Reverend Dr. Siang-Yang Tan is a Professor of Psychology in the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is most well-known for his work in psychology, as he has written numerous books and articles on lay counseling, religious psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and intrapersonal integration and spirituality, among other topics.
But apart from his work in psychology and counseling, Tan is also the senior pastor of First Evangelical Church in Glendale, California, and has been serving as the senior pastor for almost 20 years. His church is unique and unusual for a Chinese church in that the English congregation is much larger than the Mandarin or Cantonese congregations, and also that Reverend Tan is a primarily English-speaking senior pastor, rather than Mandarin or Cantonese.
Similar to the Korean American church, the Chinese American church often experiences difficulties between generations due to cultural and language differences. But Tan says that, as the senior pastor, he tries his best to accommodate to all congregations’ needs, and to empower all three congregations.
“All of our pastoral meetings are conducted in English,” Tan said, giving one example. “But the Chinese pastors need more time to understand everything that I’m saying. So I make sure to take my time and sometimes pause to ask if everyone’s understanding me and if we’re all on the same page.”
Indeed, he said that the role of the senior pastor is especially important in a bicultural, multi-generational immigrant church.
“The senior pastor needs to be culturally sensitive to everyone,” Tan added.
“The senior pastor must really believe in the next generation and make sacrifices. We must not control so much—give them some more space and be a little more flexible. We need to believe in the young people and realize, OK, my generation is going to die out, and the future lies in the next generation. We need to empower them and even have them on the church leadership board so that their generation can be represented, that they can have a say and a voice in how church matters are run,” Tan said.
Though Tan himself is also of the older generation, he still is in touch with the culture of the younger generation because he spends time with them and personally mentors them.
“I meet with someone different almost every week for breakfast or lunch. I hang out with them because they are the key people in the body. I pour my heart into them, pray for them, and affirm them,” Tan said.
Meanwhile, Tan emphasized that the younger generation must also express humility and respect toward the older generation.
“Learn to be grateful for your forefathers,” Tan said. “The older generation poured out many prayers, blood, sweat, and tears to establish the church and to raise you up. Don’t be self-centered, don’t only demand, and don’t fall into a sense of entitlement.”
“The older generation needs to release and let go of the younger generation, and affirm them, and the younger generation needs to appreciate the older,” he added.
In order to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations, Tan said that he and his church have been doing certain events with the entire church together, such as having combined prayer meetings three times a year, and a combined retreat once every few years. The annual English retreat is also inter-generational, bringing together people of all ages, especially in small groups, for sharing and prayer.
“At the combined and English retreats especially, I see that the younger people are able to get to know the older generation much better, and the older also gets to know the younger on a deeper level,” Tan said.
First Evangelical Church also does a “breakthrough weekend” as the start of their discipleship training, during which those who participate in the training spend a day retreat at Tan’s home. Though the different congregations have separate breakthrough weekends and discipleship trainings, the material (Discipleship Essentials by Greg Ogden) that they go through is the same, and they are thus grounded on the same foundations.
Reverend Dr. Donald Chia, the pastor of family life ministries at First Evangelical, teaches Sunday school every week, and covers marriage and family topics, during which parents are able to learn how to understand their children’s generation. Chia also does visitations, pre-marital counseling, marital and family counseling, and parent-teen seminars with the youth pastor Reverend Donn Halla, through which the older and younger generations can come together to resolve issues and understand each other’s perspectives.
Within the English congregation, the older and younger generations also have time to have fellowship together every Sunday in between the 9:30 AM service, during which most of the congregation consists of the older generation, and the 11:30 AM service, which is called LifeSurge, a ministry especially for the college and young adult members. 30 minutes before LifeSurge, coffee is served, and the older and younger generations are able to talk and share during that time.
Though these practical actions can be carried out in order to bring the older and younger generations closer together, Tan emphasized that ultimately, the most important and greatest component to bridging the gap is love.
“We need to agape love one another. God is agape, and without agape, everything is zero, meaningless. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that without love, you’ve done nothing. We can talk about strategies and programs, but in all of these things, the only secret to bridging the gap is God, and out of Him flows love. First gen, if you really love the second gen, then you will be sacrificial and humble and understanding. Second gen, if you really love the first gen, then you will be humble and respectful and have the desire to learn from them. That’s the bottom line – it’s love.”