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The Korean Immigrant Church in the Mainline Context

by Dr. Hak Joon Lee


The Korean immigrant church was for me a safe place and haven from feeling like a foreigner and out of place at the school, neighborhood or shopping mall. It was the place where you could feel “normal” for one day, where you did not need to explain the most basic things about yourself because you shared a deep reservoir of experience and culture with other kids in similar situation. It was a place where I learned to be a leader – youth group president, college group president, Sunday school teacher – and a place where I found deep pride in my culture of origin. Even though there was always some form of conflict in the Korean church, it was a place that was so much like family to me that I wanted to serve the Korean immigrant church, and especially the second generation, all of my life as a minister. I am probably who I am today because my experience of the Korean immigrant church as a youth was so positive.


I am a third generation Presbyterian nurtured in faith by loving Korean immigrant congregations in South Carolina and Georgia. I went straight from college to seminary to pastoral ministry and ordination. I have been a local church pastor in the PCUSA for the past 20+ years, and have loved every minute!


Today I want to lift up the Korean immigrant church all over the world, a church with many gifts and strengths. Among them are a strong commitment to prayer and dependence on God for all things, to a biblical faith, to evangelism and church growth, to spiritual revival, and to strong and intimate fellowship that feels like family. But the weaknesses of the Korean church are very close to that of Korean culture in general. Among them are endless division, a culture of complaint, envy, gossip, crude displays of status, the raw competition for power, the rigidity of roles, and the dominance of the Confucian hermeneutic in the reading of the Bible. As I’ve been saying for decades, if Jesus and Confucius agree, all is right with the world, but if they disagree, who do you think the typical Korean church will conform to? But in no way do I believe that the Western church is any less controlled by the Platonic framework. Must we really choose between being co-opted into an Eastern shamanistic spirituality or a Western rationalistic reductionism?


I now see that the Korean Church in its institutional form is the religious arm of what I would call the Korean National Rehabilitation Project (or Korean Cultural Establishment Project). As a notable Korean historian recently said, the single greatest achievement of the Korean people is that we are still here. That is to say that we did not get swallowed up by the great empires surrounding the Korean peninsula for the 5,000 years that we have been a distinct ethno-cultural-linguistic people. The Korean people both in the homeland and in the diaspora are to prove to the world that we are somebody, that we matter, that we are not a runt of a country to be kicked around by big bully countries anymore. Therefore, we must excel in every area of human endeavor, whether it be in science, politics, medicine, law, the arts, or in religion, including the Christian faith. I believe this is why we see so little of actual Christian discipleship among the millions of Koreans the world over who call themselves Christians. We are merely the religious arm of the Korean National Rehabilitation Project that ultimately brings “Korea” the glory while praying to “God.”


Korean people have lacked political, economic and military power for most of its history. One of the reasons that the Korean Church has grown so rapidly is because Korean people like to clump together. Clumping together has been one way to preserve the culture, and to leverage size as a counterweight to external threats. As a historically oppressed people, Koreans have always turned to the Divine for help and salvation, which has made us a very devout people, no matter what religion we adopted. That same oppression has also made us a deeply insecure people, and so we are highly prone to chase after trends, and fear getting left behind.


There is no question that Christianity has been the major religious force for more than a hundred years. One thing that makes the Christian religion very unique to Korea is that it was not introduced as a Western colonial religion. The Korean Independence Movement saw Christianity as a friend, not foe, in its aspirations to be liberated from Japanese colonialism. Hence, Korea is one of the very few countries in the world for which the Christian religion was on the “right” side of history. Nevertheless, trends change over time, and it is foreseeable that the Korean people will be open to a much more pluralistic religious future.


As a people from a relatively small and weak country, we know the pain of being colonized by great powers. My question today is: Do we Korean Christians still need to be colonized in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Will the Korean immigrant church be a force for spiritual renewal only under a system of imperial patronage?


I believe that it is time for the Korean immigrant church to forge our own theological and missional path that is distinct from both White liberalism and White conservatism. White liberals purportedly embrace diversity, but only as long as they frame the debate, call the shots, and control the structures. White conservatism appears on the surface to be more congruent with Korean traditional values, but can we really embrace a belief system that historically has opposed black liberation, justice for Native Americans, and compassion to non-European immigrants? Should the Korean American church give blind allegiance to Western dualism, radical individualism, and American exceptionalism?


Still, I urge Korean diaspora Christians to be patient in this time of massive change. I understand that mainline denominations around the world are in steep decline. At the rate of our membership loss in the PCUSA, for example, there will be 0 members in 20 years. More than that, the Reformed tradition in its Western expression has become so captive to an outmoded Enlightenment rationalism that it simply cannot take the Holy Spirit seriously, either in its liberal or conservative form. How can there be a future for a denomination not led by the Holy Spirit?


I think of the example of David in the Bible. As a boy he was legitimately anointed as king by the official prophet of the nation, but how many years passed between his anointing and his installation as king? It could have been 10 to 20 years? Saul had become mad and murderous, and by the legal tradition of the day David had every right to retaliate and kill Saul. But he said over and over: As long as Saul lives, I will consider him the Lord’s anointed. The Holy Spirit clearly left Saul and entered David, yet David waited on the Lord.


We can all see that the modern church has grieved the Holy Spirit, but that does not mean we should do anything drastic now. We must not panic. God is doing a new thing; we eagerly anticipate a new dispensation. Until then, I will serve the Presbyterian Church (USA), and King Saul, as long as God gives them life.


1. This article is a manuscript of a speech delivered by Reverend Jin S. Kim at the 9th Council of Overseas Korean Churches for Education and Ministry on February 4th, 2014. Rev. Kim is the senior pastor of Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights, Minnesota.

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