Silent Exodus by Helen Lee

NEWS: Silent Exodus
By Helen Lee
Additional reporting by Ted Olsen

Can the East Asian church in America reverse the flight of its next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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 (c) 1996 Christianity Today, Inc./CHRISTIANITY TODAY Magazine
August 12, 1996, Vol. 40, No. 12, Page 50