As modern society careens to alarming levels of racial polarization, one has to wonder if the ethnic designations on many of our church signs bear any complicity.
Korean Presbyterian. German Lutheran. Chinese Baptist. The monikers exist to identify the minority—to make distinctions where there is a difference. And immigrant churches are certainly different.
But just as cultures blend, our ecclesiastical identities can as well. I know this because I’ve lived it.
When my family left Malaysia for Canada, we probably didn’t know much more about our new home other than that the cold was going to be extremely challenging since we only knew the equator. But thankfully, being an immigrant family from Kuala Lumpur in the Great White North is not as dramatic of a culture shock as it may be for those from other nations.
As members of the Commonwealth, Malaysians completely understand, and appreciate, Canada’s British-ness. I was only six when we first arrived, so much of my rapid assimilation into North American speech styles and patterns of behavior was heavily indebted to popular culture—including drinking deeply and delightedly from the torrent of available television channels compared to the three or four we had in Malaysia.
So it came as a surprise when I met Canadians who deliberately chose not to own TV sets at all, out of their Christian convictions.
Presbyterianism, to which my Chinese-Malaysian mother as well as my Korean father belonged, was readily found in our new home of London—a city between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, a few hours east of Detroit—so it was natural for our first church experiences to be tethered to a familiar tradition. We attended a neighborhood Presbyterian church, and were soon taken under the wing by a wonderfully loving and hospitable senior couple. Uncle Jim and Auntie Sheila, as I called them, became long-time friends of our family; they gave us our first experiences of cottage vacation, apple pie, and stories of the Second World War.
Despite the love we received in a largely white congregation, my father thought it prudent to transition us to a Korean congregation—probably as a means to preserve Korean culture within our family, as well as his own need for community among his kinfolk.
Korean churches in Canada in the late ’80s through the ’90s were a haven for a burgeoning immigrant community that was only starting to discover southern Ontario. Church was the perfect social gathering point for Koreans to do things in a Korean way—a natural venue for mother-tongue worship services, as well as for business association meetings for the 90 percent of the congregation who owned convenience stores. Church life wasn’t so much about being a Christian as about being a Korean Christian, so most of my fondest memories are bound up with culturally-bound relationships and activities rather than specific spiritual content. I later understood that our denomination leaned on the liberal side, so looking back I’m not surprised at the lack of catechesis or biblical preaching.
Few things feel better to immigrant minorities than sharing familiar food, language, and customs; but the cultural adaptations of immigrant children and youth would eventually disrupt the status quo. We were forming our own identity: 2nd generation, English-speaking—and often only English—Koreans, also called “2nd Gens.” While we felt most at home and made our closest friends within our homogeneous ethnic communities, the influence of the surrounding majority culture was undeniable and massively impactful.
As I was entering high school, I learned of a Wednesday night boys program operating in the nearby school where I often played on the playground. It was a kind of Boy Scouts outfit run by a Pentecostal church down the street. They roped me in, and taught us how to tie knots and took us camping. I absolutely loved it. Before long, the ink drop of my Asian Christianity was bleeding into my surroundings. In the process, Christ captured my heart, and I knew him as Savior for the first time. I formed new friendships, attended youth groups and retreats, and was eventually baptized as a Pentecostal at age 15.
For the first time, I was plunged amid a people for whom religion was more than a pretext for meeting with their own kind.
These youth group friends came from families that cared about which words they spoke and which movies they watched. I remember being puzzled at my first hearing of the phrase “secular music,” which had never registered as a separate category before. To Asian families like mine, popular culture was something to be consumed lock, stock, and barrel in order to decompress from a 14-hour day of work and study, or it was a necessary supplement for improving one’s English. For my Pentecostal friends, resistance to media was a matter of obeying the Bible, protecting their families from harmful influences, and being God’s light to neighbors. Banefully repressive as these attitudes may seem to passionate engagers of culture today, within that context and community this was simply an exercise in practical holiness.
In order to hang out with them, I adapted to practices like hand-holding dinnertime prayers, conversations saturated with Scripture, and vibrant expressiveness in worship. But it seemed to me like white Canadian Pentecostals in the mid ’90s were a different kind of people altogether. As I would shuttle back and forth between Friday night youth group meetings with the Pentecostals—effervescent, tear-filled times of prayer—to my family's church where groups of kids played Kai Bai Bo, the Korean version of “rock-paper-scissors,” I was becoming convinced that there was something beyond our ethnic Christianity.
The seriousness with which these white evangelical youth took their faith was especially demonstrated when they took their faith outside the church. The Pentecostals held pizza party outreaches and issued the call for every high school student in town to receive an invitation flyer. Invite high school friends to church? For us, impossible; they’re not Korean. But the Pentecostals did it, with zeal, along with regular, in-school Bible studies, public prayer gatherings around the flagpole, and sincere attempts to “witness” to unbelieving friends and strangers.
I was struck by the contrast of their version of “witnessing” with what I was witnessing in my home church: upstanding members, leaders, and elders whose places of business were stocked with pornography, cigarettes, and lotto as hot commodities, and whose squabbles could easily turn into violent shouting matches in the church parking lot just minutes after worship.
My experience was not unique. In the late ’90s, Korean Presbyterian pastor and researcher Min Ho Song conducted a survey of 2nd generation Korean Christians in Canada and found that only one-third remained strongly committed to the faith. He attributes this to their rejection of their parents’ “cultural rigidity,” and immigrant home lives where assimilation and survival supplant spiritual vibrance.
As to when Korean 2nd Gens began to really grab hold of their faith, it seemed largely to be the result of the influence of the charismatic movement and the contemporary worship music revolution that were, well, Western. I felt that although it was no less culturally bound—woven through with the social, cultural, and economic priorities of white Canadians—majority-culture evangelicalism had something to offer.
Sure, there were times when cultural practices among majority, Western evangelicals were startlingly alien. Take my first regional junior high revival camp, for instance, where I recall being the only visible foreigner. Every afternoon for a week straight, one of the camp wardens enthusiastically called the campers together for “Mail Call.” This was an opportunity for anyone brave enough to profess romantic love to anyone else through letters drawn from a hat. (It seems one of the purposes of the camp was to enjoy a week-long romance.) Surely, my Asian norms told me, this is distracting and shouldn’t be encouraged at a region-wide gathering of hundreds of God-fearing 13-year-olds wanting to encounter the Lord! But it was. And it worked. It was exhilarating to me how godly men were apparently endorsing pre-teen, public proclamations of romantic love. This markedly differs from Asian sentiments where face-saving secrecy is key, and exposing oneself to shameful gossip is to be avoided at all costs.
While this seemed freeing and appealing as a young person, I do wonder if they were playing too fast and loose with teenage urges. Those of us in immigrant churches would eventually hear “other side” stories of teen pregnancies and Christians “coming out” in defiance against traditional values. When such things happened among Asians, which was rarely, it was even less publicly tolerated than in white communities. Even despite strong waves moving cultural opinion on these issues, immigrant churches tend to be unwavering in their conservatism—in part due to their enclave-like homogeneity. Our avoidance of cultural taboos may have preserved conservative religious identity.
A couple of decades have helped to balance my perspective on things, as I’ve witnessed the ups and downs of life in both the immigrant church and in the majority-culture evangelical church.
Do ethnically homogeneous immigrant churches still exist? Yes. But many of the 2nd Gens have worked hard to make their congregations more diverse while ensuring their doctrines and practices maintain their conservative roots. That some of this conservatism is culturally-rooted, rather than confessional, is probable; but this nonetheless drives a stake in the ground within the ever-widening landscape of modern evangelicalism. Many of its formerly cherished convictions have been disputed and dispensed with, leaving behind a pluralism that makes many wonder if evangelical is even a thing anymore.
Overall, immigrant communities are slowing the secularization of Canada, as University of Lethbridge scholar Reginald Bibby points out. In a 2015 survey with the Angus Reid Institute, Bibby found that while only 29 percent of Canadians now embrace religion of any kind, 40 percent of immigrants to Canada do. Even young immigrants are more likely to embrace religion, whereas among native-born Canadians, the 18–24 demographic rejects religion most.
Culture has much to contribute to church life. For example, many Korean churches in North America still serve meals every Sunday as an indispensable part of community-building. And even as Koreans strive to create multicultural congregations, other cultural distinctives such as passionate corporate prayer and evangelistic zeal are palpable, bringing new vibrancy to Canada’s evangelical scene.
On the flip side, North American churches populated by the region’s demographic majority are able to influence immigrant congregations by being deliberately non-ethnic, indirectly exhorting Korean Presbyterian, German Lutheran, or Chinese Baptist churches to dispense with enclave identities and instead strive to express their Christianity zealously in the broader culture. Because immigrants often struggle to feel fully integrated into their own society, it’s understandable that they tend not to make a public show of their faith. This is where the majority can—as Uncle Jim, Auntie Sheila, and my Pentecostal youth group friends did—draw us out of our ethnic isolationism to truly appreciate our country of residence. All the while knowing that in our true, heavenly citizenship, there are no ethnic barriers among the people of God.
Dennis Oh is a cultural theologian and freelance writer and editor, currently serving as a missionary in Southeast Asia. He is the author of I Will Repay: A Cinematic Theology of Atonement.