Rick Warren
Pastor Rick Warren during a panel discussion in Baltimore in June 2014. (RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks)

Pastor Rick Warren Apologizes for Children’s Sunday School Video Loaded with Asian Culture Stereotypes

By Alejandra Molina

Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has apologized for a children’s Sunday school curriculum video that used Asian culture stereotypes to teach kids about the Bible.

The video has been removed, but Michelle Ami Reyes, vice president for the Asian American Christian Collaborative, on Twitter described it as using Asian culture “as a prop for slapstick humor.” The video, she said, blurs and dishonors “distinctions and categories of Asian culture.”

In it, she said, a pastor wears a Chinese shirt, makes Kung Fu sounds and pretends to make sushi that he then spits out.

“There are layers to the problematic appropriation and use of Asian culture elements for slapstick humor here. This kind of humor only works because it’s deprecating. But you cannot appropriate and deprecate on someone else’s culture for your own personal comedy,” she tweeted.

Warren, in a statement issued Sunday apologized and said he was upset and embarrassed by the racially offensive content of the video. It was immediately taken down, he said.

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“My instant fear was that the thousands of Asian American children who are a part of our church family would feel made fun of and that their families and so many others would rightfully be offended,” Warren said in the statement.

Warren said the video showed a former Saddleback Church kids’ pastor dressed as an Asian martial arts sensei “in an attempt to teach Bible truth.”

Although the video was posted this weekend, Warren said it was created four years ago.

“This is the very kind of cultural and racial insensitivity that we’re trying to eradicate in our church family,” he said. “It’s unchristlike, demeaning, and it’s never appropriate to use a stereotype to teach.”

Some have responded well to Warren’s apology on Twitter, saying his words were genuine and thoughtful. Others were reminded of a photo he posted on Facebook in 2013 that depicted a Red Guard during China’s Cultural Revolution.

“The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day,” the caption read. Several Asian American Christians found that post distasteful, including writer Sam Tsang who took the issue to his blog.

Warren initially said people missed the irony, saying in a Facebook comment: “It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!” He later took the photo down and apologized on the comments section of Tsang’s blog.

This also isn’t the first time children’s ministry material has been called out for its use of cultural stereotypes.

Vacation Bible school curriculum has often used themes based in foreign countries, but these programs have been facing heavier scrutiny as awareness and sensitivity around cultural appropriation increases.

In 2013, former president of Lifeway Christian Resources Thom Rainer apologized for a 10-year-old Asian-themed vacation Bible school curriculum, dubbed “Far Out Rickshaw Rally—Racing Towards the Son,” that was criticized for promoting racial stereotypes, according to the Baptist Standard.

The curriculum package, the Baptist Standard detailed, “came in a tin shaped like a Chinese-food take-out box, and the chorus to its theme song alluded to a scene in the 1984 movie The Karate Kid.”

In 2019, Christian publisher Group Publishing faced pushback for its Africa-themed children’s Bible school curriculum that, according to Faithfully Magazine, had children pretending to be Israelite slaves and mimicking an African dialect with “clicking” sounds. Group Publishing revised and apologized for the curriculum.

Warren, in his statement, said the church has put a process in place “to ensure that any curriculum that might be insensitive, hurtful, or demeaning never sees the light of day.”

Meanwhile, Reyes advised churches to hire sensitivity readers and consultants for church resources.

“Better yet, don’t include segments that make fun of other people’s cultures at all in your teaching materials. It’s disrespectful and dishonoring,” she said.

Alejandra MolinaAlejandra Molina is a national reporter for Religion News Service based in Los Angeles, California.

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16 thoughts on “Pastor Rick Warren Apologizes for Children’s Sunday School Video Loaded with Asian Culture Stereotypes”

  1. Rick Warren has loads to apologize for (to put it mildly), but this looks like a lot of SJW leftist hand-wringing to me by the bully brigade and thought police. Progressive fake outrage is far more divisive than some mildly politically correct/culturally naive slapstick humor. At some point we need to stop bending over backwards for the Christ-hating culture warriors and grow a spine.

    1. We have a LOT to pray about as the church if being kind, avoiding steretoypes, and apologizing for hurting or misrepresenting our Asian brothers and sisters in Christ is labeled as “SJW leftist hand-wringing”.
      Lord, help us.

      1. M H,

        Ask yourself honestly–if this cheesy little skit had involved Vikings, Russians, or banjo-playing hillbillies–would it have elicited any second thought from society?

        I could see “yeah, we won’t be doing this kind of presentation anymore” as perhaps being appropriate and leaving it at that. I don’t understand why a coordinated effort by the professional outrage mob was warranted in this case–or Biblical.

        If you (not you personally, “you” in the third person) call yourself a Christian and are a proud member of the professional SJW cancel-mob, I think you have some serious soul-searching to do.

        1. Brian –

          I can’t speak on what would happen, nor do I see the relevance of Vikings or hilbillies or whatever. That’s just whataboutism, which is a way to deflect, downplay and justify sin, PERIOD.

          I don’t base my sense of morals on how others respond. I don’t say “well they wouldn’t be mad if that happened to Vikings or hilbillies, so it’s ok to do it to Asians!” I base my sense of morals on how Christ calls me to treat others. I don’t answer to “others who would or would not be mad.” I answer to Christ, who clearly lays out how I am to treat others. Even if others clap and laugh and justify my behavior, if God’s not pleased, THAT is what matters.

          Because of Christ, I don’t get to argue with someone when they are hurt. I don’t get to try to convince them that they aren’t really hurt, have no right to be hurt, or are (insert some condescending name here – you seem to like “SJW leftist”) because they are hurt. I get to listen and see what I can do to walk along side them through it. I don’t get to tell them “you should be ok if we just don’t do this presentation again”. I don’t get to tell them how to heal. I get to listen to what can be done to make amends and support their healing. That is what I am called to do as a Christian.

          Your reaction reminds me of when I was in an all-white jr high and had kids call me the n-word and claimed it’s ok “because it’s in rap songs” or “no one says anything when a white person is called ___”. They had excuses but no apologies, with teachers backing them up by saying “well they stopped saying it around you, so what’s the problem?” And yeah, it was a Southern Baptist school too. (Any wonder why I didn’t rediscover my faith until my 20s?)

          Your frequent rants about whatever you deem to be “SJW leftist” (I still don’t even know what that is, given the way it’s casually and inconsistently thrown around) is something to pray about. They are divisive, condescending, and do NOT promote Christ.

  2. Brian Patrick,
    I was saved through the ministry of a Chinese church in my West Coast city back in the 70s. I was the only white girl for a couple of years in the church, with a family that was falling apart and a breaking heart. They loved me and cared for me through so much of that traumatic period of my life. I learned so much from them-Scripture, how to relate to my non-parenting parents, how to trust God for my future. I also learned that the stereotypes were not appreciated. I don’t appreciate them, either (of Asians or any other ethnic group). It’s called loving and appreciating your brothers and sisters in Christ, and not making insensitive jokes at their expense.

    1. Thank you, Linn. Your comments touched my heart. Why can’t we just be authentic to who we are , where we are. I always found attempts at cultural appropriation, not in the realm of SJW offensive, but simply cheesy. They are cornball and hackneyed all rolled up in one.

      Self-deprecating humor is always the key. Perhaps it’s time to dial back on the silliness, and be more real.

  3. Gentle humor among friends of different cultural backgrounds can be fun: we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, for any reason. The kind of thing described in the article sounds like mocking in a way that simply feeds feelings of superiority. Bad teaching, and bad taste, too. Ugh.

  4. Here comes the thought police:

    “Meanwhile, Reyes advised churches to hire sensitivity readers and consultants for church resources”.

    We do not need “sensitivity readers” thank you very much.

    1. That comment doesn’t negate the essential point of the concern. While I agree I’d never use the phrase or concept of “sensitivity readers,” perhaps the role should be along the line of an anti-cheesy reader. Or simply an editor with some competence and common sense.

  5. I really like what Linn and Pastor Bob have to say here.

    “It’s called loving and appreciating your brothers and sisters in Christ, and not making insensitive jokes at their expense.”–Linn

    “Why can’t we just be authentic to who we are, where we are. I always found attempts at cultural appropriation, not in the realm of SJW offensive, but simply cheesy. They are cornball and hackneyed all rolled up in one.

    Self-deprecating humor is always the key. Perhaps it’s time to dial back on the silliness, and be more real.”–Pastor Bob.

    Based on what is described in the video, it seems silly, and maybe even rude. I can see why someone might be offended by it. To me, very cornball.

    I enjoy Asian culture and love the interactions I’ve had with Asian people and Asian-Americans. I regularly went to a Chinese Church in high school and did study abroad in an Asian country. Years later, I kept up with the language. I loved learning about their cultures, seeing what made them tick and sharing about mine.

    Being real.
    There is so much fear of offense and and follks getting easily offended. All of us (me included) could benefit from having less thin skins and being so easily offended. It means listening. Asking “How is going to affect another?”
    Good lessons for all.

    On hired sensitivity readers and consultants…” Nope.
    Sounds pretty bureaucratic.

    I see the place of hiring them for say, a fiction book author who isn’t familiar with a culture. But churches? Why not have people volunteer to be a “sensitivity reader”? Or just bounce the ideas off a believer of that culture.

    That’s more real.
    And driven by Love.

    1. So many of these problems could be avoided if we simply followed the words of our Lord.

      In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
      — Matthew 7:12

  6. I find myself wondering if “cultural appropriation” is generally offensive to a majority of those in a particular minority culture, or just an outspoken few. Obviously anything done to mock or disparage is offensive, even if it’s done unconsciously. But at a certain point it’s hard to have a healthy relationship cross culturally if you feel like you’re walking on eggshells.

    1. That’s a fair point, and it’s understandable why you might feel like you are walking on eggshells.

      In the corporate world I’m fortunate to routinely work with people all over the world. I find it liberating to get past the pretense that we are all the same in every aspect. Instead I find relationships are much more engaging when I fess up to not knowing about foreign cultures and ask questions (Ok am I pronouncing this right? What do leisure activities look like for you? …). Knowing that you are trying to connect, others will offer a lot of grace when you say something they might otherwise find insensitive.

      It seems ironic that Sunday School curriculum would model what is basically ethnocentric. Kids are paying attention to our actions just as much as what we say.

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