Meeting Needs: Church Growth from the Korean American Perspective

July 19th, 2013

When I was in Korea, I experienced rapid growth of Christian churches regardless of their denominations. Conservative churches as well as liberal churches grew like crazy. Within twenty years, one-fourth of the Korean population were known and registered as Christians. Many people believed that it was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Even though I also believe that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, if I reflect on the reasons of the church growth in Korea, I can see that the Korean churches back then actually met the needs of the people that they served. For some people, their needs were to find hope in their poor life situations and means to overcome the poverty. Conservative churches usually gave hope for them through positive preaching and enthusiastic praise-style worship. For other people, their needs were to find strength and justice to fight against social corruption and political dictatorship. Liberal churches were good in guiding and organizing the protest movements among young progressive groups. Though theologically different, both conservative and liberal churches served the needs of the people in Korean society.

When I came to the United States in the 1980s, I also experienced rapid growth of the Korean immigrant churches. In our denomination, Korean immigrant churches were in many cases the ones who started new churches and experienced growth. If I may find the reasons for the growth, I can also say that they met the needs of the Korean immigrants. At that time, Korean immigrant churches were not just worshipping places but community centers. People came to church not just to worship God but to enjoy Korean foods and language. They could find fellowship among the same language users and sought help from the people who had gone through a similar assimilation process in the community. The churches provided all kinds of information for the successful transition from Korean to American life.

From these two reflections, I see a general rule that churches who meet the needs of the people they serve should grow. Churches that do not know or serve the needs of the people will decline.

Here we have to raise two questions: First, who are the people that we serve? There are so many people with very diverse needs. How do we identify the people whom we serve? Are the ones who live close to our churches the ones that we should serve? Secondly, do we have to meet the needs of the people whatever they are? Should not we also guide and teach people to have the “right” needs, from a biblical perspective? These are theological questions that each congregation and pastors should ask. Based on their answers, they will make up their minds and directions where they should go. Based on their answers also, they either grow their churches or close their churches.

Each community and each congregation has specific target audience that they serve. Their needs are unique as I summarily characterized in the case of the Korean churches in Korea and in the U.S. So we need to take time to see what their practical needs in the current situation are.

But there are also human needs that we all share. Many anthropologists would agree that we humans have common needs regardless of our culture or race. We need to eat, sleep, and make love. We all need to create and have a community to which to belong. We all need to be loved and respected. We all need a way to make sense of life and the world around us. If we consider these general human needs and discern which one is the most urgent need for the people that we serve, we can find clues for our church’s growth.

The church that I am serving now has many elderly Caucasian members. They have served the Lord and the community faithfully for the last sixty years. They deserve recognition and love. However, the culture that honors youth and diversity ignores them in subtle ways. They have needs to be recognized and embraced. So, I visit them diligently, I praise them consistently for what they have done, and I see them not as elderly people but as God’s precious sons and daughters. I try to restore their dignity and value through my ministry. This may sound counter to the growth strategies of our time, but this is the most urgent need that I see in the people that I serve in our church and in the surrounding community, and others in our community have started coming to our church. There should be other churches identifying the needs of and serving the young people that our denomination desperately wants to serve. If God sends me to a church where I see that need, I would change my ministry priority, but in this setting, I meet the needs of the people in this community.

The rule of thumb is this: Find the needs of the people in your community and serve them so that they will find community and praise God!

comments powered by Disqus