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The Typical Korean Church Story

If you've seen one chick-flick, you've seen them all. Reason? They all follow the same story. Guy gets girl. Guy loses girl. Guy gets girl. The end. That's how chick-flicks work. Sure the details and characters may vary, but they all follow the same basic narrative.

What's funny is that Korean churches work the same way. What I mean is that if you grew up in a Korean church, you probably share a lot of similar experiences with another person who grew up in a different Korean church. For example:

Your church probably owned a white van. It was either Presbyterian or Pentecostal. Inside your church were old-school pews, banners with flowers and angry-looking Korean font slapped across it. There's a crystal-cathedral-looking pulpit on stage. The smell of Korean food permeated the kitchen after service. And most likely there was a local 7-11 nearby for you to get snacks after youth service.

But it's not just the similar features that link you together. Your relationship with the church looks similar too. Because like chick-flicks, people who grow up in Korean churches share the same story.

The Korean Church Narrative

Korean churches tend to have the same system that every kid goes through. If you went through this system, your church story probably began at a VBS camp or when you were invited by a friend to youth group. Though the church was ghetto, you appreciated the people and decided to stay.

For most Koreans, youth group was a great time where you grew spiritually. Sure your youth pastor was leaving (again), but that's okay because you were about to graduate high school - and that meant you were leaving youth group too.

Unfortunately, things are different in the "EM" (English Ministry). The energy is gone. The people are unfamiliar. A lot of your friends left. And the EM pastor is interesting. He either speaks broken English or he's a new guy who made all these promises that you never saw pan out because God soon "called him" to serve at another church.

The Dilemma
This is usually where the dilemma begins. You "grew" in this church but it now feels different from your youth group days. So what do you do? You go back to youth group - this time as a volunteer. Or you volunteer as a children's Sunday school teacher. No more EM. No more broken-English sermons. No more pastors coming and going. You feel purposeful serving the kids. So your passion for church returns.

Unfortunately these good times don't last. Your youth kids eventually grow up and leave. Your fellow youth staffers leave too. And this happens around the time you begin to feel strange. After all, you've been serving but not growing. Sure it's nice ministering to kids - but who's ministering to you? Who's helping you cope with school, dating, and career choices?

It doesn't help that your friends who left seem to be "thriving" in their new churches or parachurches. So you consider leaving too. After all, serving in youth feels like a grind now. And you've detached yourself so much from the EM that it feels like a different church. But most of all, you're just not growing. So you want to leave.

"You Can't Leave"
However this isn't where the story ends. Most people feel guilty leaving their small Korean church. "How can I leave my home church?" "Who will minister to these kids?" "Where would I even go?" It doesn't help that your parents and pastor and ministry leaders all guilt-trip you about your situation.

So you stay and stick it out. Ride-together-die-together mentality. "It sucks now but maybe I can change things around here." It helps that there's VBS in the summer. You serve the kids and are reminded of why you're sticking around. So you're ready to make changes.

But soon you realize the changes never come. Your church situation is the same: No community, no friends, no pastor, no vision. You're just playing church. This is when your soul begins to slowly wither away. So eventually you leave. The decision isn't as difficult this time though because you don't really care as much.

Or maybe you stay and become one of those lifers at your church who go on to become the youth pastor or end up being that random older guy who plays guitar during youth service. Either way, your church-life has changed and yet your story is so familiar.

From my experience, this tends to be the typical Korean church story. Again details may vary and events may differ. But most people who grew up in a small Korean church and try to stick it out end up with a story like this.

I'm not saying this is every situation nor am I writing this out of anger towards 1st gen. Koreans. I'm just acknowledging reality and revealing the context behind so many 2nd generation Koreans who grew up in the church but now don't care too much about it.

Not only that, but I also believe this narrative can change and is changing. Why so? I'll explain next week.

Note: I call this the typical "Korean" church story but it may not be limited to Koreans.

thomas hwang15 Comments