It’s a Thursday night in Manhattan, and most young New Yorkers are in bars yelling over loud music just to engage in small talk or sitting across from a date in a dimly lit restaurant. But instead, 20 young Korean Americans, members of the Exilic Presbyterian Church, a primarily Korean American congregation in midtown, are sitting around a television in a spacious studio apartment near Union Square, watching a video about the Old Testament’s Book of Micah.
It isn’t the most exciting Thursday night, but for this group, it’s a meaningful gathering, one that reflects the growing importance of church for many Korean Christians in New York City. According to a 2014 report by Pew Research Center, attendance in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States has declined more than 3 percent in the past seven years. However, Exilic Church and other predominately Korean Christian communities report that they are thriving. In December 2016, Exilic celebrated its two-year anniversary and in the first month of 2017 alone, it welcomed 30 new members. This is a substantial addition considering the congregation’s Sunday attendance is typically around 170. Other Korean Christian congregations say they have had similar successes.
Both scholars and members of the church agree on an explanation for this growth: Church provides a place for Korean Americans to connect socially and spiritually with other Korean Americans to share their faith and cultural roots. Han Jie Lee, 21, for example, realized the appeal of the church after he attended a religious retreat organized by a Korean Catholic club at NYU
“I really, finally understood what a Korean community was,” says Lee. “The word is jung.”
“It means ‘bond’,” interjects Chris Hong, 20, a friend of Lee and a fellow member of the student organization.
“It means a strictly Korean bond,” Lee adds. “Where Koreans always look after Koreans even if they don’t know them.”
For many Korean Americans, like Hong and Lee, attending a Korean Christian church with other Korean Christians allows them to be more open with others like themselves, who have similar cultural roots and common experiences.
“I think any expression of Christianity is going to be cultural as well. It’s just not possible to experience God outside of culture,” says Ezra Sohn, 36, a graduate student at Nyack Theological Seminary.
Korean churches also provide a space where Korean immigrants can help one another—and get help themselves to adjust to their new life in the United States if they need it.
As the son of a minister, Sohn recalls how his father collaborated with other Korean religious leaders to ease the plight of immigrants
“I know my dad tirelessly worked to find them apartments,” says Sohn. “That was a big part of my parents’ ministry.”
In 2010, 29 percent of South Korean citizens identified as Christians, according to Pew Research Center. That number shoots up to 70 percent for Korean immigrants in the United States, according to Professor Peter Cha from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who researches the sociology of religion.
Cha adds that the children of immigrants also benefit from these religious congregations, but in a different way. The second generation is both Korean and American and that often leads many young Korean-Americans to conflict culturally with their parents. But church has become a place where they can be themselves and explore their deeper identities.
“In these Christian communities, young people receive the spiritual and moral resources to be able to resist and go against their parents’ wishes by asserting that God is calling me to be this or that,” says Professor Cha. “They receive permission to be individualized and be what they were called to be.”
For the churches, these strong cultural ties also often translate into financial strength for these congregations. Lee, the Korean Catholic student at NYU, for example, says his church in Queens is currently running a million-dollar fundraising campaign for local priest homes.
Remnant Korean Presbyterian Church in Midtown owns two properties between Second and Third Avenues, both bought by the congregation. This provides the community with the freedom to expand its programming, according to Annie Chung who assists with the church’s finances. Remnant raised funds for one year for the down payment on the second building in 2014.
“The pastor at the time really instilled the vision of reaching out to the community within the church members, and we believed purchasing this second building would help us achieve that.”
Despite the successes of these churches, the last thing they want is to be exclusive. Even though nearly all those attending Exilic’s Thursday Community Group meeting were Korean or Korean-American, Pastor Aaron Chung makes an active effort to resist the Korean Christian label.
“We don’t serve kimchi or gim-bap,” he says. “I don’t make insider jokes that other people wouldn’t get. We try to build a culture where everyone is welcome.”