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Joys and Challenges of Intergenerational Worship and Congregational Life in Chinese Canadian Churches: A conversation with Herbert Tsang and Elizabeth Tamez Méndez

In this conversation, church music minister Herbert Tsang offers insights from first generation immigrant and 1.5 communities moving forward in ways that reach out and try new things with youth in areas such as language, worship music, and more.

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:16] Welcome to this session of Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. This is a new series hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I am Dr, Elizabeth Tamez Méndez, founder and executive director of New Generation3 and longtime collaborator with the CICW. Today, Dr. Herbert Tsang is joining us for conversation in this second video in the series. Dr. Herbert, thank you for being our guest. We're so happy to have you here. 

Herbert Tsang [00:00:46] I'm happy to be here. Thank you. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:49] So, as you know, the CICW has been working on gathering insights around this theme. We want to come together and learn about community worship practices in different contexts, especially those that encourage intergenerational worship spaces and relationships. So in today's conversation, we want to focus on practices that include and empower youth. And in our previous conversation, we were mentioning that we have a lot in common because we focus on these aspects of generating intergenerational relationships and working with different communities of color and those who are especially first-generation immigrants. So we're very much looking forward to hearing about your work, Dr. Herbert. So would you please share with us a bit about your context and your work? We're so eager to get to know more about it. 

Herbert Tsang [00:01:42] Great. I wear several hats. I'm a professor at Trinity Western University, where I work with young adults. I also work mainly in ethnic Chinese churches in Canada, in the Vancouver area. My ministry context is mainly in the area of church music. I direct an organization called Church Music Ministry of Canada. These are nondenominational organizations that we help to promote church music ministry in local churches. But at the same time I also held a position on staff at a church, a United Church of Canada, where I was in charge of the youth music ensemble. The youth were ranging from age 12 to 20, and that was a lot of fun. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:02:33] Yeah, that does sound like a lot of fun. That's a big range. I'm very happy that you were able to have that whole spectrum of young people to work with. So I know we're going to learn a lot from you in that regard. So thank you for letting us know more about the different contexts where you're working. This helps us to better understand the spaces where you're ministering and you're relating to youth and the community. Before we move forward with our conversation, we want to let our viewers know that to frame our series of conversations, we have chosen five values to shape this project on corporate worship and models of ministry with youth. These values are youth agency, spaces for theological questions, the role of the family, sparking intergenerational relationships, and designing multiple pathways for ministry with youth. So Herbert, would you please share with us more about how your community, your worshiping community, has been able to nurture some of these intergenerational relationships and why that value is very important in your community, and the cultural challenges that are also involved with that? 

Herbert Tsang [00:03:49] Well, in my context, a lot of the members of the church are first-generation immigrants, [or]1.5 [people who immigrated as children or adolescents], and in Chinese culture it’s very common to have several generations to be together and even live under the same roof. It's very common. But what I've noticed is that when they go to church, sometimes they are very segregated: Grandma goes here, parents go here, kids go here. Sometimes it’s out of convenience because of the language differences; they speak different dialects so they go to different services. But it's very strange when I'm looking at this . . . What I've noticed is that they only get together to go to worship as one family maybe just once a year, at Christmastime. And usually those services are very long because they have to be translated and translated, and nobody really enjoys those services at all. And so those are usually not very good memories for a lot of kids. So I was thinking, why is that the case? Is there a way that we can actually incorporate a model or at least encourage church to rethink this default position? 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:05:04] Yes. Thank you for sharing that. It brings back memories of the church in Texas where we first arrived and we were working, and it was very interesting because they have this longstanding tradition; it was mostly first-generation Latinos, mostly from a Mexican background, and they had everything segregated by gender. It was very interesting, because even in the worship service, the women would sit on one side and the men would sit on another, and these different legacies of church models and ministry that we inherit, and then sometimes we don't even know why we do the things we do, and they are no longer working for us as our community has evolved. What have you noticed in your context about bringing down those barriers? 

Herbert Tsang [00:06:05] In those cases, I find that sometimes you need to ask the question: why are we doing certain things in such a way? And because in Chinese culture it’s a very hierarchical organization. Sometimes when you are younger and you ask those questions you can be perceived as a troublemaker and it’s not welcome. But I think there's room for re-education to really think about why we do this, or even examine, is that the best way going forward? Because as people age, the whole congregational dynamic changes. And I think it's never too early to rethink those practices and to find ways to go forward. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:06:53] And would you speak to us a little bit more about the challenges and the tensions that your community is having with aspects of the differences in languages? 

Herbert Tsang [00:07:04] In ethnic Chinese, there are two main dialects. There's a Cantonese and Mandarin language, although when you write them out they’re very, very similar, almost the same. But when it's in spoken language, they're different. Most of the time, depending on where the parents immigrated from, they will be speaking in one dialect. Now there are kids growing up in Canada. Often they will speak English at school, but then at home they maybe speak a mix of English and maybe Cantonese or Mandarin, which makes it a bit difficult because when you're trying to find worship material to use that actually with both translations, sometimes it is a bit tricky. So that makes joint worship services to be more challenging. At the same time, nobody really enjoys sitting through everything twice. If you're familiar with both languages. So I think we have tried different things to help to alleviate some of those pain points along the way. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:08:18] Yes, I think it's [more] complex for your context than it might be for others, where you're saying it's three different language needs that are coming into play. You mentioned that your community and your congregation have tried to bring some solutions to that. What have been some of those proposed solutions to bring the generations together, regardless of the language barriers and what has worked and what hasn't worked? 

Herbert Tsang [00:08:48] In the old days we tried translating everything, and that just doesn't work because it just makes everything twice as long. And so what we have tried, for example, is to have more things that are well prepared ahead of time. For example, if somebody is sharing a testimony, then we'll ask them to do it in one language, but at the same time we translate it and project it on the screen. So you save half the time, but then you still will be able to let them present what they have to present. So that's one way we did that. We tried to incorporate different songs so that some of them are coming from certain generations that are only available in Chinese, for example, then we’ll find ways to translate them so they can be understood in both different groups of people. In terms of the hierarchy, what we have found is also it needs to be an intentional effort to incorporate youth into the decision making, into the leadership, because it is not a common thing because of the hierarchical cultural aspect. You get more respect when you're older, but when you're younger automatically you may not get as much. Whatever you say may not carry as much weight. So sometimes we need to re-educate or even just to put down ground rules about what to discuss and how we're going to go about it so more people of different ages can have their voice in the process. I think it’s still a work in progress, but that is definitely a direction that I think it's worthwhile to pursue. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:10:40] That's very helpful because certainly as we're looking into our work with with the new generations and young people and children that has been for communities of color who come from different countries and have different language needs, these things that you're mentioning to us resonate with us because we're having the same challenges. And as you mentioned, if we want to be inclusive and we want to reach everyone in their language needs at the same time, then it becomes logistics-wise a whole other layer of things in how we make it to where everyone understands, but it's not going on for so long. And so I think also, like you pointed out, it's not only the language needs, but it's also the worldview, the way that the culture is shaping our younger generations, whether it be in Canada or in the United States, which have a very similar way of thinking. And then you contrast that with the Chinese worldview or even for us in Latin America. And we always mentioned this concept of adult-centric communities, so sometimes it seems that until you're an adult, you almost don't count in the community. It's like you don't have a voice, you don’t have a place. So since we share those common challenges, what have been some of the things that your community has attempted to do to bring down the barriers? I know you mentioned something about training. Could you expand for us a little bit more about some of the solutions and some of the things you have tried to bring together the generations and develop new leaders? 

Herbert Tsang [00:12:37] Through several grant projects with the Calvin Institute we're able to bring in some external speakers to come and share with us their experience in terms of universal design and how we can actually incorporate people with different abilities. That's very important. And actually, it's a very fruitful endeavor to see how we can incorporate different abilities. Sometimes we don't think about seniors in our church, that their needs are different from the youth. When you put them together in one room it does not automatically make them be able to worship together. There are certain elements that you need to think about. For example, when we project words onto the screen for young people, that's no problem. They can see it. No problem. But then for some folks, they may forget to bring their glasses, or even with glasses it’s difficult to see. So we make sure that when youth are planning worship, just think about, hey, maybe you want to print out the words just in case; some folks may want to have that to see instead of looking at the screen. Things like that don't automatically come when you are not in that stage of your life. So those are the different things that I think it’s worthwhile to point out to youth when they are planning for worship, then they have to be considerate. And also, you know, look around you: who are the people that you are serving? It's an educational experience for a lot of us to be able to to reach out and put yourself in somebody else's shoes and then to think about it. I think that's important. When we develop a worship service we try to incorporate different voices, intentionally invite some people to be on the committee or in the planning stage to try to see how we can actually incorporate them. Now, that's not always successful. Some people are just not very comfortable. But we find that you have to do this intentionally. You cannot just say, “Hey, come if you like to.” If you do that, people may not even come, but you have to intentionally and invite so-and-so and say, “Hey, you know what? We'd like to invite you and to come and help and to go through the process.” I find that ultimately it's usually very fruitful, but it's something that you have to work at, not just one time, two times, but over a period of time. Then you see the fruits of that. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:15:23] Anything that is new makes people uncomfortable— any new ideas, any new dynamics. What I see a lot of times is that well-intentioned leaders may implement a solution such as what you're mentioning, like bringing other generations together to the table to have a voice, and some feel a bit uncomfortable because they've never seen it. I see it as even as a woman. Sometimes I feel [as if people are thinking, Why is a woman here? So that creates some discomfort, and it may just not be welcome to begin with. But as you pointed out, it's that intentional process and giving people space to come and sit with it, to be uncomfortable. That's OK. And to just have the chance to process what is happening and the pros and cons of it even if at first it feels a little bit shocking and uncomfortable. How do we as leaders walk alongside of them and help them sit with that uncomfortableness, but then also start moving into how this is helping us as a church, how this is bringing us to a new phase in our work, and what are going to be the pros and cons of this? So I'm thankful to hear that your church has tried to implement some of these things. As you're working men with integrating the different generations, have you been able to create any spaces for youth to voice some of their theological questions and some of the things that they may want to know more about their faith and religion and just life in general? Have you been able to implement anything like that in your context? 

Herbert Tsang [00:17:21] We try to do different things to incorporate the youth and the dimensions into the literature, for example. I remember one time we were trying to do the Apostles’ Creed. Sometimes we just read it, and that's the end of it. But one time I found resources that they can actually do what we call “scripture dramatizations.” So they were able to do this in a more dramatic fashion. It's choreographed, in a way, but brings out a different point within the creed. And that really brings—according to the kids—brings the youth to life. It's like, “Oh, wait a minute, this is actually much more interesting than just reading it.” And that stays with them. It’s interesting because I saw them getting excited about learning more about it and trying to find [out] what does it mean, this line here? And then trying to figure it out. And that helped them to ask questions. I think that was one of the more memorable occasions I can remember. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:18:38] Do you remember the name of the resource by any chance? And was this resource in English or Cantonese or Mandarin? 

Herbert Tsang [00:18:46] It was in English. As a matter of fact, it was actually from one issue of Reformed Worship magazine. I forgot which one it is, but I'm sure you can find it.  . . . We did it in English. We try to do it in Chinese also. But some of the kids are not very good with Chinese, so it was a bit tricky. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:19:09] Oh, that's good. Thank you for pointing out that resource. Maybe someone on the CICW team may have heard of it, and then we can dig it out from the archives and be able to share it with those who are watching this video. Because certainly that's part of what opens up their curiosity to know what does this [creed] mean that we're always reciting and why is it even important in my life? And how do I apply it? And why do we even keep saying these things [that have] been passed down from generation to generation? There's a ministry that is called Streetlights, and they’re in Chicago, and it’s been very interesting to see their ministry because what they're doing is that they're recording portions of the Bible, different books of the Bible, and they do it with a hip-hop background to it, and music, and also more of a spoken-word type of style to the reading. So then you start listening to the Bible and the time passes by so quickly when you're listening in that modality that has some rhythm and some music, and then they bring that along with some of their graphics. And so it just creates this whole experience for young people and they're translating it into Spanish as well. So that's been very useful in our community to hear the Bible, the Word of God with these more contemporary rhythms and ways of reading it that just engages youth in saying, “Hold on. I hadn't paid attention to that before, even though I've heard it in church so many times.” So thank you for sharing about this other resource as well. 

Herbert Tsang [00:20:57] And I find it to be very easy to incorporate because other times you may already have that statement in the worship service, maybe even scripture reading, right? You have to read the scripture anyway. But then what if you can bring the story to life and have different characters to read out? That really brings, I think, people from all ages to be engaged, captivated by what's going on. And you don't need to do a lot of fancy rewriting. You just need to take some time to copy and paste a scripture and divide up the work and practice. It's important to practice, too. I mean, I've seen a lot of scripture reading done badly. [They’re like, it’s] so boring. I don't know why you want to talk about it. But you know, if you actually spend time in understanding the scripture, to rehearse, to try to bring out the main point, I can guarantee your effort will not go wasted, because I can see so many people are moved by the scripture through a different lens. So I highly recommend it. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:22:16] Thank you. Thank you for pointing out that effort. You mentioned about the Bible readings, and then I believe previously you mentioned about youth planning the worship and having in mind the needs of people in different generations. Could you share more with us about what your context is doing in regards to serving youth and supporting their creative energy and their initiative? What are some of the things that your community has been able to do in order to shift, perhaps even just a little, that mindset that only the adults are the ones who lead programs and then the youth come and sit back and watch? Can you tell us more about your experiences in that regard? 

Herbert Tsang [00:23:06] We have these music worship services that are happening on Saturday night with a lot of music in it, but then also at the same time, youth are heavily involved in it, meaning that they rehearse, practice, even lead in those worship services, which is not necessarily happening all the time. With Sunday morning worship, they are able to stand up and actively lead, but they take on a more important role on a Saturday worship service. And I find the family support network is very important. Parents actually make a point to come and show up and to invite friends and so forth. That's very important because sometimes it’s just youth doing something and the parents are not involved and there's not a lot of guidance. And I find those conversations are very fruitful, too. When you have youth trying to do something and you have an adult not trying to say, “Don't do that” or “Stop,” but actually, “Hey, why don't we try this and work out the ultimate goal in mind and work out a solution.” I think that's very useful. But that doesn't come automatically to some of us. Sometimes we’re in instruction mode—do x, y, z, and do this. Done. Why? Because I said so. So it's really a need to step back and wait a minute. I know they're going to make a mistake, but maybe that's a way that they will learn. So I think it's a learning process for all the parties involved and not necessarily easy. But at the end of the day, when you see them growing up, when you see them to be able to improve day after day, that's a wonderful reward that we have. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:25:08] Thank you for pointing that out because ultimately that's our goal. How can we encourage and accompany youth in their faith formation beyond “did they do this right” or “did they follow my instructions to a T” or “are they being obedient to what I'm saying.” I think in our cultures, there's a tendency towards that, where like, I'm the elder, and I'm guiding you, and I'm giving you the instructions. And it's part of navigating the different cultures. And it's very, very tough. I always tell the leaders that we serve and we provide training for [that] it’s like if the Lord has called you to work with youth, and to work with youth of a different ethnic background in the United States or in Canada or anywhere where it's a cross-cultural experience, you have a very high calling because it's extremely complex. It's like you're trying to navigate not only a person who's going through adolescence—that's already tough no matter where you come from—and then to try to bring the different cultures and generations together in the languages in the worldview that seem to be clashing many times. We see it all the time in our Latino community. We are this very family-oriented group, and we make sure that the group is doing well. And then we come to the society where it is individualistic and it has to be about my needs being served versus the whole group. And that's a very complex dance, and all of that is ultimately, are we even helping [them] grow in their faith and mature in what we're trying to teach them? Because if we tell them “because I said so,” unfortunately, that no longer serves them because they say, “Well, I just found fifteen other people on TikTok who said something different than what you just said. And so that creates a whole other layer of dynamic. So I know that our cross-cultural ministries are challenging and especially as we're working with youth. You did mention that part of that process that you're engaging with in helping youth have more agency [?] parents or their guardians or other family members, would you like to share a little bit about what you have tried, what has worked for you guys in your context? 

Herbert Tsang [00:27:50] As I mentioned, we try collaborative worship planning to incorporate different voices. One of the things I think is most prominent is the selection of music. If you think about it, the youth will probably pick one style of music and the parent will pick something else. And the two do not usually have an intersection there. So that's usually a point of contention. Is it my way or your way or what? So that's something [about which people] need to be educated and also need to find some common ground or even need to have some generosity. You're going to sing some song that you don't like, but I'm going to sing something I don’t like either. So everybody will learn something new and this idea of generosity and openness. It's a time to cultivate, but also at the same time, you know, if you're singing songs that you don't know in a language that you don't know, you may appreciate to actually have someone to explain to you what the words are, and that's something that we should be incorporating in our worship, too. If you sing English songs, don't assume everybody in the congregation actually speaks English. So explain to them, or even just translate the words and so forth, that will be useful. Language itself is one point that’s often neglected. For me, I'm bilingual, so I automatically understand one way or the other. But some folks, they may not understand both. So we need to make sure that we have all the messages being transmitted in both contexts. Selection of music is important because music itself is very generational. By knowing what songs you like, I know how old you are. . . . But again, a sense of a generosity, of openness, and also, of course, you want to sing songs that are theologically based and musically appropriate and liturgically appropriate as well. But at the same time, even within those parameters, there are lots to choose from. And we have to have some opportunity to open and let people pick something that they actually identify with. So that's really a big challenge for our community is to be able to pick music that actually speaks to a wide range of congregation members. So those are the two things that I always keep an eye on when I'm doing this kind of work. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:30:52] You mentioned that there is at times the dynamic where you're trying to help the parents and the youth understand each other more and accommodate even with things such as the selection of songs. Has your community created specific spaces where these conversations happen, or is this something that you encourage more organically? What has your community been able to do about those conversations with the parents and youth? 

Herbert Tsang [00:31:27] There isn't a website called There's no such space, but what I have seen more and more is that, for example, there are some resources that are in English only. I see some people actually intentionally and systematically translate them into Chinese. For example, Calvin Institute published Songs for All Seasons. It was one volume, a psalter with a lot of different settings. I've seen there are people who are trying to translate that into Chinese. Some of the resources like scripture reading, some of the songs and so forth. And that's really helped the two communities to be able to use the same resources. If we look at whether there are any hymnbooks that are bilingual, that cater to both languages, there aren't that many. And that makes it more valuable, this kind of web-based resources that are out there and that people can easily use and find and take advantage of. So those are the resources; I’m often being asked, Hey, this is great, but it's only in English. What are we going to do? So some people are working on this over here in this part of the world. Do you know them? Go to their website. Now with technology, internet, if we are willing to open up our resources and our efforts, I believe there is a lot of room [for us to] collaborate. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:33:06] Thank you so much for pointing that out, because as you said, there's a need for more and more resources of different kinds for working with youth and the family dynamics and the intergenerational relationships, and then bringing in the layer of the cultural understandings. So thank you for pointing that out, because that's some work that we still have much to do, which is exciting because there's a lot of opportunity still in that. Thank you for pointing out those resources that you have been able to use in your context. Thank you, Herbert, for this engaging conversation. We have learned so much from you today. 

Herbert Tsang [00:33:49] Thank you. It's my pleasure. Thank you so much. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:33:51] We're so happy to have someone from Canada finally. 

Herbert Tsang [00:33:56] That's great. Come up to visit sometime! 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:34:01] Yes, definitely when I head over to Vancouver. And we also want to thank our viewers for joining us in this session of Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. We pray these conversations inspire and encourage your efforts in reaching the next generation and creating intergenerational relationships. Please join us for the next video in the series and leave us a comment about this session. We really want to hear from you. Thank you.