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Silent Exodus August 29, 2006

Posted by peterong in Asian American Campus, Asian American Church, Asian American Youth.

after ten years since this was published…it still echoes today…

Christianity Today

August 12, 1996

Silent Exodus – Can the East Asian church in America reverse flight of its next generation?


On top of the intense attention paid to native language, ethnic discrimination, and immigrant needs, Asian-American Christians grapple with additional pressure points concerning the demands for leadership equality, the role of ethnic identity in the church, and the importance of spiritual development. Unless theses added difficulties are solved, they have the potential to hinder church growth among younger people.

These younger people, often influenced by Western ideals of democracy and equality, tend to differ with Asian cultural views on hierarchy and authority. In the Asian culture, you have a slow giving over of authority and control to the younger generation, says Robert Goette, director of the Chicagoland Asian-American Church Planting Project. “Often the control resides with the parents until they die.”
Scholar Tseng agrees: “Unless the first-generation leaders are able to give second-generation pastors the freedom to lead, their young people will not go to these churches. First-generation pastors need to be aware of this dynamic.”

Second-generation leaders also note their responsibility in this process of partnership with the first-generation leads. “The relationship between the first and second-generation pastors has to be stronger,” says Grace Shim of Parkwood Community Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a second-generation, Asian-American. “If there are two pastors who are willing to compromise and put aside cultural differences, there’s hope.”

Another area in which older and younger generations frequently differ is the preference of the first-generation members for a monocultural setting, while the younger generations often feel restricted by such rigid ethnic-identity boundaries.

While Peter Cha, also of Parkwood Community Church, was serving as a young adults’ pastor in a first-generation Asian church setting, he began to see a growing number of non-Koreans coming to the church as well as an increasing number of interracial marriages.

“The first-generation Parents began to complain to me about it,” Cha says “The nature of the immigrant church is that the mission of that group is to provide for the needs of the first generation. And while they want a vibrant second-generation ministry, they find it hard to deal with the side effects, like having non-Koreans come.

But today’s Asian-American live in a society where they are typically spending less time in a monocultural setting. And even for those who are fully Asian in their ethnicity, acculturation has often made the ethnic-enclave atmosphere of the first-generation church unbearable for them.
When Grace and Tony Yang moved to Southern California, they spent many Sundays hopping from one Korean church to another, but the process of finding a good fit was difficult. “Most churches we went to didn’t have services in English,” says Tony Yang, a second-generation Korean-American.
Gibbons, who left the Korean church setting to plant his own independent church with a more multiethnic flavor, believes that the younger generation require churches with a broader cultural vision in order to feel comfortable.

Today’s busters think that if you’re not being multiethnic in your endeavors, you’re not for real,” he says. “They see the diversity everywhere else in society, but if they don’t see it in church, they think the church is superficial.”

A third pressure point concerns providing quality spiritual education and training for the younger generations in First-generation churches. Due to the lack of teaching resources in Asian in Asian churches, or the decision to conduct services and reaching times in Asian languages, the quality of spiritual instruction of young people receive often falls short of their needs. “Parents assumed that if you just sent the kids to church through high school, they’d come out being good Christians,” Global Mission’s Lee says: “We all thought our kids would go to church in college. That was a very naive thought.”
In addition, Asian parenting styles are frequently based on the Confucian values of hierarchy and authority. Charles Rim, a 29 year old coordinator of young programs at Oriental Mission Church in Los Angeles, says, “The kids don’t own the faith. They come to church because they are forced to. They can’t differentiate between Asian culture and Christianity, and then they often develop a hatred of the culture which they then extend to Christianity.”

Gibbons also notes that the second generation has to take responsibility for its own watered down faith. “We have been given ministries on a silver platter. We have had all of our ministries provided for us, which has resulted in a weak Christianity.”


As Asian-American Christian leaders have assessed their congregational need and opportunities, they have undertaken three principal means of solving their problems: renewing traditionalism, developing a multiethnic approach, and planting new churches.

Julia Y’s, a youth pastor at the First Methodist Church in Flushing, New York , has chosen to sacrifice for the first-generation church. “I get tempted to leave the Korean church millions of times,” says Y’s. “But it’s helped to build my character, learning to be a servant.”

Others in the first-generation, traditional church setting have tried to develop what is called the “church within a church” model, where the English ministry forms its own autonomous body within the first-generation context. Lee’s GC is an example of a first-generation church that has tried this approach, and he believes it has aided the church in keeping more of its young people than it could have without the independent leadership of the second generation.

A handful of Asian-American churches, rich in many resources, are developing into multiethnic congregations with a wide range of Asians and Non-Asians as members. Originally a Japanese-American church, Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead, California, today is a congregation of 1000 with ministries to many races and generations.
In contrast, church planting in the Asian community can be a delicate matter. Before planting New Song Community Church near Los Angeles, Gibbons obtained the blessing of first generation Korean Church leaders, explaining that he was not trying to steal their young people but was partnering with them to reach unchurched Asian Americans. “This is where the Asian-American churches have erred so far,” Gibbons says, “we have not gotten the blessing of the first generation leaders.” Nonetheless, church planter Goethe estimates that there are 20 second-generation Korean-American churches and about 70 more pan Asian-American churches, nearly all of them relatively new congregations.

The success of churches such as new Song in forging new partnerships between generations has given a measure of hope to those ministering to younger Asian-Americans. However, many Asian churches in the United States do not have ready access to the financial and personal resources to duplicate New Song’s success. Other leaders are cautious predicting that it may take years to reverse the generational exodus of young Asians from their home churches. Due to the lack of young Chinese-American pastors, for example, scholar Ling says, “I don’t think we’ll see vast improvement for another 10 or 20 years.” Meanwhile, Goethe says more non-Asian churches should view Asian-Americans as an un-churched people group for specialized evangelistic outreach. “We shouldn’t assume that just because these Asian-Americans were born here and speak English that they will want to come to our Anglo Churches.
While innovative strides have been taken recently in the Asian-American church, a formidable task remains in retaining and reclaiming Asian-American young people. Gibbons believes that the key may be for the younger generations to look at the legacy native Asian churches have already left, and then follow their example.

“The reason the Korean church is thriving is because of its commitment to prayer and willingness to sacrifice,” he says. “We of the younger generations need to be given the same opportunity to sacrifice, and we need to stress this value in our churches, so that we are willing to die for one another. Then , maybe we’ll be able to accomplish great things in the church.”


1. Wing Lem - August 30, 2006

The call to partnership will be one of the best ways to bring the first and second generations together in unity within their church. Unity of he first and second generation Christians in the church doesn’t come by putting the English Speaking members and Ethnic Language Speaking members together in a picnic or a bilingual worship service. This is not effective–everyone will sit separately within their own language groups naturally. BUT if persons from the first and second generations partner in a ministry project or a specific ministry, unity will be a wonderful result. We’ve seen this in our church many times. YEA for partnerships.

2. peterong - August 31, 2006

thank you wing lem for your comment, I believe that the partnership must be sincere and witha purpose and not just for the sake of a pretense of unity. I see that picnics that are intentional in its purpose to engage the larger body of Christ as a very Acts @ directed activity but I think that for communities like Chinatown, where there are an implication of two generation populations of chinese and english speakers it would be valuable to partner together. I remember a few years ago I attended a prayer booth in Chinatown with Chinese and English speakers serving together….it was powerful and healing. I would love to hear more about your church and your experiences there.

3. Helen Lee - August 31, 2006

A friend of mine told me that you’d posted this excerpt from my article ten years ago (has it really been that long??) Happy to report that there has been some progress on the front of AA/multiethnic church ministry, but it does seem that many of the same issues remain. But I’m noticing as the 1.5 generation Korean-American pastors move into leadership positions at immigrant Korean churches, they are showing much more willingness to partner with the second generation/EM leaders and develop more of a partnershp with them, which is good to see. Also, those busters who were in their 20s ten years ago with dreams of church planting are now in their 30s and doing it–new models and visions in multiethnic ministry are springing up all over the country. Very exciting. I’m hopeful for the future! Thanks for this little blast from the past.

4. “A Silent Exodus” Implies Wandering in the Desert, but Also Freedom « Next Gener.Asian Church - September 6, 2006

[…] Ten years ago, Helen Lee shed a grim light on a generation of Asian Americans leaving the church in droves with a piece entitled “Silent Exodus – Can the East Asian church in America reverse flight of its next generation?” which Peter Ong resurrects on his blog. […]

5. disciplines of grace pt. 2 « everything in transit - December 21, 2010

[…] with our church, we started a summer college ministry with the hopes of ministering to the silent exodus of the asian american […]

6. English Ministries Since 1962 « Watching Waiting Walking Writing - February 14, 2012

[…] I am doing research on the church I call home. I found this interesting article: http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/mandarin-baptist-church-evolving-immigrant-church-community-church.  If I read this correctly, our church MBCLA established an English service and Fellowship one year after its founding, in 1962. I don’t know about other ethnic churches in California or the US, but I think this is significant as we think about the “silent exodus“. […]

peterong - April 24, 2012

thank you for the reference would love to know more and explore the rich history that seems to be latent there.

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