Keeping the Faith Among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: For the Parents (Part 2)

I had a draft written about 3 weeks ago on this topic, and then the agonizing death of college freshman Mike Brown of Ferguson, MO, took place. I decided to pause, watch, and listen to what followed from Brown’s death. It will seem like a small matter here, but I trust by the end here, it will have some greater importance for parents of Asian American freshmen: namely, that Mike Brown was a college freshman. So, I have revised the topic.

The vulnerabilities of new students entering the university are many. Of course, nothing that happened in Brown’s death involved his campus, or the campus police. But, what of your children–adult children–and their early experience on campus? What kinds of conversations can you host with them, as you move in, unpack, and assist in the transition to classes beginning and the formation of their faith commitment?

I’m describing in this series some of the early discoveries I’ve made in my research so far. I’m attempting to describe how freshmen/first-year, Asian American students keep their faith in that first year of university life. Of course, most the background of this study emerges from a well known phenomena of Christian students of all ethnicities entering the university and abandoning their faith. I’ve taken up the question on the other side, so to speak: Why are some students keeping their faith, and how do they go about this, given their experiences of living in dorms, getting introduced to new ideas from their academics, and from their participation in extracurricular groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship?

In case you’re just joining the series, you can return here and here for some of the preceding discussion, but I would want you to know a couple of personal matters. For one, I am one of the multiethnic people you’ve always heard about (Asian-Hispanic-Anglo), and am married to a Chinese American woman: and we have a couple of great adult children. So, the research topic is close to home. The other personal matter is that I belong to the campus staff of InterVarsity; I’ve served for the most part among international students for 20 years. I’ve seen this abandonment of the faith up close, done by both domestic and international students who are freshmen, and beyond. This research really moves from observing what is taking place on campus to how such decisions to sustain one’s faith are made; I’m also aware that the experience of freshmen leaving their faith occurs in universities throughout the world (unfortunately), not just in North America.

At the beginning of the day, at the end of the day, and at the bottom of life: Your child is just like you: They will live in such a way to fulfill what matters most to them. That is an obvious statement, but needs to be kept in front of us more often.

And, if the interviews I’ve had so far with Asian American freshmen could be broadly applied: You may not know what matters most to your child. Of course, some parents are exceptions, and there is an interesting possibility here…

…Namely: That you’ve had a conversation in which you listened and your child did all the talking. That is the exception. I am not saying that those parents who listened agreed with what their child had to say. Far from it.

Rather, the few students I interviewed who had parents who listened to them, these students also had a pretty calm, secure sense of their faith in Jesus.

So, there’s my suggestion to empower your freshman/adult child: When you go out together this week or next, ask your daughter or son, if you can stop somewhere for a shaved ice/coffee/boba, and ask them, “If you had the chance to study anything at the university, what would it be?”

Then, no matter what comes out of their mouth next: Listen. Pray silently. Welcome their answers, and refrain from critiquing or commenting on those answers: even if you agree with your child…

I have a disposition: That we want our children to know that we love them, and of course, we demonstrate this by making sure that they have clothing, food, a home, and the resources they need for becoming a successful student.

What they also need is the kind of demonstration of love that cares about their social and emotional lives as well.

For some reading this, please don’t confuse what I am saying as, “You need to hug your children and tell them ‘I love you.’” That is not what I am saying. Listening carefully without criticism, even to the expressions of dreams and aspirations you disagree with, will inform your child of your affection for them.

Enjoy your time of listening.

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Prayer for Freshmen: Thursdays, 8:55 AM

It occurred to me that I should include you in my weekly routine. Namely, every Thursday at 8:55 AM, I pause to pray for freshmen students, campus ministers, pastors, and universities.

I pray at 8:55 AM on Thursdays for a variety of motivations. It’s just before the top of the hour, and right about now is when work and life become animated for me. It’s also just before the weekend, and for a huge chunk of first-year students, of all the things they could reflect on, they consider what they’ll do with their weekend and who they’ll do it with: on Thursdays.

So, some intercession for wisdom and risk-taking that contributes to their present as well as their future makes it into my prayers.

But, the prayer that always makes it into my intercession is this:

How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?

Obviously, that prayer opens me up to all kinds of input, and that is good, given my research topic. And, that prayer alerts me to how and what freshmen students hear, how they respond, and how they interpret the Gospel engaging their present aims and future goals.

My Facebook feed is blowing up right now with announcements and prayer requests from my InterVarsity colleagues and students preparing for New Student Outreach, just a scant 3 weeks away from the start of classes at many universities in North America. I am full of joy for them, and pray the Lord grants them the fullness of his Holy Spirit as they proclaim that one name by which we are saved. (Acts 4:12)

Here’s my invitation: Please join me on Thursdays at 8:55 AM, wherever you are in the world, and pray for freshmen, perhaps your daughter or son, and for the campus and those who serve there, and this prayer in particular: “How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?

Keeping the Faith Among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: For the Parents (Part 1)

First off: Congratulations! Your daughter or son is heading off to the university. You should be feeling proud! Keep in mind the great privilege your children have received: less than 7% of the world’s population has a university education. Just getting admitted confers a unique status to your child in this world.

Sure, but does it pay? The next 4 to 5 years will go by in a heartbeat: and upon graduation, your adult child will potentially earn more than 70% over their lifetime than any of their classmates who graduated from high school without a college degree.

So, even if they did not get admitted to (or will attend) the university you wanted for them, your child–your adult child–will likely have a prosperous future before them. And, I would like to believe, that includes sustaining and growing their faith in Christ. More on that in a moment.

In case you’ve read this far and it 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. I am just concluding a pilot study among freshmen (or first-year) students.

As you can tell from my family name, I have an Asian heritage–far more diffused, and I will explain why later–and my wife is Chinese: we were both born in California. I also serve with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and for the last 20 years, the majority of my ministry has been among international students and in churches among Asian Americans. While I bring academic rigor to my research, I also have a stake in what I learn; my children have graduated from different universities, and their faith commitments are intact, but quite distinct from my own.

And that leads to what is next for you: When it comes to what matters most to your child, when it comes what they care about most, or when it comes to their dreams for the future: I am pretty sure from just my pilot study: They haven’t told you.

In fact, some are keeping it under wraps from you for a variety of reasons, experiences, and perceived outcomes. I don’t think that is a surprise to most parents: namely, that our young adult children have a private, inner life that they do not disclose to anyone except– possibly– those for whom they trust will contribute toward the fulfillment of what matters most to them.

Plenty of the first-year students that I’ve met inform me that you want them to become a doctor or an engineer. So, they are studying some major that will contribute toward that goal. Some of those same students really do want to become doctors and engineers! Awesome! And many are doing this, in part because they trust you, and in part because they don’t want to disappoint you.

But, flowing from their interests and faith in Christ, if given the opportunity to serve the poor directly (and not by way of graduating from medical school, etc.) or to become an artist: they would do that in a heartbeat. Here’s where this post gets a little tangled.

As you already know, lots of Asian families put “family first.” Collective matters receive a higher priority than individual concerns. In contrast, when living in North America, much of the social and cultural items, like education, place a higher value on the forming of the individual.

So, while you (and I) were encouraging and empowering our children to perform well in school, the school took that posture our children brought in from us; they attempted to mold it so our children would live with making their individual concerns the highest priorities for their lives. This is a tension that many of us have with our children: They hear at home, “Do what is best for the family,” and that is picked up by good-intentioned educators who articulate and practice: “Do what is best for yourself.”

So, in case your child ever came home and announced, “I want to become an artist”, and went on about that: and you silenced them or ignored them: in part, their announcement was energized over a short amount of time by their experience in school. And it really doesn’t matter if your child attended a private or a public school in North America.

This happened to an friend from East Asia, not long after migrating with his family to the US: He announced, “I want to become an artist,” and his mother’s response was swift: You will either become a doctor or a dentist. End of discussion. And it was…in more ways than one.

He furtively continued to paint, hiding his brushes and paints from his mother, always washing his hands scrupulously to remove any residue of paint, secretly taking art classes in high school and college, always avoiding detection from his mother. He graduated from dental school, and developed a thriving practice. Having disclosed what matters most to his fiancee, he married and they bought a home: and their garage has never had a car inside it and it has always been a studio. His wife loves his art: and for good reason: he’s an excellent painter. His mother has never made a critical comment about his painting to my knowledge. But, it was never the way my friend ever wanted to live, having to keep secret– from his Christian mother– what mattered most to him.

Obviously, my friend’s experience is a unique example of someone who knows his ultimate concern, and orients his life toward the fulfillment of what matters most to him.

Now, I mention this, not because I already know that your child has some ultimate concern that they are hiding from you. They might be hiding it from you, assuming they even know what it is, or hiding a collection of ultimate concerns. Rather, I mention the story for you to be aware that my friend made this discovery of painting in his elementary school in North America, and in part, the tenacity of his commitment to paint was strengthened within a North American educational context that values and supports becoming a unique individual.

Our children–no matter what our family’s cultural history may be–routinely encounter this kind of “hidden curriculum” within their schools and extra-curricular groups. Our children make decisions rather quickly about how they will participate, inasmuch they already know that we want them to succeed. Yet, some of the commitments and the momentum of their participation would never get endorsed by us at home. They are doing this, by and large, by themselves.

And this individuation gets affirmed to the extreme in the university. This affirmation can work in some peculiar ways upon the faith of our adult children, both developing and denying their faith commitment, but certainly encouraging and empowering their ultimate concerns.

But, make no mistake: plenty of the first-year students want their faith and their ultimate concerns to meet up in the world, or “to make a difference” in the name of Christ.

What should we do, as parents, even if our adult child doesn’t know their ultimate concerns? There are no “silver bullets”, no formulas for which we “add water and stir,” no weekend seminars to repair and heal broken (or incomplete) relationships. I will make some suggestions in my next post about the days ahead: that days precede the day you assist your child with moving into their university residence hall.

Meanwhile, please pray for yourself and your adult child. Plenty of parents make the abrupt discovery that their former high school student is moving out of the home to the university, and is unlikely to ever become a permanent resident again: that discovery can be tough on the heart. Pray for your adult child to be and become wise regarding how they live into what matters most to them. Pray that you and your adult child will continue to follow Jesus, albeit in some new ways apart from each other. Thank God for the great privilege your adult child has received in even being admitted to any college or university. Pray that their faith in Christ and their ultimate concerns will meet in the development of skills and competencies to participate in the mission of God.

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.