'Silent exodus' from Korean-American churches as younger parishioners find community elsewhere
Rebecca Kim felt like the "new kid" when, at 10 years of age, she walked to the junior high worship service at Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles where Korean-language hymns drifted through the closed chapel doors.
Before she could enter, Victoria Yim, a regular at Young Nak, called her name: "Rebecca, I want to sit next to you!" Kim, overwhelmed with relief, ran over to sit next to Yim. That was in 2007.
These days, on any given Sunday, a visitor can find Yim, now 22, across the street at Young Nak Celebration Church. A Korean-American Christian contemporary band leads the congregation in singing, "all your promises are yes and amen."
But while Yim is there in the second-row pew, her eyes closed and mouthing silent prayers, her Korean-American friend, Rebecca Kim, is not.
Kim's decision to leave the church is common, even frequent, and part of a decades-long flight among younger church goers from Korean-American houses of worship.
Dubbed the “Silent Exodus” by Helen Lee in a 1996 Christianity Today article, the departure of young people from the churches, once the bedrock of Korean culture and identity in America, marks a significant social shift.
At a time when both Koreas are regularly in the headlines, many young Korean Americans are disengaging from churches that once served as centers of community for their immigrant families.
Torn between two identities
Victoria Yim and Rebecca Kim were both born to Korean immigrants and raised in Los Angeles County. The pair met when the Kim family moved to Young Nak from a smaller Korean congregation.
To this day, Kim and Yim grapple with their dual identity, torn between their Korean heritage and American upbringing.
As girls, they learned science, literature and arithmetic in English-speaking classrooms. They sang hit songs by Britney Spears on the playground. On weekends, they attended Christian worship services with a mostly Korean congregation, meeting up with their “small groups” afterwards. Many would also take Korean-language classes run by Young Nak members reciting passages from the Bible in Korean.
At Young Nak, Yim thrived on the immersion in Korean culture and community. Another of her friends, Shannon Choi, remembered the young Yim as the brightest student at Korean School. “She always raised her hand to answer the hard questions,” Choi recalled with a laugh.
Yim said she only recently came to terms with her Korean identity. For a long time, she considered herself American. But after spending her first year of college in Florence, Italy, she embraced her heritage as a central part of her who she is.
“I thought, ‘I am Korean.’ That for me was a pivotal point where I wanted to go and see my Asian friends at my church that was familiar to me more than this other identity,” Yim said.
When she returned to the United States, Yim attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York before moving back to California and returning to Young Nak. She said she hungered for the familiar community where she could “draw on K-pop culture, but also have someone who says in Korean, ‘We use forks instead of cheap chopsticks.’”
For Kim, there is no yearning for the Korean school or the ministry. “I hated being there. I was so insecure about how bad I was at Korean,” Kim recalled.
Her insecurities extended far beyond Korean school. Kim said she felt she didn’t fit in with the other kids at Young Nak, those who identified as more Korean than she did.
Kim attributes her lack of a strong ethnic connection to years in a white-majority education system. During a time when teenagers were “finding themselves,” Kim went to the largely white South Pasadena High School. Yim attended the predominantly Asian-American Diamond Bar High School.
While Yim continued to attend weekly church services, Kim distanced herself from fellow Korean-Americans because she said she wanted to fit into the “white narrative.” That included pulling away from the Korean church where there were pressures to conform.
She stopped going to church in her sophomore year. Instead, she practiced choreography with her high school cheer squad, flipped through pages of Vogue, and explored local art galleries with friends.
Kim gets ready to go to work. On some Sundays, you can find her working at Madewell, a popular retail store, in Pasadena.
Today, Kim still struggles to truly identify with her Korean heritage.
“I love my Korean roots, but I grew up very American. It’s truly on the inside that I don't feel associated with the Korean identity,” Kim explained.
Regarding religion, she considers herself “agnostic,” with beliefs that “lean towards Christianity.” However, she doesn’t feel drawn to Korean-American churches for religious or cultural reasons.
“Because I didn't have that connection with this ethnic group, I didn't feel obligated to stay there.”
Perpetuating Korean culture
Older generations fear their children’s departure from the church represents a rejection of their Korean heritage.
For many older Koreans, the church was central to daily life, not just for Sunday worship. It was a refuge from the language barriers, cultural differences, and loss of social status. The church community was often their whole world.
But their children who spoke English became a part of the broader community, and America was their world.
No longer restricted to the church, Korean-Americans today can turn to sources of their culture that didn’t exist when their parents first immigrated. Since the ‘60s, Korean culture has flourished outside the church with the expansion of Koreatown and the breakthrough of K-pop bands like BTS.
“The younger generations are not so apt to just be committed to a church. There are other things that will satisfy their cultural needs,” explained Benjamin Shin, a theology professor at Biola University who specializes in Asian-ethnic churches.
The challenge for some Korean ethnic churches now is how to draw back the younger generation.
According to Hyonroh “James” Lee, the high school ministry pastor at Young Nak, spiritual guidance isn’t enough.
“Faith in Christ, eternal life ... Until someone buys into that script, what does church have to offer? Fun? The world is fun … . In fact, church is boring!” he exclaimed.
What churches still offer is a supportive community, even for young Koreans whose horizons have expanded.
“Even though first-generation experienced a lot of racism and were treated unfairly … the felt pain, the second generation and beyond feel it even more,” said Lee, pointing to the pressure on younger generations to assimilate. “We actually know when people are calling us names and what it means.”
Lee believes that the prevailing times call for self-examination.
“It's not every day we're sitting here thinking, ‘How Asian am I?’ But we have to when things like Charlottesville happen,” said Lee. “We have to make a decision: Who am I? How do people see me? What do I want to stand for?”
But not everyone is concerned with combating the church exodus by younger Koreans. Because the mission of the churches is of a “spiritual nature,” they’re “not having robust discussions about Korean-American-ness… It's just who we are, not what we do,” Shin, the theology professor, explained.
Although Korean churches may be taking a back seat to other institutions in carrying on the culture, even those who have left them recognize their omnipresence and contribution to the Korean identity.
“Young people can socialize in Koreatown and meet in Koreatown, but they all still grew up in church,” Kim acknowledges. “Going to church is the Korean thing to do.”
This story has been updated.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story erroneously named Biola University as Biola Evangelical Christian University. The story has been corrected.
This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past several years. This spring, students are reporting and writing on Southern California's Korean community and have visited South Korea.