Racial violence and horrific police killings dominated the headlines in early July when Los Angeles-area pastor Jeremy Yong urged his small congregation to remember their Christ-centered hope and ask God to reveal prejudice in their own hearts. Reminding them of the 1992 LA riots following the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King and the hostility many of them had since felt from police, Yong prayed over his ethnically diverse congregation for God’s grace, righteousness, and justice as they pursue reconciliation and peace with their neighbors.
Situated 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, beneath the smog-veiled mountains of the San Gabriel Valley, Hacienda Heights displays the changing realities of American demographics. Nearly 80 percent of its population is Asian or Hispanic, the two fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States. Recent census data as of June 2016 shows America’s Asian population increased by 3.4 percent between July 2014 and 2015, while the nation’s Hispanic population grew 2.2 percent during that same period. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2065, Hispanics and Asians will be the two largest ethnic minority groups, accounting for 38 percent of the nation’s population.
While evangelical churches continue to grapple with reconciliation between whites and blacks, neighborhoods of the future will present new missiological challenges for congregations that are faithful in outreach and evangelism. Yong, a Chinese-American who grew up in nearby Irvine, says churches should resemble their communities but also be mindful of the cultural barriers that stand in the way of building healthy congregations.
“The ultimate love to our neighbors is holding out the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone around us,” said Yong, a two-time alumnus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “If we actually see these people as real human beings who have their own story and need Jesus Christ as much as we do, then that ought to compel us to understand them, develop an awareness of who they are, and eventually help them see what God desires of them.”
Since coming to First Baptist Church of Hacienda Heights in 2012 as associate pastor and assuming senior leadership in 2014, the church’s membership has increased sixfold with believers of various Asian and Hispanic ethnicities, religious and cultural backgrounds. But to create a healthy, biblical community, Yong says he has had to place Christ above cultural identities, including an honor-shame worldview that promotes authoritarian pastoral leadership and hinders transparency in the confession of sins.
After spending a night in jail on trumped-up charges during his first year of college, Yong began to reconsider his choices. Questioning God’s goodness and angry at his parents, Yong had rebelled from the faith he first embraced as a teenager at the Chinese Baptist Church of Orange County and had adopted a fatalistic worldview. His gangster friends, Yong said, seemed to exhibit a brotherly love missing from church business meetings and did not enforce the strict discipline of his parents’ household.
If we actually see these people as real human beings who have their own story and need Jesus Christ as much as we do, then that ought to compel us to understand them, develop an awareness of who they are, and eventually help them see what God desires of them.
But after recognizing the self-destructiveness of his rebellion, Yong transferred to community college to pursue a career in film. Meanwhile, Yong’s older brother had given him a copy of local pastor John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus, which Yong said confronted his “carnal Christianity” and convicted him of his sinful lifestyle.
Late one night during college finals week, Yong said he contemplated God’s power over the universe and recognized he needed to commit himself to knowing God better.
“At that moment it was crystal clear that this was God I was angry at and demanding my rights as if I had any; this is Yahweh,” Yong said. “Who am I, the creature, to shake my fist at the great Creator, regardless of what’s happened to me? I was deeply convicted of my anger, hostility, and bitterness towards God and my parents.”
He continued to experience personal revival at Biola University, where he graduated in 2002, as he came to understand the theology of adoption. Reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, he said, confronted his earlier search for identity and belonging with his friends in Asian gangs.
“To hear that God is adopting me into his family — and not only that he does, but that he wants to and is inviting me into his family — helped me understand grace so much more,” Yong said of reading chapter 19 of Knowing God.
On a whim after graduation, Yong visited a friend for six weeks in Washington, D.C., a stay that would dramatically alter his life and ministry. After attending a weekend conference at Capitol Hill Baptist Church that included a membership class and elder meeting, Yong said senior pastor and SBTS distinguished alumnus Mark Dever invited him to participate in the internship program and reading discussions.
Prior to his visit, Yong had no idea who Dever was, and remains grateful that the pastor took a risk investing in Yong without knowing him. Dever said in an email that Yong “instantly impressed” him with an eagerness to participate and ask questions, and was a “joy to spend time with.” Yong’s impromptu six-week visit resulted in a six-month internship in 2003, followed by two years on staff as a pastoral assistant to Dever. Shortly after coming on staff at the church, Yong went back to California to marry his wife, Melanie, whom he had known since he was 9 and began dating after college.
It was there at Capitol Hill, Yong says, “my understanding of the gospel became three-dimensional — learning how the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, how the testaments fit together, understanding the depth of my own sin and the sweetness of God’s grace and his mercy.”
Yong first encountered Southern Seminary through visits to the church from President R. Albert Mohler Jr. and New Testament professor Thomas R. Schreiner. His desire to preach the gospel (and forgo a film career) led him to move his family to Louisville in 2005. He graduated with his Master of Divinity in 2008, crediting his studies and relationships with professors like Schreiner and Stephen J. Wellum in continuing to break down his cultural perception of authority that would otherwise prevent open friendships with teachers and leaders.
With people groups from the 10-40 window, major college campuses nearby, and the high concentration of Buddhists and Roman Catholics, Hacienda Heights fit the criteria Yong looked for in a ministry opportunity after he returned from a three-year stint serving as an associate pastor at the United Christian Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
More than 80 percent of Dubai’s population are expatriates with a diversity of religious backgrounds, and as a result Yong found countless opportunities to strike up gospel conversations. When he and his family returned to the United States in 2011, Yong sought to minister in a neighborhood with similar characteristics.
After several visits to FBC of Hacienda Heights — where Jeremy and Melanie became the ninth and 10th members — Yong agreed to a leadership transition, serving first as an associate before becoming the senior pastor in 2014. He graduated with his Doctor of Ministry from Southern in 2015.
Teaching at nearby Biola University led to an influx of younger members, which prompted Yong to consider how to bridge the resulting generational and cultural divides. In Asian cultures, an honor-shame mentality hinders transparency and confession of sin, and rigid lines of authority prevent substantial interaction across generations.
Yong has sought to model healthy church community by inviting members into his home and confessing his weaknesses, a startling departure from many who are used to believers “saving face” and leaders distancing themselves from the congregation. This style of pastoral leadership is clear evidence of Dever’s influence, who subverted Yong’s understanding of authority with a genuine friendship, honesty, and frequent jokes.
“It’s hard to identify what makes some people feel uncomfortable, but we’re just trying to encourage them and say the gospel breaks down these walls of hostility,” Yong said, noting some Asian believers have resisted his transparent leadership style. “Even if we may have nothing in common on a human or preference level, nevertheless we still have Jesus, the most important thing, in common so that should cause us to really love one another for the gospel’s sake.”
Moralism and legalism jive really well with Asians because of the cultural background of Confucianism, where that’s kind of what makes the world go round.
Investing in the “long and hard work of getting to know other people” has transformed lives at FBC of Hacienda Heights. Paul Kim, who was raised in a Korean Church in northern California and joined the Hacienda Heights congregation in 2014, lives with Yong and his family, which in itself has uprooted cultural barriers to experiencing grace through biblical community. Kim says Korean church leadership is more about blind submission on the basis of title, while Yong has demonstrated his leadership is tied clearly to Scripture. Yong’s personality and willingness to let Kim see how he interacts with his family behind the scenes and even allow him to point out Yong’s weaknesses has helped reinforce what Christian community looks like.
“In Korean-culture church you have to present yourself at face value, that you’re holy and good and don’t want to show signs of weakness,” Kim said. “So confessing sins is not a normal thing or a part of the conversation — very surface-level appearances and never getting to the heart issues.”
Pastoral assistant Oscar Vasquez, a Southern Seminary Global Campus student, was introduced to Yong at Biola. While he is Hispanic, Vasquez’s personal testimony mirrors Yong’s — raised in a Pentecostal church in South LA, he led a rebellious lifestyle loosely affiliated with gangs before MacArthur’s preaching convicted him, and then he experienced personal and theological revival at Biola — and his time under Yong’s ministry has forced him to acknowledge his own tendency toward legalism and embrace the truth of God’s grace, that faith is not earned and cannot be lost.
In conversations with several church members, all, regardless of how long they had been believers, remarked to Southern Seminary Magazine on the importance of Christian unity despite their cultural diversity. Vasquez spoke of the blessings he’s experienced through sacrificing his preferences for gospel unity.
“We might see things differently because of our cultures but ultimately what defines us is the gospel and not what we’ve been taught in this world,” Vasquez said. “I’ve been a recipient of that, a dying to myself, and as I’ve come to learn about cultures and backgrounds it’s helped me enrich my relationship with them but also better understand how to share the gospel with folks outside the church.”
The evangelistic emphasis that Yong has modeled for his members has resulted in several conversions and baptisms recently. Southern Seminary Magazine spoke to two converts who professed faith in Christ as a result of faithful witness from members in the workplace and have been baptized in the past year. Adrian Chavez and real estate agent Jay Figueroa both attested how the congregation demonstrates what it means to be part of God’s family and roots its identity in Christ and not cultural background.
“When I thought of church I would think of a Spanish-speaking church,” Chavez said, “so coming here and seeing all these different races coming together — even me, my arms have tattoos and my ears are stretched because of piercing — it’s not like you’re the outcast because everybody’s different. It’s comforting knowing that they’re not judging me. We don’t find our identity in the things of this world; we find our identity in Christ.”
From the highest point of Turnbull Canyon, overlooking Hacienda Heights, a thick haze settles in over the neighborhood. In the distance is one of the nation’s largest Buddhist temples, a reminder of an honor-shame culture that stifles the Christian message of grace and forgiveness.
“Moralism and legalism jive really well with Asians because of the cultural background of Confucianism, where that’s kind of what makes the world go round,” said Yong, heading down the twisting turns of the canyon.
The performance-driven nature of Asian and Hispanic spirituality is a stumbling block churches must combat when ministering to the growing ethnic groups in their neighborhoods, but it should also remind ministers of the gospel that a resistance to grace transcends cultures.
S. Craig Sanders is the executive editor of Southern Seminary Magazine.