A New Generation of Korean Churches

Parishioners sing during a service at Disciples NYC church in Bayside, Queens.

By Jeongwoo Nahm

Until recently, Angela Jun, a 20-year-old second-generation Korean, could be found sitting on the pews of the Korean American Church of Love in Flushing, Queens, one of about 100 congregants. She had attended the church with her grandmother and brother for a number of years and actively served as an officer of the Young Adult Ministry.

But frustrated that the sermons, prayers and discussions were in Korean, she quit the church.

“I did think and pray about it for a long time and I tried my best, but it didn’t seem to be working,” Jun said, adding that she wanted to attend a church that understood her situation as an Americanized daughter of first-generation Korean parents.

While it is common for millennials to move away from their families’ religious roots, that has been increasing at an alarming rate among second-generation Koreans, said Ezra Sohn, who is studying the role of Asian-American Christians in New York City through a doctorate program at the Alliance Theological Seminary. Sohn is the head pastor of Disciples NYC, a church in Bayside, Queens, serving second-generation Koreans.

Sohn estimated that 70 percent of the roughly 100,000 Koreans in New York City are Christian. His research found that nearly 90 percent of second-generation Korean Christians in New York were leaving their parents’ “first-generation” churches, he said.

First-generation Korean churches, also referred to as immigrant churches, cater to a very specific audience — those who have come from South Korea and are in need of community and help. Immigrant churches help families obtain legal documentation, provide a form of spiritual community and welcome them with a sense of belonging.

SJ Jung, Danny Choi and Ezra Sohn (left to right) at a recent service of Disciples NYC church in Bayside, Queens.

However, as second-generation Koreans enter adulthood, the teachings of their parents’ churches fail to resonate with them, Sohn said, and newer churches like his own were opening to serve the “de-churched.”

First-generation “Korean churches are very hierarchical, almost to the point of being authoritarian,” Sohn said, adding that younger followers value a democratic approach to religion and the idea of everyone having a voice.

At churches catering to second-generation Koreans, services are held in English.

Churches like Disciples NYC reach out to the younger generation of Korean New Yorkers. Its mission statement reads, in part, “Our community provides an alternative pathway to pursuing Jesus for those who have left the church.”

At Disciples NYC, Wesley Han, 23, is the church’s director of music. He joined the church in 2014 after growing up in the First United Methodist Church in Flushing. He recalled that the Flushing church’s youth group used to have more than 70 members. As students graduated high school, they left the youth group, and most never made their way back to the church, he said.

At a recent Sunday service at Disciples NYC, congregants gathered in a circle and sang along with Han, who led the session with his guitar. Sohn delivered a sermon, and the service ended with a small group discussion and prayer. Then the congregants made their way to the kitchen to enjoy meals prepped before the service.

Sohn hopes to see his church grow. “When you start doing something new, you start to reach different types of networks and social circles,” he said.

Podcast: A Conversation with Pastor Ezra Sohn