Somewhere in a room with a freeway view at the Irvine Holiday Inn, the Rev. David Gibbons was struck by divine revelation. Psalm 40.
“This may sound weird,” conceded Gibbons, a young Presbyterian minister of Korean descent. “I heard the Lord say this to me: ‘Psalm 40.’ You know, ‘I took your feet out of the miry clay and I’ve placed you upon the earth. I’ve put a new song in your heart.’ ”
New song meant new ministry. Gibbons, a visiting evangelist, fled the pulpit at a traditional Korean American church in the East. Then he moved to the ripe spiritual territory of suburban Orange County to launch a new church with a breezier, informal style of worship. His calling: reclaim a vanishing flock of young, highly educated Koreans who came here as grade school immigrants with memories of South Korea too faint for them to call that country home.
In the last five years, this younger generation of Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists has quietly been slipping out of the sanctuary of the most important institution in the lives of many Korean immigrants. This is raising alarms louder than church bells among the remaining “worshipers,” some of whom fear that, if the trend is unchecked, their churches could someday suffer the fate of some Chinese and Japanese congregations that lost their young and declined.
Historically, the Korean church in the United States was something of a middle-class immigrant ghetto, which in its early years in the 1970s drew not only Christians seeking refuge and support, but Buddhists hungry to meet other Koreans. So, baffled pastors could not understand why this newest generation of immigrants did not share the same yearning for solidarity.
They gave the departure of the young a name: Silent Exodus.
“The church is a picture of what’s happening between the generations,” said Gibbons, 31, a Seoul native and son of a Korean woman and a U.S. military man. “There’s not very good communication. These generations speak and love in a different manner. When you try to show some autonomy in the church, (the older generation) takes it as an attack on them. They want to know if you don’t like being Korean.”
Informal head counts and regional church surveys conducted by the Christian Korean American Alliance indicate that more than 60% of the English-speaking members in their 20s and 30s drop out of Korean churches because they cannot understand Korean well enough to be inspired by a Sunday sermon. Vocabulary is not the only problem; the independent, egalitarian values of the U.S.-educated generation are often strikingly at odds with the patriarchal views of an older generation raised on a Confucian philosophy prizing respect for age and authority.
“Their way of thinking is completely different from us,” said Harold Choo, 57, a church elder who has tried to act as a shuttle diplomat between younger and older members of Young Nak Presbyterian, a Los Angeles mega-church of more than 3,000 and one of the largest Korean congregations in the country.
In that sensitive role, Choo has found himself defending younger members who tried to make English services more inspirational by extending the worship time and adding contemporary Christian songs with the riff of a guitar and emotional lyrics that sound more like love ballads than prim hymns.
“From the very beginning the older members thought the English services should be just the same as their worship. But that’s not what happened,” Choo said. “For instance, our generation is not very familiar with this style of praising with a guitar. They think it’s rock music. Actually, it’s not. But they raised this issue. They considered it a problem.”
Gaps in culture and language have led to breakaway ministries and new church strategies that offer considerably more than a simple English translation of a Korean service. In the vanguard are younger ministers who are creating hybrid congregations with nicknames such as “condo churches,” “spiritual duplexes” or “religious rooms for rent.” All of these maintain ties to a mother Korean church, but they have distinct identities with their own minister, other leaders and--in rare cases--control of the budget.
But some traditional ministers advocate more extreme tactics to retain younger members. In Whittier, Young So Hyun has gained a following among conservative church leaders in Southern California with his campaign to upgrade the younger membership’s Korean language skills. Hyun, who founded the Christian Education Institute to promote his solution, considers Americanized Koreans “Neo-Koreans” who are more worldly, less spiritual.
“What I’m saying is that the more traditionally Korean they are the more intrinsically religious they will be,” Hyun said.
Among his practical strategies is this language tip for mothers: “Do not answer when they speak English. If they say, ‘Give me food,’ don’t give them food. If they ask in Korean, then you may give them food.”
Such notions are scoffed at by younger ministers--some of whom may only know enough Korean to order barbecue in a Korean restaurant or the curse words that dare not be uttered in a house of worship. Several pastors have edited the word Korean out of their church names, insisting that they do not want to exclude non-Koreans.
“Sometimes I ask younger members how much they understand in Korean,” said Robert Oh, a young minister. “They understand maybe 30% or 40%. So you put a bunch of kids in a church and start using Korean for atonement and trinity and redemption. They’re going to lose it,” said Oh, who left a large Los Angeles Korean church because he felt that the English ministry was sometimes considered a baby-sitting service.
So he founded an English-language church in Bellflower, editing Korean from its sign and giving it a Greek name, oikos-- family.
“A lot of my members don’t have a home per se because of the language barrier. Picture yourself: The only thing in Korean you can say to your mom is ‘I’m hungry and I need money.’ They need someone they can sit down and pour all their guts with. So our church has to provide family atmosphere,” Oh said.
Yet for almost 30 years--during the most recent wave of Korean immigration--the fathers and mothers of this younger generation sought the same kind of solace in their churches.
Now numbering more than 800 in Southern California, the Korean churches have offered not only spiritual comfort, but worldly advice on every topic from paying traffic tickets to finding a job or the best school. People could pray to God, find a mate, make business connections, and read about a young member’s acceptance to Harvard in the Sunday bulletin.
Typically, the majority of churches had less than 100 adults, although some expanded into thriving congregations of more than 3,000. So phenomenal was the growth of the immigrant church that elders jested about their reputation for missionary zeal, joking that Chinese immigrants start restaurants while Koreans break ground for sanctuaries. There was some truth in this jest; the Korean link to Christianity is deeper than that of other Asian immigrants--Christians make up more than a quarter of South Korea’s population.
When the children of the most recent wave of immigrants left for college, many did not return after they got their degrees. Some were fleeing the straitjacket rules of the church and its small-town dramas that occasionally erupted into power struggles, political splits and gossip. They found the Korean Christian liturgy too structured with its set format of prayers and traditional hymns. Some yearned for a more free-spirited service with contemporary songs and a minister who could leaven a lesson with an occasional joke. Many were stumped by the Sunday sermon, which to them was akin to watching a foreign movie without subtitles.
Some young adults accepted these traditions, particularly if they had grown up in South Korea.
Jeffrey Kim, 36, an Irvine dentist who moved to the United States when he was 18, said he and his wife prefer the Korean-language service at their church even though most of their peers attend the English service.
“I speak pretty good English and understanding the sermon is no problem,” Kim said. “But the Korean sermons have a little something extra. I don’t know how to put it, but spiritually it kind of attracts me more when I’m in a Korean-speaking environment.”
But other young people find some of the traditions uncomfortable.
“Korean culture is more formal,” said Sue Kang, 26, a Korean-born UCLA graduate and Garden Grove resident who said she felt uncomfortable in the traditional churches because of the extreme reverence for age. “We call it the ‘Nim Syndrome.’ In the Korean language, anybody who is older than you has to be addressed with the honorific Nim.”
But instead of addressing the elders with Nim, some younger members started asking, “Why?”
Years of faithful attendance at Bethel Korean Church in Irvine convinced Won W. Choi, 55, a church elder and a McDonnell Douglas engineer, that the culture clash had to be addressed. The center wasn’t holding.
His Korean-born, 25-year-old son rarely attended church, although he insisted he believed in God. They tried to communicate, Choi said, but sometimes he used English words that had a harsher meaning than he realized. At breakfast one morning Choi tried to offer some stern fatherly advice to his college-bound daughter. To his surprise, he said, she erupted in anger, declaring that she wanted to throw away the material gifts he had given her.
“We were all working to survive and we thought that we had supplied them with what they needed,” Choi said wistfully. “Then they started to go through this identity crisis. They’re Korean, but not Korean in a way. Their thinking pattern was Americanized. We faced this difficulty to communicate with them and we needed a bridge. That bridge is the English ministry.”
Worried about the long-term future of Bethel Church, Choi and other elders decided to start an English-language congregation last year with limited budget powers and a bilingual minister, Moon Ju Kim.
Kim’s thoughtful, thoroughly second-generation sermons--on one Sunday a mix of references to the Los Angeles riots, Tolstoy, the Chicago Bulls and Snoopy--even drew the twentysomething sons of the associate pastor from the mother church. Joked Timothy You: “My father’s sermons put us to sleep.”
Gradually, the elders included the younger members in decisions, although they were not always pleased with the outcome.
They allowed the younger generation to pick the church calendar. They also let them choose the paint colors for the new education building. The elders favored scarlet. The younger generation chose taupe.
In the last three years, larger churches like Bethel have cautiously started English-language ministries with varying autonomy. Elders usually take care to recruit English-speaking ministers more comfortable with Korean values. And often they have held on to the tools of power such as budget-making authority and veto rights.
Minister Kim considers his church much more progressive than traditional ones. Some young members even consider it revolutionary. Insurance agent Ed Kang, 34, of Costa Mesa was shocked and touched when he entered the church grounds for a visit.
The elders bowed first to him.
“It takes time to get the first generation to trust,” said Daniel Roh, 34, who leads the 3-year-old English ministry at the Oriental Mission Church in Koreatown. “It’s a struggle. When they see a congregation with a large number of people, that’s something they can’t control. Also, they would like the younger generation to take over what they’ve already achieved rather than doing their own thing.”
In spite of restrictions and controls, most English-speaking ministers have tried to stay close to the mother church for resources and support. A few pioneers have broken away from the comfort of the mother church to flex their independence.
That is the approach of David Gibbons, who decided that it was best to leave his established Presbyterian Korean church in Baltimore to fashion an untraditional Korean church in Orange County with less formality, shorter services and contemporary gospel songs played with an electric guitar instead of an organ. His church advertisements will probably be published in a newspaper’s sports section: “Not in the religion section,” Gibbons said. “Nobody reads that part.”
Earlier, he tried to persuade his former church elders to create a completely independent Korean ministry. His young deacons were tired of seeking permission for every expenditure from the elders. They wanted more power. “It dropped like a bomb,” Gibbons said.
So he is placing his faith--and his new church--in Irvine, trailing what he considers the newest wave of middle-class Korean American migration from Los Angeles to the south.
Psalm 40 provided the inspiration. “I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips.”
It also gave the church its name: New Song.