The Five Major Tribes of Korean American Christianity
Why do Christians at your church raise their hands during worship while Christians at your friend’s church don’t? Why do members in your church re-post only Gospel Coalition articles on their facebook while your other Christian friends re-post only Desiring God articles? Why do your pastors always attend the “Together 4 the Gospel” Conference but never attend a “Catalyst” Conference?
Well, I think the answer is simple: your church belongs to a tribe. And the reason why your friend’s church does things differently is because your friend’s church probably belongs to a different tribe. Sociologically, tribes are human social groups that are formed around a very specific interest or passion. In the Christian world, this is seen when churches associate with other churches that share a similar theology, personality, and philosophy towards ministry. Historically, Christian tribes revolved around denominations; today, they tend to be based more around networks, Christian leaders, and friendships.
Now the thing is, Korean-American churches also belong to different Christian tribes but we usually don’t realize it. Because many of us grew up in the church, we often think the way our church practiced Christianity is the way to practice Christianity. However, it’s not until you visit other churches that you begin to realize some churches do things differently. And I think it’s helpful to be aware which tribe you belong to so you can be more objective when approaching the Bible and more fair when interacting with other Christians.
What’s interesting to me though is that the majority Korean-American Christian tribes tend to be limited to five. Now I know there may be a random Korean Anglican out there that feels unrepresented. But in my opinion, these five are the main tribes that our churches tend to associate with and I just want to give a general overview of what these five tribes look like. So forgive me if I sound too general when describing these tribes, but I hope this can be helpful overview of the Korean Christian landscape that’s out there.
The English Ministry Tribe
Description: English Ministries function as the “English ministry” (EM) of a Korean church. While 1st-generation parents worship together in a Korean-speaking Sunday service (KM), their 2nd-generation children will worship together in a separate English-speaking Sunday service. The Korean congregation usually owns the church building and financially supports the EM. The EM will supply volunteers for the KMs education department and will occasionally be forced to sing a song during a Korean service. EMs tend to attract Christians who want to be part of an inimate community.
Influences: Since English Ministries are often small, they tend to be influenced mainly by their EM pastor and will adopt his theology and personality. They will also be influenced by other EMs whom they partner together with on Native-American mission trips, or they’ll be influenced by the college-campus ministries that their students participate in.
Culture: Most English Ministries feel very Korean and insular. Members of the congregation likely grew up in the church, so there will be a strong family-feel with a lot of inside jokes throughout the service and fellowship. Sunday service may be taken seriously or may be seen as a necessary evil to endure so people can hang out with their friends afterwards. The preaching will often be long and filled with funny, personal illustrations that are often TMI for newcomers.
Strengths: The greatest strength of English Ministries are the relationships developed within a church like this. EMs really make the church feel like the family of God (Mt 12:48) because the people grew up with one another. Also, English Ministries are probably the one type of church where you can feel like your pastor is pastoring you. You can expect not only to hear you him preach but to also personally minister to you. It’s this overall intimate experience that make it difficult for many Koreans to adapt to another church setting.
Weaknesses: Perhaps the biggest weakness of an English Ministry is its lack of appeal to newcomers. Because the congregation grew up together, it’s really difficult for a visitor to get plugged in. There is also the overt Koreanness of these churches that can often confuse Korean tradition with biblical practices. And as helpful as it is to have the financial support of the KM, EMs tend to feel and act like kids paying rent in their 1st-generation parent’s homes. As a result, many Korean-Americans see EMs as holding cells until they get married and head off to more mainstream churches.
The Bible Church Tribe
Description: These churches are known as “bible churches” not because they’re the only church that believes in the Bible. Rather, they want to emphasize that everything they do comes from the Bible. These churches are often non-denominational but will have a Baptist-bent to them. Bible churches seem to attract people who already hold to conservative values and seek to be intellectually stimulated through the Bible.
Influences: John Macarthur - but they will claim only the Bible influences them.
Culture: Bible churches tend to be theologically and socially conservative. The pastors will often wear suit and ties and any type of “secular” activity will be frowned upon. Knowledge of the Bible will be seen as a mark of maturity. There will be a cognitive-approach to worship. The preaching will often feel serious and is done verse-by-verse. Worship will feel minimal but also genuine.
Strengths: I always respect churches that prioritize the Word of God and I think they’re absolutely right in seeing the Scriptures as not only true but sufficient in equipping Christians for every good work (2 Tim 3:16). So at best, Bible churches will develop communities that will take sin, holiness and the glory of God very seriously. In today’s day and age, this is sadly rare to find in churches. I’m confident that any Christian who wants to grow in the Word will find exactly that when they attend a Bible church.
Weaknesses: The biggest weakness of a Bible church isn’t their desire to be “biblical” but rather the confidence they seem to have in determining what’s actually biblical. While there are many parts of the Bible that are clear, there are also parts of the Bible that seem less clear. But Bible churches sometimes draw strong lines that probably aren’t meant to be drawn. As a result, a spirit of legalism and self-righteousness may develop that’s masqueraded as holiness and biblical fidelity. This leads to an unspoken standard of holiness that members are expected to adhere to and a suspicious posture towards any other church that practices Christianity differently.
The Charismatic Tribe
Description: Charismatic churches are most easily identified through their Sunday worship. The presence of the Holy Spirit is heavily emphasized. Their services are usually loud and filled with people clapping, raising their hands, and responding emotionally to the music. Spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy may be practiced during service. Charismatic churches seem to attract people who crave authenticity and vibrant worship.
Influences: Hillsong. Bethel Music. IHOP. Francis Chan
Culture: I haven’t been to many charismatic churches, but from my experience, it’s usually filled with broken people who all have a story where they once understood the gospel cognitively but then received an “awakening” or second baptism from the Spirit. Spiritual gifts are sometimes seen as a mark of maturity. Grace, prayer, spiritual-moments and radical-Christian living tends to be heavily emphasized. Preaching is long and emotion-driven.
Strengths: Probably the best thing about charismatic churches is the passion that’s seen in the congregation. The Sunday worship feels Spirit-filled and participating in a service like this can be very refreshing, especially if you come from a more conservative tradition of worship. And I think young people - especially the emotional types - are especially drawn to these types of churches. Charismatic churches seem to fill a void in the Korean-Christian landscape that other churches can’t fill.
Weaknesses: Of course, churches that heavily emphasize the Holy Spirit and emotions come with dangers. The abuse of spiritual gifts during worship should be checked (1 Cor 14). It’s strange to me that I’ve met so many Christians with the gift of tongues but I have yet to meet anyone with the gift of interpretation. And I think the desire for a “spiritual experience” can be self-serving. However, I’m noticing that many charismatic churches today are more moderate in their approach to the charismatic gifts, which is encouraging.
The Megachurch Tribe
Description: I’ve written about this elsewhere, but more Korean-Americans today view the megachurch as a viable church option. Megachurches tend to have an evangelistic approach to ministry where they emphasize relevancy and programmatic excellence. They are often non-denominational or loosely baptist. Megachurches seem to attract people who are looking not only for spiritual growth but are also seeking great children programs, practical principles, and volunteer opportunities.
Influences: Andy Stanley. Rick Warren. Church-growth movement.
Culture: Megachurches have probably the best Sunday production that a church can offer. They’re huge and have professional-level venues, music, and programs. Unless you’re part of a cell group, it can be very easy to get lost in the crowd and to slip in-and-out of Sunday service. The sermons are VERY short and filled with practical take-aways that people can apply in their everyday lives.
Strengths: One thing I really like about megachurches (besides the free coffee) is the evangelistic approach they tend to have. If I have an unbelieving friend who wants to check out a church, I’d likely recommend a megachurch rather than small Korean church. I also appreciate the racial diversity that these churches offer. I can’t help but think these large, multi-ethnic assemblies are a more accurate reflection of what the new heavens and earth will look like. Despite the criticisms, I really understand the appeal of of megachurches.
Weaknesses: The greatest strength of the megachurch is also its greatest weakness. The appeal of these churches tend to be their attractive programs, fast-paced worship services, and overly general, border-line pragmatic theological beliefs. In other words, megachurches seem to produce a Western, affluent consumeristic spirit that turn so many of us off to Christianity. And personally, I just don’t know how much a Christian can grow through such a programmatic approach to ministry or how they can experience a real sense of community when nobody at church knows who he or she is.
The 2nd Generation Korean-American Tribe
Description: 2nd-generation Korean American churches are a unique phenomenon that is particular to Korean culture. They’re English-speaking and yet predominately Korean. So while they look like an English Ministry, they will try to function more like a mainstream white church. Many of these churches often started off as an EM but later broke away from their first-generation Korean church in order to become an independent congregation.
Influences: Gospel Coalition. Tim Keller. White mega-churches. Steve Jobs.
Culture: 2nd-generation churches will feel like a combination of an EM church and a modern white church. That’s because most of the leaders have a Korean Ministry background but are adopting Western principles on how to run a church. The Sunday services tend to be shorter and the programs feel more professional. Sermons will be relatively short and filled with a mix of personal illustrations and secular sources. But even though a lot of effort will be poured into the Sunday service, most people will stay because of the community life of the church.
Strengths: 2nd-generation Korean-American churches seem to have the best of both worlds. They’re modern enough where they can appeal to Koreans who want to break out of their EM/KM church context, but they’re Korean enough where people can feel comfortable calling one of these churches their “home church.” There seems to be something unique with these churches where Christianity is being practiced in a way that blends both Eastern and Western values.
Weaknesses: From my perspective, I’m not sure if these churches are turning out the way many of us thought they’d be. While many 2nd-generation churches are thriving numerically and programmtically, I don’t know how many of them are thriving spiritually. Far too often these churches still feel more like social clubs than a spiritual community. There also seems to be confusion on what types of churches these 2nd-gen. churches want to become (Korean or Multi-cultural? Relational or Programmatic?). This may be due to the organizational inexperience of the pastors who are learning on the fly what it means to oversee a large, independent congregation.
As you can tell, every tribe has its strengths and weaknesses. In my opinion, this is because none of the tribes get everything about the Christian faith correctly. And while it’s easy to recognize this when we view other churches, I think it’s most important to realize this about our own tribe. It should humble that even though we all read the same Bible, we find many well-meaning brothers and sisters with different conclusions.
That doesn’t mean all truth and interpretation is relative. Some tribes are probably “more correct” than other tribes given the specific issue. But I think as Christian brothers, it helps to learn and appreciate what other churches bring to the table before merely dismissing them as different. The body of Christ is supposed to be diverse (1 Cor 12:14-30) and I think this is reflected amongst the different Christian tribes out there.