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How the Korean Church Narrative is Changing

Last week I wrote about the typical Korean church story where I recounted a common experience most of us had in Korean churches. And the story we experienced continues to this day. Different details. Different generation. Same narrative.

However last week I teased this narrative is beginning to change. Actually, the narrative has been changing. Before if you grew up in a Korean church, you were kind of stuck with one type of story (unless you left the church). But I think this is no longer the case.

I'm not offering a "solution." But I am offering an observation of how things are shifting. This may all be limited to my particular context and perspective, but I see at least two factors that have been shifting the "church landscape" for Koreans.

The First Factor: Parachurches

The first factor that's shifting the Korean church story is the parachurch on college campuses. Ever since 1996, there has been an Asian Invasion in the California universities. With over 45% of Asians being Christians, it's not surprising that the Asian Invasion would carry into the campus ministries. As a result, many Koreans have new Asian arenas to experience Christianity.

And I believe this changed the game. Through the parachurch, 2nd gen. Koreans have exposure to something they never had in their Korean churches: Ownership. Autonomy. Control. Leadership. It also helps that sermons are in fluent English and the ministries address their personal needs (e.g. small groups, outreach, etc.)

As a result, many highly educated Korean Christians are tasting something they never tasted before. Therefore after graduating & returning to their KM-EM church, new feelings of dissatisfaction arise within these individuals. They feel like Rapunzel when she left her tower and explored the world for the first time. They feel like they saw the light. The world has somehow shifted. All at once everything is different.

This "light" though is not the parachuch itself but what the parachurch offered them (ownership). I'm not saying this is necessarily a good thing. But the parachurch does affect people's EM experience because again, it offers something unique.

The Second Factor: Second Generation Churches

I think the second factor that's shifting the Korean church landscape is the rise of 2nd generation churches i.e. churches filled with primarily 2nd gen. Koreans. We have to realize just how unique these kinds of churches are. In her book A Faith of Our Own, sociologist Sharon Kim argues that most minorities either stay connected to their 1st generation churches or assimilate to mainstream evangelicalism. However only Koreans are creating hybrid congregations. 

In other words, most minorities either stay with their 1st gen. church or join a white church. But 2nd gen. Koreans are the only minorities who decided to do their own thing. I'm not sure why this is so (pride? comfort?), but this is a reality. So while before Koreans stayed in their KM-EM churches (frustrating) or left for a white church (uncomfortable), they now have a third option.

I'm not saying this is a good thing nor am I saying 2nd gen. churches are "the solution." Not at all. They may repeat the same story as their forefathers. But they do provide an alternate story. It's like when the smartphone came out in 2007. If you wanted one, you had to get an Iphone. But when Google came out with the Android in 2010, consumers now had another option. It's not necessarily a better option - but there are options now.

Responding to the Changing Landscape

In light of this changing church landscape, I do believe both 1st & 2nd generation Koreans have some things to consider.

For 1st gen. Korean churches, I believe they need to really re-think their EMs. Gone are the days where they can hire an EM pastor simply because he speaks English, cram their EMs into the crappiest room and schedule their worship at the crappiest time slots - all while expecting their EM members to stay. 2nd gen. Koreans may tolerate this as collegians, but they will stop when they get older because many of them have tasted something different (parachurch) and have other options now (2nd gen churches).

Now the typical 1st generation response to this is to call the 2nd generation "rebellious" or "unappreciative" for leaving. However when adult KMers leave, their response is to re-look at what they're doing as a church. I guess I'm wondering: Why is it that when Korean adults leave, the KM examines themselves, but when their "kids" leave the "kids" are chided as unappreciative? It's this dismissive mindset that's causing them to leave even faster.

At the same time, I also think it's unfair for 2nd gen. Koreans to look down on the KMs and grow angry at the typical Korean church story. After all, do you know how hard it is to immigrate to a foreign land and start a church from the ground up? Yeah - neither do I. So while some criticisms towards the Korean churches may be valid, they should always be seen in light of the context our parent's generation had to endure.


The church landscape has been changing for Koreans and thus the narrative is changing too. This doesn't mean that EMs will disappear. So long as Koreans keep immigrating to the U.S. and so long as they keep popping out English-speaking babies, there will always be KM/EM congregations.

But while EMs may never die, they will dwindle. Because again, 2nd gen. Koreans now have other options. Not better options - but options nonetheless. And instead of seeing this shift as a sign of "rebellion," KMs should really see this as a sign to reexamine their EMs.

Both 1st gen and 2nd gen Koreans can look at the typical church story and grow bitter. But my hope is that they can instead grow better. This can only happen though if both generations stop blame-shifting and instead adjust to the different context we now live in.

Note: I am very aware that there are some healthy KM-EM churches out there and that this topic is more nuanced than I had room to write about

thomas hwang7 Comments