Has the Second-Generation Korean-American Church Failed Us?
If you were a Korean-American ten years ago, you had only two options when it came to church: 1) You could attend a first-generation Korean church that had a separate English Ministry (commonly called an "EM") or 2) You could attend a large, multi-ethnic megachurch down the street. But for a lot of Koreans, even second-generation ones, it often felt too big of a cultural-gap to participate in a multi-ethnic church.
Therefore most Korean-Americans chose to join a Korean church and participated in their EM. After all, it felt comfortable being around other Koreans. Still, it wasn't easy. Most EM services would take place at weird times (e.g. 1:00pm), met in janky spaces, and were led by EM pastors who preached in broken English. Plus there was always the uneasy tension of being "controlled" by the property-owning, budget-wielding Korean Ministry (commonly called the "KM").
But things have changed. Over the past decade, a third option has now developed: second-generation Korean-American churches. In theory, these churches had the best of both worlds. They were still predominantly Korean, so you'd be comfortable with the community. But they were also independent from the KM shackles that used to bind us. No more feeling like 2nd-class citizens at church and performing body worship for the KM's entertainment.
By planting second-generation Korean churches, I think a lot of Christians had a vision of a different type of church that would minister to the growing number of Korean-Americans out there. These second-generation churches would welcome Koreans in a way multi-ethnic megachurches couldn't and would offer ownership in a way that first-generation Korean churches wouldn't. In other words, these new Korean-American churches would be uniquely equipped to help Koreans flourish.
But has it been working?
The Benefits of the Korean-American Church
In her book A Faith of Our Own, sociologist Sharon Kim observes how the development of second-generation churches is "a distinctly Korean American Protestant phenomenon." While most second-generation minorities will stick with the first generation or assimilate into a mainstream church, Korean-Americans are the only group that will create "a self-constructed hybrid third space." While I'm sure there are some concerns about why only Koreans do this, there are a couple of positives to note.
For starters, it's nice to know that Koreans aren't stuck in a bad situation but have created better options for themselves. I don't mean to sound overly critical, but most EM situations are pretty rough. They're like the book of Judges - a never-ending cycle where the EM struggles and God raises up a judge (new EM pastor), but he later butts heads with the KM and leaves with most of the congregation. But a new generation rises (former youth kids) and God raises up another judge (new EM pastor) who will later butt heads with the KM, and...you get the point. Thank God for options.
Also, these second-generation churches allow for Korean pastors to gain experience they'd probably never receive elsewhere. As senior pastors, they're not just overseeing a ministry - they're now overseeing an entire church. It's not just about preaching and shepherding anymore. They now have to oversee budgets, train up elders, and hire/fire staff members. The experience of leading an entire church is far different than leading a ministry within a KM. And I think some pastors are thriving at this opportunity.
It's also great to know that there are options out there for displaced Korean Christians. As mentioned above, EMs usually break apart from the KM. So where do these scattered Koreans end up going for church? Second-generation Korean churches. That's because these churches are familiar enough to comfort them but different enough to attract them. So whether you like this or not, at least Korean-American churches provide a church for many of these scattered Koreans.
The Changing Landscape
However, these days I'm beginning to notice that Korean-American churches don't seem as attractive to Koreans as they used to be. I don't see many new ones starting up. I don't see many existing ones continuing to grow. And I'm hearing more than ever how Koreans want to escape what they call the "Korean-American Christian bubble."
In fact, I'm noticing that there are a growing number of Korean-Americans who are more open to checking out large, multi-ethnic churches. These churches that once felt so foreign are now starting to become realistic options for Koreans. So while I'm aware Korean American Christians are growing in denominational influence, it seems like the influence of Korean American churches might be waning.
Why is this happening? I'm sure there are a variety of reasons, but I think one of the main ones is that many of these second-generation Korean churches aren't turning out the way people had hoped they would.
The second-generation church was supposed to be the solution to the EM-KM problem. However, this isn't what a lot of Korean-Americans are experiencing. Some of them think perhaps it's just their particular second-generation church, so they'll leave and check out a different Korean-American church. But after the honeymoon period ends, many of them will experience the same lull that they did in their previous church.
This is when they grow exasperated with "Asian churches" and will talk about wanting to leave the Korean-Christian bubble. It could be that some Koreans genuinely want something more multi-ethnic. But I also think they are noticing some shortcomings of the second-generation Korean churches. And unless these issue begin to get addressed, I think we might see more Korean-Americans getting disillusioned.
The Shortcomings of the Korean-American Church
So why are some Koreans struggling with the second-generation church experience? Here are a couple of general observations.
1) Congregations Still Act Like a Korean English Ministry
Most second-generation Korean churches are technically independent, but culturally a lot of them still act like an EM. For example, many of these congregations struggle to tithe; they're often passive; and they tend to find their identity in serving roles rather than simply enjoying being part of the church.
But more than that, most Korean-American churches still act super-Korean. They'll joke in Korean, huddle together in impenetrable cliques, and hang out at Korean restaurants after service. Rather than creating a new type of church culture, I think a lot of Korean-American churches are struggling to shed the cultural baggage that we carry from our first-generation contexts.
2) A Lack of Engagement With Social Issues
I think one big problem Korean-Americans had about their Korean EM experience was just how much of a bubble they seemed to be in. I mentioned this elsewhere, but in an EM context, it’s difficult finding conversation partners about social issues like the MeToo movement or transgenderism. People would much rather talk about Christian dating or which church ministries they plan on serving in. This is why EMs often feel like a Korean-church bubble.
But there doesn't seem to be many Korean-American churches that have broken out of this bubble either. Many of them aren’t engaging with the social issues out there but instead only focus on personal spiritual growth. Now by no means do I think churches should only focus on social issues; the church’s main mission is to make disciples. However, I wish I’d see Korean-American churches engage a bit more with the world because Korean-Americans today are more engaged than the generation before us.
3) Communities Still Function Like a Korean Social Club
The problem with a lot of KM English Ministries is that they often ended up looking a lot more like a Korean social club than a church. That's because most of their members grew up in the EM and find a sense of community with other American-born Koreans whose identities are shaped by their experience as a racial minority. In other words, what tends to unite a lot of Korean EMs is not their identity in Christ but their identity as Koreans.
The hope of second-generation Korean churches was that the congregation would look a lot more like disciples than misplaced Koreans. But is this really happening? Are Korean-American Christian communities known for their strong discipleship culture? I'm not sure. It seems to me most of these communities are more interested in finding other Koreans who we could play Settlers with on a Friday or go drinking with on a Saturday rather than finding brethren who can help them mature in Christ. So why attend church for a community like this?
4) A Lack of True Plurality in Leadership
Most pastors who pastored in a first-generation Korean church never worked in a real team before. Sure as the EM pastor, he'd meet with the Korean Senior Pastor. But they wouldn't be making decisions together. Rather as an EM pastor, he would simply report to the senior pastor how the EM is doing, and that's it. So when these former EM pastors become lead pastors, it seems like lot of them struggle with team-ministry.
They want to train and work together with other leaders as a team. But many of them struggle with this because they've never experienced team-ministry before. So instead of developing and working together with their staff, many Korean-American pastors simply command and receive reports. And as a result, a lot of Korean-American churches end up feeling like disconnected individual ministries trying to do church together, which sounds similar to an EM-KM church.
5) We're Repeating the Sins of Our Fathers
Ten years ago, one of the main frustrations EM pastors used to have about the KM is the false promises they'd receive. "One day, the KM will be under the EM." "One day, this will be your church building." "One day, you will be the senior pastor." Well, we know better now. Most KM pastors will never transition out like this. It's too difficult to give up power. If you're lucky, the KM will plant their EM out or allow them to be independent. But even that's rare.
That's why so many of these EM pastors left and started their own churches. But how many second-generation Korean pastors do you see grooming their successors? How many Korean-American churches do you see sending out church planters? Based on our KM predecessors, when churches don't empower others, they become stagnant and end up splitting. But instead of church-splits, I think Korean-American churches will experience a lot of "mini-exoduses" where members will feel frustrated by the stagnancy and look elsewhere. That is, unless we're willing to change this.
So has the second-generation Korean-American church failed us? Are they not fulfilling the vision that most Korean-Americans one thought they would? Perhaps "fail" is too strong of a conclusion. As I mentioned above, I think Korean-American churches are helpful in many ways and are filling a huge void in the Christian landscape.
But at the same time, I can't help but think something is missing. Right now, too many Korean-American churches are simply functioning as refugee camps for displaced Korean-Christians who are running away from the war that's taking place in their EM-KM context. But the problem is that if we look no different than a struggling EM, Korean-Americans will probably start seeking different options.
Things have to change. I'm not exactly sure how, but I think the niche that "we are an English-speaking second-generation Korean church" has lost its novelty. Korean-Americans - especially the next generation - are looking for something more. And by God's grace, I hope we can.