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A history of the Korean immigrant Baptist church movement in the United States: the growth of ethnic minority churches related to the Southern Baptist convention (SBC) is exploding.

In 1999, more than one-half of SBC church starts were among non-Anglo churches. (1) Oscar Romo stated in 1993 that the SBC was "the most cosmopolitan" denomination in the United States. (2) This paper looks at the history and development of the Korean immigrant church movement, affiliated with the SBC, in the United States.


In 1902, less than fifty Koreans lived in Hawaii and the mainland. That year, Ahn Chango (3) and his wife, soon after their arrival in San Francisco, began the earliest Korean immigrant church in the United States. (4) On January 17, 1903, after the arrival of 101 Korean immigrants to work on the Hawaiian sugar and pineapple plantations, the next Korean immigrant church was founded. During the early years of the twentieth century, the church became unusually important for Korean immigrants. The church quickly became their main social and spiritual center, a place where the Korean language, food, and culture were shared.

Many of the Korean ethnic churches started during the first fifty years of the twentieth century were affiliated with the Methodist and Presbyterian denominations. They were also part of the Korean Christian Church movement, founded and led by Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea. By 1950, at least fifteen Korean ethnic churches with about 10,000 Korean participants had been organized in the United States. (5)

In 2001, the Korean Church Directory in America listed 3,375 Korean immigrant churches. California was the only state with over 1,000 churches (1,108). The nine states with over 100 Korean immigrant churches were New York (356), Illinois (221), New Jersey (171), Virginia (157), Texas (153), Maryland (141), Pennsylvania (113), Washington (111), and Georgia (110). Three states had 50 to 99 churches: Hawaii (77), Florida (61), and South Carolina (54). The remaining thirty-seven states had less than fifty churches.

A recent study of Korean immigrant church membership in the United States by Kim Kwang-Chung and Kim Shin found that 70 percent of the Koreans in America are affiliated with Korean ethnic churches. (6) In these churches, the majority of the members are women, although men hold the positions of leadership. (7)

The First Korean Baptist Church in the United States

On May 6, 1956, Kim Chang-Soon founded the first Korean Baptist church in Washington, D. C. The church took the name "First Korean Baptist Church in the USA." (8) Kang Wong-Yong, a student at Presbyterian Union Theological Seminary in New York, became its first pastor. (9) In March 1958, Ahn Byung-Kook, a Baptist minister from South Korea, became its second pastor.

After one year, a division between Ahn and Kim Chang-Soon occurred, and Alan left and formed a separate church. Eighteen months later, the two groups reunited under Ahn's leadership and changed the church's first name to "The Washington Korean Baptist Church." (10) By 1970, the church had about forty members; (11) in 1974, it experienced another split which gave birth to what is now the Global Mission Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. (12)

Daniel Lee served as the second pastor of the Global Mission Church. He provided a new vision for the church, and under his leadership, the church experienced dynamic growth. (13) By 1993, the church had 3,051 members. (14)

The Second Korean Baptist Church in the United States

On March 10, 1957, Kim Dong-Myung ("Don") and Ahn Ee-Sook ("Esther"), home missionaries appointed by the North American Mission Board while students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, organized the second Korean Baptist church in the United States, the Berendo Street Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California. (15) The vision and structure of this church's ministry were much different from other Korean immigrant churches. The church developed a broad-based ministry that was not limited to Sunday. Instead, meetings were held throughout the week. The church experienced immediate growth, with "some twenty nations" joining their fellowship. (16) Members hailed from China, South America, Canada, England, Germany, Africa, Japan, Philippines, Mexico, and Europe. (17)

By 1963, the church had baptized 190 people and had 226 members. (18) Berendo quickly became the largest Korean church in Los Angeles, a fact that remained true until the mid-1970s. After several schisms between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, the church lost many members. In 1989, under the new leadership of Park Sung-Kun, its second senior pastor, the church again experienced great growth. Today, the church has about 2,000 members. (19) A key reason for this growth is Park's strong gift of expository preaching, which has led many new members to the church. (20)

The Largest Korean Immigrant "Denomination": 1971 to 2001

The third Korean Baptist immigrant church began in San Jose, California, in the early 1970s. Since its beginning and the growth of the Korean Baptist church movement in the United States, Korean Baptists have affiliated with the SBC. Since that time, Korean Baptists also have had the largest number of local churches of all the Korean denominations in the United States. (21) From 1990 to 2001, the directory of the Council of North America Korean Southern Baptist Churches (CNAKSBC) listed the following number of Korean Baptist churches. (22)

In the past thirty years, ten religious or institutional factors have contributed to this unprecedented growth: (1) Berendo Street Baptist Church has acted as a "mother church"; (2) Daniel Moon, a North American Mission Board missionary, has worked as a liaison; (3) Southern Baptist seminaries have offered theological education that is conservative in its theology and have provided low tuition rates; (4) the North American Mission Board has financially supported Korean ethnic pastors; (5) the Baptist polity of local church autonomy has appealed to Koreans; (6) Baptists have offered an expedited process of ordination; (7) SBC state conventions, associations, and local churches have given support to Korean Baptist churches; (8) the shift of the SBC's position on race relations has enhanced its relationship with Korean Baptists; (9) Korea has experienced a change of attitude toward Baptists; and (10) ethnic Korean Baptist workers, both lay and clergy, have worked tirelessly and sacrificed much.

Korean Baptist Churches in Crisis

Despite the tremendous growth of Korean Baptist churches in the past three decades, many of those churches that were part of the Korean immigrant Baptist church movement are not doing well and are now facing a crisis. Korean Baptists must address four critical issues if they expect to continue to grow churches and to be effective in the twenty-first century. First, Korean Baptists face the deceleration of church multiplication. The rate of Korean Baptist church multiplication, compared to the past, is not only slowing down; in some cases, it is losing ground. Note in the preceding chart that the average number of churches started per year decreased from 1998 to 1999. Another factor that affected these numbers is that some of the "new" church starts within the Korean Baptist church movement resulted from church splits, while other came into being because of intentional church planting. Most likely, at least one-half of the new churches were the result of splits. In Los Angeles, several new Korean Baptist churches began as controversy and splitting of one Korean Baptist church that had about fifty adult members in 2001.

Second, Korean Baptists must deal with the fact that they have a high number of spiritually weak, small churches. Southern California has almost 100 Korean Baptist churches, but most of these churches are financially and spiritually struggling. Most of them are "storefront" churches with twenty to thirty members. Korean Baptist churches in many other states face similar situations.

Third, Korean Baptists must understand that pastor codependency is a serious problem. In a typical Korean Baptist church, regardless of its size, the congregation believes that the church cannot exist without a moksa (ordained pastor) or at least a jundosa (unordained pastor). Lay people are often seen as second-class ministers, and the laity believe that their main calling is to support the pastor who is the "real" minister in the church. Too many pastors in small churches unwittingly aggravate this problem when they try to do everything themselves. Park Young-Woo, who ministered in a small Korean Baptist church in Houston, described such a situation:
 Because of the lack of workers, I had to function as janitor,
 kitchen helper, Sunday school teacher's aide and pastor. Even these
 functions were not enough, and the members still demanded extra
 pastoral care and made requests for getting rides, legal case
 assistance, employment applications, care for the ill and those in
 the hospital, home and business visitations.

 After all that, some of them still were not happy because they felt
 like they did not get enough care, while they themselves did not
 offer much voluntary help to the pastor for the church
 ministries. (24)

Fourth, Korean Baptist churches often lack creativity in their church structure. Many Korean Baptist leaders tend to think of church in terms of Baptist "rules." Consequently, they often quench the Spirit when it comes to issues of structure. As Millard Erickson noted, even if "it were clear that there is one exclusive pattern of organization in the New Testament, that pattern would not necessarily be normative for us today." (25)


In spite of its late start within denominational life in the United States, the Korean Baptist church movement by the late 1980s managed to become the largest Korean "denomination" in the nation. Today, many Korean immigrant Baptist churches face declining attendance and are struggling to keep their doors open. To continue to function as churches in the power of the Spirit, they will need to think carefully about what it means to be God's church in their context.
Korean Ethnic Baptist Churches, 1990-2001 (23)

Year Number of Churches

1990 396
1991 Unavailable
1992 481
1993 500
1994 512
1995 527
1996 Unavailable
1997 561
1998 601
1999 593
2000 618
2001 661

(1.) James Dotson, "Record 1,747 New Congregations Reflect SBC's Growing Diversity." Baptist Press, 25 February, 2001, 1.

(2.) Oscar I. Romo, American Mosaic: Church Planting in Ethnic America (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1993), 71.

(3.) Ahn's main purpose for coming to the United States was to receive a theological education so that he could go back to Korea to serve more effectively. As he became more involved in serving the Korean community in San Francisco with its growing population, his goal changed from pursuing "further studies in theology and education" to becoming a "social activist and community organizer." Jacqueline Pak, "An Ch'angho (1878-1938) and Early Korean-Americans," paper presented for inauguration at University of California at Los Angeles, and Jacqueline Pak, interview by author, 15 May, 2001. Bon Y. Choy summarized Ahn's early work among the Koreans in San Francisco: (1) He visited all the Koreans in San Francisco and found their living situations to be horrid. Most of them lived in houses that were "dirty" and "filled with unpleasant smells." They were also "loud and disturbing their neighbors." (2) He worked for his fellow Koreans, offering free service to clean the windows, rooms, and front and back yards. In addition, he planted flowers and trees in every yard. (3) Some of the Koreans were suspicious of his motive and refused his service, but as time passed, they cooperated with him. And (4) "Alan won respect from his fellow countrymen and became their friend as well as their advisor." Bon Y. Choy, Koreans in America (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1979), 81.

(4.) Chul Tim Chang, "Notes from Korean American Church Visitations from 1999-2003," unpublished manuscript, 2003, 81.

(5.) Ibid., 86.

(6.) Kim Kwang-Chung and Kim Shin, "Ethnic Roles of Korean Immigrant Churches in the United

States," in Korean Americans and Their Religion, eds. Kwon Ho-Youn, Kim Kwang Chung, and R. Stephen Warner (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 87.

(7.) Elizabeth Kwon, "The Minister's Wife," in Korean American Ministry, Lee Sang Hyung and John Moore, eds. (Louisville, KY: General Assembly Council PCUSA, 1993), 120.

(8.) Washington Korean Baptist Church 30 Year History (Silver Spring, MD: WKBC Publications, 1987), 21.

(9.) Washington Korean Baptist Church Eyewitness el, interview by author, 20 August, 1998.

(10.) Washington Korean Baptist Church 30-Year History, 23.

(11.) In 2002, the WKBC had an average of 300 adults for Sunday worship attendance. Washington Korean Baptist Church secretary, interview by author, 5 March, 2002.

(12.) Washington Korean Baptist Church Eyewitness #2, interview by author, 26 August, 2001.

(13.) Global Mission Eyewitness el, interview by author, 10 February, 2003.

(14.) Vision 2010: Washington Global Mission Church 25th Anniversary (Silver Springs, MD: GMC Publications, 2000), 11.

(15.) Berendo Street Baptist Church 40th Year Anniversary: Fortieth Anniversary and Dedication Service for the New Church Facilities (Los Angeles: BSBC publications, 1997), 12.

(16.) Berendo Street Baptist Church (BSBC) Eyewitness # 1, interview by author, 24 August, 2001; BSBC Eyewitness # 2, interview by author, 16 August, 2001; BSBC Eyewitness # 3, interview by author, 5 January and 2 February, 2001; BSBC Eyewitness #42, interview by author, 24 August, 2001; BSBC Eyewitness # 5, interview by author, 9 March, 2002, and Don Kim, interview by author, 28 July, 2000.

(17.) Don Kim, interview by author, 28 July, 2000, and Daniel Moon, interview by author, 24 and 27 August, 2001.

(18.) Sue H. Park, Hyung-Yong Kim, and Kyung-Yul Lee, "The Project of the History of Baptists," Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, unpublished manuscript, 1997, 4.

(19.) Sung-Kun Park, interview by author, 2002).

(20.) BSBC Eyewitness #6, interview by author, 10 March, 2002; BSBC Eyewitness #7, interview by author, 13 March, 2002.

(21.) Sang Hyung Lee and John V. Moore, eds., Korean American Ministry (Louisville, KY: General Assembly Council PCUSA, 1993), 286.

(22.) The number of Korean Baptist churches present since the early 1970s tends to be inflated. For example, Scott C. Harris in his dissertation, "Korean Church Growth in America, 1903-1990: History and Analysis," following Peter Kung and H. Leon McBeth and his own research, noted that there were fifty Korean Southern Baptist churches in 1976, 115 in 1980, and 253 in 1983, 500 in 1987, and 700 in 1990. See Peter Kung, "The Story of Asian Southern Baptists," Baptist History and Heritage 18, no. 3 (July 1983): 55; H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), 747; and Scott C. Harris, "Korean Church Growth in America, 1903-1990: History and Analysis" (Ph.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1990), 103.

(23.) Council of North America Korean Southern Baptist Churches Directory, 1990-2001.

(24.) Young Woo Park, "Survival Factors for Small Immigrant Ethnic Churches: The Limitations of Korean Congregation" (D.Min. diss., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998), 66-67.

(25.) Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 1085.

Chul Tim Chang is director of the Lighthouse Learning Center, Santa Clarita, California.
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Author:Chang, Chul Tim
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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