Keeping the Faith among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: Introduction

In a few weeks, a variety of media sources will cite and speculate about the class of 2018. The first-year students entering the North American universities will have some unique characteristics based upon their collective birthdays located in 1996. Pundits, professors, and parents will ramble and rant about this class. The optimism of high school graduation speeches from the spring will be tempered with economic realities, majors that lead to employment following graduation, and a subtle change in perspective that moves from GPA to starting salaries.

So, count this post as an early start. And, in case we haven’t met: Glad you’re here! And, if this was missed: I’m a PhD student in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary: My research topic is about how Asian American first-year students make decisions that impact their faith commitment. The first-year experience is often perceived outside the university as a threat to the faith commitment of incoming undergraduates. Lots of hand-wringing by parents, youth pastors, family, and friends: the freshman may lose her/his faith in that first-year of university life.

But: Let me pause right here. When I first drafted this post, the world was going to hell in a hand basket: Some unidentified people shot a Malaysian passenger jet from the sky a couple of weeks ago; Israel and Hamas are attacking each other in Gaza with no end in sight; Hong Kong is flailing from continued and increasing harassment from Beijing, as the former British colony resists suppression of their intent for universal suffrage and for democratic leadership that comes without exclusive vetting by Beijing; Children from Honduras and Guatemala travel in packs without their parents to the US to escape violence in their homes: Only to be resisted by ‘Mericans who claim our nation cannot receive them in all of their vulnerability. And, it’s only getting worse.

So, this post–and those to follow– might read as a bit disconnected from the reality that our TV’s and social media link up to our lives. I hope it won’t be separated. Indeed, latent to all that follows is that responsible participation in the mission of God (missio Dei) can and should involve disciplined imagination, learning, and praxis. Faith and higher education can be linked up to participate in the healing, reconciliation, and renewal of the world that Jesus Christ is presently and eternally enacting as you read this. Getting a college education and developing your faith is not the only way to go into God’s mission: but, that is another topic for another day. Meanwhile, the erosion and abandonment of faith during the college years by young adults, especially in the first year, has generated its fair share of anxiety.

And, it’s not as though that anxiety is unwarranted or without merit. Plenty of books have been published on the realities. Some well-funded and tightly focused ministries have taken aim at this phenomenon. I’m also on the campus staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: welcoming freshmen into our fellowships is a big deal. InterVarsity belongs to a consortium of ministries aiming to assist that transition from high school to college with the student’s faith intact, and it includes ministries who serve high school students to those who serve university students.

So: “Why do this research if others have already done surveys, published, and other ministries–including yours–have taken up the task of reaching freshmen?” That is a good and fair question.

For one, Asian Americans are among the fastest growing ethnic groups in the North American Christianity. Yes, yes: Latino Pentecostals are and will be the largest Christian ethnic group in North America: the fastest growing ethnic groups in North American Christianity are among the Koreans and the Chinese: and those are just the East Asian Americans. South Asian American Christianity is exploding as well. Why? More in another post. Keeping up with a culturally dynamic group of young adults with regard to their faith cannot be energized by presuming certain static categories or stereotypes will endure from generation to generation: such as the transmission of Confucian values, filial piety, or the myth of the model minority. Far too often, how Asian Americans of the Christian faith interact and persist in their faith has not adequately described how they engage with their social and cultural contexts: and vice-versa.

Another answer to the question above: There is a remarkably small amount of research conducted on Asian American religion, and an even smaller amount on Asian American Christianity. That reality keeps expanding and deepening, improving monthly, and we’re all the better for it as a result. Nonetheless, there is a lot of room for contribution and understanding.

And, in that regard, especially among evangelicals, understanding the complexity of ethnicity and faith in North America continues to expand and deepen, and yet remains tangled and somewhat elusive. As you might expect, I am discovering the burgeoning literature on migration, ethnic origins, and faith in North America, and that nexus is generating discussions that are coming to profitable boil.

Finally, and most importantly, I intend to name and describe the mechanisms that underly the decisions that first-year students make, and consequently, how those decisions are enacted and subsequently influence how freshmen enact their faith. This goes to the bottom for me in more ways than one. We really benefit from The Barna Group, Pew Research, and others: their results reveals the tendencies and patterns that many late adolescents and young adults have with respect to their faith.

Those regularities, however, do not describe how decisions get made, and how the social and cultural surroundings interact with these young adults and their faith commitment: instead, hearing of someone who has abandoned the faith by the end of their first year in the university, slogans and quick diagnoses are forwarded.

She really didn’t have faith to begin with.” “His faith was always weak.” “Her/His parents didn’t really trust in the Lord to begin with.” “Her youth pastor always had a shaky theology.” Or: “The youth pastor graduated from ________ seminary…” Or: “He fell into the wrong crowd.” “She had an atheist/Marxist/Darwinian professor in her first year.

Or, my favorite: “It’s a Lordship issue.

As if that explained anything. And those slogans are so common as to rarely bring any objection or resistance from among parents, youth pastors, university faculty, or campus ministers. Such responses hide not only why the students apparently have left their faith, but also self-generate absolution for responsibility for such an outcome. (Preview: Assuming some responsibility is OK, but is often located in the wrong contexts.)

Well, I don’t intend to research those responses. Having said that, and the context that generated those responses: I’m taking up the question from the other side: Why do some first-year, Asian American students keep their faith? Missiologically, the question resides as a subset of those wondering, “Who will participate in the missio Dei?”

So, in the next few posts, I’ll make some proposals for everyone, but each one will be focused upon a specific group of people: parents, youth pastors and others on the “clergy-side” of ministry, faculty, and even my colleagues in campus ministry. Although the ethnicity of the students I am investigating are Asian American, my sense is that what is emerging may have application for other ethnic groups. That sense will need some elaboration, and recovery of particular histories, but for now:

Pray for the peace of Christ to prevail in the world. It’s not as though weird, strange, and violent events have never taken place simultaneously in the world before: It’s just that the need is great, in the present, for the people of the Christian faith to both rely upon the received traditions in spiritual disciplines and to practice those traditions in order to announce peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: that need is now part of the context of the mission we live in.

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