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August 8, 2017

What We Can Learn From Immigrant Churches in Urban Church Planting

By Drew Hyun

A Common Korean-American Immigrant Story in the City

I was born and raised in Los Angeles by first-generation Korean immigrant parents—a mom and dad who set out from their homeland, leaving behind family, friends, culture, and the language of home. Five years into this immigration story, my parents had four kids, the youngest of which was me.

I have never known what buying a one-way ticket to a new land and people feels like, other than short forays into foreign countries. Most second-generation Korean Americans I meet relate to my story, especially that we all grew up going to church.

Much has been written about this common church-going experience for Korean immigrants, and in my very unscientific observation I’d like to posit one reason why: the Korean church was a taste of home, a community where I can live authentically.

We need churches like the one I grew up in, places where Christians and non-Christians can worship, feel at home, and build a community.

As a pastor and church planter in NYC, I meet church planters from all over the world. Most are white and well-funded from their home church. I’ve observed an initial shock from almost all of these church plnaters. The city becomes more “tiring” and “hostile” than the glamor of NYC as seen in movies.

It’s a new land with new people. It’s kind of like being an immigrant.

Similarities Between Immigrant Churches and White Churches in Cities Like NYC

I’ve also noticed that these churches look a lot like the immigrant church I grew up in. The language and the culture feels like something outside the city, something from a homeland far away. For sure, NYC is a melting pot, but in terms of church culture, the church plants tend to feel more like the Midwest and South than they do Manhattan.

This is not to say these churches aren’t needed or aren’t effective, because they’re very much needed and effective. These folks need churches that taste like home. In other words, these church plants fill the need of reaching these new “immigrant” communities in cities like NYC. The largely white churches consisting of people from college football country are, in essence, the new “immigrant” churches of global cities.

The only problem is, unlike the immigrant church I grew up in, the people who move here have no intention of staying in the city like my immigrant parents did. As a result, building a self-sustaining, self-governing, and self-propagating church is a monumental task for white church planters from outside NYC.

In many cases, the Korean immigrant churches that started 20-30 years ago face the dilemma of adapting to today’s culture, especially since immigration has ceased and the original momentum caused by creating a “safe haven” in a foreign land is no longer the most effective vehicle for mission. These churches must adapt or slowly wither away.

In terms of needing to adapt by reaching cross-culturally, church planting in cities like NYC is the same, but the timeline is sped up remarkably due to the transience found in cities like NYC.

What Can We Learn and Change in our Approach to Planting Churches in Global Cities

With the previous trend in mind, I’d like to propose the following:

1. These new “immigrant” churches must engage incarnationally and cross-culturally. If the congregation consists of mostly transplants from other parts of the country, the transience alone will suffocate the church, unless I’ve been able to reach and raise up leaders who are rooted in NYC for the long haul.  

If your core team consists of transplants, that’s okay. Transplants, like immigrants, are the ones who long for and create the feeling of family through time and togetherness, but expect extreme transience that will require you to contextualize quickly and boldly. You must be able to reach cross-culturally and train others to do likewise, which takes time and energy.

2. Instead of spending money sending someone to plant a church in NYC, invest in local pastors and church planters who are already in the city and have a long-term calling here.

Speaking as a church planter who has lived and worked here for 17 years, it’s disheartening to hear how well-funded church planters from outside the city are when we’ve seen people come and go so often. Meanwhile, there’s an incredible talent pool already in NYC that’s waiting to be untapped. But funding is one of the main hurdles for native church planters to take the step toward planting.

3. Learn under an established church planting church in NYC before planting a church yourself. The best way to do this is to get a job and volunteer at the established church (instead of raising money). Learning under a church planting church can help incarnate the life and rhythms of the city without risking raising copious funds only to realize that even with lots of money, the city is a hard place to do ministry.


Drew Hyun

Drew Hyun (@drewhyun) is a Church Planter and Pastor of Hope Church Midtown, as well as the Founding Pastor of Hope Church NYC, a family of diverse churches in NYC. He has spent the last 15 years living and pastoring in New York. He loves cities, ESPN, and naps, and finds it a restful Sabbath when all three come together. He resides in New York City with his lovely wife Christina and their son David. Drew is the author of no books and posts things from time to time on Twitter and Facebook.


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