Princeton Seminary’s Center for Asian American Christianity hosts webinar on second-generation churches

Tapestry LA Lead Pastor Charles Choe speaks on challenges, transitions, and opportunities

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Charles Choe is lead pastor at Tapestry LA. (Photo courtesy of Tapestry LA)

LOUISVILLE — Pastor Charles Choe is lead pastor at Tapestry LA, a downtown Los Angeles church serving a mainly Korean and Chinese American congregation. He was the guest Monday during “Challenges, Transitions and Opportunities in the Second Generation Asian American Church,” a 90-minute webinar offered by the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary. About 70 people joined online with an additional crowd listening in person at the seminary. The Center’s director, Dr. David Chao, hosted the webinar and led a question-and-answer session following Choe’s talk.

Tapestry LA was planted eight years ago near the intersection of U.S. Interstates 110 and 10. It’s walking distance from Arena, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers. Those who attend worship there are mostly Millennial and Gen Z age, Choe said. About 65% are Korean American and about 30% Chinese American, with “others” comprising the remaining 5%. The University of Southern California is 10 minutes away, and students from UCLA and Pepperdine also attend. “They come, connect, get married and have their first kids,” Choe said. “I feel like I’m at a wedding almost every weekend.”

Tapestry LA is part of Acts Ministries International, a second-generation Asian American network of churches. For its mission statement, Tapestry LA — following considerable thinking and praying — adopted this: “Inviting broken people to be restored by Jesus in the whole of life.”

Choe laid out a number of challenges and transitions that second-generation Asian American churches are facing before arriving at the opportunities portion of his presentation. Among the challenges he’s identified is the sheer number of pastors who attended seminary along with Choe who have since found other things to do, including selling real estate and insurance. Choe himself was a bi-vocational pastor for many years, working as an educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Other challenges include the feeling that Choe used to have, a “sense of being treated like a worker, not as a family … It’s a struggle many of us had, finding our identity and our satisfaction in ministry, having success and making a livelihood to support a family.”

During his own time of transition, Choe took a year off from ministry to focus on teaching. “I didn’t know if I wanted to get back into ministry, but a handful of people kept insisting I lead them in a Bible study, and I thought, why not?” he said. “We met for Bible study and prayer, and at some point, someone asked about becoming a church. I had never even Googled ‘church planting.’” He and about 15 others attended a church-planting conference in Florida “where all the people looked ordinary like we did,” he said. “I felt for the first time I could plant a church.”

“We didn’t have a blueprint,” he said of those early days, “but we felt determined.”

But after about two years, “I realized the church wasn’t working. I was sick and tired of looking over my shoulder wondering why more people weren’t coming,” he said. “These were my friends, the people who had left a bigger church for this opportunity. But we weren’t growing, and we were fighting a lot. It wasn’t what I had in mind.”

He talked to his wife, and they decided “to take a season to pray and fast.” At about the same time, a friend told him he wouldn’t make it as a church planter “because you’re an island. Whether you live or die as a church, no one’s going to know.”

“I realized I needed to be better connected,” Choe said. The friend arranged a talk between Choe and the man who would become his mentor.

That’s where Choe’s presentation turned to opportunities. “We relaunched the church, and that’s how Tapestry LA was born,” he said. From the beginning, “we tried to create opportunities and excitement to encourage people to come to church.”

If you want diversity on staff, you have to hire for diversity, he said. At Tapestry LA, one of the first hires was a counselor who has assembled a team trained to provide help for people struggling with their mental health. “We are constantly taking in people. We get people with high-grade and low-grade problems,” Choe said. “That’s a big part of our culture here.”

Dr. David Chao is director of the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.

The question-and-answer session proved wide-ranging. One person asked Choe what he meant when he said Tapestry LA tries to offer people “something they can call their own.”

It means, he said, that younger people “have to arrive before they can make it their own. If it’s pushed on them by an older generation, that ‘this is what you should care about’ or ‘this is how you should do church,’ that’s a different proposition.”

“If you can make the gospel so compelling or demonstrate the power of the Spirit and how it changes lives,” he said, “people will come around and realize it’s something they want to be part of and give to.”

He said that in his description of the challenges faced by second-generation Asian American faith communities, he doesn’t mean to lay the problems at the feet of the generation that came before.

“I am a product of the Korean immigrant church. Everything that is good about me is the result of having gone to a Korean church all my life. There’s a lot to be grateful for, and we shouldn’t belittle our parents’ spirituality,” he said. He called a renewed emphasis on prayer — Tapestry LA is set to open a 24-hour prayer center soon — “the result of seeing the power of prayer in the immigrant church.”

“I think we need healthy gospel-centered churches. The gospel can set the culture and help people recognize unhealthy practices,” including leaders who are “spiritually abusive,” Choe said. “I am hopeful because I don’t think second-generation churches are as top-down and have spaces for conversations.”

“If you are doing a gospel-centered ministry,” he said, “it’s all about repentance. If you’re not recognizing your shortcomings and what’s going on in your heart, you can’t communicate the gospel with any value.”

Learn more about the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary here.

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