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Cultural Shifts in Immigrant Churches in the U.S.

February 6, 2024

Natalie Kim



By its nature, immigrant churches in the U.S. are multicultural, or at least bicultural, implying the presence of more than one culture. With the steadily growing number of immigrants in the U.S., these churches also confront multiple shifts in culture within the congregation. This includes the first generation of immigrants who established the churches, the second generation of children, and immigrants arriving at different times, each bringing their own cultural distinctives from their native countries. We find these similar patterns in many ethnic immigrant churches like Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.


As someone referred to as 1.5 generation Korean American, I arrived in the U.S. as a teenager and experienced these cultural dynamics within the churches I attended. The common dilemma I recognized was the conflation of cultural differences. For instance, Korean immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1970s tend to be more culturally traditional than those who came recently, reflecting the rapid evolution of Korean culture. Korean churches are often hesitant to collaborate with other ethnic churches due to the fear of losing unity and harmony. Having linguistic barriers, many second-generation Korean Americans leave the church after gaining independence from their parents, a phenomenon known as the 'silent exodus.'


Culture functions as both a unifying and divisive factor among people. And when cultures are not well nurtured, the resulting cultural misunderstanding or conflicts can lead to relational challenges and fragmentation within the church community. There are at least two questions for immigrant churches to consider in terms of bridging cultural gaps and building a church that is rooted in the Gospel.


Are we prioritizing God’s Culture over human culture?


The Culture Tree is one of the CultureBound’s models for understanding culture. This concept illustrates that all cultures can be broadly divided into two parts: the invisible and the visible. The invisible parts represent the roots—core values, ideas, and worldview—that impact the tree, which symbolizes the visible aspects of culture. These visible aspects encompass any observable patterns resulting from what people think, value, believe, and worship.


Immigrant churches, like all universal churches, have their own Culture Tree in their unique way. This involves maintaining traditions and ritual customs as expressions of their core values, which are embedded in God’s truth—the values, and beliefs we see in the Bible. It is crucial for every immigrant church to understand the core values, the invisible truths, they wish to pass down to the next generation. God’s culture may look very different in different ethnic churches, influenced by their cultural expressions, but at the core of discipleship, it is all about helping a Christian to be firmly rooted in Christ, prioritizing spiritual, invisible roots over the visible aspects of individual cultures.


How are we catechizing God’s truth to the younger generation?


I have observed some of my Korean American friends leaving the church community after high school. In college, they try attending different churches, usually non-Korean ones, but often end up ceasing to attend church altogether. One reason, in my opinion, is that their faith has been strongly tied to their Korean cultural context, making other church environments unfamiliar or uncomfortable.


To effectively make disciples in the next generation, a crucial endeavor is catechesis. This involves authoritative instruction to guide and teach believers, helping them grow deeper in God's values and truths. Many of them were never thoroughly and firmly taught the biblical truths concerning the Triune God, Incarnation, salvation, and sanctification. Their faith experience tends to be cultural rather than rooted in the foundational Christian doctrines that have been passed down since the time of the apostles. Catechesis involves the teaching of core doctrines, including denominational distinctives, which embody cultural contexts as well.


To disciple people, especially the younger generation, it is essential to impart God’s truths in a relational, long-term, and steady approach. By providing a strong foundation in the core doctrines and principles of Christianity, we can equip the next generation to have a faith that transcends cultural boundaries and remains rooted in the timeless truths of the Christian faith.


Jesus Christ is the head of the church, which is His Body, and every faithful local church is part of the Body. Despite the existence of various cultures within the local church, where individuals may bring diverse cultural expectations and ideals, it is essential to acknowledge that we never truly own our church. Our church exclusively belongs to Christ, and we are His stewards cultivating God’s Culture—the patterns, relationships, truths, and beauty we discover in our Triune God, through His word. While cultures shift, His truth remains unchanged.


 

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