Healing from the Bitter Past: A New Way Forward for the Korean American Church

Photo: Chesiyuan at the English-language Wikipedia

The Painful History

I cleared my voice before I greeted my pastor friend on the phone and said, “I’m calling to ask about the issues between first- and second-generation Korean churches.” My friend took a beat and replied, “Isn’t it interesting that you assume that there are issues?” I laughed. Then we both sat in a two-second silence of lament. It’s a sad reality that the world knows the dirty laundry of the Korean American church. We are a church divided, and everyone seems to know it. It is no secret to those who are close to Korean American pastors of any generation that they harbor a painful past–reeling from a past divorce between first- and second-generation churches filled with heartache, family infighting, and separation. Many of the newer and younger Korean American pastors know the pain only from a distance as they have seen the writing on the wall and kept their distance from the Korean American church altogether. Nevertheless, it’s a divorce whispered about in every Korean American pastor’s home no matter how far they try to run.

For those who are unfamiliar with the anguish in the Korean American church, it goes like this. The first-generation of Koreans arrived in America and spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build their church. Second mortgages were taken out to erect small church buildings and hours of endless prayer were poured over sanctuary carpets. These prayers cried out not only for the hope of a new future for themselves, but for their children. These children grew up in these temples of sacrifice with joy and laughter until they became college students. College was a confusing time church-wise because very few churches had a place for them. Stuck between being children and adults, college students found their place serving in youth ministries.

As these college students grew older, these second-generation now-adults considered building a faith of their own, only to come into direct conflict with those who sheltered them all these years. First- and second-generation leaders clashed over the use of space, schedules and whether or not the church sign should be in English or Korean. Moreover, the second-generation saw church splits in debilitating succession. Over time, a small horde of young but disillusioned second-generation Korean American pastors wandered out of the Korean American church looking for their own way. It was only when they moved out into the majority culture church that they discovered that chronic splits were strange. The first-generation was left behind with a tenuous hold on the future of their church as second-generation leaders exited their blood-bought (their own blood, not Jesus’) church. Despite their audacious exit, the divide launched the second-generation into a majority culture that felt safer but unlike home, and left the first-generation behind wondering what to do next.

While this is a rather grim depiction of the Korean American church, it is not the full picture. I am merely describing the anguish of our story. On the other hand, the Korean American church movement has been a rare bright light on the dimming church scene in the U.S. Korean American pastors and leaders have taken the mantle of pillar Christian institutions, from Westminster California and the Presbyterian Church in America to the Lausanne Movement. There are manifold beauties of the Korean American church. The first-generation’s vigor for prayer is unmatched. Their service to the Lord is unquestioned. Yet despite the tremendous progress and beauty of the Korean Americans in the church scene, the trauma of the past is proving long-lasting in both generational churches.

The central issues at play

I pastor a predominantly Korean American congregation in one of the immigrant hotspots of the United States–northern New Jersey. Our congregation was birthed out of the largest Korean speaking church in our state. Our congregation was once a beloved “EM”–an English ministry of our Korean counterpart. In fact, one of the names of our EM was once “Beloved.” I became the lead pastor in 2015, and we became an interdependent church in 2018 and chartered our new path forward. That word “interdependent” may be a foreign word for those outside of the Korean American church, but for those who are inside of it, it is a hopeful term. As interdependent churches, the second-generation church and the first-generation church attempt a partnership in which both sides are independent churches but seek to walk together. Many churches, like our own, endeavor to partner along the lines of student ministries and missions. Some interdependent churches are financially separate and others share finances with the mother church. As with any marriage, there are particularities that make each one special but they also share commonalities (and struggles) with one another.

I interviewed several Korean American pastors of both first- and second-generations to get an inside look into churches not my own. I asked about the central issues at play in the fragile relationship between the generations. One issue that consistently arose was power. The power dynamics between the first- and second-generations is an interesting one. Merriam Webster defines power as “the ability to act or produce an effect” or “possession of control, authority or influence over others.”1 One of the main frustrations that second-generation pastors express is the inability of the second-generation church to exert the power they need to come into their own. Consistently having to ask for permission to act is an inhibitor in the congregation’s ability to chart a way forward for oneself. One pastor I interviewed expressed lament in his inability to baptize or confirm one of his own congregants. After loving, teaching and raising up the congregant in the faith, he had to hand him over to the first-generation to be baptized or confirmed. Why? Because only the first-generation held the power to do so.

The most obvious divide is along cultural lines. The second-generation struggles to understand the complex layers of Korean culture. A pastor in New Jersey told me that a major point of tension was because the first-generation felt “disrespected” by the second-generation because they chose a different denomination with which to affiliate. For the second-generation pastor, this was a matter of theology. For the first-generation, this was a matter of loyalty. The first-generation was looking at the matter through their Eastern cultural lens (“family”). The first-generation considered their relationship familial and choosing another denomination was tantamount to marrying outside of their approved circle.

The cultural divide may be frustrating for the second-generation but it is a point of pain for the first-generation. The first-generation bled for the church they established for the next generation. They had a vision for the second-generation and suffered in hopes that the generations would move together as a family. In an honor and shame culture, the second-generation’s dismissive actions and sharp words cut deep. In understandable response, there are many stories of the first-generation resorting to controlling tactics to maintain relationship with the second-generation, a move that pushes them farther away over time.

Once the relationship with the second-generation pastor or ministry has been damaged, the second-generation church often leaves thus leaving a void. The first-generation church may start a new EM with tighter reins and greater involvement from the first-generation. Larger churches have been fairly successful in creating a new group while smaller churches have languished in their attempts to have a second child. These second children are sometimes stillborn, dying before they could really gather critical mass. Others have seen the frustrations of maturity repeating itself in the second child, repeating the patterns of the first child. As for the EMs who left, they often make attempts at affinity with the majority culture church or multiethnic churches but can’t shake the feelings of homesickness and alienation.

Once the relationship with the second-generation pastor or ministry has been damaged, the second-generation church often leaves thus leaving a void. As for the EMs who left, they often make attempts at affinity with the majority culture church or multiethnic churches but can’t shake the feelings of homesickness and alienation.

A New Way Forward: Partnership over Power

What is the path forward? It would be the height of vanity for me to suggest that I have a panacea for the plight of Korean American churches. The layers of complexity in even one individual church’s journey is far too intricate for any article to unpack. What I have below are merely some suggestions for what has worked for me and other pastors with whom I have spoken while writing this article. I pray that these suggestions help to move one church forward one step.

The first thing we must acknowledge is that leaving is not the answer. What I mean by that is that leaving your Korean American church may be a solution for your individual congregation but it is not the answer for the plight of Korean American churches as a whole. The reality is that the second-generation church needs models of collaboration. Not every church can leave. Despite the exodus of several influential second-generation churches away from their parent churches, most small EMs won’t be able to cross the Red Sea on their own. The majority of EMs will never have the finances, leaders, building or free rein to move out. Leaving may be the answer for your church, but the second-generation church as a whole needs to learn how to thrive in Egypt. Therefore, my intention is to focus on second-generation pastors who are in first-generation churches.

There is much blame put on the first-generation church, and much of it is deserved, but blame alone will not build new churches. You cannot build a church on the rock of what you are against. There are many young pastors who have tried. They may say that they are gospel-centered, but really their ethos and telos are to be unlike their first-generation counterparts.

Second-generation pastors can be iconoclastic in our methods. Iconoclasm in and of itself can serve great purposes, but an iconoclastic spirit devoid of service and humility will not create a new path forward. In order for the second-generation church to move forward without increasing the risk of being snuffed out, we must learn to serve the first-generation church. One of the unfortunate patterns we have seen in the Korean American church is the attempted uprising of the second-generation church being extinguished by the first-generation. The power scale is out of balance–the first-generation church holds the majority of the power in the first/second-generation hierarchy and therefore few uprisings are successful. Revolution is not the answer.

The short-sightedness of iconoclasm must be treated with a humble heart of service. In my own personal experience, change happens more effectively when the first-generation feels that we have their interests at heart. Often this does not take much more than symbolic measures of generosity. In my own church, our congregation has volunteered to pay for the maintenance of the new education building in which we reside. We have presented plans to invest in the education system with our own funds. Yet money is not the only answer. The most effective means of balancing the power has been serving the first-generation church’s needs for the youth. I have voluntarily spoken at youth groups and children’s ministries, spent time developing relationships with the youth pastors and volunteered to speak at their conferences without honorarium. These gestures of generosity supply a need of the first-generation in their efforts to reach the next generation.

In my own experience, change happens more effectively when the first-generation feels that we have their interests at heart. Often this does not take much more than symbolic measures of generosity.

In serving the first-generation, the second-generation creates new opportunities for relationships where they do not currently exist. Surprisingly, relationships begin to change power dynamics. A frustrated relationship can magnify the differences in the power dynamic and aggravate the power struggles even further. On the other hand, building the relationship can loosen the first-generation’s grip on their power. When trust enters in, the first-generation tends to release more opportunity and power. As it says in Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Second-generation pastors must admit that, in their iconoclastic methods, they have stirred up anger.

In many ways, if second-generation pastors want to even the playing field, they must do something that feels very unnatural to the tension. They must serve. In Mark 10:35-37, James and John come to Jesus and ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk. 10:37 ESV). What they don’t realize is that Jesus had just spoken to them about his own coming demise. He spoke to them about his going to Jerusalem to die. James and John don’t understand. They are thinking of their own future. They are only considering what they could attain. In patience Jesus corrects them and tells them that those who are rulers of the Gentiles lord it over others. “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:43-45 ESV). It is the meek who shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).

There is more to this dynamic of service. When the second-generation decides to serve the first, the cultural tension is also addressed. The first-generation feels “honored” and “respected.” The damaging effects of disrespect from the younger generation subside. The first-generation interprets our service not only as acts of love but also acts of honor. The closing of the cultural honor and shame gap presents new opportunities for the second-generation. Even small EMs are given opportunities that would not have been afforded to them if they had acted in rebellion. The Korean ideal of “jeong” comes into play. Jeong is a feeling of attachment between people who share a close relationship and commonly a relationship forged out of suffering together. This is an important ideal for Koreans. When the second-generation serves the first at their own expense, the jeong between them cultivates more openness from the first-generation.

Second-generation pastors feel a great deal of tension at this point. The first-generation church fails to resemble Jesus’ self-sacrificial form and yet the second generation is being asked to serve. Despite the seeming incongruence of this call, I challenge second-generation pastors to consider the gospel, not in terms of salvation, but in terms of kingdom. The gospel turns the kingdom upside down and power upside down. Those who imbibed the gospel to their core and serve will experience power. Those who wash feet will have their feet washed. There is a subversion of power in the gospel of the kingdom. Will we use the power methods of the world in order to build our new church? Or will we believe what Jesus told us would happen to the world? Power turned upside down. The meek made blessed inheritors.

Lastly, I want to point our second-generation brothers and sisters to remember Esther. If there was a book that displays a seemingly unsurmountable power dynamic, it is the book of Esther. Esther had a people to contend for–God’s people. Esther was not completely powerless. She held more power and opportunity than her cousin Mordecai and yet far less power than the Persian court. Esther had no easy answers. No one had paved the way forward in a way that provided a model for her and yet she had to overcome this power dynamic in order to help her people. Second-generation pastors may commiserate with Esther in her ordeal. We have a flock we care for dearly and yet we feel silenced under the lack of power.

Esther’s cousin Mordecai was the one who reminded her that she could not find escape from this situation. Her life was tied together with the Persian court and also with the Jews. She could try to be an exception and escape the fate of the Jews, but Mordecai reminded her that she would not be exempt from Persia’s reach. At the same time, God would sovereignly and inevitably bring deliverance for His people one way or another. Esther had a choice to try to be a part of that deliverance or to insulate herself from it. I had been deeply tempted to insulate myself from the Korean American church discussion. I thought that since I was in a white American denomination (PCA) with every opportunity to escape into the majority culture church, I would not have to deal with the fate of the Korean American church. God has changed my heart. Instead of running from the difficulties of the power struggle, He has called me to take courage, to take humility and find a way forward for my people. I pray and hope, despite the great challenges, that more second-generation brothers and sisters would do the same.

Note

1 Meriam Webster Dictionary, Definition of POWER, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power, accessed April 13, 2021.

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