Twenty years ago, Asian North American churches were experiencing a trend that became known as the “Silent Exodus.” The phrase described the movement of second- and other next-generation Asian North Americans away from their Asian immigrant churches as they grew up. But an interesting countertrend has begun to emerge, one that Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Peter Cha terms “the boomerang effect”: many of these Asian North Americans have decided to return.
Cha’s own younger brother John is one case in point. Thirty years ago, a small group of first-generation Korean immigrants (led by the Chas' father) launched Korean Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Today, this Herndon-based congregation is now named Open Door Presbyterian Church, serving nearly 2,000 Korean-language speakers with another 540 in the English-speaking congregation, which meets at the same church campus as the Korean congregation. Their pastor is John Cha. “This was the church where I grew up," he says, "and I wanted to grow old with the people here.”
John Cha notes that the church leaders have worked hard to preserve an intergenerational and interdependent culture. “For many second-generation Korean Americans, the relationship between themselves and the first generation has become a source of disillusionment and pain. But at Open Door, we have worked hard to establish peace between the first and second generations.”
Disillusionment is exactly what Yong Kim felt when he was a young adult attending his home Korean immigrant church outside of Toronto, The Light Presbyterian Church. After more than a decade of service to the church but little power or control over decisions that affected the English-speaking ministry to which he belonged, he and his family left the church. Ten years later, Kim was visiting the church when the senior pastor approached him. “He said to me, ‘It’s been a while since you've been back to this church, and I know you're active at the other church you are at, but this is your home church. We are in need of more leaders to help the English speaking congregation. Could you come back home?’” At the time, this congregation had dwindled down to about 40 people, so after much thought and prayer, Kim and his family decided to “boomerang." Alongside the English ministry pastor Jason Noh, they were able to rebuild the congregation, renamed New Hope Fellowship. The church continued to meet on the campus of its parent Korean immigrant church, then launched a second location in downtown Toronto; today the church serves a total of 400 English-speaking congregants.
New Hope Fellowship has grown in part due to the return of previous attendees like Kim, as well as reaching those who had never previously attended. He is now a recently-installed elder at the church, as the first generation leaders have learned to accept and embrace the participation of the next generation in leadership decisions for the church. “The first generation realizes now that it has to build up the English-speaking ministry, because immigration continues to slow down on the Korean-speaking side,” Kim says. “We appreciate that the English-speaking ministry is treated as a mature congregation, and not just as an extension of a youth group without any freedom to make decisions.”