As a Korean-American church was about to purchase a new building, its members raised a question about the future of the church. Some members believed that the church, along with other Korean-American churches, would shrink in two or three decades because their children would prefer non-Korean, English-speaking churches.
This incident happened 25 years ago during my first pastoral internship in Connecticut. The projection was right – at least partially. Today, many second-generation and next-generation members have left their parents’ churches. However, instead of declining, many Korean-American churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have thrived. Most important of all, they still remain as predominantly Korean-speaking churches.
Early Korean-American church leaders underestimated the unique social and cultural role engraved in their existence. Over the years, they have provided various services that immigrant communities needed. In early days, these services ranged from picking up new immigrants from airports to helping them to get driver’s licenses and social security cards. Church volunteers willingly offered their help. Although a lot of energy and time were invested, the approach was fruitful. After receiving a warm welcome in a place so far from their homeland, many non-believing Korean immigrants decided to attend the church and convert to Christianity. Today there are about 4,000 Korean-American churches in the United States. In the PC(USA), we have over 400 churches with 50,000 members. A few of them have even grown into megachurches, although they are concentrated in major coastal cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia and Miami, they are geographically scattered in almost every state.
The outside appearance of Korean-American churches can be deceptive for two reasons. First, many Korean-American churches have the resemblance of their counterpart churches in the community but, in reality, their ministry concerns and priorities are very different from other churches because they continue to minister to immigrants. Today, the need to address the concerns of the immigrant community has become a more urgent and pressing issue of Korean-American churches. Since 2008, the United States allowed Korean nationalities to freely enter the country by issuing a visitor’s visa at the airport. With this change, the number of permanent immigrants has declined. On the other hand, Korean-American churches have experienced a sudden surge of short-term visitors. In 2007, about 20 first-generation PC(USA) teaching elders met in Phoenix to evaluate and prepare for the outcome of the change. This Korean-American Ministry Consultation was initiated and funded by the Korean ministry office in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Even with such preparation, once the change took place, the adjustment has been difficult.
The increased presence of temporary visitors helps draw existing Korean-American church members closer to their homeland. Visitors introduce the latest perspectives and trends to once-static Korean-American communities. Recently, this effect has been further amplified with the introduction of smartphones that allow church members to access all forms of media outlets in South Korea. Instead of assimilating to the mainstream American culture, Korean-American churches have become more Korean than ever. Some churches even created a Korean-speaking Sunday school in parallel with an English-speaking one. Korean-American churches have become bona fide postmodern glocalized (having both local and global considerations) communities.
Another factor that sets apart Korean-American churches from other denominational churches is the time bubble that exists in the church. At a regional Korean-American leadership conference, a white minister was invited to be a guest speaker. After sitting through an opening worship service, he asked me why Korean-Americans sang hymns from early 1900s. The unified Korean hymn book that all Korean churches use, whether they are here in the U.S. or in South Korea, was complied with the hymns brought by the missionaries from the U.S. in that time period. This makes all Korean churches exist in an anachronistic bubble that was created by the missionaries, exemplified not only by their hymnal, but also in their theological views and orientations. The situation became more complicated as the immigrants founded their churches in the U.S. They created a time bubble of their own. Immigrants often keep the worldview and values of the time they left their homeland. As a result, many Korean-American churches have a contemporary outward appearance, but the members still hold on to the ethical norms and social values of the time they left Korea. This is another deceptive dimension of Korean American churches that is often overlooked by many outsiders.
The time bubble explains why many second- and next-generation Korean-Americans left the churches of our denomination. The so-called “silent exodus” of the second generation is, in our case, about the outflux of many second-generation Korean-Americans to more conservative churches. When the second-generation members leave their home church for college or work, many choose more conservative churches of other denominations. Interestingly, many Korean-American Christians, regardless of their language preference, still gather together across denominations. However, second-generation members who decide to stay in the PC(USA) often seem overly critical with the Korean-American churches in which they grew up and accuse them of not embracing current ethical and theological stands of the denomination. In time, Korean-American churches will change and perhaps even embrace some of the denominational issues, but now they have to be understood and embraced with their unique historical and cultural background as immigrant churches.
The most pressing issue of Korean-American churches is the training of the next generation of leaders who will understand and continue to address the unique needs of Korean-American immigrants. As our immigration policy changes, they have to find a way to adapt. For instance, with recent changes in national policy, many Korean-American churches in larger cities are mobilized to provide sanctuary for Korean immigrants who they perceive are unreasonably targeted for deportations. Often, these churches feel presbyteries overlook this concern.
Facing these challenges, Korean churches in our denomination find their own way to connect and develop both ordained and lay leadership. They organized the National Council of Korean Presbyterian Church (NCKPC) in 1972. Once a year, NCKPC organizes a national conference to address the concerns of Korean American churches within the denomination. This year, the meeting took place in Seoul, South Korea, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The annual conference is supplemented by smaller specialized gatherings for campus ministry, multiethnic family ministry, female pastors, lay leadership, retired pastors and young pastors. These gatherings have been vital to ensure the future of Korean-American churches within our denomination. Moreover, there are many regional continuing education programs that function as grassroots gatherings for NCKPC. Although the majority of these programs are internally funded, more strategic and long-term funding from the denomination will bring more fruitful outcomes and changes.
Seeing Korean-American churches as a simple racial-ethnic church will continue to promote misunderstanding. The recent decision by the 222nd General Assembly to not form a Korean language presbytery clearly shows how our national church fails to understand real issues of Korean American churches. Facing ever more complicated situations and problems of the Korean-American immigrant community, not only do Korean-American churches (whether Korean or English speaking) need informal gatherings for mutual support and training, but also official communication channels to the denomination to resolve their issues and bring their concerns to the whole church. Recent statistics show more next-generation Korean-Americans are returning to their Korean constituency. Unless we address their spiritual needs, we may not be able to embrace their return. They may choose Korean-American churches in other denominations.
Korean-American churches may function more like their African-American counterparts by continually addressing their specific racial-ethnic issues within in a larger social and political landscape. However, unlike other racial-ethnic congregations, Korean-American churches have increasing ties to their homeland that make them somewhat unique. Korean-American churches may continue to use the Korean language as their primary language. Generational differences also exist. For example, the session may gradually adopt English to include the next-generation leadership, while current church members may continue to insist on speaking Korean. Nevertheless, in a world where globalization has become a new norm, Korean-American churches may remain as another unique addition to the diversity and inclusiveness that our denomination values, continuing their unique contribution to the mission of the church as a whole.
Sanghyun James Lee is pastor of Duraleigh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.