ICAS Summer Symposium

No. 2002-0810-KWK

The Immigrant Church and its Culture in the Societal Context:
Issues and Prospects

Kevin Kang

Summer 2002 ICAS Symposium

August 10, 2002 11:00 - 6:00 PM
Calvary Vision Community Center, 550 Township Line Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3289
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Kevin Kang

The Immigrant Church and its Culture in the Societal Context:
Issues and Prospects

Kevin Kang
Education Pastor,
Siloam Presbyterian Church,
Baltimore, Maryland


To treat the nature and characteristics of the immigrant church in any capacity is not a simple task. Changes in membership, differences in theology, and diversities in mission, despite the common heritage in faith, only complicate the matter. The role of the immigrant church within the societal context often becomes an issue of self-understanding, whether theologically justifiable or not. The extent to which the churches are involved with the immigrants’ life is often determined by individual churches and congregations. Such diversifying tendency evidences that it is not only difficult but also impractical to voice for every church and tradition of faith with regard to the issue in view. Given the complex nature of the subject matter, therefore, I find it necessary to make a disclaimer on the outset of this paper; the observations and suggestions that will be made in this paper presuppose my personal understanding and conviction of the Calvinistic and Presbyterian view of the church, including the missions of the church. That is to express, with due respect and love, that my paper may not be sufficient to satisfy other Christian traditions in treating the issue in view.

In this paper, I will first make some observations with regard to the roles and functions that the Korean immigrant churches have assumed in their community. Their social and cultural functions will be addressed as an attempt to review in what capacities the Korean immigrant churches have participated in their societal context up to the present time, though not necessarily a chronological nature. Then, for the future’s sake, I will touch upon the moral/spiritual function as a calling of the church within its community. When the church returns to its primary calling commissioned by the Lord, the community will be better served and preserved.

[Social function]

The name "immigrant church" for the complex body of Christian community reflects the expectations and roles to be taken on by the Korean churches within their respective contexts. The origin of the term "immigrant church" is not the focal interest of this paper, though it may well be a subject for another time. However, what seems to be apparent from that title is the identity of the Korean-American church is primarily determined by its relationship with the Korean-American community at large. Multiple studies report that from the beginning of the Korean immigrants history the church has been a focal point in the Korean immigrants society. How the church has become the center of the community is not our primary goal in this paper, but many studies are readily available to document it. Instead, what interests us is that the social function is one of the major roles that the Korean churches have taken on from the early days of immigration.

The immigrants, upon their arrival in this country, more often than not find themselves detached from their previous social order, comfort, and network. The initial problems and challenges that they have to deal with include psychological loneliness, the lack of knowledge and information about this country, the lack of the organized support and assistance from the Korean community and so on. As strangers in an unfamiliar world, they turn to one another for help. The church easily becomes the place where they could meet. For them the church is not only a religious institution, but also has become a social one as well.

The Korean churches often function as "Han-In-Hwoe" (Korean Immigrants Association). This tendency usually increases where the Korean population is often scarce. Where the "Han-In-Hwoe" is not organized, the churches replace it. For instance, in mid 1980s, in the Ozark Mountain area in Arkansas, there was no "Han-In-Hwoe" organized for about 100 immigrants residing in that area. But the church was able to draw them from the surrounding areas, and for one occasion virtually 100 percent of the immigrants population had gathered. The church was the only organized channel and place where the immigrants of that region could connect to one another.

The social function can also be illustrated by the social services provided by the churches. For new arrivals it is not uncommon for the Korean churches to pick them up from airports, find apartments, drive them for job interviews, and find schools for their children. Oftentimes, the churches provide an interpreter to accompany them to the bank, hospital or various bureaucratic offices. For senior citizens the churches organize programs like English class, computer class, group tours, and so on. Meeting the needs of the growing number of incapacitated elderly immigrants remains as a challenge for the Korean churches.

The Sunday gatherings often become an occasion for the immigrants to socialize with one another in their own language. The sermons and lessons by the pastors provide comfort and encouragement for the immigrants who identify themselves as sojourners in a foreign land. A "family atmosphere" of the Korean churches often creates a pseudo-extended family where everybody knows each other and each other’s business. In that regard the Korean churches continue to emerge as the center of the immigrant’s social life.

As seen thus far, the church’s social function is one of the primary roles that the church has performed from the early history of the immigrants within its societal context. The function of the church in its societal context, however, is by no means confined to the social dimension alone. The immigrants who gradually establish themselves as a social entity naturally desire to be a cultural entity.

[Cultural function]

One of the church’s missions on earth is to propagate into the culture and create a new way of life, namely Christian culture for the glory of God. A call to Christian life places a person in a constant tension in his/her effort to harmonize a new culture with the existing one. This mission of the church is expressed through a collective body of Christians. However, the cultural function attributed to the immigrant church in this paper is distinguished from the biblical mandate for the church. In other words, what is in view here is the church’s role and involvement in the effort to preserve and promote Korean culture in a foreign land.

Numerous evidences illustrate the cultural function of the Korean churches. The collective effort by the Korean churches to educate the younger generations of the Korean language and culture is one of chief examples about the Korean church’s cultural function. Nowadays, virtually every church runs a Korean class small or large. Along with teaching the Korean language, the traditional values and customs are handed down to the younger generation as well. Oftentimes, the Korean language is so emphasized that the language proficiency becomes a measure of one’s identity as a Korean. Some actually claim that one cannot mature in spiritual life not being able to speak Korean. Even among believers, Korean identity is confused with Christian identity. Nevertheless, the Korean churches continue to play the most significant role within Korean community in terms of passing the Korean language and its culture down the generations.

The Korean church’s culture function reaches beyond the walls of the church and occupies a leading role even in Korean community at large. On the occasions like International Day or the Korean Festival, the church’s participation and cooperation is more often than not heavily relied on. Some churches sponsor Korean Culture Day specifically for the adopted Korean children to American families in order to help them understand their root and ethnic heritage. A church bazaar often becomes an effective way to introduce Korean culture. Traditional foods, arts and crafts, demonstrations, and exhibits become not only an effective way to introduce Korean culture but also to create a friendly environment where Korean churches and neighbors can come closer to each other. The Korean churches’ effort to accommodate the issues with regard to the growing population of elderly surpasses the social service dimension. The elderly are no longer the passive recipients of care and love. How to help them create their positive identity and mobilize their wisdom as role models for younger generations is yet to be studied.

The cultural function of the Korean churches is not always for the purpose of promoting Korean culture only. The churches often become a place of learning for adult immigrants. The English language along with American way of life is taught at the local church level. The ministers’ messages become a vehicle to address and clarify some of the confusions and burdens occasioned out of the inter-cultural context. Besides, the Korean churches occasionally assume the role of educating their congregation to vote, fill out the government census, attend hearings at the Board of Education, participate in community activities and so on. It is true that the churches’ effort, sometimes, exceeds the cultural domain by stepping into the political realm. However, it is not to be overlooked that there is genuine effort by the Korean churches to help the immigrants to join the mainstream of American life, which finds no equal within Korean community.

The Korean church as a whole, being the most well structured organizations within Korean community, is carrying on a huge role in leading their immigrants in positive ways in their effort to make home in a foreign culture. As the Korean immigrants society matures, a new expectation of the Korean church arises from a hardly anticipated area of life, namely the moral aspect of the Korean immigrants.

[Moral/spiritual function]

The roles and functions that the Korean churches have assumed within their context are not always confined to the socio-cultural dimensions. Some churches take on political roles, while others do not hesitate providing economic means to the community. The limit and specifics may vary from church to church. However, the question must be raised. How far should the church extend its service under the name of being sensitive to the needs of the community? There are extreme forms of such that draws at least my attention, if not others, such as operating elderly apartments, retirement homes, and funeral services and cemeteries. If so, why stop there? What about grocery store, bank, or travel agency? What is the guideline for the church’s involvement in its community? Is the name of service and convenience the only criteria of justification?

As studies indicate, from the early days of the immigrants history, the Korean churches have been an effective and substantial institution to provide the various forms of social, cultural, political, economic, and psychological assistance to the immigrants. They were all necessary and well-intended services and functions within a particular scope of time and context. However, it must be noted as well that they are not the church’s primary functions. The essential identity of the church is not defined by those functions, though they are by no means neglected. The church is a spiritual body, and its primary responsibility on earth is evangelism. The church is a collective body of the regenerate, even if the earthly church has the unconverted mingled together. In the midst of conflicting worldviews, the church’s evangelistic calling includes a moral function by being the salt of this world, as Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13)."

Preservation is one of the inherent functions of salt. For example, salt in the ancient times was a valuable thing because it was an effective way to keep things, such as meat, from going bad. Individual Christians along with the church as a collective body of Christians are mandated by Jesus to be the preserver of this world from corruption. Other functions and roles that the churches take on are only secondary and derivative in order to fulfill its primary function, being the salt to this world. The way the church becomes the salt in this world, in practical sense, is to become a moral agent within its community. If the Korean churches have been diligent in rendering social, cultural, political, and economic functions, it is to function better as a moral agent in its society.

In this connection, I find it relevant to investigate the moral state of the Korean immigrants and to evaluate whether the Korean churches have been faithful to their calling to be "the salt" of this world.

[Moral situation of the Korean immigrants]

Apparently, America is a free country and a land of opportunity. Prosperity is often believed to be virtue and becomes a measure of one’s success in this land. In this regard, one of the unhealthy phenomena often noted among the Korean immigrants is their materialistic tendency. Often, they aggressively venture into the money-making opportunities not giving careful thoughts about the possible ill effects that might be generated along the way. A fast and easy return often becomes a sole criterion. Their impatient mentality could be attributed to the dissatisfaction in their pursuit of social progress or uneasiness living in a foreign land. However, whatever the cause may be, as Prof. Eui-Young Yu indicated, the "money-talk" mentality apparently leads to an unwholesome morality.

An untamed drive to make fast money often results in the Korean immigrants’ long working hours up to 12 hours a day or even more. The long working hours creates a chain reaction of problems, not to mention many health problems associated with it. The family hours are cut short, and their children are left to the care of other people, such as after-school programs, Hak-Won (tutorial centers), and lessons, or sometimes left by themselves without any adult supervision. To compromise their excuse not being available for their children they often choose to compensate it with money. The neglected children know well the vulnerable situation of their parents and even abuse it. Are the children to blame? Often the parents wait a little too long in the excuse of "a little more" only to find out their children are in a far greater problem than money can fix.

Recently, buying large houses seems to be the trend among the Korean immigrants. Thanks to God, it is a sign of their economic establishment. However, when a house becomes a symbol of one’s success, it undermines and demoralizes the fellow immigrants. In other words, when a house becomes a means to rank one’s social status, it evidences a serious moral defect of that individual. For example, some people buy a huge house to marry off their children. It is simply a way to show off, if not to deceive. A serious danger behind such practice is that it could possibly stir up mutual mistrust within the society. Such practices are the reflection of the mentality that money goes farther than lofty morality.

Besides the "money-talk" mentality among the Korean immigrants, the mistreatment of the Hispanic work forces in some of Korean businesses needs to be addressed. It is a common phenomena nowadays that Hispanics are hired by many Korean businesses, such as restaurants and groceries, in the level of hard manual labor. General consensus among the eye-witnesses including myself is that they are often mistreated, abused, and discriminated. For instance, I witnessed on one occasion that a Korean manager was not only yelling at them in Korean but also frequently making disparaging remarks about them in the Korean tongue. It was simply a violation of basic human dignity and right. Unfortunately, many attest to this ongoing problem. Koreans are the people who know well what it is like to be subjected to others in undignified ways. Such mischievous practices must stop at once whether to Hispanics or to any other fellow human beings.

Another situation that well reflects the morality of the Korean immigrants is the absence or decreasing influence of moral values and principles. The Korean immigrants, living in a foreign land, often victimize themselves by allowing new forces – namely egalitarianism and materialism – to replace their traditional values and principles. The Koreans’ individual and social behaviors and conducts have been for many centuries governed by predominantly Confucianism. There used to be one set of rule and way of life commonly shared and respected among Koreans. Living in America, the Korean immigrants learn that the traditional Korean value system is no longer binding. Instead, American life gives them different messages, which sometimes contradict their previous code of conduct. They find themselves not really belonging to either system, if they choose to maneuver. Thus, a vacuum is created, and the law becomes a bare minimal force that governs their conducts. So long as they do not run in with the law, they feel justified in their conducts. The problem occurs when law and morality not necessarily go together. Back in Korea, they were repeatedly reminded that "Ha-Neul" the heaven always watches their behavior like Martin Luther’s famous phrase "Coram Deo" that he is always before God. In the areas where law did not reach, morality took over. But in America, they are taught that no one is guilty until proven guilty. Presumed innocence tangled with egalitarianism separates public morality from the realm of law and turns it into a thing of mockery. America has just witnessed the case of Bill Clinton. The Korean immigrants find themselves living in a moral vacuum; they are slipping away from the traditional Korean values but at the same time have not yet latched onto the American system of morality. However, such trend, if it continues, could be costly; the lapse in moral standard will seriously jeopardize their process of becoming a part of America.

Our study reveals an urgent need of reparation in the domain of public morality within Korean community. It now becomes the question of "who." Who can address these moral problems? Who can help them to restore their morality? Can "Han-In-Hwoe" do it? Can Women Association do it? Can Lawyers Association do it? It is the church’s role. It is the church’s calling. Unfortunately, many churches do not live up to the calling and standard to which they are called by Jesus.

[Evaluation of the Korean churches’ role as moral agent]

The church’s call to be the salt within the community is a high calling that no other worldly organizations can answer to. However, it is questionable whether the Korean churches or Christians as a collective body have been faithful to their calling. The performance of the Korean Churches as a moral agent can be epitomized by their lack of outreach to the community at large. Only a few areas can be mentioned in this paper.

The majority, if not all, of activities and services by Korean Christians is performed within the wall of the church. Often, within the Korean churches the degree of participation and service rather than their spiritual maturity becomes a deciphering factor choosing their leaders such as an elder. Ironically, being an elder in a Korean church is quite often understood as honor and status which translates over into the community as well. Therefore, the internalization of Christian services becomes inevitably a natural tendency.

Besides aspiration to be an elder, the blessing-seeking theology, known as Gee-Bok-Sa-Sang, shuts off concern for others and instead internalizes their interest and effort to individual piety and blessings. Traditionally, the merit-based reward concept has been prevailing with the Korean churches. Even after they become Christians by God’s grace, often they find it difficult to practice grace to others. It should not be overlooked that to reach out to those in need is one of the tenets of the Bible.

Sometimes, their effort and resource are directed to oversea missions rather than to the needy people outside of their very door. Mission itself is a legitimate area of ministry, but the problem is an unbalanced allocation of church budget and effort. Mission is often wrongly defined as going oversea to the uncivilized tribes. They fail to optimize American context where more number of ethnic groups are represented than any other parts of the world. Sometimes, the language barrier is raised as a technical difficulty that contributes to their negligence of the local community. However, it is more of an issue of passion and priority. Specific plans and details of "how" remain to be devised.

The Korean churches are often criticized as a self-serving institution for their lack of outreach to the community at large. In the areas, such as cultural and political domains, the churches lead their members to join the mainstream of America. However, though without ill intention, the lack of outreach effort to both the needy and the local community discredits the church’s calling to be the moral agent to the world.


Prof. Eui Hang Shin once said, "Early immigrant churches had the independence movement. Later churches had the democratization movement. What is the agenda of the Korean American church today?" I answer, if I may, the Korean American churches today have a task to restore the dismantled morality among the Korean immigrants. In that regard, concluding this paper, I make two suggestions to help achieve that goal.

First, those derivative functions, such as social, cultural, economic, and political functions, that the Korean churches have taken on thus far need to be passed over to other voluntary organizations within Korean community, even if the churches would continuously show their support in those areas. Professional and specialized organizations need to be created out of Korean community. Some people expect that the churches would be more involved in those areas. However, the church’s role is to encourage others to form such voluntary organizations rather than the church itself taking over the task.

Second, the churches should concentrate on the moral reparation and development for Korean community, which other voluntary organizations cannot perform. Remember that the church is a spiritual institution. The moral health of the society is the church’s responsibility along with winning souls to Christ. The social and cultural functions are only a part of the church’s calling, thus a part of the church culture, but only in a derivative sense.  The Korean churches are to be first faithful in their calling to be a beacon to the world, while continuously carrying on other secondary functions as well.  Granted that many Korean immigrants live in a moral vacuum, the provision and reinforcement of a proper moral guideline is expected of the church more than anytime before.


Hurh, Won Moo and Kwang Chung Kim, "Religious Participation of Korean Immigrants in the United States." Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 19 (1990): 19-34.

Kim, Paul Taek-Yong. Church Growth: Development of the Korean Churches in America. Seoul, Korea: Word of Life Press. 1985.

Shin, Eui Hang. The Immigrant Church and Culture in the Societal Context: Issues and Prospects.  Paper presented as part of the ICAS Summer 2000 Symposium "Korean Diaspora" available at www.icasinc.org.

Yu, Eui-Young. "Korean American Community Issues and Prospects" in Korean American Ministry. Edited by Sang Hyun Lee and John V. Moore. Louisville: General Assembly Council Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 1987. 165-191.

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
& Discussants
Summer 2002