Serving in a Korean American church creates a strange sense of both being intimately connected and profoundly disconnected from the first-generation (1G) congregation. At times, I experience almost a sense of extended family when I spend time with the 1G congregants. For example, over the past several Sundays I have been playing tennis with a group of 1G families. Usually, we will end the evening by sharing a nice meal together (pho, even!). At the same time, in my ministry to second-generation (2G) students there is a deep sense of disconnection. The only time anyone seems to notice the youth ministry is if there is a major problem (or a cluster of heavy boxes to move). Other than vague notions of raising “good Christians,” there is no sense of purpose or mission when it comes to the spiritual formation of these 2G students.
In this third installment of this series of thoughts, I would like to continue to engage some of the thoughts Marko shared here at his blog. His third observation about Asian American youth ministry centers around the idea of integrating youth into the overall life and ministry of the church. As Marko notes, this isn’t really a choice for most AA youth ministries — whether we like it or not, we exist as the lopsided little 2G ear, attached to the larger 1G “Mickey” head.
Most of the churches I have served have at least attempted to organize some kind of ministry to families. Unfortunately, though they have had good intentions, these attempts ultimately failed. Perhaps the most frustrating of these programs were the ones we called “family” ministries but did not integrate a holistic sense of cross-generational ministry. For example, unless we count being in relatively close physical proximity as being a meaningful inter-generational ministry, it is wrong for many of the churches I have served to call their programs “family” retreats or “family” worship services. In my experience, at these retreats there are usually completely separate worship & activity programs set up for each group and at these worship services the 1G parents often refuse to sit with their 2G children.
I applaud the attempts of a couple of forward-thinking 1G senior pastors I have known who have tried to break through this kind of thinking. Unfortunately, they have encountered seemingly insurmountable walls when it comes to the actual practice of cross-generational ministry. For example, attempts at integrating both 1G and 2G language and culture into one worship service usually makes it very long, and not particularly meaningful for either group. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and in the end, no one is happy with the result.
After a couple of frustrating attempts (and numerous complaints), the natural tendency for churches is to stop trying. It’s easier to walk away than to work through the awkwardness.
Understanding is a two-way street
One principle I often see, and with which I agree, is that youth ministry is really family ministry. The spiritual formation of students cannot happen in any long-lasting or meaningful way through church programs alone. Even the most dedicated and incarnational youth worker cannot single-handedly be responsible for the spiritual development of students. This kind of ministry must happen in partnership between youth workers and parents.
But what do we do when the organizational chart of our churches looks more like a loosely-affiliated coalition of independent nation-states than the deeply interconnected body of Christ? While this notion of independence can be attractive to many young AA youth workers (“I get to run my own church, but without most of the responsibilities? Sign me up!”), it will not work in the long run. It’s simply too draining, and frustrating, to keep banging our heads against the same wall.
It is vital for 2G students to understand how their parents’ background informs their worldview. The AA parenting ideal does not usually center around the images of “good” parents most of these 2G students see on television or in the movies. Without this understanding, many 2G students are in for years of heartbreak, frustration and disappointment.
However, although understanding must move in both directions, I believe the primary responsibility falls on the 1G parents, precisely because they are the parents. It is unreasonable to expect them to become completely Westernized; but it is not unreasonable to ask them to take time to attempt to understand their children. Perhaps this is due to my own 2G bias, but parents must be parents.
Without this perspective coming from the homes, it is unlikely that our churches will develop meaningful intergenerational ministries. The routine is simply: drive to church together, everyone breaks for their own department, then meet in the parking lot after a couple of hours to go back home.
Third generation and beyond
It will take a great deal of creativity, perseverance and vision to reverse this “one-eared Mickey” trend in AA churches. However, it is very troubling too see 2G adult congregations repeating the same mistakes as these 1G congregations.
Maybe it is the only paradigm many 2G adults know when it comes to church, but it worries me when 2G churches follow the same template of separation (worship together? in the same sanctuary?), compartmentalization (see you in a couple of hours), and professionalization (leave it up to the youth workers), especially when language and culture do not necessarily present the same kind of barriers.
There is certainly an important place for age- and developmentally-appropriate ministry for different groups of students, but we must find creative ways to integrate youth and children in the life of the overall church. I do not know if this will have any practical effect on reversing the silent exodus of 2G believers but, hopefully, we will develop a healthier ecclesiology within our churches.
One size does not fit all
Churches always face the danger of “me-too” thinking. One church might want to have an Awana program because all the other AA churches in the area have one. In this case, the thinking might be: “Hey, did you hear about that church – the one where intergenerational ministry is upheld as a central value? Let’s do that too!” This goes much deeper than issues of programming and events, and into the territory of values and convictions.
For many 1G congregants, their Sunday worship hour is the only time where they feel at home. Not only does everyone speak the native language in conversation, but they receive grace in their heart language. After a week of disenfranchisement and frustration, they can relax and be at home. This is an important, and valid, function of the 1G immigrant church. But is it the only one? Realizing that most of their life has been about sacrifice, can 1G congregations sacrifice even their comfort at church in order to move in this direction?