For Pastor Sungwon Jahng, choosing to serve as the English ministry (EM) pastor of Los Angeles Open Door Presbyterian Church wasn’t necessarily a choice for a particular position or cultural context. It was out of a sense of ownership of the church, he says.
“I just felt a personal responsibility to care for this church, and by God’s sovereignty, he opened up a position for me to be here,” Jahng said. “I don’t think I had that thought that I want to be at a Korean immigrant church specifically. I just thought, ‘This is my church, these are my people.’”
Jahng, who has served at LA Open Door since 2006 but has been its EM lead pastor since 2013, has grown up in the Korean immigrant church context, and some of his experiences in that context weren’t so positive. Jahng has experienced the effects of church infighting, splits, and lawsuits. Yet, he says these experiences have not pushed him away from ministry or the Korean immigrant church, but planted in him a greater conviction for unity.
Jahng shared his personal thoughts and journey in the Korean immigrant church context in an interview.
The experience of having gone through a church split must have been formative for you. In what way did that affect you and your outlook of the church?
That experience really marked my heart, because it was painful. A lot of damage came out of that. Lifelong friends, brothers and sisters whom I grew up with in the church – all of a sudden we didn’t see each other anymore.
After that experience though, one of the passages that became dear to my heart was Ephesians 4, where Paul says to be diligent to preserve the unity of the body. I think that’s one of the greatest challenges of the Korean immigrant church – to find a way to preserve the unity of the body. Because we have so many things that are fighting against that, especially with the generational and cultural differences. And because of those negative experiences I’ve had, I really have to fight for that unity within my own heart.
What are some steps that have helped you to fight for unity?
I make an effort to first expect and know that – mindfulness is the first step I think, that there are going to be differences. And I think the next step is trying to distinguish clearly what is a matter of principle or preference. Sometimes those things get blurred together.
Some say that one of the things that hinders unity between KM and EM is a difficult relationship between the lead pastors of the two ministries. Have you faced any of those challenges?
I think one of the advantages of me having been here [at LA Open Door] for so long – for over 10 years now – is that I’ve been able to develop a relationship with my senior pastor. A trust has formed. And I think that’s foundational – to know that we are on the same team. And over the years, I’ve gotten to know him, to know his personality, and I can say sincerely that I know his motives. He wants what’s best not only for this church but for the church of Jesus Christ. His objective is to serve God. Having that kind of trust really helps me to see past the cultural differences there might be in leadership style, and to see him as a brother in Christ, a fellow under shepherd.
Another thing that helps is that he also is aware of the differences of the first and second generation. The way he approaches his associate pastors is different from the way he approaches me. While he’s still technically ‘over’ me, he’s much more sensitive to those cultural differences with me.
What are some ways that KM and EM at LA Open Door have been working together to build that unity? How would you describe the relationship between the two ministries?
We do have those joint ministry events, such as our all-church retreats that we have every year. We also have a school in Guatemala – that has always been a joint effort.
I would describe our relationship right now like that of a parent-child relationship. As a child, we [the members of EM] are growing into adulthood. Our English ministry is kind of like a church plant – we’re trying to build from bottom up right now, and we have such a great support from the KM. And being around these senior saints – there’s a richness to that, beyond just the cultural differences. When you really dig in, there is a depth that we can learn from the first generation, and it’s challenging. Their passion, prayer, dedication, service, and generosity – these are all things that are counter to what we’ve grown up with in a Western society that tends to be individualistic or rationalistic. For us to be around that spirituality, that challenges us.
What are the struggles that have challenged you most as a Korean American pastor?
I think one of the most difficult things about being a pastor in general is not shepherding other people, but shepherding yourself. That’s the constant battle – personal sanctification. There’s always a sense of inadequacy, and asking, ‘Am I really up to this task to shepherd all of these people?’ And that’s by design – God wants us to feel that inadequacy so that we can lean on him. That’s essential to preach the gospel rightly – to preach out of weakness, not out of strength.
And I think another challenge is just working with people, when it comes down to it. At a missions preparation class I once took, something a speaker said was that the number one leading cause for missionary attrition is not because the work is so hard, not because people are resistant, but team members cannot get along. That’s Satan’s ploy – he wants to divide the church. And that’s why Paul gives that exhortation to make every effort to preserve the body of Christ.
In some ways, you can make this cultural thing so complex, and in other ways, you can just make it so simple – it just comes down to loving one another, forgiving one another.