Amidst all the talk of what the best “model” for the Korean immigrant church could be, one of the most favored models among the Korean American pastors is that of an English ministry (EM) budding off into an independent church.
But on the KM (Korean ministry)’s side, the idea of sending the EM off into independence may bring about some fears. What happens to the kids in elementary to high school – who will teach them about God in English? Won’t our numbers shrink? Wouldn’t this be kind of like a church split?
Two members of Young Nak Celebration Church (YNCC)—Yana Ahn, the missions pastor at YNCC, and Kyung Ho Hong, an elder and executive director at YNCC—who have been at Young Nak since the beginnings of the English ministry at the mother church Young Nak Presbyterian Church (YNPC), and Reverend Michael Lee, the senior pastor of YNCC, shared their thoughts on the independent church model. There are several things an EM pastor looking into independence should consider, they said, especially taking into account the possible fears that the KM may have about the idea.
In YNCC’s case, though the church is legally independent, perhaps a more accurate word to describe its relationship with YNPC is “interdependence.” YNCC now has two campuses, but one of its campuses is still shared with YNPC; the education department is still shared by the two churches; and they also do outreach events together, including Love L.A., a weekly outreach event in Skid Row.
“Some people might have thought of [independence] as, ‘Why are we dividing the church?’ But we weren’t dividing – we wanted to raise more and reach more,” said Hong.
In fact, YNCC made it a point to emphasize its commitment to maintaining its relationship with YNPC even after legal independence by writing a memorandum at the time of YNCC’s independence. The memorandum indicated the missional vision behind the EM’s independence, and the EM’s “desire to coexist” with the mother church, in the words of Yana Ahn.
This interdependent relationship came from the relationship that the KM and EM built through engaging in ministry together while they were still – on legal terms – one church.
“When [YNPC first] moved to the Broadway site, some Korean deacons went to Skid Row and started passing out hamburgers – that was all they could do with their limited English,” Ahn elaborated. “One day, some of the young members tagged along, and they were able to talk to the people in Skid Row and build relationships. So when KM and EM combined efforts like this, we saw so much growth, and we saw how clearly we needed each other. Young people saw the dedication of the older generation, and the older generation saw the need and desire to do ministry with the younger generation.”
The KM also played a significant role in helping the EM transition into independence. The KM session invited EM to their session meetings, and KM elders became a part of the EM leadership to train and guide them in leading a congregation.
“We had our own leadership called the EMC – the English Ministry Council,” said Hong. “At the time, EMC comprised of members mostly in their late twenties or thirties. So they even changed the bylaws and got special permission from our denomination to elect deacons at that age, because some of our EMC members were too young.”
The KM also trained the EM by giving them autonomy in handling their own finances and hiring their own pastors. Eventually, the EM was also given their own building when YNPC moved into its current Broadway location.
“We had to learn how to set up the worship center; we had to have our own community sacrament equipment; etc. – it was a huge learning curve,” Ahn said of the experience of first moving in to their own building. “In the beginning, we were short of elders too so the KM elders came and helped us to do communion.”
Through such a relationship, the EM’s desire to continue coexisting with the Korean mother church came “as an automatic response,” Ahn said.
“KM first cared for and loved EM,” she said. “We never felt the KM was meddling or taking our money away. They really did care for us and think about the next generation.”
This support from the KM is a unique aspect in YNCC’s journey to independence, said Lee.
“This training that the EM leaders received is really special,” Lee said. “Not only did the KM senior pastor have the vision behind it, but through these ways, the KM said, ‘Let us come alongside you and help you in this.’”
Though in YNCC’s case, the vision for independence came from and was supported by the KM senior pastor, this is not the case for many, if not most, EM pastors. Ahn, Hong, and Lee all encouraged EM pastors considering independence to first focus on the relationship with KM.
"Think of ways you can create a ministry space where you realize the need for interdependence [between the Korean and English congregations] and the value of that relationship," Ahn advised, referring to the way YNCC and YNPC still do outreach together.
“It’s hard to convince someone of something so substantial,” Lee said. “Try to have a shared vision with the KM senior pastor. Be the channel through which God reveals the vision [of independence] to him.”
Ahn and Hong also advised pastors to first consider their intentions behind wanting independence, and whether they are truly ready for it.
“They need to examine, ‘Why do I want independence? Is it because I want this congregation to grow more and reach more?’ Because I think the reason we wanted independence was all missional – we saw the benefit of being together to build His kingdom," said Ahn.
“For some EMs, there is no way they can be financially independent,” Hong said. “If you want to be independent for the right reasons like Yana said, you need to get yourself ready. You need to be responsible, and if you’re doing your ministry well, then KM will give you independence if it is needed. EM has to do their part and they have to be able to be independent first.”
Lee added that thinking of how the relationship would look in the long run is also important.
“What would the relationship between the Korean and English speaking congregations look like long term? What would the education department look like? And the long-term changes in leadership – what would that look like? How would this relationship continue on into the future even when the initial visionaries for it are gone?” Lee posed.
To keep the initial vision as a part of the DNA of both the Korean and English speaking churches, Hong advised pastors to have something like YNCC’s memorandum, and even putting that memorandum in the bylaws of the church as a memory. YNCC itself is considering how they could best preserve and commemorate its history and relationship with YNPC.
“A lot of our elders are gone or retired in the EM side, and a bunch of us are going to retire,” Hong said. “It would be good to have a history and an understanding of how this church came about, and keep the memory of this relationship alive.”