doubled amid culture wars. The emphasis should be noted, the tension between the first and second/third generation is a real and true phenomenon! Yet, to view the conundrum on the basis of sheer culture is to turn a blind eye to the faintness of Gospel proclamation and biblical discipleship within local Hmong churches. The argument goes: “when we first came to America everyone came to church, sang songs together, and rose in the ranks of ministry. The generations, now, are leaving the church and faith altogether.” At face value, one is dumbfounded at how the Hmong church could move from point A, corporate solidarity to faith, to point B, an abandonment of faith altogether. What happened? Where did it all go wrong?
However, upon further examination it is necessary to ask qualifying questions and, in turn, establish applicable categories to examine the Hmong-Christian narrative; that is, we need to check our presuppositions. Did we as a church truly “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3)? Did we, the local church, administer faithful disciple-making strategies in order to perpetuate Gospel-growth? Furthermore, were we in large part functioning within “cultural Christianity” rather than formulating a “Christocentric culture”?
The downfall of much of the Hmong context, in my humble opinion and personal experience, can be filtered into the categorical framework of “cultural Christianity.” This, in turn, can be defined for our purposes as a way of living that is Christianly, yet void of any true affection for the Gospel of Christ. We love community; we do not necessarily love the One whom the community was meant to be built upon. In saying this, I am not softening God’s gracious work in redeeming people amid such contexts; I myself am a product of His grace. What I am saying is that the tribal nature of the Hmong, if gone unchecked, can garner an atmosphere where the individuals follow the herd mentality without truly grasping the fundamental belief systems. Thus, yes, everyone went to church, sang songs, and rose in the ranks of ministry pipelines; but what was truly lacking, unfortunately, was a deliberate transferring of the Gospel message.
Thus, to truncate the exodus of second and third generation Hmong to merely an ethnic culturally persuaded phenomenon is to give carnal responses to spiritual dilemmas. Now, in saying this, the knife cuts both ways; that is, there are at least two fundamental postures amid countless circumstances that help to understand the conundrum. First, there are those who functioned amid “cultural Christianity” and left the church, and, in turn, faith altogether. In retrospect, these individuals were never truly regenerate (both those criteria are essential; 1 Jn. 2:19). Consequently, the response of the church, then, is to evangelize these individuals into the congregational fold, not to entice them with organizational leadership (more on this later). When understood under these metrics, it is not difficult to see how “cultural Christianity” can slide toward theological liberalism and, in turn, an all-out abandonment of faith. Secondly, those who, by God’s grace, hurdled “cultural Christianity” and truly responded to the Gospel of grace left the church due to the anemic approach of church life. The lack of Gospel centrality and, thus, disciple-making propelled them toward non-Hmong congregations. The exodus, in large part, is centered upon the Gospel: was it faithfully transmitted? To not acknowledge the potential spiritual dilemma is to be disillusioned to the signs of the church's failure.
Institutional Assumptions. The next response to the exodus that has plagued local Hmong churches is deeply rooted in an unhealthy ecclesiology that is tied to carnal institutionalism. Rather than seeking to understand the biblical nature of a local church, many pastors have forfeited their structural make-up by adopting business philosophies and corporate ideologies wholesale. They have sought to entice the appetite of men with the allure of authority!
The proposition goes like this: “In order to stop the leakage caused by the exodus, give young people authority and be open minded to the new ways of leadership.” Three general responses. First, are these young men regenerate? Do these men profess faith, and are they able to defend the biblical Gospel (cf. 1 Tim. 4:6-16)? We, the local church, would be killing ourselves if we place young men into the fold of leadership without assessing their theological positioning as well as their moral character. The Apostle Paul speaks directly to this point by saying, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). The office of elder is not a ploy to leverage. Rather, it is an office to honor in joyful obedience to Christ. Secondly, are these young men qualified? Do they meet the standards of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2? It matters not whether if they are young or charismatic, but rather do they fit the bill of biblical qualifications? The faulty disposition that undergirds these heinous practices in our local Hmong churches are built upon the sheer notion of secularized pragmatism. We lack deep theological foundations that undergird our practice and, in turn, we are misinformed by our metrics in measuring faithfulness. There are no pathologies, sadly, to disciple young men to be qualified elders within the local assembly. Some may even respond by saying: “Who can truly meet the requirements of 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 2?” Yet, the aim is not to lower the bar, but rather to disciple the people of God toward it. Rather than throwing young men into the fire of leadership, the pastors/elders are to disciple the church toward qualified men and women that can lead the necessary ministries within their local context. The church must take on her priest/king mantle under the guise and guidance of the Spirit. Third and lastly, we are not merely called to new leadership models, but rather to old faithful, biblical servanthood. The aim is not innovation, but rather contextually expressed notions of biblical principles that serve the good of the assembly. The church is marked by faithfulness, not flattery!
Positional leadership within the local church cannot be leveraged, then, as a-carrot-on-a-stick. The church is not a human institution ran by mere men. Rather, the church is the redeemed people of God who sit under the authority of our Lord by subjugating themselves to His covenant Word, the Scriptures. Thus, the Gospel of Christ is our ultimate treasure! Anything otherwise would-be folly at best and idolatrous at worst.
The Kingdom of the Gospel of Christ:
The church of the living God expressed through the local assembly of saints is the primary vehicle used in the mighty hand of God to propagate forth His kingdom to the ends of the earth. This kingdom is not static nor void of power but rather is fueled by the life-giving Word of God (cf. Rom. 1:16). Thus, the so-called exodus that is present within the indigenous people group of the Hmong is remedied not amid carnal means nor anthropological wisdom. Rather, her salvation resides in a pure and unadulterated proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As our Lord conveyed, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). It is through His power and might that the church finds life and sustenance, not the innovation of man’s ingenuity.
Therefore, the call to revitalize the church and reach the next generation is mounted upon a recommitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to allow the message of Christ to permeate throughout our communities and infiltrate the fabric of our cultural paradigms in order to have Christ reigns in all that we do. It is a recommitment to disciple-making which see men trained toward eldership and women empowered in their giftings to the glory of God. It is, fundamentally, assessing the failures and successes of the local church not by worldly standards, but through faithfulness that is marked out by the very Word of God. There is truly an exodus amid the Hmong church; evermore the reason to cling onto the Gospel of Christ and depend upon His Spirit in order to bring forth life in what was once dead but now will be made anew through His salvific might. Soli Deo Gloria!
 I use the word “tension” broadly in that it should not be narrowly conceived in the negative sense; that is, it should not be assumed that first generation and second/third generation hate each other or have ill-will toward one another. Rather, the tension is natural in the sense that we operate out of a different worldview and language system. As such, our values and outlook may look different.
 Innovation in and of itself is not wrong. It is an expression of the image of God. What we do not want is an innovation that is void of biblical principle and Word-centered foundations.
McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (11), McColsen (9), and DeYoung (5). He is a Teaching Pastor at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and a homeschool dad to his four children. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.