Archives for posts with tag: first generation

Let’s just get this out of the way up front.  I might be the only pastor I know who hasn’t yet read The Tipping Point or Blink by Malcom Gladwell (although, given the proclivity of those in ministry circles to quote Gladwell, I kind of feel like I already have). Now…

I heard Gladwell on NPR yesterday talking about his new book Outliers: The Story of Success.  I started listening because he was trying to answer the question, Why do Asian kids outperform American kids in math? Of course, they were talking about Asian kids from Asian countries, and how cultural influences shape different skill sets and values — as an Asian American who scored higher on the verbal portion of the SAT than the math section, I am living proof that there is no inherent Asian predisposition to being good at math.

In any case, what really caught my attention was a brief aside where Gladwell spoke about why Korean airlines sometimes have trouble in the cockpit of their planes.  Basically, it boils down to Korean culture’s excessive deference to authority and the inability to speak plainly to the boss.

Which got me thinking…

Sounds a lot like Korean churches.

I believe in the recovery and redemption of our God-given identities and cultures.  However, there are certain things that need to get tossed.  Despite the obligatory church-speak about humility and servanthood, many of us have firsthand experience with the “I’m the boss and you are my minions” ethos of many Korean churches.  I know of a senior pastor who had the nerve to stand before a congregation of several hundred and offer this disturbing syllogism:  God wants us to serve Him; we serve God by serving the church; and we serve the church by serving the pastor.  Um, right.

Picture that church as the airplane Gladwell describes:  The plane is heading the wrong way or, worse, about to crash.  The pilot, important and in charge, steadfastly maintains the course while happily ordering people around.  All the while everyone knows, but is too afraid to say, that something isn’t right.

Of course, in the end, this will to dominate and assert authority affects churches of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Although I’m not a type-A, aggressive sort, I can see how this mentality of the pastor having the final say has influenced my thinking as well.  I want to do my part in ending this cycle of excessive deference to authority and, instead, guide our church into becoming a community of mutual submission, of humble love and service.

Well, it’s that time of the year again…

Halloween is here, and so are the Christian subcultural “alternatives”… your harvest festivals, your fall carnivals or, if you’re part of a 1st generation Korean church (as we are) your Hallelujah Nights (get it? Hall…elujah… no? hmm)…


It’s not that I mind having an alternative event at the church on Halloween.  These days, it’s nice to have a safe, fun place for kids to gather.  This Friday, we’re going to have an obstacle course bounce house, games and enough candy to send the kids home sugar-wired and tooth-decayed.  It’s always a fun time, and we love spending time with the kids.

However, I think we might be missing out on something.  Read the rest of this entry »

In the NBA, there are many different players that make up a championship-caliber club. These days, a team needs more than one marquee superstar to get over the hump. Take Kobe Bryant — arguably the greatest talent in the league today — and his Lakers squad. Sure, Lamar Odom is talented and they have several important role players — but it was this year’s acquisition (read: outright theft) of Pau Gasol that has rocketed them back into the upper stratosphere of the NBA elite. Factor in the emergence of Andrew Bynum as a genuine star and we might see Showtime 2.0 for the next couple of years. Even Michael Jordan could not have enjoyed his great championship run without Scottie Pippen.

However, truly successful teams need much more than superstars. Every team needs role players — e.g., 3-point sharpshooters, defensive hounds, etc. While being a solid supporting cast member might not be ideal, there is one type of label that many NBA players seem to loathe: energy guy.

McSweeney’s defines energy guy in the following manner:

Varejao is what hoops experts commonly refer to as an “energy guy,” a player whose job is to grab key offensive rebounds, track down loose balls, and take charges (often, in Varejao’s case, by “flopping”). Praising this style of play, whose inhibition so contrasts with the fluidity and improvisation of star players like Varejao’s teammate LeBron James, makes the Bill Walton do-gooders feel that they are teaching America’s youth a more ethically sensible version of how to play basketball. I say, Don’t limit their dreams!

For many players, the energy guy label implies that they make up for their lack of inherent skill with lots of effort — as very vocal supporters from sidelines, hyperactive rebounders or pests who annoy the other team’s star. Ronny Turiaf of the aforementioned Lakers has been doing everything he can to shed the “energy guy” label this year — despite the fact that his post-dunk dances from the bench are extremely enjoyable.

From my experience, many first generation Korean immigrant churches are a little bit like the NBA in their attitude — pastors want to be the marquee superstars, while doing everything in their power to avoid being role players or energy guys (I suspect many other churches experience something similar, but I haven’t been a part of them).

The system is setup so that it is very clear that the senior pastor is “number one” and everyone else is probably around #247 or so — existing only to do number one’s bidding. What person in their right mind would stay on as an associate in such an environment? The negative force to leave and either assume a senior pastorate elsewhere or startup a new venture is too great.

Also, this flawed ecclesiology completely ignores an individual’s particular gifting and sense of calling. I have seen many “administrative” pastors in first-gen Korean churches who were completely disorganized — totally incapable of balancing scheduling and facilities needs, office work and all the other behind the scenes things admin people are supposed to do. It’s just a stepping stone, a desperate clinging, to the dream of becoming number one. And someone who believes they are called to serve youth or children as more than just a quick stop to something bigger and better? Give me a break!

On top of all this, the idea itself, that the pastor is somehow the “boss” or “star” of anything, is utterly repugnant to me. This goes beyond the negative professionalization of ministry. In the first gen setting, it’s more about patriarchy, filial piety and a barely-masked “pastor as shaman” attitude.

So… in other words, there is no room for role players in most of these churches. Being anything other than the superstar is so utterly demeaning and unsatisfying that only a masochist would stick around as a role player. And yet, there must be some people who have been called to a vocational ministry other than senior pastor in this setting — while it might not sound like a great “career” path, perhaps some people’s unique gifting and calling equips them particularly as an associate pastor of some kind (or even a *gasp* lifetime youth pastor).

I think most first gen immigrant churches would benefit greatly from having an “energy guy” or two on the staff. Right now, there is a culture of suspicion in many first gen churches — if an associate gains too much popularity, the senior pastor either forces them out because of insecurity, or that person leaves of their own accord because they feel they would do a better job anyways. How different things would be if there would be staff members who were not looked down upon as being “less skilled” than the senior pastor-type, but who believe in the vision and can wholeheartedly and energetically support the church, genuinely cheering on the success of others and revitalizing the efforts of the entire community.

Over the last couple of years, I have done a lot of soul-searching (as most of us in vocational ministry will do) about what my role in the church might be. Like many of my peers who have served in first-generation Korean immigrant churches, I have become more convinced that I do not have a place here because I simply do not understand the church in the same ways as most first gen pastors. The next great task, that I have been wrestling with nonstop for awhile now, is not just ruling out what I think is a wrong approach, but developing what I think might be a more healthy ecclesiology and sense of ministry and where that might take me.

Although I know it has been a major buzzword (with all of the misuse and/or overuse that entails) in some circles, I have come to believe more & more in the missional church. To be missional, in my understanding, is more than simply “doing” mission work in faraway places as a program or department of a church; rather, it is the priesthood of all believers living and embodying the message of Christ anywhere and everywhere we go, participating in the missio dei with our whole lives. For some great insight into the missional discussion, check out Friend of Missional.

It saddens me when our pastor greets me with a big smile and a handful of glossy brochures of mega-church x’s summer mission program and urges me to set up our own ten day summer “mission” trips so that we can strengthen the faith of our young people and, of course, make our own glossy brochures. I’m not knocking these quick mission adventure trips. They really can be life-changing; but, in my experience, there is a strange paradox of people receiving the most when they go with the intention of giving the most.  So, to make the primary objective of these mission trips the personal enrichment of those who participate is to miss the point. I even enjoy designing brochures, but I remain unconvinced that we should do it simply because the big guys do it. With so much working against short-term mission trips, and even perhaps the very concept of missionaries (the tragedy of the Korean missionaries in Afghanistan this past summer highlighted this tension), it is tempting to dismiss completely the traditional paradigm of church and mission.


However, there is definitely something to be said about the people who go to the hard places in order to share the love of God and the message of Christ. I was reminded of that today, as our family drove up to Los Angeles to see my mother-in-law. She has been on furlough from her mission work in Nepal for about a month, and is going back next week. She is over sixty years old and spends most of the year in one of the most remote places on earth, teaching orphans and bringing the kingdom. She gave me the bracelet above, which reminds me to pray for her, after returning from Nepal the first time a couple of years ago.

Certainly, missional living and traditional mission work are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would imagine that missional people would want to live out and share the love of God in both their local community and around the world. And, by the same token, it makes no sense whatsoever for someone to go on a “mission trip” if they have no greater sense of the mission dei, that God is the one sending them.

May we become and build communities completely captured and sent by the love of God in Christ, everywhere.

DJ Chuang gave a really great presentation at “The Gathering” this past week at Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead. In his talk, Revitalizing Asian American Churches, DJ gave us the macro-picture of what’s happening with Asian American churches and he identified ways in which we might move forward in reaching the next generation.

DJ is a very refreshing and necessary voice — not only for the breadth of his research and the depth of his insight, but in his ability to bring people together. From my experience, Asian Americans spend way too much time trying to determine who is in or out based on our version of orthodoxy. In that paradigm, people spend more time straightening out the minutiae of their doctrine than in actually reaching people with the Gospel. Happily, the overall tone of this gathering was community-oriented and encouraging. In my prayer group, I was genuinely encouraged by the support of others who are a little bit further along in the journey of vocational ministry, including Sam Park over at Community Church on Holliston.

DJ shared some great insights about what existing churches can do to support the next generation of believers:

  • Encourage creativity
  • Raise up young leaders
  • Support church planting through prayer, people and funds

In particular, the idea of raising up young leaders spoke deeply to me. As someone who pastors students, I battle the Asian perfectionist tendency inside of me all the time when it comes to raising up next gen leaders. It’s hard to give people room to grow, to try new things out, to fail. There is often little room in Asian American families and churches for an actual learning curve — it’s often either be perfect or don’t even bother trying. Many Asian American pastors are perfectionists and micro-managers; not the best combination for raising up young leaders.

I have encountered way too many pastor-types who are maybe five or six years further along this path who refuse to mentor younger leaders because they themselves never received the mentoring they sought from first-gen pastors. I don’t want to operate from this kind of hurt. I don’t want to perpetuate this self-defeating cycle. I want to be someone who can help raise up next gen leaders. I might not have much to share, but maybe I can contribute to others so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single week.

I also see how important it is for me to seek out the wisdom of those further along the path. I’m not talking about a formal mentoring relationship with a set schedule (who has time in their schedules for that kind of model these days, anyways?) but conversations, dialogue and lots of listening. I have been privileged to be in contact with many wise thinkers and leaders recently, and I am just trying to absorb all the wisdom I can.

Here’s to more gatherings like this one!

The headline of the September 3, 2007 issue of Time magazine made me hold my breath for a moment: “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa.” In this day & age, scandal among leading figures of faith is nothing new — but Mother Teresa?

Well, as it turns out, her “secret” is that she suffered a crisis of faith. I suppose in a culture where Mother Teresa is more of a cultural archetype than an actual human being, the fact that she struggled — mightily, at times — in her faith would be a shocking “secret” worthy of an expose. I would never wish a dark night of the soul upon anyone. The pain, the emptiness, the grief — these things can almost tear a person apart. But I find myself oddly reassured that Mother Teresa was a real human being, with very real questions, doubts and struggles. It gives me hope that, by the grace of God, I can become the person God intends for me to be. As Eugene Cho writes in his post about this article:

While I have joy in my convictions as a believer of God and follower of Christ, I am not afraid to call Mystery and Doubt my friends and acquaintances. They have accompanied my journey for some time…and have actually strengthened my walk with Christ.

It is almost human nature to love the idea of a person more than the physical human being in front of us. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that is a large part of why many relationships fail — we develop this idealized version of our beloved that can only lead to disappointment and failure. I love this quote from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community, even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.

Even though I’ve been serving in a first-generation immigrant church context for awhile now, I still struggle with understanding the Asian idea of saving face. At times, it feels like we are willfully misleading people in order to maintain the dream of the community, as opposed to entering the messy reality of one another’s lives. It’s safer and simpler to keep each other at arm’s length. But what costs so little yields a similarly cheap result.

I have really struggled over the last couple of weeks because of the circumstances of a family we know. The husband and wife have been contemplating divorce — difficult in any circumstance, but made even stickier in a first-generation immigrant setting. On top of that, the husband works for their church as a member of the first-generation staff. Unfortunately, their resolution seems to be sending off the husband to another country for “mission” work. This ridicules not only the sanctity of marriage, but also the calling to cross into another culture and serve in the name of Christ. The frightening thing is that I’m sure many of us could repeat almost verbatim the same story from our own church experience — it’s not love that covers over a multitude of sins, but a holy facade.

What would happen in the Asian American church if we acknowledged, and entered into, the mess of one another’s lives? We might have to fight our inner Homer Simpson shouting “Too much infor-mation!” and deal with the awkwardness of actually getting to know each other, but isn’t it worth it? The mess could become beautiful if we lived in it together. If you need a little inspiration, or a soundtrack to your messy spirituality, listen to this track, I Live In The Mess You Are, by Zookeeper (Chris Simpson of post-rock powerhouse Mineral and shoegaze wonders The Gloria Record).

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.

Read the rest of this entry »