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Josiah Chung: Passing on Faith to New Generations

Many immigrant churches struggle to retain the next generation, especially because of language barriers and cultural differences. Pastor Josiah Chung is finding solutions that apply across cultures to many kinds of churches.

Josiah Chung is a Korean American church planter and pastor of Living Water Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In this edited conversation, he describes generational differences among Korean Christians and the discoveries that any church can use to pass on faith to future generations.

North American Christians with Asian roots often talk about “the 1.5 generation” or a “third-culture” category. What do these and similar terms mean?

I’ll answer this in terms of Koreans. In trying to define a social phenomenon, we are always looking back and looking ahead, so I foresee these terms changing. But for now, we talk about:

  • 1.5 generation: These people were born in Korea, immigrated as youth, and are still able to communicate in Korean. They have roots in their native country but have spent most of their life in their new country. They have a great affinity culturally—in language, behavior, and attitudes—to the country of their birth.
  • Second generation: This group was born in their new country or came to it when they were very young. They’ve grown up in the new culture but are still somehow tied to Korean culture.
  • Third culture kids (TCK), also known as cross-cultural kids (CCK): In this group, the nuclear family is rooted in Korea. But for missionary or business reasons, the family is transplanted into another culture. The overall TCK or CCK identity is multinational, because the lines of the transplanted native culture constantly intersect with other cultures, especially for those who move to yet another country to attend college.

Where do you fit into those categories?

I identify as TCK because my parents were born in Korea before the nation was divided. My father’s family was from what is now called North Korea. They immigrated to Argentina and after three years moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My mom also immigrated from Korea to marry my dad. I was born in Toronto and naturalized in Canada. Then my dad moved us to New Jersey, and I became an American citizen. I am proficient enough in Korean to converse, but I can read and write better in Spanish than in Korean—and my first language is English.

In what ways is your congregation diverse?

We have a mix of TCKs, mostly missionary kids; second-generation Korean Americans raised in the US; and some 1.5 people. We also have second-generation and TCK people from the Philippines as well as Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, students from India, and a few whites and Latinos.

What does Living Water CRC hold on to from your Korean Christian worship heritage—and what do you let go?

To create a space for all our different cultures and communities, we have moved away from many things that Korean immigrant churches treasure. We share everything in English, not Korean. We sing songs and hymns more contemporary and relevant to those living in America. We try to be more accommodating to those who are different from us.

But we still stress the Korean heritage of continuing together in prayer. Many Korean immigrant churches meet daily for early morning prayer. They follow a “joining the voices” tradition of everyone praying their own prayers out loud at the same time. When I was a kid, we only prayed that way when instructed to. But as we got older, we prayed that way in youth group. One benefit of that method is to recognize that God still hears us as individuals within the great cloud of witnesses.

At Living Water, we have weekly prayer meetings and use many prayer formats, including praying all together at once. In our Sunday worship, we have a congregational prayer offered by one person. We haven’t used the joining voices mode very much in our corporate worship, because not everyone here was raised in that culture.

We also retain the Asian value of seeing the family and community as more important than the individual. At Living Water, we build community through small groups. We have about 70 to 75 worshipers a week. About half take part in one of five small groups. We aim for fewer than 10 adults per group.

How do your parents feel about the ways that Living Water breaks with some Korean traditions?

My parents are late-bloomer missionaries. After retirement, they moved to Paraguay. My father now speaks Korean, English, Spanish, and an indigenous Paraguayan language. My parents are open to realizing that the Holy Spirit moves in different ways.

Why do so many immigrant children leave the church?

I grew up in a typical Korean American immigrant church, where adults worship in Korean and youth worship in English in another part of the building. It was great to be with my peers and to hear messages at my level. But as I grew up, I experienced greater separation between me and my faith formation and my parents and their faith formation. I knew that once I aged out of our congregation’s youth worship services, I would not feel I belonged worshiping in Korean with my parents.

What cultural taboos have you had to address at Living Water?

We don’t have any taboos, except for maybe not to be overly Korean. That means not talking in Korean when others are present who don’t understand the language. It means being mindful of cultural references. Right now there’s a lot going on in Korea with the impeachment of the president and people struggling to trust the government. If I reference that, I also make sure to talk about President Duterte in the Philippines and concerns in the US about politicians who blur the lines between truth and facts.

What is your church doing differently to retain children, youth, and young adults?

I’ve been so thankful for the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s (CRCNA) and Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s emphasis on having children and adults worship together in the same space. At Living Water, we sometimes have children do special music or read Scripture. We invite all baptized children to the communion table. Right now, we don’t have any children who are sixth-graders or older. We have a nursery/story time for preschoolers and kindergarteners. Kids in first through fifth grades start out in worship with the adults and then are dismissed for Sunday school and sharing faith stories.

How else is Living Water different from the church you grew up in?

We are a social media congregation, so we are used to adjusting to constant change. We don’t necessarily see being well dressed as essential to worship. Our generation is working to alleviate some unhealthy expectations that traditional congregations have for pastors and their families.

We think that hierarchical relationships in Korean culture need to ease up, especially the idea that if you haven’t reached a certain age, then you’re not fit to be a leader. At Living Water, we think women as well as men should be elders and deacons. At 36, I’m one of the old men in the congregation. Our only way forward is to raise up young leaders. In the next two years, we’ll need to have education on church polity so that our official status in the CRCNA will move from emerging to organized.

Also, most Korean immigrant churches are commuter churches, attracting people from all over the city because of their shared language and culture. At Living Water, we want to reinstate the idea of parish, neighborly love, and seeing the people who live near us as the ones we should share the gospel with. Growing up, I had friends of all backgrounds and faiths. But I didn’t have a way to integrate my faith life with everyday life. I couldn’t invite non-Koreans to my church because the Korean language and culture would create an extra hurdle for friends who didn’t know the gospel. It creates dissonance when church life doesn’t relate to the rest of life.

Can you say more about that?

I grew up with clear lines between what was considered kingdom or worldly, good or bad. But at Living Water we want to form faith that makes sense of life’s unity and wholeness. That’s why I am so happy to be in the Reformed tradition now. Perfect love casts out all fear. If we live in the truth of what Christ offers, we don’t need so much fear of the other and fear of change. Part of overcoming that fear is looking at our own racism. As Koreans, we’ve lived in a heritage of fear of others, maybe because of our history as a hermit kingdom isolated from the rest of the world. There's a fear that we will lose what is important—that we will become less—if we mix more with others not like us. But the gospel tells us that mixing with others will make us more of who we are.

Several of those differences and fears don’t seem specific to Korean language churches.

Not at all. They line up with many of the stories I’ve heard about generational differences in how Dutch Americans in the CRCNA have viewed language, formation, openness to change, and what’s appropriate or not in worship.


Josiah Chung will preach and lead a workshop at the 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Within the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Korean congregations are the fastest-growing group.