Article and podcast by Shelly Ho
On a recent Sunday, at Bensonhurst’s Church of the Holy Spirit, where the carpeted floors creak and oscillating electric fans line the walls in lieu of air conditioners, Father Peter Lam gave a Mother’s Day sermon, first in English, then in Cantonese. Behind him, colored backlit panels illustrated scenes from the Bible in pinks and purples, imitating stained glass. They outshone the chapel’s real stained-glass windows of faded green-and-yellow squares.
Between the priest and the panels sat a crimson-robed, teen-aged altar boy, who — despite being perfectly dignified while performing his duties — quietly banged his head on his desk in apparent boredom, again and again, until the sermon was over.
He was one of few young men attending the service. The Church of Holy Spirit’s adult congregation numbered approximately 30, mostly men and women over 40 years old; in the basement, at the same time, nearly 15 children attended a youth service. But few young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 attended church that day — and the Church of Holy Spirit is not the only predominantly East Asian church suffering from declining youth attendance.
Wonyoung Seo, 20, a Sunday school teacher at the First United Methodist Church in Flushing, has also observed declining youth attendance at her mostly Korean church. “A lot of older kids, once they got into high school and college, they just stopped going to church,” she said. “Our college division — if everyone had stayed, it would be a hundred people, almost, but it’s barely 30.”
Seo speculated that teen and young adult church members often get caught up in obligations from school because of stereotypically high academic expectations from parents — basically, students don’t have time to go to church. She also pointed to increasing leniency from churchgoing parents. “A big factor is, as kids, we have to go. We’re dragged there by our parents. But as we get older our parents are just like, ‘I expect you to go on your own,’ you know?” she said.
Plus, Seo added, it’s troubling that child, adolescent and adult church services are typically held at the same time – that situation produces tempting opportunities for younger Christians to slip away from church without their parents’ knowledge. But she also claimed that, even though young parishioners are departing, church communities fail to accept new members in their place.
“A problem with my church is that everybody started attending church when they were little, so they grew up with the same people,” Seo said. “When new people tried to come in, a lot of them said they didn’t feel welcome. They felt it was very cliquey.”
Podcast: Inside the Church of the Holy Spirit
And a final factor Seo pointed to as a reason someone might leave her church: lack of spirituality. “Korean church is so weird,” she said. “It feels more like people getting together on a Sunday…people who gather for brunch on a Sunday, basically, and then there just happens to be a service.”
Seo’s observations fall in line with data. According to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, Christians account for 42 percent of Asian adults, with 22 percent identifying as Protestant and 19 percent who are Catholic – making Christianity the most common] religion among Asian-Americans. A 2014 report from the same organization stated that, between 2007 and 2014, mainline Protestantism suffered a net loss of 4.3 percent of its adherents; Catholicism, for its part, lost 10.9 percent of its followers in the same time frame. These losses are attributed largely to the fact that people who were raised in the religion have decided to leave it.
None of this surprises Dr. Jerry Z. Park, a professor of sociology at Baylor University. Writing for the Society of Asian North American Christianity Studies, he noted in 2009 that, as a country where Christianity is the majority religion, America tends to draw Christian immigrants; therefore, even though Christianity is not a majority religion in most Asian countries, most Asian-Americans are Christian. Park said religion addresses “feelings of uprootedness and alienation” held by first-generation immigrants, but the “second generation need for material and social support is not as universal as that of the immigrant generation.” In other words, it’s only natural for second-generation children to stop going to church.
But Watson Tan, 24, has resolved to combat this pattern of church dropouts. His church in Sheepshead Bay was once known as the Brooklyn Chinese Christian Church, but it changed its name to the Brooklyn Community Christian Church to be more inclusive. He said his church, too, has seen several teenage members leave, and he pointed to the tumultuous, drama-filled lives of teenagers as one contributing factor.
“If something bad happens to them, and it’s very personal, that’s when they start to lose faith in God,” Tan said. “You know, like bad breakups and stuff. And then they’ll [ask]… ‘If God is real, then why do bad things happen to me?'”
Navigating these troubled waters can be difficult, he acknowledged, but nevertheless, he started a “media ministry” to try to reach out to young Christians. On the Brooklyn Community Christian Church’s YouTube channel, which he helps manage, Tan and his friends act out “modern interpretations” of Bible stories — humorous skits where the punchline might, for instance, be a pun on God, Father versus The Godfather. “We only have a few hundred views,” Tan said (the most-watched video on the channel boasts 450 hits), “but our purpose really wasn’t to try and make it all viral. We show it at church whenever we make the videos, and generally, we get good comments on them.”
Tan’s church has made other efforts to modernize: it offers youth programs, such as sports, summer camp and after-school homework help. “Recently, we started a ping-pong fellowship, too,” he said. “Generally, people come to our church for basketball, or to have fun… and eventually they stay and learn more about God.”
Telling, too, are his church’s music choices: the Brooklyn Christian Community Church does not play hymns; it blasts Christian rock, pop and hip-hop, earning a local label as “the Christian music church.”
Yet according to a national survey sponsored by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches, 55 percent of American Christians think that youth ministry is “too shallow and entertainment-focused.” (That might very well be a biased survey — the N.C.F.I.C. is opposed to what it views as “peer dependency” in age-segregated ministries, and its core mission is to “proclaim the sufficiency of Scripture,” which it sometimes does by arguing that the bells and whistles of youth ministry are unnecessary to convey the messages of the Bible.)
Nevertheless, churches will continue to try and appeal to young parishioners with their bells and their whistles, their games and videos and pop songs — for with numbers on the decline, those churches that do not provide special services for the young may soon find their congregations growing smaller and smaller.