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Korean-American churches navigate cultural changes

Reaching the next generation

by Kevin Park 

Korean-American congregation

Eunbee Ham preaches to children at the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. She is one of many leaders who adapt or write curricula to fit the particular needs of their congregations. (Courtesy of Hyorim Kim)

Sometimes it’s the small things that you remember in ministry.

Eun Joo Kim, a Korean-American Presbyterian pastor, recalls a moment when she was leaving the first Korean-American youth ministry position that she held while in seminary.

“I really hope the next youth pastor who comes, he or she, will be as awesome as you!” one of the youth said to her.

What stuck with Kim was the pronoun “she.” Kim was the first female youth pastor in that church, and she knew that being with these youth for three years had broadened their conception of a pastor. This was heartening for Kim because many Korean-American Christian youth grow up with a pastoral image that is male. The comment gave her hope that for this group of youth, their understanding of Christian leadership would be more holistic. Today Kim, who recently earned her doctorate in education from Fordham University, is a freelance speaker and educator who has a special heart for Korean-American churches.

Kim knows the strengths and challenges of Korean-American churches. After ministering to Korean-American youth and young adults in the New York area, she says, she knows that first-generation Korean-American Presbyterians are well versed in the Bible and are active in their faith, engaging in various ministries, including foreign missions.

But Kim also says Korean-American churches still need to find effective ways of reaching the younger generation—not just second- and third-generation Korean-Americans, but also the so-called 1.5 generation. (See sidebar below.)

“Korean-American churches do mission work well, but we need to do more effective ministry in our present cultural perspective, touching the lives of younger . . .  Korean-Americans with the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that will matter to them here and now,” Kim said.

Significant growth

Although small numbers of Koreans immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century, large numbers of Korean immigrants first came to the U.S. after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act opened up Asian immigration to the U.S. Presently, about 1.7 million Korean-Americans live in the United States, and nearly 62 percent are foreign-born. Korean-Americans make up 9 percent of the Asian-American population and are the fifth largest Asian-American community, after Chinese, Indians, Filipinos and Vietnamese.

Many Korean families came to the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, which means that children of these first-generation Korean-Americans are now adults who themselves have families, their children growing up as third-generation Korean-Americans.

The PC(USA) office of Korean Intercultural Congregational Support and the National Council of Korean Presbyterian Churches (NCKPC) set a goal in 1995 to establish 100 new Korean-American congregations by the year 2015. And they succeeded. In 1995 there were 195 Korean-American Presbyterian churches, with 22,500 members. In 2015 there were 400 churches, with more than 50,000 members. Many of these Korean-American churches reside in three Korean-language presbyteries: Eastern Korean Presbytery (Synod of the Northeast), Midwest Hanmi Presbytery (Synod of Lincoln Trails) and Atlantic Korean-American Presbytery (Synod of the Mid-Atlantic). In the last three years 23 new Korean-American churches have been planted in partnership with geographical and Korean-language presbyteries.

Growing pains

The growth of PC(USA) Korean-American churches has now tapered, largely due to the decrease of immigration to the U.S. from Korea. Meanwhile, more Korean-Americans have become American citizens and permanent U.S. residents. But even as citizens and permanent residents they often experience the marginality of being visible minorities in this country. Furthermore, Korean-American families often experience discord between parents and children, because language and cultural differences challenge even simple communications, often putting a wedge in the relationship.

Korean-American worship service

John Park leads a KCPC:LiVE worship service at the Korean Community Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Park leads a ministry for about 120 junior-high students. (Courtesy of Hongjae Yoo)

These growing pains between generations are manifested in the church as well. Many Korean-American churches have two worship services, usually a larger one in Korean for the first generation and the smaller one in English for the second generation.

“Often, the second generation takes the work of the first generation for granted. The first generation sacrificed so much for their children and for the church. But the first generation often is unable to understand the second generation and gets frustrated when they do not conform to their expectations. Often, the two communities lack healthy collaboration in ministry,” says Sung Kim, an English congregation pastor for the second-generation Korean-American ministry at Korean United Presbyterian Church of Chicago. He is encouraged by the growth of the English congregation (EC) over the years but acknowledges that some tensions exist between the Korean and the English congregations.

Despite those tensions, the Korean and English congregations recognize they are engaged in mutual ministry.

“My desire is for the English congregation to grow and mature. The Korean congregation is here to support the EC in every way we can, including giving them freedom to engage in their ministry,” said Eun Sung Cho, senior pastor of the Korean congregation.

But both Cho and Kim are confident that the growing pains that they are experiencing will be overcome through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“My vision for the EC is that they be claimed by the power of Christ in order to become a transforming community for this generation,” said Kim.

Educating the next generation

John Park, a young pastor in charge of a junior-high ministry at Korean Community Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, a Korean-American church of about 3,000 members, recalls a challenge when the junior-high group first separated from the high school group to form a new ministry.

“We didn’t have a usable curriculum. I soon realized that American Christian curricula for youth did not sufficiently speak to the experience of the Korean-American youth, and our teachers wanted a short, user-friendly curriculum that worked for their classes,” Park said.

So he started to make up his own one-page youth curriculum for his teachers. It took some doing, but he now produces a user-friendly weekly Christian education resource for his Korean-American junior-high ministry of about 120 students.

Korean-American congregation

Teaching children to be mission oriented is part of the educational process at Korean Central Presbyterian Church. Children from kindergarten to 5th grade all went together as a field trip to New American Pathways offices to donate goods for refugees. (Courtesy of Hyorim Kim)

Eunbee Ham, a children’s ministry pastor at the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and a doctoral candidate in pastoral counseling at Emory University, expressed a similar conundrum concerning curriculum. Ham is passionate about teaching children that the gospel of Jesus Christ must be unleashed outside the church walls or our faith is dead.

“We need to carry the faith outside of our church,” she said. “I couldn’t find a curriculum that biblically addressed important social issues and at the same time spoke to the situation of Korean-American children.” Ham, like Park, has drawn on existing resources to create her own curriculum.

“In fact, most of my Korean-American women minister colleagues are producing their own curriculum for their children or youth ministries,” she said. These biblically based and social justice oriented Christian curricula fit the ministry situations of the children and youth and strive to make the gospel speak to the next generation of Korean-American Presbyterians.

“These curricula should really be published for other Korean-American churches. I am proud of my colleagues for their creative and diligent endeavor,” said Ham.

Ham is also conscious of using inclusive language in her children’s Sunday school classes. One Sunday, Ham was teaching about prophets. “A prophet is someone who is so close to God that God speaks through him,” she said. Immediately one of the children corrected her, saying, “Or her.” Ham was delighted to be corrected and commended the student, reminding the class that indeed, a prophet can be a man or a woman.

Hak Joon Lee, Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, also recognized the need for a curriculum that spoke to the experience of Korean-American youth. He established the G2G Christian Education Center, which has produced a three-volume curriculum called Living Between, Living Together, Living Faithfully, 100 lessons designed specifically for Korean-American youth. Lee writes in the introduction to the curriculum:

“Many first-generation parents and pastors feel frustrated and even powerless because of cultural and generational limitations and lack of educational resources. . . . This curriculum responds to these dire needs of our Korean North American community. Contextually grounded, it is specially designed to address the issues facing and being experienced by Korean North American youths: salvation, prayer, body image, addiction, relationship with parents, friends, character, K-pop and so on. This curriculum assists youths to freely encounter, engage and explore the issues of their teen life on their own terms.”

Korean-American churches are a case study of how God’s grace is working through the generations through creative and resilient pastors and educators and through the first, 1.5, second and now the third generations.

“What’s happening in Korean-American churches just shows us how God works through the generations,” said Lee. “The Bible tells us that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and we’re witnessing that God’s grace works through all generations of God’s people for God’s purpose.”

Kevin Park is associate dean for advanced professional studies and assistant professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary.


First-generation Korean-Americans are those who immigrated to the U.S. as adults and are usually much more fluent in Korean than English. Their cultural reference point is the Korean culture at the time of their emigration. Second-generation Korean-Americans are those who were born in the U.S. and are usually much more fluent in English than in Korean. The term “1.5 generation” refers to those who immigrated to the U.S. during their teen years or thereabouts who are usually bilingual and bicultural and because of their in-between experience, can help bridge the first and second generations. (Return to story.)


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