Friday, March 30, 2007

reflections on asian american (youth) ministry: part two

I want to continue to build on some thoughts I began to share here. I will continue to use Marko's observations on the Asian American (AA) youth ministry as a framework for my response. In my first post, I tried to tackle the idea of youth workers being treated as second (or third) class citizens in Asian American churches. Today, taking on the idea of youth workers being treated as hired guns in AA churches...

68 guns
Certainly, the phrase "hired gun" is loaded (oh, the puns). Though I do have certain critical observations of AA churches in this regard, I do not believe that most AA churches intend for their youth workers to be simply hourly wage-earning automatons -- nor do I believe this is what Marko was implying in his original post. Most, if not all, of my peers in AA youth ministry have had a tremendous pastoral heart for their students.

Marko is right in using a somewhat explosive (again with the puns!) phrase in highlighting his underlying point, though. It it vital to recognize that youth ministry is not simply entrusted to AA youth workers, but abdicated to them. This happens for a number of reasons, from my experience.

Perceived inadequacy & professional relevance
First generation (1G) parents often feel inadequate in raising their own children. Beyond the obvious language, cultural and generational differences, many first generation parents simply do not have the time (or, in the worst case, inclination) to sit down and spend time with their children. However, this might also spring from a cultural difference -- the idea of Dad tossing around a baseball with the kids on a lazy Saturday might be idealized in the Western perspective, but not necessarily upheld in an Eastern worldview. The 1G love language can be very different, and difficult to understand, for their second generation (2G) children, and vice-versa.

Then, because of this perceived inadequacy (coupled with the frustration of having moody, incomprehensible, hormone-filled teens stomping around the house), 1G parents hand over the reins to the "expert" -- the youth worker. Often, these 1G parents prefer to have someone younger leading the youth ministry because they mistakenly believe that the youth worker will naturally understand their children's culture.

It is important to recognize that while a 2G youth worker probably does have more insight into the life and culture of students than their parents, there is still a huge gap between most youth workers and their students. For example, in high school I inhabited a world without the internet. And, although youth workers just a couple of years younger than me are more native to a wired world, the pace of change is so rapid that even my high schoolers have a hard time relating to their middle school peers at times.

More importantly, the trade-off between perceived relevance and stability/experience is completely uneven. I would much rather see AA churches filled with grizzled old youth ministry vets who are in it for the long-haul than to have young, hip and "relevant" people bounce in and out every couple of years.

Sunday's best
1G parents then, out of both exasperation and wanting the best for their 2G kids, pass along much of what should rightly be their responsibility to the youth workers. This includes everything from the profoundly spiritual to the mundane.

Many 1G Korean American parents express their faith through such spiritual disciplines as early morning prayer. In our church, the Korean congregation gathers every morning at 5:30 am to sing a couple of hymns, here a short sermon and pray together. In many ways, this disciplines has been reclaimed and redeemed from their Buddhist/shamanistic background. Most of these 1G parents recognize that such a model will not work for their 2G children. But instead of working through it with their kids, they expect the youth worker to be responsible for the spiritual formation of their children -- as if that were remotely possible in just a few hours each week. Youth workers are primarily responsible for teaching students about why developing a personal relationship with Jesus is important, how to walk with God, how to serve the church, how to see the world from a Christian perspective, how to have a quiet time, and on and on.

One complaint I have heard from many different parents in several different churches, located around the country, is that their students do not dress properly for church - and could you tell them how to dress? I suppose I should be ready for it by now, but I am always a taken aback by such a request. After all, do I take their children shopping? Do I see them before they come to church on Sunday? Can I adequately convey to the students the good reasons behind dressing nicely for church (without it degenerating into yet another set of "rules" for good church-going)? Other related issues usually center around teaching their children manners or urging them to study harder. Again, these are clearly parental responsibilities. As a parent myself, I understand their hearts but I also recognize that the best I can do is partner with them - not take over as a 2G surrogate parent.

Anyone want to volunteer? Anyone?
Many AA churches lack adult volunteers for their youth ministry, which further exacerbates the problem of isolation and departmentalization. Many 1G adults are frightened off from serving in youth ministries because they live under the same false assumption of "relevance" being the most important thing -- maybe their English isn't perfect, maybe they feel too old, etc. In addition, these very same people who would have the heart to serve are already living in the 80/20 rule (80% of the work is done by 20% of the people), wearing several different hats in service to the church. This is certainly true of the wonderful adults who volunteer in our youth ministry. Not only do they teach youth, but they are in the worship band, are cell group leaders, offering-counters and Sunday greeters. I marvel at their ability to keep their heads on straight.

Many AA churches hope to rely on their English-speaking adult congregations (EM) as a pool for volunteers. Unfortunately, many of the EMs are barely getting by on their own; I have often seen more resistance from EM pastors than from their 1G counterparts in terms of encouraging their congregants to volunteer in youth ministries.

A servant's heart
Add all of this up and most AA youth ministries find an urgent, fundamental need to develop student leaders. While this leadership void is filled through formal channels (i.e., student council/cabinet/core group, worship band, etc.), it is equally important in an AA setting to develop an overall concept of servant leadership for every student.

In part, this is because 2G students will serve, whether they like it or not. The ideal of filial piety (respecting your elders) runs deep in 1G congregations. The practical reality is that these 2G students will end up doing lots and lots of grunt work by the time their youth group years are up. A favorite example in our family (loosely based on our experience growing up in Korean American churches): some random deacon pulls up in front of the church with his van packed to roof with boxes of oranges. The random 1G adult will then proceed to conscript any English-speaking young person in the vicinity for orange-moving service.

The issue, then, is not if our 2G students will serve, but with what attitude they will serve. There is some truth to the idea that the true measure of our servanthood is revealed when we are treated as one. A huge part of my ministry to 2G students has been to develop a Christ-like idea of serving and loving simply because this is what He asks us to do.

A safe place to lead
It is not only necessity that makes developing AA student leadership so vital. The church is often the safest place in which these 2G students can develop leadership skills. Many 2G students live as constant outsiders -- navigating the choppy waters of school with their Western lens, then subconsciously switching gears to navigate their home culture through a completely different perspective. I was shocked to hear the story of one of our 10th graders. She described how her social studies class recently covered Pearl Harbor, and how several of her classmates began to harangue her aloud with "ching-chong" type of mockery. Her teacher, though clearly hearing all of this, did nothing to intervene. Sticks and stones, I suppose...

As horrible as her story is, though, it does illustrate the greater point. Because of the constant cultural navigation, many AA students will not feel comfortable developing leadership in a strictly Western (i.e., school) setting nor will they be at ease leading in a 1G context. While it might be a Western value to be outspoken, assertive, even aggressive, this will definitely not fly at home for 2G students. Even in the face of such obvious injustice, it was difficult for this student to speak out.

AA youth ministries, then, have a unique and significant opportunity to nurture and develop leadership in a safe context -- one that recognizes the complexities they face, and provides some guidance into a deeply Christian sense of leadership.

From hired hand to good shepherds
As I stated up front, most AA youth workers do not view themselves as hired guns. The issue, then, is creating an overall culture in AA churches where the shepherding of students is upheld as a legitimate, valuable and necessary ministry.

As Jesus said in John 10:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me - just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

hello, goodbye

Hello to a new article I wrote for

Goodbye to my favorite pair of Pro-Ked sneakers. You will be missed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

reflections on asian-american (youth) ministry: part one

The controversy surrounding "Skits that Teach" over the last several weeks has caused me to spend a lot of time in reflection – asking myself big picture questions about race, reconciliation and the church, as well as more personal issues about calling, direction and engaging others in meaningful dialogue. It just occurs to me now that this time of soul-searching, reflecting and repentance (providentially) coincides with the season of Lent.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to sit down and meet with Marko from Youth Specialties. I have been meaning to share for a little while now, but I’ve been struggling to pull together all of my thoughts. However, given that I might never get it all completely together, I want to begin sharing some of my thoughts and reflections.

I was very encouraged by the time I spent with Marko. He is a sincere, down-to-earth and caring individual. I’m not sure how many presidents of other companies (Christian or not) would sit down for a couple of hours with some random emailer, but that's exactly what Marko did. It was powerful to see an influential person take these issues to heart -- Marko had just finished reading Asian American Youth Ministry (edited by DJ Chuang) as part of his desire to engage these issues on a deeper level. He posted some of his observations here on his blog.

I am thankful that Marko has added his voice in this conversation. His perspective is unique in this context -- he is both an insider (as someone who is fully invested in the lives of students, youth ministry and youth workers) and an outsider (as a non-Asian-American person) to the situation.

This is a significant dialogue, for the future of Asian-American youth and youth ministry as well as for the broader Church. Marko’s three observations about Asian-American youth ministry are important, and I will interact with each of his insights on this blog for a little while in a series of individual posts.

First, Marko points out that youth workers are often treated as second or third-class citizens in Asian-American churches. While this is not true in every Asian-American church (and is a struggle outside of our community as well), many of us have encountered this ugly fact of life in our ministries. It is not uncommon for Asian-American youth to have gone through three or four (or more) youth pastors during their middle and high school years. One of the first questions I heard from many of my students once I arrived at this church was, "How long are you going to be here?" A youth teacher at our church fired a warning shot over my bow on the first Sunday I was here, saying, "I hope you're not treating youth ministry as a stepping stone."

While there are positive aspects to the Confucian ideal of respecting our elders, there is also a dark side to it as well -- as evidenced by the poor treatment of many youth workers. Sadly, youth ministry is often treated as either an after-thought or as "ministry lite" by many of our churches because it deals directly with younger people. This translates into an environment where there is no future for youth workers. As Marko rightly points out, "the pay sucks." None of us entered youth ministry (or ministry in general) believing that we would become wealthy, but there is something wrong with the system.

Because many churches see youth ministry as a temporary thing that only seminarians or young, single people do, they feel justified in paying very low wages to their youth workers. While it may be possible for single people to scrape by (though it is still wrong for churches pay their young, single workers so poorly), it is almost impossible to support a family on these wages. Thus, many are forced either to move on from youth ministry or leave church work altogether as they begin to raise families.

I have often received advice from first-generation people that pastors should not talk too much about money, lest they appear greedy. Some have even gone so far as to say that we shouldn't even ask about our pay -- just find out when you get your first paycheck. In my last church, they actually lied about how much I would be paid -- stating one amount over the phone but actually paying a significantly lower amount. I do not believe we must follow the corporate model of formal negotiations and including every minute detail in a written contract, but churches must begin taking better care of their youth workers.

In a worst-case scenario, I have one friend who had been serving at one of the biggest Asian-American churches in the country as a youth pastor for several years. Not only did he never receive a raise, but his pay was actually decreased at one point. Although he is married and has a child, he did not receive health insurance from the church. Worse, when he raised these concerns to the church, their response was, "You should be glad you can work here. There are plenty of people who are dying to take your job."

Sometimes, these significant issues of wages and compensation are brushed aside under the rhetoric of “humility.” Youth workers need to “pay their dues” and learn just how hard ministry is supposed to be.

This attitude of relegating youth ministry to the minor leagues goes far beyond issues of pay. When churches believe that the only “real” ministries are to adults, then youth ministry becomes little more than a tool. Churches hope to cultivate a successful youth ministry primarily as a means of attracting adults (the real members) to “big church.” I have heard numerous first-generation pastors equate youth ministry with “just playing” or babysitting. This fundamental lack of vision for youth ministry makes it almost impossible for even the most dedicated youth workers to remain in it for the long haul.

In the end, I suppose it is not only youth workers that are treated as second-class citizens. I can think of many faithful associate pastors I have known and admired who have labored under even worse circumstances in their first-generation ministry setting. While the role of the senior pastor in a first-generation setting has its own set of extraordinary difficulties, the difference in compensation and respect between the senior pastor and the rest of the staff is staggering.

So, how do we begin to address these issues? How do we create the perception that being in youth ministry can be a legitimate end, that it is not inherently a temporary layover until “real” ministry begins? How can we help our churches champion and support youth ministry as vital and foundational to their being?


I have always blogged using all-lowercase words. Beyond the aesthetic of it, I viewed my blog as a sort of stream-of-consciousness setting - not much editing, just my thoughts as they spilled out onto the screen. I have decided to clean it up a bit, partly for readability (it can be difficult to distinguish one sentence from another without capitalization) and partly as an attempt to organize my thoughts in a more deliberate manner (I have found myself taking much more time to write posts over the last couple of months anyways).

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007


i love indie rock. the early to mid-90s songs of dinosaur jr., sebadoh, pavement and superchunk always take me back. but more than just the music itself, there is something appealing to me about the ethos of indie rock. artists like ian mackaye and jonah matranga embody the do-it-yourself and music-centered spirit of independent rock and roll.

canadian indie rock artists the arcade fire have enjoyed critical and commercial success with their latest release neon bible. while their live performances have been described a "joyous" and "infectious," the lyrical ground they cover is a bit darker. for example, here are some lyrics from the song "intervention" (which they performed recently on saturday night live):
Been working for the church while your life falls apart
They're singing hallelujah when defeating your heart
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan all quiet and alone
Hear the soldier groan all quiet and alone
i am sure there are multiple layers of meaning to this song. perhaps there is a political or personal analogy. but as someone whose vocation is in church ministry, i cannot ignore the face value of these lyrics. sadly, these words from an outsider are often the reality many church workers face (as eugene cho wrote about in his excellent post on pastoral health).

may the sparks of friendship & love burn deep and bright in the hearts of God's people, especially those whose vocation is in the church.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

detroit, lift up your weary head! (rebuild! restore! reconsider!)

with a nod to david park over at next gener.asian church and his series of posts on unique korean virtues that em's aren't teaching our kids, i will share a couple of things that i love and/or appreciate (though sometimes from a distance) about the korean-american (k/a) church.

like many pastors in the k/a setting, i experience a sort of delirium every weekend. the weekend is, of course, the only time many congregants have available -- and so we squeeze every minute out of it with meetings, practices, Bible studies and various other programs (but let me stop before this devolves into some kind of rant about the potential counter-productivity of such an approach).

my weekend begins, as it does in many other k/a churches around the country, with early morning prayer.

there is something strangely romantic about early morning prayer (emp). maybe it's the idea that we are following jesus' example in going to a lonely place at the crack of dawn to pray. i've heard many people describe emp as the foundation of the k/a church. there really is something amazing about a church that prays so faithfully -- gathering in community every morning to seek God.

i must admit, though, that i appreciate the practical reality of emp far less than the concept of it. there are numerous reasons for this: laziness (i think the "loves suffering" gene must have skipped me), my inability to speak korean (it's hard enough getting there by 5:30 am, let alone sticking with a thirty minute sermon in which i can only glean about ten percent of its meaning), and my growing introvertedness (i had no problem praying myself hoarse in group settings ten years ago, but i've changed since then)....

i wonder, though, if my biggest struggle with emp doesn't come from my westernized perspective. our senior pastor recently asked our second-generation staff about how we, as second-gen people, experience spiritual growth since emp doesn't seem to be a large part of the equation. while i'm pretty sure this was a not-so-subtle suggestion to start attending emp more than the twice-a-week i've been going, this gets at some key issues.

the daily devotion/quiet-time model for spiritual growth is perfectly suited to the highly individualized western mindset. i'll take my bible and my ipod and spend some quality time with jesus - alone. for many first-gen believers, the value of community is so deeply ingrained that the idea of spiritual growth apart from the community is almost unthinkable. thus, the emp model fits well in the community-minded first-gen perspective.

to be certain, we need balance. spiritual growth requires careful cultivation in both individual and corporate settings. i wonder if there is a way to capture the best of both worlds. it's sad that, in the past, when i have suggested to second-gen people that we gather for emp (even once a week), they laugh out loud. and then, after realizing that it was not asked sarcastically, they start listing the reasons why they cannot do it.

i don't think this is an issue of forcing second-gen people to set up more emp meetings. i'm not sure that would be the most effective model for building community and fostering spiritual growth in our churches. but we cannot afford to ignore the values that go into emp: earnest belief in the power of prayer, valuing the community so much that we're willing to sacrifice for it, making the church community a part of everyday life.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

leave in silence

"why should he run the meeting in english?! we all speak korean here! he should speak korean, too!!"

i am a big believer that youth ministry is actually family ministry. there is no way a couple of hours a week at church can shape the heart of a young person. if we're going to reach students for Christ, then we must reach their families.

and herein lies the dilemma. most of the time, i find myself completely unable to navigate first-generation korean culture. it's not just that i cannot speak the language (although there has been perhaps a 15% improvement in comprehension over the last couple of years); the cultural gap seems to be growing larger the longer i serve in this context.

last sunday, we had a pta meeting here at church. knowing that very few people look forward to these poorly-attended meetings, the education pastors did our best to keep it short (only about 15 minutes total, between three different ministries -- not bad!). we closed in prayer together with the parents and i gathered my things to leave.

it was then, about five or six feet behind me, that i heard one particular dad start ranting, loudly, to a small group of people around him about how unhappy he was. apparently, since i had made all of three announcements in english, he was about to blow a gasket. in the couple of months since we've been at this church, i have heard numerous comments from this particular man about how he wants things to be run and the mistakes others have made.

i really wanted to turn around and tell him to calm down. that if i could, of course i would have run my part of the meeting in korean. that there were plenty of other people here who also struggled with english, but seemed to be handling it fine. that, even if i could not communicate well with him, i am reaching his kids. but, of course, since we don't speak each other's language (in more ways than one) i chose not to say anything. plus, i was pretty steamed, which is not always the best way to engage a conversation with a church member.

i want to be pastoral with him. his life has been really hard -- not only as an immigrant to this country, but with a family life that would make anyone bitter and frustrated. most of the time, this man is very nice, even charming, with church people. but i think he must feel the need to flex on someone. all of his disenfranchisement and disappointment with life come bubbling to the surface, and he lashes out at the youth and education ministries (on whom he must feel like he has the upper hand).

i don't mean to bad-mouth our church. most of the people here have been very kind, and i certainly don't expect anyone to cater to my needs. as a pastor, i'm here to serve, after all. however, i am getting worn out by this kind of attitude. it's not like this church is unique in this. while it might only be a small percentage of people, this type of attitude has been present in almost every ministry in which i've served.

grow a thicker skin.
pray more.
learn korean.
i know there's a laundry list of things i can/should do in response to all of this. but it's still frustrating.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

why can't i be you

i was playing with my three and a half year old daughter the other day. usually, she wants to read together or have a tea party. when we can, we'll go biking or scootering. on this particular day, though, she wanted to pretend to play music together.

she took out a little pink inflatable guitar (that my wife picked up as a freebie at a seminar at the national children's pastor's conference) and started strumming. my daughter has always loved music, especially the rock. when she was around a year old, she would demand we listen to "vertigo" by u2 over and over again during our long ride from home to church.

all of a sudden, though, she began smashing the guitar -- pete townshend-style. a bit taken aback, i asked her what she was doing. she said she was just doing what daddy did before. now i was confused. when had i smashed a guitar in front of her (or ever)? had i knocked something over in frustration? did i totally screw up?

i was relived when she clarified what she meant. she explained to her confused father that she was talking about "that guitar game" where, upon successfully completing a song, the virtual guitarist on screen would proceed to demolish his or her guitar, with glee. the game to which she was referring is, of course, guitar hero.

everyday i realize how quickly kids pick up on the things they see. from muttering insults at the car who just cut me off to the kinds of things i think are funny, i am setting an example at all times. in this enormous responsibility and calling, all i can do is rely on the grace of God to continue to mold & shape my heart, and to guide and lead my family as well.

i wish i had photos of her smashing that guitar, though!


Friday, March 02, 2007

there's no other way

all of the recent commotion about some racially offensive skits published in a zondervan/youth specialties book has caused me to spend some time this week seriously considering issues of race, power and faith, and how they are interconnected. no solid conclusions yet; i'm still kicking around ideas in my head. helpful in my thought process these days have been some words that brian mclaren and rob bell have both shared about turning the other cheek. from the secret message of jesus:
Conventional morality argues for appropriate revenge (an eye for an eye), but Jesus calls for something beyond revenge entirely: reconciliation. These are the words that so inspired Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the people of post-genocide Rwanda, and so many others. These words introduced radical new ways of responding to injustice: nonviolent resistance, conflict transformation, and active peace-making. Think of it like this:

If someone strikes you on the right cheek, they have given you a backhand slap - the kind of thing a person in power (like a Roman soldier) does to a person he considers inferior (like a Jew). You could strike back, but that would reduce you to the same violent level as your oppressor. Or you could simply skulk away in humiliation, but that would mean letting the oppressor win. The kingdom manifesto invites you to pursue a third alternative: courageously turn the other cheek. Think of it: now to strike you on the left cheek, your presumably right-handed oppressor must treat you not as an inferior person but as a peer by hitting you with his fist, not his backhand. You have shown yourself to be not violent or weak but rather courageous and dignified and strong. You have shown your oppressor for the violent person he is. You have thus transcended oppression without violence or revenge.
this has been driving me nuts ever since i read it. this third-way alternative response to violence and oppression prescribed by Jesus for His followers is, of course, the best way. however, as transcendent and creative as it is, i still struggle with it. despite my hothead tendencies, i don't think i struggle with this third way because i want to be a violent person or dwell in anger. the frustrating part is that choosing this way does not feel particularly satisfying. more frustrating still is that very idea that i am not yet the kind of person who feels satisfied by obeying Jesus' commands and following His lead, in these types of cases. slowly, hopefully i will be changed.

i know Jesus is not blaming the victim here -- it is not the fault of the oppressed that they have been mistreated. their response, however, is up to them. clearly, Jesus embodied this third way beyond the ability or imagination of anyone of us -- the Lamb of God, humbly living among us and giving His life away freely, even in the face of corruption, deceit and injustice.

it's a strange kind of double burden: to be wronged, and then to respond rightly despite being wronged (regardless of how the other party chooses to live). i don't know how this plays out differently at an individual versus corporate level (or if it does at all), but i do know this is an impossibly high calling. i am convinced that only Christ in us can compel us to move forward in any meaningful sense.