Many Koreans in 70s, 80s, and 90s immigrated to America with high hopes for a better and successful future. In order to pursue the new opportunities in America, however, immigrants had to endure parting with the things that had been so familiar to them. The familial relations, their lifetime friends, the streets on which they had spent their whole lives growing up, their favorite Korean food, the music, the familiar noises, and their favorite sports team; all had to be left behind. Venturing into the new world meant not only physical but also emotional departures from their native land.
As someone who has experienced such pain of parting, I know how difficult it is to live in an unfamiliar and foreign country, always longing for the day to return home. For me, it was the little things that would trigger my nostalgia for Korea. My favorite brand of Ramyun noodles, although the Korean supermarket in Philly sells the exact same kind, just did not taste the same as it did in Korea. I felt the same about all the Korean restaurants that I went to in the States. I ordered the food in Korean, the menu was written in Korean, and the food was overall pretty good, but was simply not Korean enough. The truth was that I missed Korea deeply and nothing could satisfy my longing as long as I was in America.
I noticed this also applied to those immigrants who had been living in the States for 20-25 years. Their favorite vacation spot were still the Koreatowns in New Jersey or New York. Regardless of how long they might have lived in the States, their longing for their home country remained, perhaps ever increasing as the years went by.
Such desire to stay connected to their Korean values and culture led to a formation of distinct Korean communities within America. Of these, it was the church that came to take on the most prominent role. The church was, for Korean immigrants, more than just a gathering of believers for worship; it was a community where they would identify themselves with Korean culture and seek for belongingness, which for most of them was hard to find in their workplaces or schools.
On a positive note, this led to tremendous growth in the number of congregants in the Korean churches. People gathered for various reasons, whether social or religious. Those who had already been Christians before immigration were thankful as they walked in the church’s doorstep and heard the familiar tune of their favorite hymns. They were comforted by the preacher’s messages that God is with them wherever they go and that God would make them successful as He did for Joseph. Those who had never been Christians before joined the church, at first for social reasons perhaps, but some of them eventually received Christ as their personal Savior. Korean churches provided a shelter and a comfort from the harsh realities of living as a minority in America.
The tendency to find their Korean identity in the churches, however, had created long-term problems as well.
First, many Korean churches became quite resistant to change. The fact that immigrants had to part physically and emotionally with their native country meant that they had to undergo and endure many cultural and social changes in their workplaces, schools, and in their new relationships. But because church was for them a place that mitigated their homesickness, they wanted the church just as they remembered it to be in Korea when they first immigrated in the 70s and 80s. Even trivial things, such as the color of the church walls, required hours and hours of debates since congregants, especially the elderly, were adamant in wanting to hold to their old ways and principles. Often, congregants did not welcome changes despite the theological reasons behind them.
Second, the unwillingness to change drew a sharp divide between first and second generation Koreans. While the first generation identified themselves to be native Koreans, the second generation identified themselves as Korean-Americans. The latter did not see the church as a place to remember and practice their Korean identity in the same way the first generations did. Rather, they wished for the church to take interest and be aware of the issues that they faced as Korean-Americans in the world. Often times, they clashed not over theological interests but over different preferences, such as what to wear to church or what songs could be sung in the church. The differences in their understanding of the church’s role in their lives, culture, and language deepened the divide between the two generations.
Third, most Korean churches tended to lack emphasis on sound theology. Now, I want to phrase this carefully. I am not arguing that Korean churches do not care about theology. They do. But speaking generally, because Korean churches took on a role beyond a community of believers, their focus had to be broadened beyond teaching sound theology to making sure the church responded to the social needs of Korean immigrants. The problem was that the church’s main agenda became building a community pleasing to the Korean immigrants, instead of really focusing on preaching the gospel and training the congregants to live biblically based on sound theology . Because many churches sought to focus on how the church should serve the community, the importance of Christian life came to overrule the importance of Christian doctrine. As this shift took place, much concern was placed on evangelizing and missions in order to multiply the numbers, competing against other Korean churches, but less on Bible studies and personal growth in one’s knowledge of God. Churches focused on big events that drew the community’s attention as a way to reflect its success.
I point out these issues because they have proved to be detrimental to the health of Korean immigrant churches. The influx of Korean immigrants has decreased, so churches can no longer expect tremendous growth in number that it had experienced before. Also, if church had played a crucial role in providing a social community for immigrants in previous decades, there are now many alternatives which can fulfill the same function. Korean immigrants do not necessarily have to come to church anymore to find their Korean identity. The people who do remain in the church have been taught on poor theological grounds. The second generations are leaving the churches, and approximately half abandon their faith, never to come back. No longer can Korean churches reminisce about their past glories. It is time to face these realities. Where will the strength of Korean immigrant churches be in the future years to come? What will be the driving force behind these churches in the next few years? It is an irony that as churches carry less of the burden of providing the social center for immigrants, they tend to see this change only as a threat to their existence, rather than as an opportunity to rebuild a spiritual community upon theologically sound teachings.
In light of the place that Korean immigrant churches have occupied in society, these issues are understandable, yet problematic. Although the case of Korean immigrant churches may not reflect the situations of all immigrant churches of other cultures, I believe there may exist some common ground. I hope this discussion can be developed into dialogue between immigrant churches of other ethnicities so that immigrant churches may truly prosper as theologically solid gatherings, and also as a means for continually bringing the gospel to immigrant communities.