Once a month, Nick Konkoli heads to Living Water Tea House in Chicago’s Little Italy to host a free tea appreciation event. During the two-hour “Communitea” sessions, Konkoli and others pour two to five types of fragrant tea into delicate teacups for guests, explaining each one’s origins and components.
The tea shop’s founder, Jiang Shaolong, launched Living Water in 2020 with just this kind of event in mind. The pastor of a Chinese church, Jiang hoped to provide a social space and reach out to Chinese students and young professionals in the area. The teahouse began in 2015 in a converted storage room at his church and soon became a sort of community center that demanded a larger, more public venue.
Jiang met Konkoli more than a year ago, and the two built a friendship around their shared interests in tea, music, and photography. Konkoli, who is not a Christian, was not fazed to be operating in a ministry space.
“It wasn’t a shock when he told me he was a pastor,” Konkoli said. “Anyone who wants to be a pastor wants to create community.”
Despite the hot tea of Konkoli’s tastings, Living Water mostly sells cold bubble tea. Jiang operates the shop as an Instagram-worthy extension of his church, a space to facilitate spiritual conversations. He designed it to be similar to other bubble tea shops that have become popular in US cities with large Asian populations. It has warm lighting, minimalist decor, and a gallery wall displaying exquisitely handmade teaware. Its menu offers a wide range of flavors like osmanthus oolong milk tea and chrysanthemum pu-erh tea.
The shop exemplifies the ways ministries are using bubble tea to open doors for evangelism in the United States and Canada. From Toronto to Chicago to New York, Asian church leaders are sitting down with young adults, in particular, over cups of the colorful beverage.
Bubble tea, or “boba” tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and gets its name from the round, black tapioca balls that are added to the flavored, sweetened, tea-based drink. Drinks may be fruity—mango or peach with black tea, for instance—or they may be richer, incorporating chocolate or hazelnut. The beverage has grown rapidly in popularity around the world and is projected by Allied Market Research to be a $4 billion industry by 2027.
While in North American church circles, the phrase “grab a cup of coffee” is nearly synonymous with sitting down for a spiritual talk, Asian ministry leaders say their communities need something different: a cup of tea. And not just any tea. Traditional hot tea may appeal to older generations, but millennials and Gen Z favor bubble tea.
Jiang, who graduated from North Park Theological Seminary and leads the Chinese congregation at New Life Community Church (NLCC) in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, appreciates traditional Chinese tea with no sugar or milk. On a bright Sunday afternoon last June, NLCC’s English and Chinese congregations held a joint worship service in a park. Jiang and the church’s campus pastor, Luke Dudenhofer, preached the sermon together while sitting at a small table where two cups of fragrant Chinese tea had been served. “Tea is a connector of humanity,” Dudenhofer said.
But Jiang wanted to figure out how to serve the Chinese students and young professionals around him. He wasn’t interested in joining the third-wave coffee shop movement, where churches set up hip coffee joints as places to share the gospel. He wanted to make bubble tea.
It didn’t take him long to master making the tea. Jiang said his mother owned a high-end hotel in China, and she passed on to him her gifts for cooking, tea culture, and hospitality. He designed every drink on Living Water’s menu.
Jiang is a tea history enthusiast as well. He loves to talk about the encounter ancient Japanese tea culture had with Christianity: In the 16th century, Japan’s most famous tea master, Sen no Rikyū, may have been significantly influenced by the Catholicism introduced to Japan by Jesuit missionaries. The aesthetics and philosophy of tea ceremony that he developed incorporate multiple elements inspired by Catholic rituals. Rikyū’s seven disciples built further on his chanoyu, or “Way of Tea,” and two of them, along with possibly Rikyū’s wife and daughters, converted to Catholicism.
Likewise, tea has been at the heart of Chinese culture for centuries. Chinese tea practices have been designated by the United Nations as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” China has promoted traditional hot tea as a symbol of nationalism in an era when Shanghai has more coffee shops than any city in the world. (In contrast to Chinese tea, an online prodemocracy movement born from the 2019 Hong Kong protests branded itself the Milk Tea Alliance.)
“Some might think that having tea is old-fashioned, but a lot of people are still into it in China and abroad,” Jiang said. “In China, people meet at a teahouse every day to share stories and swap resources.”
Tea is traditionally considered one of the seven basic grocery items of Chinese life (along with rice, salt, oil, firewood, soy sauce, and vinegar). Chinese cities are dotted with old-style teahouses where retired people chat, listen to folk storytelling, and play mahjong, and where businesspeople negotiate deals over snacks and cups of hot tea. And while bubble tea dominates among China’s youth, some craft teahouses are finding ways to make hot tea hip again.
To appreciate the centrality of tea to ministry in China, consider the story of pastor Wang Yi.
Wang, a legal scholar and well-known internet writer, befriended a Chinese American evangelist online and met with him in a teahouse in the southwestern city of Chengdu. Wang later converted to Christianity and went on to become an influential pastor and a Christian celebrity in Western media. Eventually, he invited the evangelist to a packed Chengdu teahouse to give a public talk on science and Christianity.
Wang’s congregation, the Early Rain Covenant Church, was constantly harassed by police. They often intimidated Wang by summoning him to he cha, or to “have a cup of tea” with them. At the end of 2019, Wang was sentenced to nine years in prison, and the government forced the church building to close in 2018. Years later, some church members tried to gather for Sunday worship at a teahouse and were harassed when the teahouse was raided by police.
Few things at Living Water Tea House are overtly Christian, apart from its name. But even that, Jiang said, “is a natural bridge between Christianity and Chinese culture.”
“Living water” is not only a biblical reference from Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman by the well. In a classic poem, Song Dynasty (12th century) philosopher and poet Zhu Xi used “living water” as a metaphor for renewing the mind: “How can the canal be so clear and fresh? Because it has living water from the source.”
Jiang’s goal for the tea shop is unapologetically evangelical. He aims to create a “middle ground” for young Chinese immigrants who might feel uncomfortable going to church. It’s why he decided on a location near the University of Illinois Chicago. (He hopes to eventually add a location in the suburb of Naperville.) Early this year, he closed the shop temporarily to install equipment to help make bubble tea and free him to do more ministry.
Living Water hosts Gen Z-friendly events like book clubs and live synthesized music performances. The shop is one of various venues for a weekly YouTube livestream, “All Things Tea House,” in which young Chinese students and professionals, both Christian and non-Christian, converse on topics ranging from women’s rights in China to toxic masculinity in Chinese churches to Christianity and Chinese culture to gun violence in the United States.
For Lucy Liu, a Beijing native who attended NLCC while working as a data analyst in Chicago, the livestreams and book clubs are a refreshing change from the culture of many Chinese churches where, she said, simply discussing ideas such as “women’s rights can be regarded as ‘leftist and liberal.’”
She has found them especially helpful in formulating her identity as a Chinese Christian woman.
“As a Chinese woman, I’m expected to sacrifice for my family and put my husband first,” she said. “As a Christian woman, I want to live out my faith and not lose myself. I’m getting married soon, but I am not going to give myself up. I want to honor both God and family at the same time.”
Approximately 200–300 people tune in to the livestreams, and hot-button topics can send viewership to more than 1,000.
Jiang, however, is not interested in increasing its audience: “Rather than holding a successful, well-received show, we want to open a window into real life, to expose our wounds and challenges, and remember the grace of God in day-to-day life. We never intended for this livestream to be a popular success. It will always contain awkward and unprepared conversations, because that’s life.”
Dudenhofer said Jiang’s organic online approach reflects a broader attitude toward church that is more attractive to younger Chinese seekers. “Most Chinese churches are very hierarchical, and things are slow to change there,” Dudenhofer said. “But to Shaolong, church should be more flexible and adapt to the next generation. I love his heart for ministry.”
Jiang and Dudenhofer are in good company. Other ministry leaders across North America use bubble tea and Chinese tea culture to evangelize.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus minister Stephan Teng created “Boba Jesus” in 2019 to make space for conversations about faith and life on campus. The cartoon rendering of a bearded, robed Jesus holding a cup of bubble tea came out of a T-shirt contest at Cornell University, where Teng wanted to develop an outreach resource that would communicate the Good News to Asian American students. He set up booths, gave away stickers and bubble tea, and posed the thought to those who approached him, “If Jesus wanted to have bubble tea with you, what question would you ask him?”
Besides appealing to Asian Americans, Boba Jesus has also “opened up conversations” with international students from China, Indonesia, and Mongolia, Teng said.
Teng, who moved to Indiana University in 2022, says campus ministers at other schools have asked to use Boba Jesus. He also started an online store where people can buy T-shirts and hoodies featuring the tea-sipping, brown-skinned Christ.
Then there is Crimson Teas, a teahouse in Toronto’s bustling Chinatown district. Its founder, Phillip Chan, opened it in 2016 after reading that certain types of tea, such as pu-erh and black tea, help reduce the risk of kidney failure and other diseases. To that end, Chan does not put sugar in any of his teas or sell bubble tea.
But Chan’s larger purpose is to operate the shop as a form of ministry. Crimson Teas hosted weekly church services from 2016 to 2020, until the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed the gatherings.
On Sundays at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., members of Christ the King Anglican Church congregated at the restaurant, sang worship songs, and took Communion as people walked past and peered curiously through the teahouse’s front windows.
“We had quite a lot of interest among people who would not call themselves Christian,” said Marion Karasiuk, who was a deacon at the time. By her estimate, approximately half of the congregation at the time was of Asian descent, many of them international students at the nearby University of Toronto.
Kee Hua Soo, a Chinese Singaporean who attended church at Crimson Teas before moving away, said tea was a key factor in attracting other Asians to check out the teahouse: “For them, tea is a taste of home. It provided a sense of comfort. It was like a home away from home.”
Kee attributes the inviting atmosphere to the owner. “Phillip did not hide his faith. That is outreach in itself,” Kee said. “He would say, ‘If you want to find out more, we have a church service here on Sunday.’”
Meeting at a tea shop to talk about God, Kee said, is a lot less intimidating than going to church.
“Phillip didn’t push the gospel, but it was a space that people felt free to ask questions about the gospel,” he said. “There were folks who were not Christian that were open enough to attend service once or twice.”
For ministers like Jiang, outreach through bubble tea is about more than just catering to the tastes of youth. Younger, more educated Chinese students and professionals in the United States have markedly different worldviews than the immigrants of earlier generations. Evangelism efforts, in his view, must adapt.
“How do we introduce church to the modern generation?” Jiang said. “The Logos, or Word of God, is the same. How it’s incarnated is something we should figure out.”
There were ways to do ministry with the “Tiananmen generation,” which came to America carrying broken hearts and political disillusionment after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. They were often poor students who relied on university scholarships and worked in Chinese restaurants. They appreciated Chinese churches’ help with things like free food before Bible studies or after Sunday worship. They were mostly shaped by materialistic atheism and scientism, so they wanted to debate Christians on subjects such as evolution and creation.
But today’s young Chinese students mostly come from well-off families. They don’t need the church to give them rides or used furniture. They can pay their own way at Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, and karaoke bars, and they would probably choose nightlife with friends over a Friday night Bible study. They are more postmodern and less interested in arguing with Christians about whether Christianity conflicts with science.
Many leaders in diaspora Chinese churches today are from the Tiananmen generation. They feel the generation gap, but few know how to bridge it and bring Gen Z to Christ, Jiang said.
The rise of modern nationalism in China has also made the task more difficult. “The Chinese government has successfully brainwashed the younger generation to believe that Christianity is the weapon of the West,” Jiang said. “That’s one of the major reasons why it’s become so hard to invite these young people to church.”
At the same time, Jiang sees Gen Z’s spiritual scarcity and need for faith. “They feel unsatisfied with materialism, nationalism, and technological developments,” he said. “Many of them experience mental health challenges like depression and bipolar disorder. Their spiritual needs have become deeper and more obvious.”
Living Water hopes to address these needs in creative ways. Jiang calls the teahouse and his livestreaming approach “multidimensional ministry.” He envisions young Chinese people experiencing a spiritual awakening through a shared appreciation for art, beauty, and music, as well as through the pursuit of social justice and racial equity in a space they feel to be safe and warm.
“At Living Water, people can find Christians to talk to, for whom there are no disrespectful questions,” Dudenhofer observed. “They can say, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ Relationships are key for the younger generation. They don’t want to be your project. They don’t want you to convert them. They want a friend.”
Liu agreed. “There is definitely more interest in attending the livestream conversations than attending church,” she said. “I knew someone who was not interested in going to church, but when she heard about the conversation we planned to have on communism and women’s rights, she was keen to attend.”
Jiang’s primary focus for the tea shop is not to make a profit but to create a seeker-friendly environment. He hopes to someday bring the Living Water model to other university campuses, and that college students who graduate and leave Chicago will take with them the practice of pouring tea and conversing about faith with non-Christians.
“This teahouse is like a temple,” he said. “The ministry of God can happen anywhere. We just need to cooperate with God and work in community.”
And for Jiang, part of serving in the temple is a commitment to being a skillful tea master. He believes that Christians should be professional—if God calls them to make tea, they should make delicious, excellent tea.
“Whatever you do, you carry a light,” he said. “The aroma of Christ is in your products, service, and environment, and it will naturally make people wonder about Jesus.”
Isabel Ong is CT’s associate Asia editor. Sean Cheng is CT’s Asia editor.
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