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Lost in Translation: Silent Exodus and the Korean-American Church Part 1

by James Hyonroh Lee


Globalization is striking America back. Roughly defined as socio-cultural-economic interrelatedness of the world and its occupants, globalization has existed since the beginning of humanity. However, the rate, breadth and intensity of the current process of globalization has never been seen before in history.[1] The United States has been the primary culprit of delivering punches across the globe, with its impact being deeply felt culturally, politically, and economically last hundred years or so. Yet the central dynamic of globalization is the global “dialectic mechanism of convergence (homogenization) and divergence (heterogenization).”[2] In other words, in the increasingly global world, many entities experience a paradoxical need of becoming the same yet different. Global influences, much of which America molded in the first place, are shaping American institutions more significantly than ever; the church is no exception.


A typical Korean-American church is composed of twofold ministry groups: a Korean-speaking group (KM) and an English-speaking group (EM). As Korean immigration largely began after 1965, the Korean-American church did not have the need to cater to the latter group until well into the 80s.[3] However, as the children of the immigrants started to come of age, this new group – one who spoke a different language and abided by a different culture – within the church was created. Consequently, a need for interaction between the two groups arose, similarly to how the world now has been in need of constructive interactions between various groups socially, economically and culturally. This need became an urgent effort to unite together for the growth of the entire church, when the church suffered what is commonly known as the “silent exodus” in the 90s and 2000s.[4] The church has been responding by pursuing more ministerial unity. Again, this trend of uniting resembles the global effort for mutual governance – the United Nations Security Council and the International Mutual Fund for instance – created for the purpose of solving global crises and promote global growth and stability.


In fact, it is precisely in the area of mutual governance that the Korean-American church is converging; many Korean-American churches are casting a vision of unity between the KM and the EM within themselves. For example, there is a trend of hiring 1.5-generation senior pastors.[5] Two prominent flagship churches in Young Nak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles and Sa Rang Community Church in Orange County have recently hired 1.5-generation senior pastors.[6] Other influential churches all over the nation likewise are led by senior pastors who are proficiently bilingual: Choong-Hyun Mission Church, Oriental Mission Church, Davis Korean Church, New Jersey Chodae Church, Open Door Presbyterian Church (Virginia), and etc. Almost all hiring advertisements for senior pastor position across the country list bilingual ability as a foremost candidate requirement. Furthermore, well-resourced churches tend to hire bilingual education pastors and even youth pastors. Churches that are not as fortunate still manage to list preference for language ability of potential ministers, as observed from popular Korean Christian websites.[7]


Such emphasis on bilingual-ness points to the converging vision of homogenizing church leadership at the least. Every church wants to have a thriving English Ministry, and senior leadership who can mentor it and its pastors. However, since language for Korean-Americans is the single most predominant factor that composes culture, it can be argued that such desire for bilingual leadership is aligned with cultural unity of the church.[8] Moreover, as Korean-Americans largely consider and participate in the church as the hub of their social fabric in all aspects, the cultural unity indicated can be inferred as a desire for holistic social unity.[9] Senior pastor, as the top leader, acts as a focal point that motivates communal vision of unifying the two ministry groups of his or her church, a vision homogenized within the Korean-American Church. The associate pastors are assumed to work together with the senior to support this vision.


For all of its desires to grow unitedly, the Korean-American church is still full of intergenerational tension between the KM and the EM. The silent exodus sheds a light on this tension. Although silent exodus is not solely a Korean-American problem, the Korean-American church is unique in that it is the only ethnic community whose second generation is “leaving the immigrant church to develop entirely autonomous religious institutions apart from the immigrant context.”[10] The second generation is primarily leaving the immigrant context – if not the church altogether – primarily for three reasons: a) negative views of the EM pastors toward the KM shaped by KM’s authoritarian leadership style and legalistic spirituality, b) cultural clashes between the two generations over issues such as worship style and church management, and c) the second generation’s feeling of being treated as second-class citizens within the church.[11] On the other hand, the KM side of the church frequently points to small church attendance, low tithing rate, and lack of participation in early morning prayer service of the EM as signs of weak spirituality. So far, the hope for and practice of mutual governance via bilingual pastors does not seem effective in uniting the Korean-American church beyond the surface level.


[1] Frank J. Lechner and John Boli, “General Introduction” in The Globalization Reader, 1-2 and Jagdish Bhagwati, “Anti-Globalization: Why?” in In Defense of Globalization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 11. [2] Hak Joon Lee, The Great World House: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Global Ethics (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2011), 15. [3] Sharon Kim, A Faith of Our Own: Second-Generation Spirituality in Korean American Churches (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 23. [4] Ibid., 54. “Silent exodus” is a phenomenon in which many English-speaking Korean-Americans left the Korean-American Church en masse, with some joining other churches or forming their own but most losing church membership altogether. On the other hand, the church attendance rate of the first generation immigrants have largely remained the same. Scholars differ on their thoughts regarding the cause, scale, impact, and duration of the silent exodus. To be clear, the North American church overall has been experiencing the silent exodus. [5] 1.5-generation is a group of Korean-Americans who immigrated to the states in their childhood. They are typically bilingual, and have assimilated into American culture in various degrees, but are considered less American than the second generation born in the states. They are also considered less Korean than the first generation who immigrated in adulthood, hence the name 1.5. Though there are cases of churches hiring two senior pastors separately for their KM and EM congregations – in Young Nak Presbyterian Church (KM) and Young Nak Celebration Church (EM) for instance – senior pastors of Korean-American churches are often regarded as the top authority figure of both ministries of the churches which they lead, and supervise all pastors within the church. [6] Prominence of churches mentioned here is determined by total congregation size, length of history and recognition and involvement within their community. While not every Korean-American Christian would agree to such definition of church prominence, the churches named here have been widely-known by and active in Korean-American communities across the United States. The specific make-up of the KM and EM of these churches vary. Young Nak and Sa Rang are two churches that have a particularly long history and large congregation not only in the United States but in Korea; many non-Christian Koreans would be aware of their names. [7] These websites include: christianitydaily.com, newsm.com, christianherald.com, kamr.org, etc. [8] Kim, 137. [9] Ibid., 5. [10] Kim, 22. [11] Ibid., 26-7. About the Author — James Hyonroh Lee moved to the United States with his family from South Korea when he was 12 years old. He has a big heart for the Korean-American church, especially immigrant churches where deep intergenerational ministry is possible. He serves at Young Nak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles as the Awana Pastor. He is an aspiring Ph.D. student in religious ethics, and carries a special passion for issues surrounding Asian-American moral agency. James is a diehard Trojan: he earned a B.S. in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. He also holds a M.Div. with an emphasis in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary. James is happily married to his wife Hannah, with whom he has a beautiful two-year old daughter Abigail.

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