Question: Why don’t young Chinese Americans go to church?

Lying at the intersection of America’s most nonreligious ethnic group and America’s most nonreligious age demographic, young adult Chinese Americans (aged 25-40) are one of the most secular groups in the United States. That is, they are the most likely to be unaffiliated with any institutionalized religion. What are the experiences, assumptions, and values that specifically make church so unappealing to young Chinese Americans?

In an ongoing research project investigating the worldviews of young second-generation nonreligious Chinese Americans, we’ve come across some of the reasons for why, in their own words, they find church unappealing. Despite being surrounded by Christian influences from childhood, these Chinese Americans cite three top reasons that church is not for them:

1. Perceived Alienness

“So religion and God and spirits in general has always been this alien concept. Even the gods I’m most culturally familiar with, like the Christian God and the Chinese gods, to them they’re just as exotic as the tribal gods of Africa. Not to the same degree, but it’s an exotic feeling.” – Jonathan Hu

“They’d give me the bible and tell me what to turn to and everyone knew and I’d be flipping through the table of contents. Weird chapter verses, but I didn’t understand. At first I thought the chapters were alphabetical. They weren’t. I just felt lost.” – Steph Woo

Many of those we’ve talked to reported that church was a confounding experience. While studies indicate that mainstream American religious nones generally come from Christian backgrounds, young Chinese Americans are often raised in families with a secular heritage, connected historically to secular trends in Chinese thought and, more recently, to Chinese communism. As a result, exposure to church often comes from friends or classmates. Outside their familial context, our young Chinese Americans experience church as a daring excursion into a cultural milieu in which underlying assumptions are not easily grasped or understood. Thus, even if our young Chinese Americans feel a genuine interest toward getting more involved, church is often an alienating experience.

2. Need to Maintain Self-Reliance

“I started seeing it as a crutch. And that was where my shame from my period came from. I was relying on it for friends, or I don’t know, some sense of self. And when I realized that’s what I was doing, that’s why I got out of it.’” – Peter Hsieh

“[My mom] tells me I need [church]. I honestly get insulted when she tells me that, like “what do you mean, I need it? You need it! … As long as I believe in my own strength, my own willpower, hard work, and everything—I’m fine. I don’t need it.” – Jonathan Pan

One of the most resounding themes in our conversations revolved around a notion of self-reliance: the ability to live life and find meaning on one’s own terms. For many of our young Chinese Americans, this value comes into direct conflict with the notion of attending a church. Spirituality should be “a personal thing” cultivated on one’s own. Joining a congregation, on the other hand, amounts to “caving into social pressure.” In some cases, as in JP’s above, church is even pathologized as a sign of mental weakness.

Along similar lines, some of our young Chinese Americans reported feeling constrained by the perception that joining a particular church or denomination entailed the rejection of other spiritual identities. An important component of our young Chinese Americans’ sense of independence was the privilege of participating without having to “abolish all my other beliefs that I have.” These beliefs include practices of Chinese popular religion, such as feng shui.

3. Risk of Losing Relationships

“My experience of trying to incorporate Christianity into my life was not really pleasant and it made me feel distant from my sister. … I became less friendly with my sister.” – Steph Woo

“I think they saw me changing, as my behavior was changing. My mom would always bring up this story, ‘We’re worried about you, we don’t want you to become a missionary and give away all your possessions and move to Africa.’ But I think that what they said meant they were worried about me, that I was losing my own person, like I wasn’t myself anymore.” – Peter Hsieh

Young Chinese Americans do not want to prioritize religion over friends and family. As they have tried to integrate church into their lives, the greatest points of loss were with close family members or friends: it was either them or church, not both. For many of those we’ve talked to, church entailed a complete commitment that required the sacrifice of their broader relationships and obligations to family and friends. Ultimately, the young Chinese Americans we talked to chose their family and friends over church: the cost of church was simply too high.

Spiritual Familism?

“I’m just still embarrassed about the Christian thing, I felt like that was my moment of weakness. Looking back, I can’t believe I did that. And my family was very disappointed in me, like my sister especially. They made fun of me actually: ‘Remember that time when you were Christian?” – Peter Hsieh

“Back when we were going to church, we had these prayers to give thanks. We tried to do that at dinner and Dad got really mad. We thanked the Lord for food, but my Dad worked his ass off to get the food, so he yelled, ‘Why are you thanking God?’ Maybe that’s the reason why we stopped going to church.” – Kenneth Lam

In the course of our research, we’ve described elsewhere our working hypothesis of Chinese American “familism”: that nonreligious Chinese Americans find higher meaning primarily through the narrative of the family.[1] In seeking to understand why Chinese Americans find church so unappealing, it is important to consider that the needs of nonreligious Chinese Americans may already be met, to at least some extent, in this alternate, competing institution – the family – at the locus of Chinese American moral and spiritual life.

It is no wonder, then, that the families of the Chinese American nonreligious may serve as bastions of secularism, against which churches are hard-pressed to compete. Indeed, in looking at the top three reasons cited above, each harken back to the influence of the family: perceived alienness in comparison with secular family backgrounds, the risk of losing family relationships, and the reliance on non-family sources of meaning or direction.

As congregations explore this demographic, then, the importance of the family should not be overlooked, and attempts to meet the needs of nonreligious Chinese Americans through church should be sensitive to what is already happening at home. Whether this happens might influence how young Chinese Americans in the future feel about church.

[1] Russell Jeung. 2012. “Second Generation  Chinese Americans: The Familism of the Non-Religious,” in Carolyn Chen and Russell Jeung. Es. Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity and Religion among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation. New York: NYU Press, pp. 197-221.