And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
(Colossians 3:15, NIV)
27% of Koreans living in Korea identity as Christian. 80% of
Koreans living in America, vastly constituted of first and second
generation immigrants, identify as Christians. This dramatic shift in religious demographics deserves to be looked at critically, especially considering the fact that Christianity in the United States has been on a rapid spiral downwards. What is it about the Korean American church that has allowed for this kind of growth, and what positives and negatives can we glean from it?
My own background in Christianity follows a similar thread to that of many Korean American Christians: my parents met through the church in Seoul, moved to San Diego when I was three, plugged into a local Korean church called Hanbit, and then fostered community through that church. They dedicated a major part of their life to serving Hanbit—my dad poured hours into building the church’s online infrastructure.
My dad decided to leave Hanbit after 9 years. I remember the entire pastoral staff visiting our house, essentially begging my dad to stay. My mom served coffee to the men at the table and then went upstairs, as did I—we were tacitly uninvited to spac-
es such as these. However, my dad’s obstinacy won over, and our family moved to an American church called Maranatha, a supposedly temporary arrangement. I left behind my formative childhood years, saying goodbyes to both best friends and bul-
lies. At Maranatha, I made no friends and hated service, while my parents couldn’t even understand the sermons. We spent three unnecessary years at a church that was objectively very good, but clearly wasn’t for us.
Finally, after starting my freshman year of high school, our fam-
ily decided to switch churches to Calvary, another local Korean American Presbyterian church, in what was supposed to be the final move. I cautiously began to involve myself in the youth group, slowly making friends among those who had grown up together in Calvary. Over the course of years, I began to find my place in Calvary. I joined praise team, made great friends, and began to unpack some of my emotional struggles with
hem. However, just as I began to truly open myself up to those around me, our adult congregation made a decision that threw the entire church into chaos—they decided to vote out our senior pastor.
My youth pastor at the time took a stance of rebellion, preaching that it was not biblical to force out a minister the way our church did. Unsurprisingly, he was then forced out too. I vividly remember that in his last few weeks on the job, senior elders came in and sat in our youth service, leading my youth pastor to not say a single word. Instead, he showed biblical videos to express silent rebellion. Over the course of four more years in high school, I also saw two other leaders leave after finding better jobs.
The now former senior pastor, at the urging of supportive church members, started his own church elsewhere in San Diego, and my dad followed along, dragging the rest of my family with him. However, I refused to follow my parents out, standing firm in my commitment to Calvary. It had given me everything throughout my high school years, and I was unwilling to leave yet another faith community. Soon, however, my dad grew again disillusioned and mistreated by the church, and left again, reverting back to the stable Maranatha Chapel. My mother and my seven year old sister followed, but this time, my 16 year old sister stayed. Essentially, it was a nomadic struggle my sister and I grew sick and tired of.
Finally, after a long, complicated, and frankly tedious history with church, the present day: our family of five attends three different churches back in San Diego.
I pushed out all of the emotional trauma these schisms caused me until I physically escaped them in college. I shut out the emotional difficulty of alienating myself from my family, of going to a church my family had left, of worshipping in a building riddled with sin and strife. I packaged all of my emotions into a box labeled “church drama” and tucked it away, which was ultimately a futile action—church schism bled into family schism which bled into internal schism. It was impossible to separate an unstable church life with an unstable spiritual life. Only from this past year did I begin to understand why I had such an adamant refusal to become vulnerable with a church: the risk of hurt and separation was too great. I also began to see that my problem was much more common than I had thought.
As one person who grew up in one geographical area, my knowledge about the Korean-American church as a whole is miniscule in scope—I can only speak for my personal experiences. However, through talking to Korean-American church-going friends from across the nation, as well as through digging online, common threads began to appear—problems that are not limited to the Korean American church, but apply to the church in general. There is a ubiquitous culture of shame, which I felt when the first youth pastor who I felt genuinely loved me was ostracized by church elders. Before I attended Calvary, there were numerous other administrative coups, including one in which a senior pastor left due to an embezzlement scandal. There is a commitment to honorable public appearance, the surreptitious hiding of internal fracture. Furthermore, there is an imposition of rigid hierarchies that divided the body of Christ between men and women, parents and children, elders and laypeople, pastors and administrative staff. There is devotion to works-based righteousness, and a veering away from the gospel and grace.
The Korean-American church also suffers a tough balancing act between serving as a fellowship of Christ and a gathering of immigrant peoples. New Korean immigrants need a way to plug themselves into community, and church often acts as the sole place for that. Inherent social desires brought, on one hand, a horde of new Korean-American believers. On the other hand, the Korean American church risks unintentionally transforming a place of worship to a welcoming, but nonetheless secular place of community.
The Church, capital C, is the bride of Christ, joined together in a perfect union. The church, lowercase c, is the human endeavor at that capital C Church. But how could I understand and feel that intimacy with Christ in a church that had splintered into three pieces? How could I know what Church truly was when both my church and family lives were all emotionally fractured? At many points in my life, because I could not trust either church or family, I found myself desperately alone.
Paul speaks over and over of the Church not only as the bride of Christ, but as Christ’s actual body. For example, 1 Corinthians 2:27 gives the command that “now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” As Christ’s body, he says we are his walking and breathing manifestation here on Earth, the sole manifestation of a supernatural and uncompromising love found nowhere else. Our mission is to induce social change, fight inequity, love the least among us, provide a healthy moral framework, and most importantly, love God and each other.
As it stands, my church, as well as countless others, is internally bleeding and ripping itself apart from the inside out. Thankfully, God’s transformation of the church also begins from the inside out, and his unending flow of love for my church will never cease. We are “God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19), and He won’t let us slip away without a fight. James 1:27 adds to this definition, stating: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” I believe James’s two pronged church calling poignantly addresses the Korean American situation: ideally, we must engage with the Korean immigrant world-at-large, but we must also directly confront the problems a large secular community brings.
Today, like all college students, I am transient, stepping into my home church a few weeks a year and then leaving for months. I say hi to old friends, grab lunch, play basketball, but just as quickly I am sent off back to Brown. After joining a Christian fellowship and a local church here in Providence, I realized that institutional conflict will always be present in a lowercase c church.
At first, I was stunned and emotionally pained, realizing that I was unable to escape these problems by flying to the opposite corner of the United States. I still haven’t resolved this issue in my heart, and residual bitterness from both my Korean American church at home and my faith community here remains. But I am confident that God “works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). And one thing I am sure and resolved in: that no matter where I go, I am constantly overwhelmed my
brothers and sisters’ love for God and for me.
At this point in my life, I don’t know where my “home church” is, nor where my home itself is either. However, I was called to both Providence and my local fellowships for a reason, and I lovingly and joyfully serve through being the best arbitrary body part I can be (ideally something like a macrophage, or maybe a kneecap). I’ve accepted instability and transience as a part of my life, and I hope I can trust my fellow followers of Christ no matter where I am.
I want to finish by extolling the Korean-American church for all it has done to my life, as well as hundreds of thousands of others. Calvary church has intimately connected me with others who follow Christ, growing us together in His discipleship. Without my brothers and sisters in Christ back home in San Diego, I can only imagine where I would be now: pursuing my selfish ego and ambition so stringently my heart would by now be nothing more than a withered pulp.
Romans 5:20 brings me hope and joy for a future in which my home church(es), the Korean-American church, and the entire body of Christ on Earth can draw closer to what Christ intended Church to be: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
Kion You is a sophomore concentrating in English.