A Quiet Crisis Among Korean Immigrant Churches

By J.K. Joung, Managing Partner of Envision Eye Care

“In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”

Nearly 4,000 Korean immigrant churches in the U.S. face a looming crisis that may indicate half will close their doors within the next ten years, damaging many tight-knit Korean-American communities.  As a result, Korean cultural and spiritual tradition is at risk.

Korean immigrant churches often act as the glue that binds Koreans together in their adopted foreign home. These churches not only serve as spiritual centers for Korean-Americans, but also as community centers with various cultural events and activities, including Korean language classes for children, and education programs for the elderly. Reportedly, 75 percent of Koreans in the U.S. regularly attend these (mostly Protestant) churches.

These Korean churches are founded by first generation “elders” who immigrated to the US during the 1970s and 80s, after the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965. These founders are typically small-business owners who retain traditional Korean values and have not assimilated into mainstream American culture. These churches are complete with conservative, male-dominant, and patriarchal tendencies. Many of the founders are nearing, or have already passed, retirement age.

The problem is that as these first generation Korean-Americans age, they struggle to pass their spiritual and cultural heritage to their children.  Simply put, as soon as an American-born Korean becomes an adult, he or she may choose to stop going to his or her parents’ house of worship. As a result, the congregations of these churches are rapidly aging. Today, a typical Korean immigrant church consists of 50 percent of people age 55 and above, 30 percent of individuals in their working years, and 20 percent are children.

Why are Korean immigrant churches withering away?

There are two possible answers.

The first comes from a shift in immigration trends.  These days, not many Koreans are immigrating to the U.S.  According to the Migration Policy Institute, there have been a total of 1.1 million Koreans who have immigrated to the U.S. Sixty-six percent arrived prior to 2000, followed by 24 percent who arrived between 2000 and 2009.  Only ten percent immigrated between 2010 and 2015. Today, more than 2,000 Korean-Americans are returning to Korea each year, a 50 percent jump compared with ten years ago. This stagnant net immigration trend limits the number of new people from Korea joining immigrant churches in the U.S.

Second and more importantly, the first generation Korean churches have failed to retain a growing number of second generation Korean-Americans.  Anecdotally, there are only about ten percent of second generation Korean-Americans attending ethnically Korean churches.  In Colorado, for example, the largest Korean-speaking church boasts approximately 700 people in its congregation while the largest English-speaking Korean church has a mere 70 members. Most second generation Korean-Americans have either been absorbed into mainstream churches or have stopped going to church altogether.

Why do second generation Korean-Americans leave their parents’ churches?  The key to this question lies in a cultural clash between traditional Korean norms of first generation Korean-Americans’ and their often stubborn unwillingness to change, and the second generation’s adoption of liberal, contemporary American culture.

Korean churches are slow to change, indeed. For example, Korean church leaders continue to insist on serving traditional rice-and-soup meals. The process of decision-making and communication is highly centralized and hierarchical. Services and sermons are deemed too formal in style and irrelevant in content to working people.  There is also the language barrier. Clearly, the inter-generational cultural clash is driving away the second generation of Korean-Americans in droves.

One may ask, “What’s wrong with second generation Korean-Americans joining mainstream, mostly-white churches?”  The reality is many in this group do not feel comfortable in either place and often bounce back and forth between the two. They are not as marginalized as, say, Muslim Americans often are, nor are they fully integrated.  As a result, many feel confused about their religious and cultural identity.

What can first generation Koreans can do to ensure a better generational transition? They could help incubate a new type of church that contains the following three elements: Korean-ness, American-ness, and faith in Christ.  Korean elders should provide financial and spiritual support to quickly launch new churches for their children. At the same time, the elders must offer their children autonomy and independence so that the younger generation can shape these churches in the ways that work for them. The consequence of not making this effort may result in the slow demise of church-based Korean culture and community in the U.S.