With a vision to be a family for those who feel like they don’t belong, Reverend Jeya So and her husband, Reverend Daniel So, planted Anchor City Church together in San Diego in January of 2014.
After having served in the Korean immigrant church setting for most of their 15-year ministry career together, the couple felt God was leading them to plant a church, Ms. So said.
“Both my husband and I – we’re both learners, and we like to absorb a lot of information. And we started to think about the movement of the church in America and worldwide, and thought about the ways that we’re plugging into that picture of what God is doing globally. That’s kind of how it all started,” she continued.
For them, an aspect of church that they particularly wanted to focus on was the concept of family – a place of belonging. Among the various ways she describes Anchor City Church, Ms. So describes it as a “third culture church.”
She says the idea comes from the term, “third culture kid,” or TCK. Though today, TCKs are often used to refer to people who have moved around often and to several different countries, the original meaning of the term pointed to those who have grown up in a culture different from that of their parents. Ms. So said that both she and her husband, as second-generation Korean Americans, often felt they didn’t know to which culture they truly belonged.
“When we were young, we often went to schools where we were one of ten Asian kids in the entire student body,” Ms. So said. “I realize that’s changed quite a bit now. But back then, I remember being told that I wasn’t quite American. I came to the U.S. when I was 18 months old, but I just thought that maybe I wasn’t really American since all of my ‘American’ friends ate mac and cheese at home. But I would visit my grandmother in Korea, and she would say that ‘that American person has come to visit,’ referring to me. And so, I didn’t quite feel Korean either. So there was this feeling as though we were outsiders in both cultures, and a sense of, ‘Who am I?’”
Hence, Ms. So said, she and her husband felt led to plant a church with an emphasis on family culture, and to build a church that becomes a place of belonging – not necessarily for “TCKs,” but for all who may feel that “they’re on the outer edges of society.” Today, the church has grown from 12 starting members in 2014 to some 50 regular members of primarily young adults and young families.
“Our hope is that they would come in and feel comfortable and find that they could belong to a place and believe in a God who loves them as their father,” Ms. So explained.
Undoubtedly, planting a church presented unique challenges from the beginning. The first challenge they faced, Ms. So said, was trying to answer the question, “Does San Diego need another church?”
“I mean, of course, churches everywhere are needed in their respective communities, but there were a lot of good people doing a lot of good ministries, and we just asked ourselves, ‘Is there something new or something we could add to come alongside them?’” Ms. So recalled.
Indeed, there are some 1,000 Protestant congregations that meet in San Diego, according to statistics from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study. Yet, of the total population of the county, less than 10 percent (9.77 percent) identified themselves as being Protestant. Some 56 percent identified themselves as having no religious affiliation.
“We heard that new church plants is the most effective way of bringing about new believers,” Ms. So said, and added that they decided to plant the church remembering that “church planting is a call to evangelism.”
“There are people out there who need the gospel, and we realized that there is a way that we can reach them that other churches haven’t. Every church is reaching different people, and even if it is the same people we’re reaching, that’s OK because we all have something to bring to the table,” she continued.
Yet another internal challenge they faced was figuring out whether their hearts were in the right place in deciding to plant the church.
“We said from the very beginning, very clearly, this church cannot be planted because we’re angry or dissatisfied,” Ms. So said. “For anyone, you can experience burnout when you work too hard, and we’ve experienced our fair share of burnouts in our different churches. So we asked ourselves, ‘What in this process is coming from hurt or bitterness or despair or fatigue, and how do we let it go?’ And we just prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, please help us. If there’s bitterness, turn it into joy because we’re able to say that this is coming from you.’ We prayed a lot.”
This particular challenge was layered with the challenge of approaching their church staff at the time and letting them know of their plans to plant a church. The process came not without tension, Ms. So said, but ultimately, the process stretched both her and her husband in personal ways, and the church gave them their blessings.
“Both of us are middle children, and the stereotype of middle children is that they’re conflict avoiders,” Ms. So explained. “We’re both pretty spot on in that. So it was difficult to work through some of that tension in the process … but it really helped us to narrow down why we were doing what we were doing, and to be okay with being in the midst of tension sometimes. We thought, ‘If this is what God is calling us to do, this is just going to be a blip on the screen.’”
When Anchor City Church held a special service when the congregation first moved in to its current rented space, the leaders invited members of the community, and many of the members of the previous church at which Mr. and Mrs. So were serving also joined and showed their blessings and support for their ministry. Ms. So described the moment as “a huge testimony of the graciousness of God.”
“Because God is so loving, he was able to promote peacefulness in the church,” Ms. So said. “That’s a huge value for us in terms of how we planted this church.”
And finally, yet another challenge that the church leaders are still figuring out is determining the success metrics for the church. One thing they do know for sure, though: it’s not about the numbers, Ms. So said.
Their focus is not so much on quickly adding to the number, but taking the time, if necessary, to invest in people, she explained.
“We’re largely a word of mouth church, and one of the things we emphasize a lot is true discipleship in Christ – bridging that Sunday to Monday gap … If you’re really called to live out discipleship, then you should be reaching out to your friends and neighbors. Not just seeing them as a check mark, but because you have a deep, loving, Christ-like care for them. That’s really how we see it. And that process could be a lot slower in terms of getting people in through the door of the church.”
“Our hope and prayer is that all of the folks that come through the doors, that we would invest in their lives, and help them to love Jesus more and more – so much so that their lives are being transformed and changed, and that they are loving and caring for their neighbors, coworkers, and friends.”