Too Many Churches Or Not Enough?

There is a constant tension among many Asian American churchgoers (or at least among the Korean Americans I have come in contact with) — should you stay or should you go?

Go with the new church plant? Stay with old church? Stay at the church you grew up in? Go to the church that is close to where you live now? Stay with the parents so you can explore the chance of community and continuity — you might not get the chance to serve there since everybody still remembers when you used to run around the jungle gym with a sweaty head? Or join the up-and-coming where you can perhaps stretch your leadership wings, take another chance to change your reputation from once-pouty teenager to competent, spiritually mature young professional?

Or maybe if you're a pastor, how long do you tread well-worn paths? How long do you play the one-man-band? Do you fight the good fight of the EM — at once supported by existing infrastructure and restrained by cultural dysfunctions? Or do you strike out on your own — ready to create your own infrastructure and dysfunction?

Choices, choices, choices.


Here's the thing, I've written before about how I think that Asians, deep down, have a very thin sense of community. We are sons and daughters of opportunists. That is to say, we didn't come here because we were refugees, we came as entrepreneurs. We came as firestarters and success-mongers. What this means is that we cater less to community and more towards opportunity. When it comes to church then, where community is key, we find pathological patterns in Korean-American churches. In short, we find too many leaders, not enough followers which equates to too many churches, not enough leaders.

I know, it sounds oxymoronic (or perhaps, just moronic), but hear me out. When I hear the gradiose visions of church planting among aspiring Korean American pastors, I cringe. Why? Don't get me wrong, I know churches are a good thing. But when I lived in Nashville, TN (not a major center for Koreans, I know), I found it somewhat absurd that for a Korean population of 1,000 or so, there were at least 15 Korean churches in the local area (an average of 67 persons/church). Now that I live in Atlanta, GA, it blows my mind that there are over 300 (some estimates are as high as 500) Korean churches for a population of 75,000 Koreans. If ,in the latter case, there was healthy distribution of 250 members per vibrant church, I probably wouldn't mind at all. But of those 300, there are probably only 6-10 that are at that level, not to mention a lot of territorialism and plenty of "the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing".

In economic or business terms, each additional church takes away from the marginal productivity of the church before it. Now I know we as Christians don't operate from that mentality, but I think it doesn't help that the world does. And it most certainly doesn't help when Christians themselves cause the splits, rifts, burnouts, etc. When my wife became Christian after being Hindu all her life, the notion of competitve churches was "silly" to her. After all, in Nashville, there was only one Hindu temple. In Atlanta, for a Hindu population of about 60,000, they've only started to construct the second Hindu temple. She cited that many Hindus have pointed out that the fact that Christians can't seem to get along with each other is seen as a sign of weakness for Christianity as a whole. Why don't Christians share buildings? Why do Christians have to have their offerings go toward their own light bill, water bill, fellowship hall, and not toward reaching the larger community or to missions? why don't they just consolidate more? She asks to my increasing discomfort. "Honey, let's talk about something else," I say.

Lately, I've been using Tim Keller's arguments for church planting, but admittedly it's a little idealistic. For instance, from my understanding of Tim Keller's arguments for church planting, which I like by the way, it could begin to look more like the restaurant business, where the life cycle of a successful restaurant is only about 7 years (not a bad number, but still). Old churches would have to concede, new churches would have to be active in growing communities. New churches bear new communities and then as those communities grow, and the city grows, so go the newest and latest churches. There's an inherent understanding that the pastors can expect for things to change and support those changes. I believe the strategy for Applebee's is very similar, go where the neighborhood goes, and let the owners sweat it out. As the saying goes, "if you can't take the heat…get out the kitchen…"

All of which seems to me, when I look at Asian American churches, a very difficult dynamic to overcome. Concede? Support new churches? Change after change? How will all our seminary-trained students find stable churches? Wouldn't there be a watering-down of resources? What about the threat of growing megachurches in the city? I understand that 70-80% of Korean Americans are churched, but still I think if we were to look at the margins, we'd have to say that prolific church planting has hurt our communities somewhat and only adds more evidence to the fact that our outstanding entrepreneurial tendencies run counter to the Gospel.

So what does this mean? Does this mean our churches will die? I think many Asian churches will go the way of the dodo. I'm not sure what this means for Asian Americans. What do you think? Too many or not enough?

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  1. […] ourselves to being “masters of our domain” and little more. The problem with this, and one that I’ve brought up before, is that we often end up with too many leaders and not enough followers; which ultimately means, […]

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