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At Crossroads: The Korean-American Pastor

previously published in February 2005

I’ve been in the Korean youth ministry for over 25 years, and I can’t believe how much time has gone by. I started out as a youth leader at Hacienda Heights church and now I am at the Seminary studying to be a pastor for an English-Korean church.

When I survey the Korean churches across the country, and look for the peers that I served with, there are not many left anymore. Many of my fellow pastors have given up pastoring, and with further contemplation, I don’t blame them. 

I remember my first youth pastor meeting with all the other youth pastors across the country. There were about a dozen of us sitting around a circle. We were discussing the trials we were facing, and one of the pastors mentioned how he thought about quitting every month. Most of us could relate with what he was going through, but then another pastor muttered, “I think about quitting every week.” We started to shake our heads in sympathy for the poor soul. Then to our surprise, “Oh yeah, I think about quitting every day,” came from a worn out youth pastor. 

Youth pastoring has come a long way from the early days. We didn’t get paid much, we didn¹t get much respect, we were glorified baby-sitters, and certain elders always had a way of blaming everything on us. We lost so many youth pastors that the churches began to fear that they would run out every youth pastor. Situation has changed.  Churches are understanding how to work with the youth pastors. The responsibility for the youth is not only with the youth pastor, more and more parents are involved in growing their children¹s spirituality. The times are good for youth pastors; many churches want youth pastors now and know how to take care of them. Unfortunately many young people avoided entering the ministry because of the carnage they had witnessed. Hence the shortage of qualified youth pastors today. With the shortage of youth pastors, there is another growing problem.

Who is going to lead the Korean church into the 21st Century? I do not understand why many Korean-Americans continue to attend Korean churches. Korean-Americans can’t always understand the sermon, but they still go. The Korean church at this moment is woefully unprepared for the generation growing up into adulthood. At first, the Korean church was not prepared for the youth, and many young people lost their way. Now I sense the Korean churches today are not ready for the Korean-American Adults.

If there is an age group that is in dire need of a church, it’s the Thirty-Somethings. They want to go back to a church. Even if they have fallen away from the church, there is a pull (probably caused by children) to come back to a place they recall happy early memories. I can say I had some difficult moments in my teenage years, but I enjoyed my early church years. But where do these Thirty-Somethings go for church? They do not feel at home at an American church. They still fear the politics and internal workings of the Korean church. The Korean churches are still run by the patriarchs of the church, and the worship and ministry is still done “Korean-style.” Youth churches are just that, they feel so out of place, they aren’t kids anymore, conversations and topics don¹t address what they are going through. They have children, have marital issues, they need to work out their latest mid-life crisis. “Young adult” churches have been tried, but those never caught on either.

I don’t believe youth churches, Korean churches, or young adult churches have been unsuccessful. I believe they are all leading to the church of the future. There is one thread in all these things, community. We want to stay together. We want to worship with our families and our peers. I want a great children¹s program. There must be a way the older generation and younger generation can worship together. We are not so different anymore; many in the 40’s and 50’s can speak English very well.

The Korean churches must be prepared for the next generation. We can not sit idly back and wait for the problem to confront us. We will lose too many souls if we sit back and wait. Everything begins with our elders. Elders must have the courage to change the status quo. Majority of Koreans can speak English, and those who can¹t, can easily be accommodated for. But we know it¹s not just about the language, there will have to be a change in the not so distant future. There will always be the immigrant church, but there is a growing need of a Korean-American Church. There are enough Korean-Americans desiring a Korean church, and there is special need that Korean-American churches can fill.

There are many obstacles in creating the church of the future. So many opinions and so many ideas for what is best. I believe the time will come when smaller churches will come together rather than split apart to create a vibrant new church. I believe an ideal church will need two or three full time pastors. An English speaking head pastor, a Korean speaking associate pastor to help with the non-English speaking members, and a youth pastor or leader to help with the young people. But SDA Conferences with tight budgets are unwilling to support two pastors and a youth pastor. We must show the General Conference we are serious and start coming together towards a new vision. Times are changing; will we be prepared for what’s ahead?

P.S. The Korean American church is coming to a crucial part in its history, there seems to be a need for a Korean-American church. A community church that can serve all types of cultures. We have worshipped separately too long, I desire to see families of all ages worship together, I believe this is the vision that Christ has for His Korean-American children. If there is a desire to serve as a minister for this community, it is my deepest wish that you pursue the call that God has put into your heart. The future is never certain, but God always has a way. God Bless!

Danny Kim has pastored at Mountain View, Glendale and Oregon Central Korean Churches.

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