A Better Understanding of Our Parents' Church


James Lee     |     JAN 30, 2018     |     10 MIN READ


“Honor your mother and father.”

Keeping this commandment is often extra difficult for Asian American followers of Jesus. Asian Americans, especially those who attend an immigrant church, feel the pull from two polarizing sets of cultural scripts - Western and Eastern - and can feel like the Western way is better.

Popular accusatory questions might be:

1) Why do my parents or grandparents pray so early in the morning and force me to go with them?
2) How come they cultishly believe that more tithes and service to the church equal more success?
3) Why do they attend churches made up of only Koreans?

But such a view of the previous generation is unhealthy and even ungodly. How can the second generation and beyond obey God and honor the first generation? I believe that by understanding the context of our parents’ faiths, we can appreciate and respect them more, as well as ensure that our own faith is not culturally beholden as well.


Imagine going to a place where you don’t speak the language and the things that you value are seen as stupid or backwards. People are not kind to you. They think of you as their enemy. You are stuck cleaning toilets for twelve hours a day because the degree you earned in your home country doesn’t count here. Imagine that you have children whom you love, but they are growing culturally distant from you and the language barrier only gets larger. Imagine constantly feeling like you are not providing for them because you don’t know what they are going through.

The United States has not been kind to Asian immigrants for much of its history. Asians were only officially allowed in the country starting from 1965 via the Immigration and Nationality Act. Before that, Asians were literally banned (the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924), and even imprisoned (Japanese Internment of 1942-1946). The small number of Asians who were in America before 1924 were mostly workers the US needed to build railroads, and they were used as cheap labor for a dangerous job.

Strong biases against Asian people existed throughout American history, and our parents and grandparents have lived through unfair judgment and harsh treatment.

To many of them, the immigrant church was and still is the only source of upward social movement and meaningful friendship. It was the only way to a sense of fulfillment and self-worth.

Against these storms of immigrant life, they clustered together at church for safety and comfort. To many of them, the immigrant church was and still is the only source of upward social movement and meaningful friendship. It was the only way to a sense of fulfillment and self-worth.

They had no choice but to cry out to God much harder from early dawn, before they headed out for their all-day jobs. They resonated with the side of God that gives blessings because making a living was so difficult. They had been overrun by other nations before, so they were overly scared of losing their cultural identity in a foreign land. These were the means through which our parents and grandparents survived not only spiritually but physically and culturally.


Yet the roots of morning prayer, prosperity gospel, and monoethnic church go beyond the recent immigrant struggles. They are deeply rooted in Korean history and culture.

Morning Prayer (saebyeok gido)

  • Originated from a Daoist/Buddhist practice of praying during early morning when spiritual energy is believed to be at its peak

  • Popularized by Gil Seon-ju, a Daoist/Buddhist convert Christian pastor who experienced God while praying in early morning in the late 1890s

  • Ingrained in the Korean church DNA in the early 1900s by Gil and other prominent Korean pastors through the Great Pyeongyang Revival of 1907

  • Contributed to the Korean independence movement during Japanese occupation and helped the Korean church grow astonishingly fast from the 1950s to the 1980s

  • Solidified even further as people were able to pray in the morning then go to work as the South Korean economy went from rags-to-riches in the 1980s and 1990s

Prosperity Gospel (Blessing Theology)

  • Popularized in America by 1980s televangelism, the Prosperity Gospel is an unhealthy theology/practice that believes that God will bring nothing but material wealth and health for the believer

  • Became a force in the Korean church through David Yonggi Cho’s teaching of three-fold blessing (financial, physical, spiritual), and his Yoido Full Gospel Church became the world’s largest local church with the current average Sunday attendance of 200,000 (not a typo)

  • Was accepted so readily in Korea thanks to its deeply-rooted shamanistic tendency that views deities as givers of physical and financial favors; many Korean Christians thought the biblical God was simply the head deity or the supreme blessing giver

Monoethnic Church

  • Referring to the tendency seemingly unique to Korean immigrant churches which strongly value Korean heritage, resulting in 1) the universal practices of morning prayer and church Korean schools, 2) the strange comfort in predominantly Korean congregation makeup even in the second generation, 3) the division of English and Korean track education ministries in larger churches, and 4) the general lack of Korean Americans in pan Asian American churches

  • Originates from the Confucian thought of separating bloodlines according to status and purity, shown throughout Korean history of labeling different foreign groups solely under the derogatory category of ohrangkye, meaning “barbarians”

  • Heightened by the pride taken over thousands of years of “pure blood” of the Korean people and the historical reaction to constantly being restricted by China and invaded by Japan

  • Amplified by the Japanese occupation that tried to rid of the Korean language by forcing all Koreans to change their names into Japanese ones, and to learn and speak Japanese


You see, some of the aspects of our parents’ faith we see as unhealthy come from their struggle against incredible hardships experienced by immigrants and their ancestors. Instead of looking down on their faith and practices, we ought to be humble and respectful toward them.

Also, as children of immigrants, we ought to examine our own faith and practices. We are not perfect either. It is true that we do not give and sacrifice as much as our parents and grandparents have. It is conventional wisdom among today’s church leaders that English-speaking Korean Americans are significantly less churched and on average tithe much lower in amounts and frequency.

In fact, we tend toward the pitfalls of Western Christianity, with our faith becoming individualist and consumeristic. We constantly ask the questions: “What’s in it for me at this church?” and “Am I getting fed enough to stay here?” We may be well-educated and more efficient, but we sure aren’t as generous, radical or communal.

The next time we are frustrated by the good ol’ KM, I hope that our hearts can be compassionate and understanding rather than suspicious and condescending. May we all honor our mothers and fathers, and so to please the God of all generations, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

James Lee is a pastor at Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. He’s been learning lately what it means to really put his family first.