A guitar's serene melody fills the room at the Young Nak Celebration Church campus in South Los Angeles. A group of mostly Korean Americans sway to the rhythm of the music, their eyes closed and arms extended, their palms facing the ceiling as they worship God through the music. On Friday nights, Young Nak Celebration Church hosts series-based bible studies for their singles ministry called The Vine.
The Vine is aimed at adults who are over 30 and not married. It was founded by YNCC to provide community and fellowship for a demographic that felt displaced within the church. Like many Korean-American churches, YNCC had a ministry for young-adults and one for families, but people who fell in between didn't feel represented.
"It's a group that is an in-between. We call it 'the misfits.' We're not recently out of college and young-adult but we're not exactly married with children," Susan Cho, one of the leaders at The Vine said.
In South Korea, increasing numbers of people in their late 20s and early 30s are choosing to stay single. According to Statistics Korea, the number of middle-aged single-person households last year was up nearly 400 percent from 1995, making this the age group that has increased the fastest in the last two decades.
However, despite growing trends of singlehood, South Koreans still feel socially pressured to get married. According to a survey by Duo, a leading match making company, about two thirds of the Korean population felt pressured by their parents, and this stress only escalates during holidays such as Lunar New Year, which occurred in February. At YNCC, older singles find comfort in The Vine, which provides them a community of people who are in the same boat.
The Vine is a group of close to 70 members; although predominantly Korean American, they welcome any ethnicity. They host a variety of activities in addition to their weekly Friday night gatherings; with church retreats, Thanksgiving dinners, and trips to the Dodger games, The Vine has attracted people from other Korean churches around Los Angeles.
In fact, Cho isn't a member of YNCC, she goes to Hana Church in Buena Park, but she's part of The Vine because she enjoys being among other Christians going through some of the same issues she is, and her church doesn't have a ministry like this one.
"Young Nak already has a college/young adult ministry, so we figured there was a need for [a ministry] for professionals who are older," Cho said, "I guess it could apply to any age group, but we focus on gearing [our topics] to how they affect our particular age group differently."
Pastor Eugene Lee, the lead clergy at The Vine, said that the top three topics singles deal with are aging parents, work-related stress and loneliness. Although they have a lot more independence, being single means they don't have anyone to help them carry the load of an aging parent; and as they shift their focus away from marriage and place it on their career, work-related stress becomes more severe.
Jenny Pak, an associate professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, said another stressor for unmarried adults is the tension between themselves and older generations who still hold on to aspects of neo Confucianism.
"In the more traditional society, there was less of an acceptance or option for people to stay single," Pak said, "so among the older generation, this is something foreign and they have a hard time accepting it."
Peter Ma, a graduate student at the Talbot School of Theology and a participant at The Vine, felt pressure to marry, but says it decreased as he grew older.
"When I was in my 30s, there was a lot of pressure to both get married and do well in my career, but the older you get, the more people lay off the pressure; they just get tired of pushing," Ma said.
Members of The Vine say that they trust that God has a plan for them, including a reason to keep them unmarried. Lee said that biblically, there is nothing wrong with singlehood, and the church should neither force people to marry nor try to set up couples.
Lee stressed that YNCC had no intention of creating a matchmaking group. Instead, it created The Vine to give singles a sense of belonging, and if they ended up meeting a partner, that would only be a happy byproduct. However, he didn't know of any couples that had met through the ministry.
"The only thing [the church] can do is let them know how much God loves them and help them see where God can play a role in their future," he said, "For us at The Vine, what we like to encourage is to let people know that it's okay to be single, it's okay not to be married."