The RICE Guy
Steve Chong’s upbringing, as an Asian in Australia, prepared him perfectly for the ministry of bridging the East and the West
There are tens of millions of Asians living in Western countries. Steve Chong believes many of them are called to go back and reach Asia – to unleash Gospel creativity in their nations. His unique background prepared him for this calling and vision.
Part one of our conversation with Steve can be found here.
The vision you’ve shared with us for RICE has been amazing. How did your background shape your personal vision and calling?
My parents came to Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade, which is why I have immense respect and admiration for him as an evangelist. My family owed so much to his ministry. As they became Christians around the time I was born, I had the privilege of growing up in a Christian home.
One of the things I didn’t realize when I was young was that being Asian and growing up in a different culture gave me the ability to function as a bridge between East and West. It comes as no surprise that our movement is reaching Asians who live in between cultures, whether in Australia (where I’m from), New Zealand, Brazil or Canada.
Another significant difference to note between Asians who grow up in Asia, and those of us who have relocated to places like Australia is this – we are a generation born to parents who have given up pretty much everything they knew for new opportunities abroad for their children. That has a tremendous impact on how we grow up and what we pick as our careers. It breeds a deep motivation to stay in this cycle of studying hard and working hard so as to provide well for the next generation and do our parents proud.
While some of this excellence mentality and honoring of parents is right and biblical, it can unfortunately lead to after-effects and negative cycles of approval. These can complicate a young person’s decision to live for the approval of one only, that being Jesus.
My wife and I love to speak into this identity-shaping conundrum, and call on lives to be sold out for Jesus above career, marks and parent approval. These things aren’t bad in themselves. They just are not everything. Jesus is.
Tell us your backstory. What were the key moments that led to you being involved in a multi-cultural youth movement?
I grew up in this Christian home, but I still had to make the commitment to Jesus myself. Basically I did the usual thing, where you grew up in church and youth group, finding out a lot about Jesus, but only at certain points do you make significant decisions to follow Jesus and take up His call on your life.
At different points along the way, I had these big moments where I asked myself, “Is following Jesus what I actually believe, or is this just part of doing what mom and dad expect?” That is such a big deal in Asian culture.
Where Westerners are often brought up to think for themselves, Asians are taught to make sure you think about your parents and what they want. It makes it even harder for Asians to work out what to do with their lives, because they’re expected to be obedient to their parents until they’re 25 or 30 years old, or even longer.
“It was at this point that I realized my call into ministry, and that in fact that mark doesn’t determine your life – Jesus does. I decided I wanted to go and serve Him full-time.”
The Asian culture centers around the desire for one’s kids and their education – they must do well academically. No matter how much you try, you can’t get it out of you. I used to say to myself that “When I am a parent, I will do things differently!” But now here I am, a father of 4, and I find myself working out how to make sure my kids position themselves best academically. I want to send them to the best schools, to get the best marks. Some things are so deeply ingrained in our culture and inner psyche that they die hard!
As the story unfolded, youth work became a focus to me as I was finishing high school. I received a really strong call for this ministry at age 18. That was a big deal for me.
In Australia, 18 years old is the time when you receive a final mark in school that determines what university or degree you can get into. And so much of your life, specifically as an Asian student, is all about this one mark. It is drilled into you, that this mark determines the course of your life. And it was at this point that I realized my call into ministry, and that in fact that mark doesn’t determine your life – Jesus does. I decided I wanted to go and serve Him full-time.
So, what happened? What was your final mark?
I went to the top school in the whole of Australia, a very academically-geared selective school in Sydney, called James Ruse Agricultural Highschool. Not surprisingly, the school is almost entirely Asian. You are below average if you get under 99 in your final mark that opens up your university placement.
At the end of the exams, we’re all waiting to see what university placement we’re going to get. My youth leader came up to me and said, “Hey Steve, I think you’ve got some leadership gifts, and I think you need to go to this Leadership Conference.”
I’m going to be honest – I couldn’t think of anything more boring than to go hang out with a bunch of super keen Christians. I wanted to get away the week after my exams, so I told my youth leader, “No way, I’m not going to that.”
But he was very clever, because he knew how Asian parents worked, and he knew that in the end all he needed was to get my mom’s agreement. So, he went to my mum and said, “Hey, you know, Steve’s not doing anything in the summer, and he’ll be wasting his time. Why don’t you send him to this conference? This is a very good investment of his time.”
And Asian mums subscribe to the whole “make-sure-they-do-something-good-with-their-time” mindset, so without batting an eyelid my mum hands him the money to pay my way to the conference!
At the conference, I remember that there wasn’t anything mind-blowing in the first session. But while lining up for lunch, I stood behind this tall, skinny white guy, whom I l would label a “super-keen Christian.”
Why did I think of him that way? Because he was singing at the top of his voice and dancing by himself in the lunch line! This was actually a conservative, Anglican type of conference, not a Pentecostal type, so it was definitely unusual.
His happiness caught my curiosity, so I introduced myself to him, and we became friends. When we went back to school to collect our results for our final mark, Dave* [not his actual name] asked me, “Hey, how are you feeling, are you stressed about the results?”
“Actually, I am,” I respond. “I have no idea what God wants to do with my life. And I don’t know what I want to do myself anyway.”
Now, this was a typical, good Asian answer. I turned to him, “Are you stressed?”
And there was just something about the confident way in which he replied. He just looked at me and said, “No, not at all.”
“Not even a bit? Why not?”
His reply threw me off my feet. “God has already told me what I’m going to do with my life.”
I was flabbergasted. I knew God tells us to love people and love Jesus. But this? “What do you mean, He told you?” I demanded.
“He’s always told me. I’m going to translate the Bible for a people group in India who cannot read the Bible in their own language. And I’m going to do that for the rest of my life.”
And in my mind, I’m going, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
But the issue wasn’t about what he said – it was how confident he was. Here he was telling me what God told him to do with his life, just as if he was telling me the sky is blue. It was like a non-negotiable, there’s-no-way-I’m-wrong, absolutely positive fact.
I’m going to be honest. At that moment, when he said he didn’t care about his results, I thought he was probably just one of those dropout dudes who didn’t care about school at all and was going to get below 50 for a final score. But it was his confidence that piqued my curiosity. I was really intrigued. So I asked, “How do you know?”
Almost with a nonchalant shrug, he said, “I just prayed this prayer, not long ago. And I simply prayed and said to God, ‘Use me however you want.’”
“That’s it?” I ask incredulously.
But after that conversation, I went to my room, shut the door, and put the sleeping bag over my head. And I had my moment. I just sat there in the room and said, “Okay God, this is it – it’s You and me now. This mark, the result of my exams, is what I’ve been waiting for to determine the rest of my life. The truth is, I don’t even know what I want to do with my life, so I surrender the whole thing to you.” And I said that same little simple prayer, “God use me however you want.”
And then the craziest thing happened. Right after I prayed, I went outside, and met the people with whom I would begin the RICE movement. Things kept moving, and soon I received a call from the Lord to be an evangelist and preacher.
Your story is going to encourage a lot of young people who are seeking God for purpose. By the way, what happened with your friend Dave?
This is a really interesting story. Fast forward about 20 years, and that same tall skinny white guy and I became best of friends. We spoke at each other’s 21st birthday parties, we asked each other to be in our bridal parties, and then Dave left Australia. He has spent the bulk of his life serving the least-reached people, and translating the Bible exactly where God said he would, with his family. He’s a hero of mine.
“That’s what we’re trying to do through the RICE movement – give young people a vision that catalyzes them to live lives of purpose.”
He’s helped build teams to serve more than 100 languages, that comprise more than 100 million speakers, most of whom previously didn’t have access to the Bible. He has 350 staff under him, and this is all because Dave decided to go and serve, alongside and under national leaders, to reach those who need the gospel. He’s had way more influence in the Kingdom than me or anyone else I know, and he’s the same age as me!
A little kicker at the end of the story is about his results. Remember that I thought he just didn’t care about school and probably will get poor grades? Well, you only need to score a 50 to get into the arts program, where you can major in linguistics. Dave got 99.95%, topped almost everybody in the state, well beyond my mark, and yet he gave that up – something which would’ve been every Asian kid’s dream. He enrolled in Arts and got linguistics under his belt as that served the call. He could’ve gone into medicine or law or any other degree. He wanted none of the other courses, but instead decided to follow the Lord’s calling.
That’s what we’re trying to do through the RICE movement – give young people a vision that catalyzes them to live lives of purpose.
Steve Chong is the founding leader and director of the RICE Movement and he loves seeing how God is raising up the next generation of young people to come to know Jesus and be renewed in their faith. He is married to Naomi and they have two boys and two girls all under the age of 12.
Part one of this conversation with Steve can be found here.