DENTON—The aroma of native foods wafting through the hallways from the church kitchen foretold that something important would follow.
For the English-speaking young adults in the church auditorium—most of them miles from the comfort of family and friends—a hot Sunday lunch and fellowship with other Korean-background believers filled an important need following corporate worship.
But unlike the Korean Baptist churches Pastor Sung-Jun Shim attended growing up, worship services at Risen Church in Denton are in English. A jeans-clad music leader played guitar on a recent Sunday, helped along by three other young adults in a praise chorus belting out contemporary staples such as Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name.”
Shim’s sermon, from Luke 9:23 on dying daily to follow Jesus, was thoroughly expositional and served up with cultural references that would have connected with nearly any other English-speaking evangelical church around.
These English-speaking Asians, mostly collegians from nearby University of North Texas and Texas Women’s University, have largely assimilated, for better or worse, into the culture of the West. They often prefer an English-language service and worship music they hear on their iPods, but still wish to retain some cultural identity.
Congregations such as Risen Church, planted this summer by Denton Korean Baptist Church with help from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, fill a niche for second-generation Asian young people at a pivotal time in their lives. They are charting more than just careers, Shim said.
He is praying that more and more traditional Korean churches will aim to reach second-generation Asians—lest they lose them—by planting English-speaking Asian congregations.
Prime locations for such churches are urban centers that attract young professionals, and college towns. Denton, on the northern edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, is a college town, with UNT and TWU within blocks of where the church meets.
BETWEEN TWO CULTURES
Shim understands the stresses of straddling two cultures as an Asian student on an American college campus.
After high school on Long Island, Shim put his ministry calling on the shelf to pursue “success in life,” as he termed it, at State University of New York-Albany, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1998 and came away with a Jonah-like change of heart. At a school celebrated for its partying, Shim said his four years there “were a very dark and dissatisfying time.”
Unable to keep running from the ministry calling he said he received in middle school in South Korea, Shim took his degree and ran toward Fort Worth.
He married his wife, Won Hee Choi (also an economics major, at SUNY-Stony Brook) and moved the couple to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Shim earned his master of divinity while Won Hee also took a few classes. They then moved to San Francisco, where he took a second master’s degree at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary before serving several years on the staff of Hayward Korean Baptist Church in the San Francisco Bay area.
Shim, in his mid-30s, is young enough to relate well to collegians, and among the student bodies at UNT and TWU, the Asian student populations are growing, he said.
Denton Korean Baptist Church, which owns the building where Risen Church meets, believed in the mission so much it moved its services to 2 p.m. on Sundays so Risen Church could meet at 11:15 a.m.
“The fact that Dr. Kim (Hyoung Min Kim, pastor of the sponsoring church) gave up his prime meeting time shows a tremendous conviction and his kingdom mindset to reach second-generation Asians as well as other internationals at UNT and Texas Women’s University,” said Steve Lee, Nehemiah Professor of Baptist Church Planting at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Lee said some second-generation Asian churches are flourishing, but there is always a challenge to be met in reaching the next generation.
David Alexander, an SBTC church planting associate, said second-generation churches reflect the assimilation that occurs.
“Today, the second generation is assimilating much faster to the American culture than in previous years. But many second-generation people still have a love for their parents’ nation and culture and strong ties to their families. Therefore, while operating in English as the heart language of the church, the church wishing to reach ‘second gens’ often needs to celebrate the ancestral culture of the people it reaches,” Alexander said.
But second-generation churches focused on a single demographic group, Alexander said, tend to grow more slowly because there are fewer potential members.
“This is where many multi-ethnic churches succeed, because they reach second gens who are used to living amidst multiple cultures and the church is able to highlight the various different cultures through alternating worship styles, preaching techniques, leadership styles and cultural events where no one culture outshines the rest,” Alexander said.
“A few planters like Sung Jun Shim have a passion for this generation and are gifted in being able to move in and out of the focal cultures,” Alexander added. “Many second-gens who become planters have the uncanny ability to move in and out of multiple cultures and are able to quickly understand varying worldviews.”
One way Risen Church is building bridges with unchurched or disconnected Asians is a new ministry it is calling New Elements Kids. The program, which takes elementary-aged kids through an overview of the Bible, is being run on Saturdays at the church facility immediately following something called “Korean school.”
Shim explained that in most communities where a sizeable Korean population lives, the community will form a Korean school one day a week to teach the children of immigrants about their Korean culture and heritage. The programs are not church related, but churches often host them because of convenience.
In Shim’s case, it helps that the principal attends Denton Korean Baptist Church.
Korean school is held from 9-noon every Saturday, and New Elements Kids is offered for an additional two hours following lunch.
“We are reaping the benefits of being connected to the Korean school,” Shim said. “It provides the parents another two hours to run errands and it is a golden opportunity to insert into the hearts and minds of elementary students what the Bible teaches in a holistic view.”
Also, Risen Church should hear soon the status of its application to host a Bible study on campus at UNT. The Bible study will adapt the New Elements material for collegians, Shim said.
Kim, the sponsoring church pastor and also an SBTC ministry facilitator for Korean/Asian Ethnic Groups, said he realized the need to reach Asian collegians meant finding a qualified young pastor called to such an endeavor. Upon discovering Shim, his church accommodated the new work.
Kim said he envisions not just Korean or Asian believers worshiping at Risen Church, but eventually he would like to see an international church develop that reflects the diversity of the two campuses.
Risen Church, he said, could be a springboard for that.
In the meantime, Shim is continuing towards getting a presence on the UNT or TWU campuses, by hosting Bible studies.
The core membership of Risen Church is yet small: about 15 people, plus a few visitors week to week. Almost all are of Asian descent but not all Korean, Shim noted.
Shim shares Kim’s vision of one day expanding to be a multi-ethnic congregation reaching not only Asians but many others also.
“We always say among our core group that our door is wide open. But that is hard to do. Our DNA and our leadership reflects our Asian heritage. But not just Korean. We have had several Vietnamese students attending. Last Sunday we had a Japanese student and another Vietnamese student. We have had several Chinese as well.”
Shim said a Hispanic student attended for a few weeks but hasn’t been back.
“It’s hard to break that cultural barrier but in the long run we’ll hopefully transcend that and become a church where every ethnic group can worship and feel comfortable.”
Although the church is still small, Shim said he believes the core group is ready to get bolder in its witness.
“About six or seven of them are now teaching others how to be disciples. We are in the process of witnessing and discipling others. By year’s end, hopefully all of them will be making disciples.”