Sports for the Glory of God: Interview With Pastor Stephen Chen

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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What basketball fan could have missed Linsanity and the explosion of basketball supernova Jeremy Lin? This second-generation Chinese-American blew off he NY Knicks’ bench in 2012 to bedazzle the US (and China), first for his court prowess and then for his humility.

For those who are not basketball fans, Lin is the California high school player of the year ignored by colleges. He’s the Harvard University basketball powerhouse (you read right) skipped over in the NBA draft. As a Golden State Warrior he repeated time in the D leagues (not fun). Oakland bounced him to NYC, where the stadium guard assumed he was a trainer. Should he bring his car to NY? The coach told him probably not.

Nights he was sleeping on a cousin’s couch when, in February 2012, days before his NY contract ended and from deep on the bench, he was sent in. And before the buzzer sounded on five games, New York—no, all of America and China—was “Linsane.” The back of David Letterman’s double-breasted suit sported Lin’s number 17. A Redeemer Presbyterian pastor and Knicks fan referred to the “Lincarnation.” On the wordplay meter, Jeremy Lin had swung from zero to Bono.

When the dust settled, Lin was a Houston Rocket in a massive arena newly spouting Chinese sponsors for the entire continent that holds its breath when a certain US point guard goes in.

Meanwhile, the young first-ever Chinese-American NBA player speaks normatively about his Christian faith. In a new “Linsanity” documentary he tells star-struck little boys at a basketball clinic that his game changed—it got fun again—when he played for God.

Now The High Calling talks to Lin’s pastor, Stephen Chen, who also found himself fielding media calls. Pastor Chen is one of two pastors at Chinese Church in Christ, where the Lins have attended since the days Jeremy and his two brothers were racing through homework to get to the YMCA court. He talks about the faith of an NBA phenomenon and, more germane to his Palo Alto congregation and those of us filling stands, “how the cross relates to the cubicle.”

Pastor Chen, back in your seminary days, who would have imagined getting international attention for a Chinese-American NBA point guard in your pews. What’s it been like?

Personally, it’s been a joy to see how God is working through a particular individual and to keep up with him—though in this case a person who has a sporadic work schedule, making it difficult for him to be with the body in worship.

In church it’s been a challenge sometimes having an atmosphere that is Godward and God centered. A lot of people can visit our church because they know Jeremy’s there. We have people taking pictures in a service or asking for autographs at the end of a service. We’re doing our best to really have the time be about God and for other people who come to not only hear the Gospel but to understand the day is not about Jeremy. So that’s been another challenge—and privilege—having Jeremy be a part of our church.

Part of your pastoring involves basketball. Jeremy introduced you to it, true? And sometimes you’d be out ‘til 1 or 2 in the mornings playing with the Lin boys?

Those stories are true. I was a lay leader helping out with the youth ministry and working at the same time. That’s how I first got to know Jeremy. We had this, “Hey, let’s play basketball—and I get a chance to teach you the bible, and you teach me basketball.” I think there are several things pastors need to do and one is discipleship—to find a few men to disciple and to train up. And that means to invite them into part of your life and for them to learn what it means to shepherd the flock and care for the flock.

To spend that kind of time, you must have seen something in Jeremy and his brothers.

I don’t know if I pinpointed anything special but I’ve always had this, even when I was a lay leader, I’ve had this time when I say, “I want to meet with you.” That is my goal. Even now as we pastor the English ministry here, we call all our families, and we know our flock well. For Jeremy it was, hey, these young boys just loved basketball and that was a way to get to know them. And I jumped at the opportunity.

What professional work had you taken out of college, and has that affected how you pastor?

The other pastor and I both worked for big accounting firms and so we understand 60 hours of work a week, two kids at home, trying to build your marriage, a lot of things happening. And for me it’s about wanting to be sensitive to asking people to serve and not asking them to be burned out. It’s teaching them what it means to be faithful at work and at church and yet faithful to the families, and also encouraging them that in different seasons of life they can be more fruitful in one area than another. And that’s pleasing to the Lord, and that’s okay.

What brought you to Chinese Church in Christ in Mountain View, California—and is there a reason you chose a Chinese-American church?

My parents are immigrant Chinese, and they brought me to Chinese Church in Christ. And I came to know the Lord my senior year in high school, here at this church. After that I went to UCLA and attended a church there as well. During my senior year, one of the pastors asked me if I ever considered seminary. He was a professor at Talbot Theological School. My parents wanted me work for a little bit to be sure of my calling. So I worked for four years before seminary—and my church here supported me in seminary. After college I came back here, and I asked the pastor to observe me. I wanted the church to see and affirm my gifting, and they did. And they were one of the early churches to ask me to come back and consider full-time ministry here. So I think, overall, I have a heart for the immigrant church. They have a particular struggle in that most of their services are in their native tongue—and a lot of youth, children, young adults, adults in the next generation want everything in English. So how do we worship together as a family? What would that look like? I wanted to see if I could help the local church in this situation.

You don’t shy from getting teens to go deeply into knowing about God. I’ve been on your church site and seen the recommended reading for junior high and high school kids.

I do think [society] sets a low bar and low expectations for young people and keeps delaying what it means to be an adult. Our church is setting the cookies a little high but not so high that it’s discouraging. One of the books I recommended was “Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations.” That’s a good reminder. If a young person comes to know Jesus Christ as lord and savior, they will develop a thirst for the things of God. And to say you don’t have to be serious until you’re 20 or 21 seems to have no good biblical basis.

Would you say that’s the attitude that helped a young Jeremy Lin, thrust into fame, money, and high stress, hold onto himself?

All I can say is it’s by the grace of God he is what he is and can be faithful in representing the Christian life on a very public stage. And yet this is what a Christian is. I don’t think he’s more able than anyone else to be a faithful ambassador to Jesus Christ. All Christians have the call to take up the cross and follow after him daily. Jeremy would publicly say it’s not easy. It doesn’t come naturally. And he’s not unfazed. There are still aspects of his public life and the stage he’s on that he continues to struggle with. People think he has a special ability and I don’t think it’s all on him. I want to give the glory to God in terms of what he’s been able to do.

What about other members at your church? What challenges do they face in their work?

Intelligent, high achieving people can be good because they want to do a lot for the Lord, and yet it’s a danger because of the tendency to say, “If we have the programs right or sing the right songs, and the music and lighting are right, and the sermon is the right length with the right levity and the right gravity, then lo and behold we’ll produce things that honor the Lord and glorify him.”

At our church we like to say we’re about things we cannot do. Jesus said he’s going to build his church and we have been asked to participate—to be his tools. This is the Lord’s work; it’s not because we are particularly gifted or because Jeremy Lin is in our congregation. God uses the weak things in the world to shame the wise. So one thing I do is to remind them what it looks like to be Christian in the workplace. How does the cross relate to your cubicle?

We say our work is different because of Jesus’s work. He was a perfect worker. He perfectly carried out the work of God. We trust in Christ’s work for our work. He’s our new master and we have a new assignment. We have new hearts, so we can work differently. Our confidence, our identity is no longer wrapped up in our work. If we get a bad review, our emotions do not fluctuate with our career path. Our self worth is in Christ, not our bosses or our peers. This produces incredible freedoms in the day to day—freedom to serve others wholeheartedly. I understand what it is to have friends in the workplace but how rare it is to find someone truly altruistic there. No agenda—just wants to be good for others. That’s only possible because our needs are met in Christ.

And probably for us in Silicon Valley, we are all type A’s. We work hard, but we have, as Christians, the freedom to rest from our work. God created and after six days he rested. We don’t need to toil and acquire wealth. Rest is a good thing God designed and we can trust that the Lord will continue to take care of us.

I can talk about this a long time.

The recently released LINSANITY documentary talks about Asian-American stereotypes in the US. Jeremy ran into bias, and he says now he loves to surprise people who underestimate him. What do the rest of Americans need to know or to change?

Perhaps they are up against stereotypes. At the same time, if people are wondering what needs to be changed or different or whatever, I’d simply have people be encouraged to understand these Asian-American Christian believers are just like you and me. They are simply brothers and sisters in Christ. Their identity is in Christ. They are subject to the same temptations, sins, as any other believer. They find joy in the Lord the same as any other believer.

And the most interesting part of having Jeremy in your church?

Many people think the world of being in the NBA sounds like a lot of fun. You play basketball for a living—that should be exciting. But these NBA stars go through all the same struggles we go through. They are subject to more public scrutiny, but we go through the same things: trouble with coworkers, management, bosses, whatever it might be. Those same struggles come through even in the NBA. Sin is sin, and it manifests itself all the time in every arena and station in life, but by the grace of God, believers continue to overcome.

Sports for the Glory of God

If God has created humanity with bodies that are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we need to develop a Christian way of living that incorporates play and recreation, leisure and competition, sports and athletics. Faith in the Creator and Redeemer should lead us to identify the way sports and athletics are meant to be, discern when something is wrong with sports in our broken and sinful culture, and imagine ways to be instruments of redemption in this sphere. In this series, Sports for the Glory of God, we engage with stories of people who are working through these issues on a daily basis.