Breaking the Evangelical Mold at a Church With Ethnic Roots

Austin, Tex. - Last Sunday at Vox Veniae, a 200-person church in working-class East Austin, the volunteer baristas showed up an hour before worship services to make locally sourced coffee in the vaunted Chemex system, beloved of connoisseurs. To enhance the java-snob appeal, no milk or sugar was provided. “It’s a purist thing,” one barista said.

“Keep Austin Weird,” the local slogan goes. And the approach to coffee is just one unusual feature of this rule-breaking church in the notably alternative Texas capital.

There’s the building, for example. The church meets in what used to be Chester’s, an after-hours B.Y.O.B. club that shut down in 2007 after a fatal shooting close by. Members of Vox, as the church is known, cleaned up the building, christened it Space 12 and made it a hub for Austin-style activity. It’s their church hall, yes, but also a Wi-Fi-equipped space that freelancers can use for a small daily donation; a yoga studio; an art gallery; and the home of the Inside Books Project, which sends books to prison inmates.

But what’s really unexpected about Vox, to anyone who knows American Protestantism, is that what began as a church for Chinese-Americans quickly became multiracial. Last Sunday morning, whites were in the majority, and in addition to Asian-Americans, there were Latinos and African-Americans in the pews — or, rather, the metal folding chairs around the small stage where a six-piece band played before the pastor, the Rev. Gideon Tsang, delivered his sermon.

In a country that is growing more racially diverse, and in an evangelical movement that is becoming more politically diverse, Vox Veniae, which is Latin for “voice of forgiveness,” may be, as Jesus said, a sign of the times.

Racially diverse churches are often led by white pastors who recruit in minority communities, usually by hiring nonwhite assistant pastors. It is less common to see an ethnic church attract whites. It may be that white people avoid churches where at first they will be outnumbered. Or perhaps the ethnic churches’ worship styles feel alien (especially if prayers and sermons are in a foreign language). Whatever the reason, white churches sometimes succeed in drawing minority worshipers, but minority churches rarely attract white people.

Mr. Tsang sports arm tattoos and the modish, buzzed-on-the-sides, long-on-top haircut that many young men who request it call “the Hitler Youth.” He was raised in Toronto, the son of a Chinese-Canadian pastor of an ethnic church. In 2006, he started Vox Veniae as an independent planting of the Austin Chinese Church, a larger church that wanted a mission to young people, especially University of Texas students. In 2007, the church opened Space 12, and in 2009, it moved its worship services there. Along the way, it began to draw older people. And whiter people.

“The average age when we started was 22,” Mr. Tsang said. “Today, the average age is 27, 28.” Last Sunday, I sat behind a woman who must have been in her 60s. When she had trouble reading the passage from I Corinthians on the monitor above, her neighbor, about 40 years younger, whispered the words in her ear.

In 2011, Vox Veniae affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a large North American denomination founded in the 19th century by Swedish immigrants. This means that Vox Veniae is a multiracial church that began with Chinese roots and has recently acquired Swedish Lutheran roots.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, the Covenant made some collective decisions to be more intentional about becoming more multiethnic in every area of our life together,” Garth Bolinder, a regional superintendent for the denomination, said in an e-mail. It began to admit more non-Swedish churches, including black and Latino congregations. When Mr. Tsang was looking for institutional support for Vox Veniae, a friend suggested the Evangelical Covenant.

At first, Mr. Tsang resisted, believing his church was “so specific to Austin and the culture of Austin.” Ultimately, he met with Evangelical Covenant pastors, and he decided it was a good fit. “We think it’s healthy to be connected to something bigger,” Mr. Tsang said.

That Swedish/Chinese mingling is a significant innovation in American church history, but it’s not what brings new worshipers to Space 12 on Sunday mornings. Hannah Perez, 24, works for Cuvee Coffee, the local roaster whose beans she was putting through the Chemex. She grew up in a Methodist church in Indiana, and her husband’s church was Hispanic Pentecostal. But when they moved to Austin, they joined Vox.

“We felt like: ‘Wow, this is awesome. It feels like hanging out in someone’s house,’ ” Ms. Perez said.

Space 12 is one large room, with comfortable chairs scattered about. Mr. Tsang preaches from a stool, like a slam poet intimate with his audience. The books for the prisoner project line one wall. There are no crosses, although “Resurrection” is spelled in red thread strung between nails.

When Leena Pacak, now 33, was growing up, her parents were nonobservant Hindus. Ms. Pacak was baptized when she was 24, and met her husband, also now a Vox member, at a church in Chicago. She said that before becoming a Christian, she had to overcome negative impressions about evangelicals, who always seemed to be intertwined with the religious right.

“My impression from the community is there is a real mix, including a lot of liberal-thinking people here,” said Ms. Pacak, a midwifery student.

Her husband, Cole, said Vox felt freer than other churches on issues like abortion and gay marriage, poverty and Middle Eastern politics. “Vox is a church where no one political viewpoint is pushed, which is great,” Mr. Pacak said.

Some hope that this kind of postpolitical, postracial congregation is the future of evangelicalism. But Mr. Tsang has complicated feelings about his success. He is, after all, the son of an immigrant church, whose rich tradition is joyously obliterated in this diverse congregation.

“I’m struggling to have a better understanding of my own Christian heritage, and of my own Chinese Christian heritage,” he said.

But James Miller, an Arkansas native and one of three white musicians in the band that played last Sunday, pointed out that Austin Chinese Church, when it planted Vox, wanted it to be “an Austin-centered church.” If the original idea was to provide English-language services for Americanized Chinese, it was perhaps inevitable that, with a preacher like Mr. Tsang, and in a city like Austin, the racial lines would not hold.

“So I figure,” Mr. Miller said, “we’re living out their vision.”