The ICAS Lectures

No. 2000-0818-EHS

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

Eui Hang Shin

ICAS Summer Symposium
Korean Diaspora: Challenges facing the Korean-American Community (KAC) in the New Century

Yuong Sang Presbyterian Church Mission Center
706 Witmer Road, Horsham, PA 19044
August 18, 2000

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992

Biographic Sketch: Eui Hang Shin

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

Eui Hang Shin

I have a sister who lives in Los Angeles and I call her once in a while to say hello. Recently, she remarked upon four things on which she depends heavily these days, Reminiscent of Stephen Soderbergh's movie title, my sister spoke of her dependence on church, acupuncture, ramen, and videotape. I was impressed by her insight into her lifestyle. Her statement also caused me to reflect upon whether my daily routines differ substantially from those of an 82-year old Korean immigrant woman living in all ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles.

Incidentally, my sister always answers the phone by saying "yo-bo-say-yo". She never says "hello." Her greeting has a built-in benefit, in that it tends to discourage prank callers and telemarketers.

As mentioned by Dr Kim, today I shall address the role of Korean American churches in the 21st century. Perhaps a disclaimer is in order here. Shortly after Valentine's Day, I was reading the comic strip "Cathy." In this strip, Cathy's friend lamented having already eaten half of her Valentine's Day chocolates while Cathy celebrated the fact that half of her chocolate box remained intact. My address today will focus primarily on the current problems of Korean American churches, giving less emphasis to the contributions and positive functions Korean American churches have played historically. I may step on a lot of toes. That having been said, I shall attempt to provoke some thoughts among ourselves concerning the future of Korean American churches.

The purpose of my presentation is to document the status of the Korean American church as a community organization, particularly from a sociological perspective, and also to analyze the current functions of Korean American churches. I shall also investigate several emerging issues and offer suggestions for future directions. I shall begin by discussing the pattern of growth throughout the history of the Korean American church.

As we all know, the first Korean American church was established back in 1903 when the first group of immigrants landed in Hawaii for work on sugar-cane plantations. By 1915, there were about twenty-nine churches -nearly one for each plantation. Fifteen years later, however, only three of those churches had survived. In 1970, there were about 150 Korean American churches in the United States. Today, some estimates suggest that there are 3,500 Korean American churches. What are the causes of this fantastic growth?

First, it is important to note that twenty-five percent of the entire Korean population was Christian at that time. An even larger proportion of those immigrating to the United States were Christian. They were well-educated urban residents, so pre-immigration background factors, I would say, is one of the major baseline factors that contributed to this rapid increase. Then the post-immigration status of Korean immigrants as an ethnic minority with a lot of people needing help from some organization, and church being the organization that provided such social services for newly arrived immigrants. A second factor underlying the growth of Korean American churches has been the availability of well-trained pastors in the Korean American community. By the most recent counts, there are about 5,800 trained Korean American clergy in this country. Additionally, American social structures promoting pluralism, diversity, and freedom of religion were conducive to the establishment and growth of new churches.

In addition to its growth, the prominent status of immigrant churches in the Korean American community is worthy of note. In a paper published last year in the international Journal Korean Studies, I examined the population of voluntary associations in the Korean American community of four major metropolitan areas: New York. Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. Out of the 612 total voluntary associations in the New York community, 436 (71.2 percent) were churches. Although I observed some variation from one metropolitan area to another, it is reasonable to estimate that the vast majority of voluntary associations in the Korean American community are churches. Interestingly, the second-largest category was comprised of the alumni associations or middle and high schools, colleges, and universities. Immediately following in rank were home province, county, and city associations. To a sociologist, this pattern strongly suggests that we in the Korean American community tend to cling to our ascriptive ties, and to involve ourselves in very exclusive network, structures, rather than starting new instrumental organizations. This tendency may be very closely related to the psychology of the Korean immigrants. I will touch on this point later.

Another important point is that, when Christianity was first introduced to Koreans almost 140 years ago, churches were the most non-Korean entities in Korean society. Christian missionaries started Western-style schools, hospitals, and different types of organizations, and churches served as powerful engines for modernization. Now, more than a century later, churches are the most Korean organizations in the Korean American community. This factor is crucial for assessing the current state of churches in our community. Following Emile Durkheim, classical theories of religion assert that social integration is among the primary functions of religion in a society. It is debatable whether or not the Korean American churches of today continue to fulfill this integrative function. In one sense, the intra-ethnic emphasis within this associationa1 ethnic enclave serves as a wall surrounding us, making us an unmeltable ethnic group. The fairness of this assessment is a matter of individual perspective, but it is an issue worthy of reflection.

We must also consider leadership structures within our churches. Most Korean American churches are both pastor-dependent and pastor-centered, with elders and deacons dominant in some congregations. This being the case, when a well-respected pastor leaves a Church, the congregation tends to suffer a great deal, perhaps more so than would a non-Korean church.

Rational choice theorists argue that one way to achieve an effective organization is to weed out free-riders. There are few free-riders in the Korean American churches of today. By way of evidence, consider the level of participation required to be considered for election as a deacon or appointment as a lay leader. To be eligible for such positions, a parishioner must attend 5:30 a.m. daybreak prayer meetings six days each week, in addition to worship and Bible study on Wednesday nights, district and village meetings on Friday nights, and Saturday night meetings for elders or deacons; it is a "you-do-that-or-else" kind of process. Because leadership positions in Korean American churches demand such high levels of participation, the range of choices we have within them merit consideration.

In addition to the forces discussed earlier, I offer that the theological strictness of theology Korean American churches has contributed to their growth. Arguably, most Korean American churches subscribe to the ideological and theological tenets of fundamentalism. Early immigrant churches had a mission and the independence movement was their primary political cause. Theology aside, the primary ideology of Korean American churches from the 1960s to the 1980s was related to the democratization of Korea. What should be our primary ideology in the Korean American church today?

Overseas mission work currently receives heavy emphasis. A friend of mine in the Presbyterian Church of the USA system indicated to me the other day that Korean or Korean American missionaries in Russia today seem to outnumber those from any other country. The same pattern is observed among missionaries in other regions, including Southeast Asia and Africa. As Korean immigrants, we have been blessed with a unique role in world missions. I personally am impressed by the intensity, commitment, and emotion demonstrated by Korean American churches in that regard. This emerging emphasis should be welcomed, but we must ask ourselves, at what cost? Should we not consider a more balanced approach?

The next item I would like to consider concerns the blessing-seeking orientation (ki-bok-sa-sang) of Korean American theology. Over the past nine years, I have collected data on scriptural references in 703 revival meetings in ethnic Korean churches. Although the content analysis is not yet complete, a clear pattern is emerging. In Korean American revival meetings, scriptural references tend to emphasize the seeking of blessings. That such an orientation is highly valued among some Korean American families is indisputable. For example, I know from experience that when a Korean American child applies to an Ivy League school, it is likely that his or her parents will attend frequent prayer meetings to pray that the application will be successful. It is a part of our culture and a well-established religious practice in Korean American churches. Once again, however, we must ask ourselves if we are emphasizing this at the expense of other important functions of ethnic churches.

Status competition in ethnic Korean churches is another issue that merits discussion. A survey conducted by the Presbyterian Church of the USA revealed that, on average, a Korean American churchgoer remains affiliated with a local congregation for only 4.6 years. Even when the effects of residential mobility are controlled, this period of time is much shorter than the average length of affiliation among non-Koreans. Unless individual needs are met -particularly the need for recognition- there will be no loyalty. By recognition, I mean the possibility of being elected as a deacon or elder. Failing to achieve such recognition in a local church, many choose to move on to another congregation.

As discussed earlier today, Korean American churches offer many programs that speak to the needs of 1.5 and second-generation parishioners. There are many well-trained second-generation pastors, and they are leading English-speaking Korean American congregations. In congregations dominated by first-generation faithful, however, programs for second-generation Korean Americans are quite limited in scope, some offering little more than lip-service.

We must also consider the status of women in Korean American churches. In my own congregation, while we follow the PC-USA Book of Order most of the time, we also have so-called "naekyu", internal rules of our own. Many of our internal rules are inconsistent with the spirit and legal dimensions of the Book of Order. Although deaconesses are not explicitly ineligible to be elected elders, the consequence of cultural practices within this church is that women are highly unlikely to attain such positions. In light of their extensive contributions to the life of the Korean church, I feel it is important that they receive formal recognition for their efforts.

The next item I wish to address is the training of future pastors. According to my best estimate, more than eighty-five percent of Korean American pastors today received their original training and ordination in Korea although most received advanced training in this country.

Some pastors do go through such graduate programs as the Doctor of Ministry. In most cases, however, they have not participated in the regular American seminary training programs. Graduate programs for Korean American pastors have tended to be organized by Korean American denominational organizations and by senior pastors in large metropolitan areas. Even when course credits are offered through American seminaries, the programs are separate and pastors take classes in Korean. We must consider whether such arrangements are desirable for the graduate training of our pastors.

Investigating the African-American community of the 1940s through the 1960s, W.E.B. Dubois emphasized the importance of the "double-duty dollar," arguing that dollars earned from blacks in black neighborhoods should be spent for programs in the same communities. Many of our fellow church members engage in small business enterprises in black neighborhoods, and they contribute heavily to our local churches. According to my estimates, this segment of the Korean American congregation contributes, proportionately, the most offerings to local congregation. We must ask ourselves how much of our budgets are allocated to support programs for our black neighbors or the communities where these dollars originate.

Having thus far touched upon some of the problems facing the Korean American church, my discussion will now turn to how we may address them in the future. It is essential that we shift our focus from Korean to Korean American. In my research on revival meetings in Korean American churches, I found that more than half of all revival preachers came from Korea -straight from Korea. To emphasize my point, consider the following scenario. Suppose a Japanese school in New York City needs a baseball coach, should they recruit a baseball coach from Tokyo or Osaka, or should they find a well-trained baseball coach from their own neighborhood -or at least from New York City? I suggest that, as responsible parishioners, we must re-evaluate the dependence of Korean American churches on Korean denominations and resources, and whether such dependence is healthy.

I was very happy to hear Mr Bush's new initiative for involving religious organizations in the provision of social services. If this initiative materializes, I hope that Korean-American churches will actively apply for such grants and get involved in inter-ethnic programs providing services to non-Korean needy families. In an earlier study, I examined bulletins from churches in the Southern California immediately following the Los Angeles riots of 1992. I had expected to see that some churches had addressed issues concerning the rights, future, and well-being of Korean immigrant communities, along with some new directions for our ethnic movement. Surprisingly, few sermons touched upon these themes at all. Many Korean American families who had lost their livelihoods during the riots looked to their churches for spiritual support. I am not convinced that our ethnic churches met their needs.

As the most important ethnic organization, the Korean American church will, I hope, begin to take a more active initiative and play a more aggressive role in registering our views on public policies. I look forward to the emergence of some Korean American version of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, or even Al Sharpton, who will speak out in our own interests, protect our well-being, and promote our future. I have already mentioned the need to re-evaluate the structures of power and representation in our churches. Obviously, the future of Korean American churches will depend on 1.5 and second-generation Korean Americans. Recall that, in Hawaii, only three of the twenty-nine churches existing in 1915 survived.

On a personal note, I have two sons. They work in Manhattan, and they are not what could be described as "serious" Christians. Although they may go to church in Manhattan several times a year, I still have concerns about their religious lifestyles. I must stop to consider, however, how ready our first-generation Korean immigrant churches are to offer the spiritual, educational, and social services needed by our second generation. If we continue in our current direction, how many of our 3,500 Korean immigrant churches will still exist twenty years from today?

In my associations with pastors of non-Korean churches, I have come to perceive that the theology of American churches is very much focused on the fact that salvation is given by the grace and love of God. As Christian soldiers, then, the faithful are called to fulfill God's expectations in all aspects of their lives, including helping those in need and advocating social justice. By contrast, the theology of Korean American churches typically treats salvation as a process requiring continuing effort, devotion, correct faith and behavior. Unless we behave faithfully we will not be blessed and salvation may not be there for us. In the past, this distinction has been healthy, as shown by the historical pattern of growth in the Korean American church. In terms of empowering our Korean American community, however, I question whether this remains our best path for the future. I would like to see my sons become more serious about their Christianity, but not necessarily in the style of current Korean American religiosity. I would like to see them inherit their ethnicity. In addition to becoming more serious Christians, I would like to see them become more universal Christians.

In the future, I would like to see our church formulate new ideology. As noted before, early immigrant churches had the independence movement. Later churches had the democratization movement. What is the agenda of the Korean American church today? As I mentioned before, we are serious about overseas missions, but how serious are we about the unification of North and South Korea? As a member of the Korean American church, I believe that unification is necessary, but wonder if we can maintain a balanced approach within our church organizations, conducting foreign mission work, working for the unification of the two Koreas, and empowering our own Korean American ethnic communities.

ICAS Fellow