Asian churches in the United States are discovering that despite their spectacular growth they are simultaneously losing their children. At an alarming rate, many young believers who have grown up in these Asian congregations are now choosing to leave not only their home churches, but possibly their Christian faith as well.
In many respects, the Asian church in the United States has been hugely successful since the mid-1960s, when immigration restrictions were dramatically relaxed.
The surge in Asian immigration led to an explosion of new churches. But the flip side of this success story has been a silent exodus of church-raised young people who find their immigrant churches irrelevant, culturally stifling, and ill equipped to develop them spiritually for life in the multicultural 1990s.
"The Korean church I attended as a child was uncomfortable for kids, with no English sermon or children's program," says 34-year-old John Lee from Venice, California. "Church was more for my parents. There wasn't a lot for us in terms of learning about the Bible and Christianity."
Many in younger generations either immigrated with their parents at a very early age or were born in the United States, placing them in a stressful bicultural context of balancing the oft-conflicting Asian parental and American cultural influences.
Of those young people who have left their parents' churches, few have chosen to attend non-Asian churches. "The second generation is being lost," says Allen Thompson, coordinator for multicultural church planting in the Presbyterian Church of America. "They are the mission field we need to focus on."
MAKING MINISTRY RELEVANT: Dave Gibbons, a half-Korean, half-Caucasian pastor, spent five years working in a first-generation Korean church, developing an English-only ministry for its young people. One day, he was sitting in a required elders' meeting, conducted entirely in Korean, which he was unable to understand fully. As he read his Bible instead, he was subsequently stunned by a realization about his own efforts. "I was trying to pour new wine into old wineskins," he explains. "In the process, I was raising a generation of spoiled saints, with no accountability or ownership of their own ministry, because the parents had always been in charge of the church."
Other Asian-American leaders have started having similar realizations. And for the past several years, these emerging leaders have been remolding Christian outreach to Asian Americans. They aspire to engage a disaffected generation of former churchgoers, while retaining a strong Asian dimension to their ministry.
This task of reclaiming the younger generations is difficult in different ways for each Asian ethnic group. While Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans share similarities, their history in America, immigration patterns, and ethnic heritages differ significantly and pose distinctive problems.
Asian churches are confronted with similar dilemmas of identity and mission: whether their principal role is to serve new immigrants, to disciple an Americanized next generation, to blend their congregations into Christian America, or to move their churches into some yet undiscovered form and function.
RESISTING DISCRIMINATION: Of the three major East Asian groups that have immigrated in large numbers to the United States, the Chinese possess not only the longest history in America but also have suffered intense immigration discrimination in the way of now-amended federal laws.
In coping with decades of discrimination, Chinese Christians responded by bonding tightly to their ethnic culture and language. "The Chinese chose as their principal church paradigm to have Chinese-language-only churches," says Stan Inouye, founder and director of Iwa, an Asian-American ministry-consulting organization in Monrovia, California. In addition, many Chinese-American churches have formed schools within their congregations to teach Chinese language and culture.
But as the Chinese churches in America matured, significant change has been avoided or resisted, especially in introducing English worship services. The drive to preserve their culture and to be a safe haven for new immigrants has had unintended negative consequences for their children--American-born Chinese, known as ABCs.
As a result, Inouye says Chinese churches have lost countless ABCs who desired separate services in English for their comprehension and spiritual growth. Samuel Ling, director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton (Ill.) College, estimates that only about 4 percent of ABCs--who constitute 40 percent of the U.S. Chinese population--are integrated into the Chinese church.
For the Chinese church, as well as among Asian-American Christians overall, the intense emphasis on new immigrants is easy to understand. Federal census projections report that Asian immigrants are the nation's fastest-growing group. The total number of Asian Americans is expected to increase to 13.2 million by 2005, an 81 percent increase from 1990.
Sang Hyun Lee, systematic theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, says, "As [Asians] come together in their ethnic churches, they experience an inversion of status, a turning upside down of the way they are viewed in the society outside."
Without the linguistic and cultural barriers that Asian immigrants usually face in mainstream America, the church becomes a place where new Asian Americans feel comfortable and where fresh immigrants can learn from and support each other. Chinese church-growth statistics reveal how immigrants are flocking into new congregations. There was a 500 percent growth in Chinese churches in America between 1968 and 1990, for a total of 644 congregations.
But this growth has not effectively stemmed the departure of many of their American-born children in search of cultural relevance and English-language church services.
GROWING PAINS: "The Korean church in America, in general, is very busy just trying to survive," says Daniel Lee, a first-generation Korean pastor at Global Mission Church (GMC) in Silver Spring, Maryland. "It hasn't had enough energy or time to focus on the second generation yet."
Koreans have embraced Christian belief as have few other Asian groups. More than 20 percent of the population in South Korea is Christian, and the percentage is much higher among Korean immigrants to the United States, with more than 2,000 Korean churches, attended by about 1 million Korean Americans. Some 70 percent of first-generation Korean Americans are affiliated with a Korean church in the United States today.
This is an extremely high church-to-person ratio made all the more remarkable because it has taken place in the past 30 years. In 1965, federal immigration reform abolished restrictive quotas that for decades had severely limited Asian immigration. In addition to opening the doors to previously excluded Asian immigrants, the 1965 law included provisions that facilitated the entry of immigrant family members. Koreans in particular took advantage of the new law, often emigrating as entire families, one factor that has contributed to skyrocketing Korean immigration.
As Korean churches in America developed, they were immediately faced with the costly proposition of developing ministries for all generations at once. This problem was intensified as children of the immigrant wave became young adults attuned to life in the American mainstream.
A recent study by pastor Robert Oh surveyed Southern Californian second-generation Korean Americans who are members of first-generation Korean churches and found that 80 percent hope to attend a church where English is the primary language.
Scholars Young Pai, Delores Pemberton, and John Worley from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Education have also studied Korean-American adolescents, and they believe there is a deeper problem. "Korean-American young people at the college level are not likely to seek out either Korean or Caucasian churches," they wrote. "[They] may tend to feel uncomfortable in both Korean and Caucasian churches."
OVERASSIMILATION? For centuries, the Japanese have had a near legendary resistance to Christian evangelization. And among the 870,000 Japanese Americans, there are only 195 Christian churches and about 35,000 Christian believers, according to John Mizuki of the Japanese Evangelization Center in Pasadena, California. However, churches for Japanese Americans have not had the same disputes over language as the Koreans or Chinese. "Because the Japanese assimilated very quickly, the services were divided into English and Japanese long ago," says Carl Omaye, senior pastor of the 75-year-old Anaheim Free Methodist Church. "We have three or four generations coexisting together in our church."
And leadership problems have not been as prominent. During World War II, the forced internment of Japanese Americans in relocation camps had a profound and lasting impact on the Japanese church.
In this trying period, ministry consultant Inouye notes that Japanese-Americans "met together generationally in the camps and developed structures of leadership, which carried into the formation of church leadership after the war ended.
"So churches had different paradigms of leadership coexisting under one roof--one style led by the first generation, the issei, and [another] style led by the second."
The Japanese-American church also does not have the challenge of coping with an ongoing spurt of new immigrants and rapid population growth. Japanese immigration peaked around 1910.
Nevertheless, Japanese-American Christians still have difficulty retaining their believing children within an ethnic church context.
"Many Japanese find themselves more comfortable in an English environment, which means we'll see fewer and fewer specifically Japanese churches," says church history scholar Tim Tseng. "I don't see too many new Japanese-only churches forming unless the younger generations start them--which I doubt they will."
The maturing Japanese-American church is caught between an ethnic culture resistant to Christianity and a population of highly assimilated third- and fourth-generation American believers who have a weakened loyalty to their ethnic Christian identity.
PRESSURE POINTS: On top of the intense attention paid to native language, ethnic discrimination, and immigrant needs, Asian-American Christians grapple with additional pressure points concerning the demands for leadership equality, the role of ethnic identity in the church, and the importance of spiritual development. Unless these added difficulties are solved, they have the potential to hinder church growth among younger people.
These young people, often influenced by Western ideals of democracy and equality, tend to differ with Asian cultural views on hierarchy and authority. "In Asian culture, you have a very slow giving over of authority and control to the younger generation," says Robert Goette, director of the Chicagoland Asian-American Church Planting Project. "Often, the control resides with the parents until they die."
Scholar Tseng agrees: "Unless the first-generation leaders are able to give second-generation pastors the freedom to lead, their young people will not go to these churches. First-generation pastors need to be aware of this dynamic."
Second-generation leaders also note their responsibility in this process of partnership with the first-generation leaders. "The relationships between the first- and second-generation pastors has to be stronger," says Grace Shim of Parkwood Community Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a second-generation, Asian-American congregation. "If there are two pastors who are willing to compromise and put aside cultural differences, there's hope."
Another area in which older and younger generations frequently differ is in the preference of the first-generation members for a monocultural setting, while the younger generations often feel restricted by such rigid ethnic-identity boundaries.
While Peter Cha, also of Parkwood Community Church, was serving as a young adults' pastor in a first-generation Asian church setting, he began to see a growing number of non-Koreans coming to the church as well as an increasing number of interracial marriages.
"The first-generation parents began to complain to me about it," Cha says. "The nature of the immigrant church is that the mission of that group is to provide for the needs of the first generation. And while they want a vibrant second-generation ministry, they find it hard to deal with the side effects, like having non-Koreans come."
But today's Asian Americans live in a society where they are typically spending less time in a monocultural setting. And even for those who are fully Asian in their ethnicity, acculturation has often made the ethnic-enclave atmosphere of the first-generation church unbearable for them.
When Grace and Tony Yang moved to Southern California, they spent many Sundays hopping from one Korean church to another, but the process of finding a good fit was difficult. "Most churches we went to didn't have services in English," says Tony Yang, a second-generation Korean American.
Gibbons, who left the Korean church setting to plant his own independent church with a more multiethnic flavor, believes that the younger generations require churches with a broader cultural vision in order to feel comfortable.
"Today's busters think that if you're not being multiethnic in your endeavors, you're not real," he says. "They see the diversity everywhere else in society, but if they don't see it in the church, they think the church is superficial."
A third pressure point concerns providing quality spiritual education and training for the younger generations in first-generation churches. Due to the lack of teaching resources in Asian churches, or the decision to conduct services and teaching times in Asian languages, the quality of spiritual instruction the young people receive often falls short of their needs. "Parents assumed that if you just sent the kids to church through high school, they'd come out being good Christians," Global Mission's Lee says. "We all thought our kids would go to church in college. That was a very naive thought."
In addition, Asian parenting styles are frequently based on the Confucian values of hierarchy and authority. Charles Kim, a 29-year-old coordinator of youth programs at Oriental Mission Church in Los Angeles, says, "The kids don't own the faith. They come to church because they are forced to. They can't differentiate between Asian culture and Christianity, and then they often develop a hatred of the culture--which they then extend to Christianity."
Gibbons also notes that the second generation has to take responsibility for its own watered-down faith. "We have been given ministries on a silver platter. We have had all of our ministries provided for us, which has resulted in a weak Christianity."
ENDING THE EXODUS: As Asian-American Christian leaders have assessed their congregational needs and opportunities, they have undertaken three principal means of solving their problems: renewing traditionalism, developing a multiethnic approach, and planting new churches.
Julia Yim, a youth pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Flushing, New York, has chosen to sacrifice for the first-generation church. "I get tempted to leave the Korean church millions of times," says Yim. "But it's helped to build my character, learning to be a servant."
Others in the first-generation, traditional church setting have tried to develop what is called the "church within a church" model, where the English ministry forms its own autonomous body within the first-generation context. Lee's GMC is an example of a first-generation church that has tried this approach, and he believes it has aided the church in keeping more of its young people than it could have without the independent leadership of the second generation.
A handful of Asian-American churches, rich in many resources, are developing into multiethnic congregations with a wide range of Asians and non-Asians as members. Originally a Japanese-American church, Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead, California, today is a congregation of 1,000 with ministries to many races and generations.
In contrast, church planting in the Asian community can be a delicate matter. Before planting New Song Community Church near Los Angeles, Gibbons obtained the blessing of first-generation Korean church leaders, explaining he was not trying to steal their young people but was partnering with them to reach unchurched Asian Americans. "This is where the Asian-American churches have erred so far," Gibbons says. "We have not gotten the blessing of the first-generation leaders."
Nonetheless, church planter Goette estimates that there are 20 second-generation Korean-American churches and about 70 more pan-Asian American churches, nearly all of them relatively new congregations.
CALL TO PARTNERSHIP: The success of churches such as New Song in forging new partnerships between generations has given a measure of hope to those ministering to younger Asian Americans.
However, many Asian churches in the United States do not have ready access to the financial and personal resources to duplicate New Song's success. Other leaders are cautious, predicting that it may take years to reverse the generational exodus of young Asians from their home churches. Due to the lack of young Chinese-American pastors, for example, scholar Ling says, "I don't think we'll see vast improvement for another 10 to 20 years."
Meanwhile, Goette says more non-Asian churches should view Asian Americans as an unchurched people group for specialized evangelistic outreach. "We shouldn't assume that just because these Asian Americans were born here and speak English that they will want to come to our Anglo churches."
While innovative strides have been taken recently in the Asian-American church, a formidable task remains in retaining and reclaiming Asian-American young people.
Gibbons believes that the key may be for the younger generations to look at the legacy native Asian churches have already left, and then follow their example.
"The reason the Korean church is thriving is because of its commitment to prayer and willingness to sacrifice," he says. "We of the younger generations need to be given the same opportunity to sacrifice, and we need to stress this value in our churches, so that we are willing to die for one another. Then, maybe, we'll be able to accomplish great things in the church."
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.