Never Going Back to the (Asian) Church?

Korean Americans (cropped from the original)
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[Guest post by Wayne Park]

Since this is not my personal blog, maybe I’ll use this space to bitch a bit.

Having just finished a really tough MDiv in record time and with good marks I find that I am becoming a casualty of the pastoral unemployment dilemna. Is it because I’m unmarketable? Maybe I can’t “gather people” as I’ve been told. Maybe I’m “inexperienced” or not ordained yet. Bullshit.

And what tickles me is that these criticisms have come from churches / search committees / boards / people from my own ethnic background. Can’t you give a brother a break ūüėČ I have noticed as a Korean-American the strong propensity towards a certain kind of ecclesiology with almost no backing for it. For example. When I search KAMR it astounds me how many Korean churches want to hire pastors who are “Reformed”. I’ll bet many of these have no clue that Calvin was a closeted Arminian. Nope just made that up. Made you flinch. But really, Korean-Americans tend to be completely clueless as to why the vast majority of us must lean one way theologically. It drives me nucking futs.

Will I give up on the Korean church?

I’m not so sure about that yet. As exasperated as I have become after a year of job searching, I still know that there is a strategic role for the Korean immigrant church to play. And I’ve watched other ethnicities closely on this. I mean it. But us Koreans? I just don’t know yet. As for now I reverting back to my desire to find a pastoral call to a multiethnic church. Or maybe even a totally white one. But go back to the Korean church? I think I’ve had enough.

Am I wrong? Should I keep my heart and mind open to the abuse? Or should I keep my heart and mind open to love my people?

What's In A Name?

This is from a post on the great blog, about dropping denominational labels. I guess my tweak on this would be to simply ask what does it mean if we were to drop the ethnic labels as well? What does it mean for us to have “Korean” or “Chinese” in the name of the church when we have very little sense of ethnic identity ourselves? I think the denominational labels reflect our own ignorance of the differences behind those labels. Perhaps we drop them to attract others, but also perhaps the omission reflects that we do not know ourselves. By the same token then, if we’re dropping our ethnic labels to make ourselves more multi-ethnic or more open, perhaps we underestimate the sense that merely being a church, regardless of what the doctrine is or what ethnicity the people are inside, has become unattractive to people who aren’t Christian. And our willingness to drop these labels just shows that we are still preoccupied with the wrong notion of church to begin with.

Here’s just a clip of the aforementioned post…

There was a trend in the 90s up until today to drop denominational labels from church names. A church would become a community church or just church period. So, in our case, we would drop Baptist and become Richview Community Church or just Richview Church.

The thinking behind this is that Baptist is a bit of a turnoff. So is Presbyterian, Alliance, Anglican, or whatever.

The problem today is that people aren\’t turned off by the type of church. They aren’t staying away because it\’s a particular type of church. It’s more that church isn’t on their radar. As Reggie McNeal said, you can build the perfect church and they still won’t come.

In fact, the labels are increasingly meaningless. They used to carry baggage; now people just aren’t sure what they even mean.

The example I use is of a vegan passing by a fast food joint. Inside the restaurant, they’re very concerned that everyone know they’re McDonalds and not Burger King. But to the vegan walking by, McDonalds is the same as Burger King. There may be differences, but the differences don’t matter to a vegan. He’s simply not interested.

Korean American Churches Hurt by Ailing Economy – NAM

I recently heard in a lecture that only churchgoing members in the US only tithe 2%, and of that percentage, 98% is used to cover the overhead of the church and staff, leaving 2% for what may be considered missions or evangelism.

Based on this latest report, I’m assuming that the downturn in the economy is going to mean that mission is less funded than before.

LOS ANGELES — Experiencing a huge reduction in donations, Korean American churches, big and small, are tightening their belts and readying for seven lean years, reports Korea Daily. According to its survey, most Korean American churches in the Los Angeles area have already slashed their 2009 budget and frozen new spending plans. Some churches have taken more extreme measures. They‚Äôve cut the salaries of pastors and staff, temporarily halted expansion construction and even asked clergy to work without pay for a month. An anonymous official with a Korean American mega church told the newspaper that the donation to his church has been reduced by 15 percent, although the congregation continues to grow. An unnamed reverend of a medium size church said that although his church always used to increase its budget by ten percent every year, he has decided not to do that for the coming year because many members of his congregation are suffering from the current economic downturn.

KAC Media To Reverse The Silent Exodus

h/t to DJ on this, it looks very promising. If you’re in LA and are supportive of Korean-American ministries, this seems to be a great approach. KAC (Korean American Christian) Media wants to be the #1 site for all things Korean American and Christian on the web. They’ve got a host of bloggers (our own DJ Chuang included), support from a local Korean TV station, and are kicking off with a fundraising dinner 11/8/08. $100 a ticket (tax-deductible) and a great new effort from the Korean community on behalf of the next generation. I’m very interested in the possibilities here. Check out the media promo here (better quality) or below:

I’ve just given the website a once over and they really have a lot planned. To be honest, this is not how I anticipated change to come, that is through a media company, because much like private media groups, there seems to be an incentive to sensationalize things and/or be directed by the market or sponsors, which seems to conflict with the heart of the Christian faith, but I’ll reserve judgment as I applaud the effort and hope to see good things come from it. What do you think? Do you think that this media group can truly reach the silent exodus?


Jean, producer and head of PR at KAC Media responded to a comment at DJ’s blog post, that clarified some of the positions and approaches of KAC Media. And I’m not trying to critique this group before they get out of the gate, I’m very interested to see a group like this take shape. My concerns are mostly derived from Shane Hipps’ book “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church.” But here’s the comment from someone at KAC, the source, so not through my lens only.

Just to clarify for anyone, KAC Media is not taking any credit or making any claims to ‘reverse’ the silent exodus. Our hope is to engage the silent exodus to look at their personal relationships with the Lord. We are using the new media (integrated with the arts, film, television, news, relationships with churches, non-profit partners, community partners, etc) to just ‘start this particular conversation’ with those who don’t find relevancy in their parent’s church anymore. While Koreans can come off as being exclusive – I don’t think it’s necessarily purposeful. Like with all immigrants in America, it was out of necessity. Culturally – we tend to be somewhat ethnocentric, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. This is coming from a Korean-American who was born and raised for half my life in Oklahoma, and the other half in Seattle, WA – and now living in Los Angeles. Even though I grew up half of my life disliking the outer exterior of being Korean – inside, I was still very much Korean. I am very proud of my heritage and that is something unexplainably innate in me (and what I gather from others I know – even adopted Koreans). However, while being very proud of my heritage – I can still be very non-exclusive. I embrace and lean towards diversity. I have a wide circle outside of my Asian circle and they overlap often. I purposely sought out a diverse ‘non korean exclusive’ church about 10 years ago and my 1st generation parents also sought out the same around 7 years ago. Maybe it’s because we are only in the second – going on 3rd – generations of Koreans in America that we can’t see the dilution of our heritage as much as we can see through the 5th/6th generations of Chinese and Japanese in America. So while we cannot stop what may be the inevitable from happening – we can address it. DJ is addressing it as an Asian American/Chinese-American. We are addressing it as Korean-Americans, who see the strong need and the gap between the 1st and 2nd generations. Believe me – I didn’t necessarily think I’d be at a ‘Korean’ institution for media as I have a heart for all of Hollywood and the industry not specific to Koreans. Going back to the topic of exclusivity, KAC Media is specifically leaning towards Korean Americans because it is a spin-off of from a 1st generation Korean Minisitry Broadcast organization called JSTV. The pastor/founder has a heart for the 2nd generation and had a vision to essentially sow into the 2nd generation by having 50% english content. His dream is being realized 20 years later. We are carrying the baton – but are also the only ones who can carry out such a specific task to bridge the gap between 1st and 2nd generation Koreans. No one else has a cultural reference point to do that except for Korean Americans who have 1st generation parents. Does that make sense? So we aren’t exclusive -as we do have a diverse staff of volunteer interns and our content is actually interesting to non-koreans as well. We do book reviews, music/film reviews, cover news topics, etc).

Why Churches Split: A Family Systems Explanation

Most Korean Americans I know have experienced or witnessed a church split in their lives. At least one. And by the time they’re adults just kind of shrug it off as if they are inevitable, because in their minds and experiences, it is. Even pastors will say, oh, it’s that whole depravity thing. We’re sinful creatures, blah blah blah, drivel drivel drivel. As though that is an acceptable posture to project in front of a world that is mocking churches these days. Shame on us, judgment on us, and boo for us. A church splitting is¬†absurdly normal for Korean communities. And between church splits and new church plants, Koreans are prolific, sometimes¬†embarrassingly¬†so, but rarely profound.

One of the things I realized while serving a church that had been decimated by the associate pastor bolting for another local church was that the circumstances which created the dysfunction were still in place, which to me was troubling. Most of the time, when a church does split, it is viewed by the “faithful remnant” that finally there will be peace because the troublemakers have all left. But in many cases that is not true. And it’s not an individual thing, it’s a systemic thing. That is to say, you can purify each bucket you draw up all you want, the well is poisoned.

So when I read this in my Family Systems for Ministry class, I was floored. This really helps to articulate the dangers present in the Korean immigrant church.

From the book, “Creating a Healthier Church” by Ronald W. Richardson (which I highly, highly, highly recommend for pastors- and did I mention, highly?), he discusses four functional styles of congregational life. In one of those styles, he outlines the “Enmeshed” format. Here I offer some clips and edits (I apologize for the rather long reading, but really, it’s good stuff). Enjoy!

[Enmeshed is when] In the extreme, when individuals, families, and congregations…have trouble knowing where one person’s boundaries stop and those of others start….

The fear of abandonment, of being left alone in the world, would be the most powerful¬†motivating¬†force for people when operating in this quadrant, and they would do everything they could, including giving up major parts of self, to avoid this outcome. They have a deep-seated need to be loved, accepted, approved, of, and guided by others; or, conversely, to provide this for others. Their emotional life soars when they are praised, and crashes when they are criticized….

Here are some characteristics…

  1. We are on guard for any sign of interpersonal threat, always watching for any minor slight as well as overt attacks.
  2. We tend to think others are responsible for our experience, and/or we are responsible for theirs.
  3. We have a sensitivity to criticism, which creates a sense of feeling damaged or harmed by it, so we tailor our lives to avoid criticism, and we resent or fear those who give it.
  4. We seek approval and praise, perhaps believing we need this to be happy, and like an addict feel miserable if we don’t get it.
  5. We may work hard to please others, getting our feelings of okay-ness from pleasing them.
  6. We become overly concerned about our position in the hierarchy and whether we are receiving our due recognition or about whether our authority is being respected.
  7. We may have a reaction to the difficult circumstances of others that leads us to be overly sympathetic by trying to make things better for them, rescuing them, when they actually have to do the job for themselves.
  8. Conversely, we may think that others should be doing more for us, even when we are actually capable of doing for ourselves. (We see others as responsible for our happiness)….

The development of our own personal faith is difficult….The reaction of others to our beliefs will have a powerful modifying impact, so we play down or do not voice all our¬†beliefs. We might even change our¬†beliefs¬†in order to fit in with the prevailing beliefs of the emotional system of or some subsystem within the larger system, or with the beliefs of the leadership of the system whose approval we want….

Walter Lippmann once said, “When all think alike, no one thinks very much.” That is a good description of some enmeshed church systems. There will be a low level of tolerance for differences in thinking, feeling, and doing. The leadership will tend toward authoritarian, autocratic, rigid, legalistic, and dogmatic stances. They will not allow any questioning of the¬†principles¬†of faith or of the authority of the leadership….

Even in spite of the appearance that they are “gifted” in many ways and appear to be “successful” by many standards,¬†the¬†emotional morass of their¬†communal¬†life will ultimately defeat their ability to maintain a unified and effective way of working together. So much energy will go into the internal life of the group…and the turmoil centered on this, that the group will ultimately be unable to accomplish its goals.

This kind of church eventually develops a major symptom of some sort‚Äďa “church split” is one of the most common.

It was like reading a church fortune cookie‚Äďunbelievably accurate from where I sit. So the million-dollar question (and I’m still reading the book) is how do you get un-enmeshed? Let me finish the book and I’ll keep you posted. ūüôā

But back me up here, does this family systems theory description of an enmeshed congregation resonate with your experience?