Don’t treat us like children

I haven’t actually heard anyone say this of course, but the sentiment is there. As I have been part of an English congregation (EM) at a Korean church, again and again I’ve observed small and large ways that the folks in the EM chafe against the strictures imposed on them by the Korean Ministry (KM). As a cultural outsider, I can only get a partial picture of all the complexities involved, but I’m a savvy enough observer of human nature to see some things that certainly give pause for thought.

Observation #1: The KM controls the resources and therefore sets the agenda.

This in itself is not a stunning revelation. The KM is much larger in number and, by and large, has many more financial resources to contribute to the ministry. But the issue goes beyond dollars and cents. Why should the EM have a larger part in setting the agenda for the church when their financial contribution is smaller even than their membership percentage in the church would indicate? In other words, the EM simply doesn’t carry its own weight financially, or in other ways. It isn’t only in giving that the KM outstrips the EM, but it is the KM that shows up early and stays late to pray, to prepare food, to maintain equipment, and to do all the things that are necessary to the running of a church. Of course to many in the KM, this isn’t done with an eye towards serving the EM, which leads to my second observation.

Observation #2: EM is an afterthought.

By this I mean that no Korean congregation sets out to minister to English speakers (the same could be said of other ethnic immigrant churches). Rather their primary missions thrust is to serve first generation immigrants and to provide space for them to encounter the Lord in a culturally “safe” way. EM develops only as a corollary to “real” church, and usually has its roots in children’s church which is set up to care for the kids while their parents worship God. Over time the kids grow up and increase in number and the church has to hire a youth pastor (if they’re lucky) to keep them occupied and hopefully to impart some measure of spirituality and Bible knowledge. These children grow up, and if they don’t leave the church outright – BAM! – an EM is born. But this newly emerged EM didn’t develop with any intentionality or ministry focus. In the minds of the KM, it is still a place to keep the “children” occupied while the adults worship, event though some of these “children” are full grown adults with children of their own. Consequently there is very little genuine appreciation on either side of the others needs.

Observation #3: EM congregations are often spiritually (and otherwise) immature.

This is a blanket statement to be sure, and the same could be said of many in the KM as well. However, a cursory survey of the prayer life or Biblical knowledge of many EM congregants would likely reveal a significant disparity between them and their parents. Prayer and Bible knowledge alone don’t make one mature, but the simple fact that dawn prayer is such an integral (if cultural) part of KM and that so many in the KM are part of cell groups that have Bible study and fellowship compared to the virtual lack of either in the lives of the EM says something. This immaturity can be traced back to the fact that for most of their formative years, the KM’s chief concern for their children was not their spiritual development, but their academic and economic success. Also due to the nature of KM’s ministry focus, there is no urgency in preparing their children to take over the financial, spiritual, or social leadership of the church.

Observation #4: The two congregations don’t see each other.

Not literally, of course, but figuratively the congregations don’t recognize one another’s spirituality, love for God, or heart. Some of this can be blamed on language barrier, but I am coming to believe that this is a scapegoat. After all it is not language that prevents parents from talking with their children about spiritual things or taking them to prayer meetings. Language barriers certainly do not prevent parents from encouraging, providing for, and moving to a better school district for, harassing, shaming, and browbeating their children into academic success. It seems to be more a matter of priority than of inability. Of course the full blame cannot be laid at the feet of parents, but EM members must also take responsibility for their own unwillingness to speak the spiritual language of love to their parent’s generation… which is usually service. How might each groups perception of the other change if EM folks decided to attend morning prayer, or when there are opportunities sing songs in Korean? Sure it would take effort, but much less effort than is required for someone like me who is a complete stranger to the language and culture. If EM folks volunteered to serve rather than serving grudgingly, it could go some distance towards bridging the gap. And even if it didn’t, it would still be a good step in their own maturing process.

Observation #5: Neither group really wants the other to change.

This is probably an overstatement on my part, but maybe not. After all, if the other group changed then that would necessitate change for us as well. As much as EM folks complain about the dominance of the KM, they really benefit quite significantly from it. The KM retains the power, but they also retain the responsibility, and so EM is let off the hook for their own spiritual development, growth in concern for the church, financial accountability, and other markers of being “adults.” As for the KM, as long as EM doesn’t change, they won’t have to be intentional in broadening their missions focus, there is no need to share power, and they can retain a feeling of spiritual superiority. Unfortunately both sides win in this downward race towards spiritual mediocrity.

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13 thoughts on “Don’t treat us like children

  1. i found your blog under the “culture” tag on wp and was intrigued because you’re right, the EM is always an afterthought in ethnic immigrant churches. i think the influence of the EM also depends on who is in their membership… i.e. at the majority of the KM churches i’ve been to, the EM members are mostly just American husbands who want to support their wives in having a korean community. I’m not saying that if you’re a husband to an immigrant you are not going to be searching but rather the reasons/commitment level to join the EM will affect it’s power. I know my father (American husband to a Korean wife) ended up going to an English-speaking church because of this.

    Anyways, thank you for your thoughtful post! I hope you don’t mind that I left you a comment.

  2. glad to see you back and blogging.

    we’ve talked about some of these observations before, and as much as i hate that they are true, they are true and all too common. i wish i could say that was only because there wasn’t a critical mass of koreans where you were to offer up a deeper range of maturity and nuanced relationships between KM and EM, but even in atlanta, i find that your observations hold up discouragingly well.

    do you notice any such problems in the african american church?

    do african american churches bridge generations well? what attributes can you share that differ from your observations of the EM there?

  3. I love these insights; they’re fair and show that both are doing some things wrong and some things right. My personal take on it has been that the EM doesn’t need to stay under the structure of the KM.

    I wholeheartedly agree about the spiritual immaturity, and I feel unless the EM leaves and starts planting (not more EM’s) but missionary multi-ethnic congregations they will actually start to grow up in prayer, knowledge, faith, practice, finance and just being responsible adults. I feel EM/KM structures keep us in a state of perpetual infancy and dependency, esp. in the area of finances.

    It’s not uncommon for me to see people in EM congregations that are well into their 20’s and are still just children. Your take on the fading emphasis on morning prayer and the EM’s lacking is especially insightful. How far we have fallen from our fathers.

  4. With 60% of ‘US raised’ Korean-American women and 37% of ‘US raised’ Korean-American men marrying non-Koreans (http://www.asian-nation.org/interracial2.shtml), I’m not sure if the EM in a Korean church is the right place for most 2nd-gen. Korean-Americans. We’re marrying cross-culturally at high rates and I think a more pan-Asian/multi-ethnic church may be a better place for our generation and our children’s generation.

  5. Good observations. Maybe you’ve seen it already, but Growing Healthy Asian American Churches has a chapter on intergenerational partnership that looks at a case study of how a Korean American church built a good relationship between their KM and EM.

  6. Great discussions starting up here, and astute observations, bordering on overstating the obvious, to which I’m known to do from time to time. 🙂

    To echo Wayne Park’s sentiments, maybe the more blunt subtext is this: they’ll stop treating them like children when they stop acting like children!

  7. DJ, you have a way of just putting the truth right out there in the open for all to see. 🙂

    I agree with you but would add that many of the leaders in EM spend all their energy working with the youth so that their own spiritual needs and sense of mission identity is sublimated or lost entirely. And even if, (as Joseon suggests) the 2nd generation leaves to join more broad AA churches, the immigrant church will always have an EM based largely on caring for their kids.

    A radical thought would be to eliminate EM altogether or at least to limit it to the very young, and then re-integrate the youth into the “main” congregation at an earlier point. The issues of language would be present, but might not be insurmountable – and such an approach would definitely forstall any view of worship as being “for” the worshipper.

  8. I agree with the first half of radical thought; that EM should be eliminated altogether (I’m sometimes labeled a little extreme in my opinions) but after grade 12 I just don’t see the purpose of English speaking Koreans still meeting together for worship.

    but the second half, not too keen on. I think the language issues are too obstructing to integrate youth into Korean speaking congregations.. I went through years of Korean service not understanding a single thing. It was a waste of time. They might be better off partnering with “American” churches and doing youth together with them.

  9. Good point Wayne… but I wonder if issues of bi-lingual functionality are present only in Asian immigrant communities of worship? My knowledge is limited, to be sure, but I know several Latino/Hispanic people who are quite conversant both in Spanish and English and who have little difficulty expressing themselves in both. Indeed some of them prefer to pray in Spanish.

    This is of course a very limited anecdotal sample, so I’m certain I could be refuted. There are many Hispanic/Latinos who are not conversant in Spanish. In the main though, it seems that they retain more bilingual functionality than do many Asians.

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  12. Josh,

    One thing I would love to see is more 1st gen. KAs worshiping in English occasionally. My home church does a service in English once in awhile, sometimes during the holidays and summer break. It’s a way to serve the youth group kids and former youth group members visiting their parents.

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