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Korean American Churches: From generation to generation

Why do so many Koreans convert to Christianity? And why is it so difficult to pass on this faith to children and grandchildren? A feature story exploring Korean American churches and how their faith is passed down from generation to generation.

Taken as a whole, only two percent of Asia is Christian. Yet half the people in South Korea profess Christ. Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, which seats 25,000 worshipers at a time, is among the world's largest congregations.

Introduced to the gospel by missionaries, Koreans now work as missionaries in 164 countries. Only the United States sends out more missionaries than Korea does.

Korean-speaking pastors in the U.S. are especially zealous, with the result that 75 percent of Korean Americans attend Protestant churches, and some of the remaining 25 percent are Catholic.

By affiliating with North American denominations-including Methodists, Southern Baptists, and Presbyterians-Korean American churches have boosted denominational rolls. The first Korean congregation in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) began in 1977 in Los Angeles. Now the CRC has 60 Korean congregations, and Korean Americans are the CRC's second-largest ethnic group.

No matter what denomination they join, Korean American churches and Christians bless fellow worshipers with their passion for prayer, discipleship, and outreach.

Yet Korean pastors in North America say that too many in the second generation are leaving the church. These leaders pray that worship renewal-and re-assessing cultural heritage-will make the difference in whether children and grandchildren accept their parents' faith.

Praising God for tremendous growth

In the late 1700s, missionary priests rejoiced over the first convert from Korea. Protestant missionaries arrived a century later. Horace Underwood, the first Presbyterian missionary to Korea, described his first decade of work there as "like a fairy tale" or a "chapter from the Acts of the Apostles."

The contrast between conversions in Korea, as compared to elsewhere in Asia, such as Japan, astonished the world. The 1913 Reformed Missionary Conference called it "a great wonder in our century."

Certainly prayer helped fuel this growth. Gathering for early morning prayer has been a constant among Korean Christians ever since the Great Revival of 1907, also known as the Korean Pentecost. Today, in Korea, Australia, Canada, the United States, and probably wherever Korean Christians live, believers still gather around dawn to pray.

At Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Korean students get together at 6 a.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. on Saturdays. Many also attend dawn prayer meetings on Sundays at their churches-before church school and Sunday worship.

Men and women filter in, some yawning and rubbing their eyes. They choose seats scattered throughout the seminary auditorium. Every three days a different seminarian leads a song and responsive Bible reading and preaches a substantial sermon, all in Korean.

Then someone turns on a worship music CD, turns off the lights, and non-Korean visitors suddenly understand why everyone has been sitting so far apart from each other.

Everybody prays out once. Some kneel, others rock in their seats. They whisper, speak, groan, weep, sing, pour out their joys and sorrows to God. People leave as they choose, but some pray for half an hour or more.

"Korean Christians normally cry and moan for prayer time. Some friends have serious problems of finance and health. So they pray God for solving the problem," explains Kyung Min An, a masters of theology student who also heads the seminary's Korean student association and is assistant pastor at Korean Grace CRC.

Praying out loud at once, sometimes called a "concert of prayer," is common among Korean Christians. Church members often covenant to meet each morning for a month to pray about a specific goal, such as affording a new church building. Many worship services include a shorter concert of prayer.

There's another reason for Korean conversions, too, according to many experts. Along with accepting the faith of Western missionaries, many Koreans accepted the missionaries' conflation of Christianity with Western culture. After World War II, and especially since South Korea has entered the global marketplace, conversions have accelerated.

"Korean Christians became importers and admirers of the Western culture and led a long process of westernization, which has contributed to making Korea a modern industrial country but also to secularizing it in many ways. Thus, the western materialism and individualism of technological culture have secularized Korean mind as well as Korean church," Jung Suck Rhee says in his dissertation, Secularization and Sanctification. A former pastor, Rhee teaches systematic theology and Korean ecclesiology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Mourning the silent exodus

Even more Koreans in North America choose Christianity than do those who remain in Korea. Immigrant churches are packed with adults who speak only Korean and led by pastors who speak only or mostly Korean.

Across denominations in Korean North American churches, parents and children worship separately. Preschool through college age services are often in English. Whether they are "1.5" (raised here) or second generation (born here), the kids have more chances to learn English, and their parents want them to use English so they excel in school and work.

During college, young Koreans sometimes cluster in Korean or Asian American campus ministries, grateful for peers who understand their conflict with parents who want them to the achieve the American dream yet retain their Korean heritage.

However, few Korean Americans who graduate from college and find good jobs end up joining their parents in the pews.

"The second generation can't speak Korean very well. They see U.S. culture as 'higher' than Korean culture, so they focus on doing well in English. With good English, they can go anywhere," says Jin So Yoo, pastor of All Nations CRC in metro Los Angeles.

All Nations' separate Sunday worship services draw about 2,000 Korean-speaking adults, 50 Spanish-speaking people, and 100 second-generation Korean Americans. It also has extensive programs for children and youth.

Since the 1990s, pastors, scholars, and journalists have been speaking, studying, and writing about the "silent exodus" from Korean churches in North America.

Estimates of second generation Koreans leaving the church vary from 55 to 90 percent, depending on whether you count those who leave Korean-language churches but join Anglo or multiethnic churches, those who still call themselves Christian but don't act on it, or those who completely leave church and faith behind.

Several factors fuel the silent exodus: scarce training in North America for Korean-speaking pastors; few bilingual youth pastors; churches' perception that they can afford only to focus on first generation needs; resistance to worship changes; disagreement over the pastor's role.

Overcoming language barriers

But pastors are finding new ways to renew worship and reach the next generation.

Immigrant congregations are agreeing to become bilingual, all the more possible because, across denominations, many already use the Come, Let Us Worship, a Korean-English hymnal that comes in Methodist and Presbyterian versions.

Some churches, such as Korean Grace CRC in Wyoming, Michigan, offer headphones and simultaneous translation so that worshipers who don't speak Korean can understand much of the service.

"We're starting to put English translations on the screen for main points of the service, especially the sermon. It's more welcoming to visitors and English-speaking spouses," says Hyuk Seonwoo, pastor of Zion Korean United Methodist Church in Warwick, Rhode Island.

Seonwoo spent 18 months preparing his congregation to accept the practice of weekly communion. 

"At first church members felt that weekly communion was less holy." But now, he said, "People keep telling that they have a deep sense of reverence."

The whole church-both children and youth, who worship downstairs in English, and adults, who worship upstairs in Korean-join for weekly Holy Communion. They use both languages for songs and liturgy, and Seonwoo encourages groups of any age and arrangement to provide special music in the language of their choice.

Seonwoo says he's become especially interested in liturgical symbols and actions that speak wordlessly. "Even without words, by celebrating Holy Communion, people can see and experience that we are one body of Christ-across generations, across cultures, across languages," he says.

Developing a heart for mission and worship

When Jin So Yoo immigrated to metro Los Angeles in 1996 to head the U.S. branch of Tyrannus Hall, a Korean Christian publishing house, he automatically became pastor of All Nations, a small Hispanic congregation.

He explains that because many Koreans first immigrate to South America, as a stepping stone to the U.S., they eventually speak Korean, Spanish, and English. Years ago, his trilingual predecessor invited neighbors to a bulgogi (Korean BBQ) picnic. Hispanic picnickers liked the man's preaching and asked him to start a church. They wrote into their bylaws that their pastor would be the leader of the L.A. publishing house. That's how Yoo became pastor of people whose language he couldn't speak.

Fortunately, other trilingual Koreans stepped in. Meanwhile, against his original intentions, Yoo started a Korean congregation at All Nations. "People asked me to and God gave me his word, Mark 6:34, about Jesus having sympathy for sheep without a shepherd.

"Korean immigrant churches have a lot of issues with visionary leadership and spirituality. They move from church to church. In Bible studies and worship services, I emphasize inner healing, mission, and discipleship programs for all ages," Yoo says.

All Nations focuses on vital worship, great praise music, a strong message, and programs beyond just services and fellowship.

"Every service I and the whole congregation cry. We feel God's love. We feel grateful to God to find a community. Immigrant people have the American dream, so they come to the U.S. But actual life is so boring. They just do their small businesses, work so many hours, and lose their sense of meaning.

"I put to them that a church without vision is only a theater. Worship is our resource for power and energy. Inner healing helps us restore and recover the image of God. Discipleship programs, like Quiet Time or Exploring the Bible, prepare us to think about why God gave us the name of All Nations," Yoo says.

He inspires the first generation to reinterpret their cultural gap experiences as preparing them to be a bridge to other people. He challenges the second generation to use their language skills to witness.

All Nations CRC's many outreaches include All Nations Seminary in Juarez, Mexico, an outreach to pastoral candidates from several kinds of churches.

Yoo envisions that All Nations' English congregation, called The Journey, "will minister not just to second-generation Korean Americans but to all our neighbors." Already about one-eighth of English-speaking worshipers are Caucasian.

Pastor Charles Kim says that postmodern experience is more important than Korean culture in shaping worship at The Journey. That's partly because they want to be multiethnic and also because members, most of them in their 20s and 30s, left their parents' churches.

"Nothing wrong with first generation worship habits, but we are attempting to do whatever we can to help the emerging generation think, feel, and act outside the box of Korean-Americanness.

"Typically Korean people attend Korean churches, hire Korean pastors, watch Korean TV, listen to Korean radio. They're never given a chance to explore beyond their heritage. I live in America now. Therefore my neighbors are not just Korean people or people in Korea. They include many ethnic groups," Kim says.

Reaching any unchurched people or second-generation Korean Americans, he adds, requires breaking through the "'been there, done that' attitude to provide a new identity in Christ."   

Learn More

Plan a visit to the very large Young Nak Presbyterian, the next time you're in Los Angeles. About 95 percent of Koreans in the U.S. and Canada live in large metropolitan areas, so that's where you'll find Korean churches, many with English speaking ministries (ESM).

Read Jung Suck Rhee's book Secularization and Sanctification calls Korean churches "out of their self-imposed isolation" and into a deeper understanding of sanctification.

Christianity Daily online publishes the latest Korean Christian news, available in English and Korean. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has multiple worship resources in Korean and (in English). 

Ethnic Harvest has Korean and Korean American ministry resources. The Book of Common Prayer is available in a Korean/English edition.

Read books about Asian American culture and faith:

Korean American teens struggle with identity. Some second generation Koreans prefer multiethnic churches like Newsong Church in Irvine, California. But many Koreans in North America, whether Protestant, college age, or Catholic, find more comfort together than in pan Asian or more diverse worship settings.

Koreans live in 180 countries outside Korea. To learn more about Koreans in North America, visit theKorean American Museum in Los Angeles, explore educational or cultural networks, browse D.J. Chuang's leadership resources, or order a special issue of Amerasia Journal on "What Does It Mean to Be Korean Today?"

Korean Churches for Community Development helps people build businesses, become homeowners, and improve health. It offers excellent studies on issues such as strengthening Korean marriages

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church council, missions, education, or worship committee meeting. These questions will get members talking:

•  What percent of the young people who grow up in your congregation remain in your church or join another church? How do you keep track of them?

•  What is the "glue" that holds generations together in your church? What issues drive people apart?

•  Consider reading Singing the Lord's Song in a New Land: Korean American Practices of Faith together. Which practice would you most like to introduce in your church? How would you go about it?

•  In what ways might your church reach out to or cooperate with unchurched Koreans in your community, Koreans in your church (especially college students), or Korean churches in your area? 

Share Your Wisdom

Read this letter of response from Hyuk Seonwoo, pastor of Zion Korean United Methodist Church, for reflections and clarfications about this article. The letter is posted at our Worship Weblog, and we invite you to submit your own reply to be posted there if you wish. 

What is the best way you've found to learn from or minister with and to Koreans-or, if you're Korean, share your faith practices with others?

•  If your church has a specific ministry with Koreans or Korean Americans, what advice can you share with other churches on retaining the second generation?

•  If your church is mainly Korean, what are the best ways you've found to reach out to other cultures?

•  Can you suggest sources for software, projection technology, translation headphones, print resources, or visual-but-wordless aids that help your members worship in more than one language?