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March 12, 2002

Ethnic Churches Drawing Crowds

By Janet I. Tu


The search for God has taken Jenny Way to many places, from older, mainline Caucasian Protestant churches to newer, primarily Asian houses of worship.

About a year ago, Way, a 28-year-old resident at the University of Washington Medical Center, visited Bellevue's Lighthouse Christian Church, a nondenominational, evangelical Asian-American church. She stayed.

Formed only a year ago and operating out of the rented cafeteria of Newport High School, Lighthouse has grown exponentially. Walk into the door on a recent Sunday morning and see 300 people standing and singing "What to say Lord / It's you who gave me life," accompanied by a nine-piece band. Then they sit, jotting notes as Pastor Wayne Ogimachi delivers his message on loving relationships.

That Lighthouse has grown so large so fast, at a time when many other churches face declining memberships, is testament to its ability to fulfill a need in those like Way — young Asian Americans who feel the traditional, mono-ethnic churches of their childhood no longer are relevant but who don't quite feel at home at mainly white churches either.

Although experts don't have exact numbers, they say that in this region, and nationwide, more pan-Asian-American Christian churches are being established, mainly by those in their 20s to 40s. Some are not just pan-Asian but intentionally multiracial.

"That's happened quite rapidly in the last five years — Asian Americans forming their own churches — first on the West Coast, mostly California, then Texas, Washington, D.C., and Chicago," said Fenggang Yang, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

In the Seattle area, Bellevue's Asian American Community Church will celebrate its 10th anniversary next month. Bellevue's Cornerstone Christian Fellowship and Wellspring Christian Church formed about six years ago. Bellevue's Bread of Life Christian Church formed two years ago, and Seattle's Quest opened within the past year.

The boom in these churches reflects the increasing number of Asian Americans in the United States — up from less than 1 percent of the population 20 years ago to about 3 percent now — and provides a means for younger generations of Asian Americans to form their own spiritual and social identities.

The new congregations typically prefer casual worship styles. Denominational affiliations don't particularly matter to them, but an egalitarian sense of brotherhood and sisterhood does. They are community- and social-justice-oriented, although not necessarily political, and they are open to diversity while retaining a thread of common experience.

For Ogimachi, who moved from the Bay Area to start Lighthouse, "it's important for people to see you can live out a Christian commitment without having to abandon your culture," he said. "If we didn't have models like that, we'd always feel like it's a white man's religion."

These days that's becoming unlikely, as more Asian Americans turn to Christianity. About 75 percent of Korean Americans are Christian, for example.

Many national Christian groups are noticing. Since the 1980s, interdenominational campus ministries such as the Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship have made special efforts to reach Asian-American students.

Often, after graduation, many seek similar Asian-American groups. Way, for example, found at Lighthouse the same ease she felt during college days at Harvard with her Asian-American Bible-studies group, where members talked of Asian family expectations and how Christian values of humbling oneself before God conflicted with Asian cultural values of always saving face.

"A lot of it is unspoken. It's not like every time at church you talk about your Asian identity," Way said.

Some seminaries have added courses covering Asian-American theology and worship styles. A few years ago, Promise Keepers, a largely white Christian men's movement, hired its first cultural-relations manager for Asian Americans. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now has missionaries working in Asian-American communities.

As a child, James Wong, 40, an attorney with the state Department of Social and Health Services, attended Seattle's Chinese Baptist Church. But after visiting it a few times as an adult, he "felt I was being preached to and didn't agree with some of it."

Wong relates much better, he says, to the contemporary music and almost fraternal style of preaching at Lighthouse and Cornerstone, both of which he attends regularly.

For some young Asian Americans, such as Pastor Eugene Cho, finding and helping create his generation's spiritual identity means forming an intentionally multiracial church with a community focus.

Cho, 31, startled his congregation two years ago when he left Onnuri Multicultural Church, a primarily second-generation Korean-American church in Lynnwood, which he headed for about three years. Four months ago, he and about 10 others started Quest, an Evangelical Covenant group currently renting space from a church in Seattle's Interbay area.

Sunday evenings, this slim, hipster in chunky-framed black glasses and goatee preaches before his congregation of 100 mostly 20-somethings, peppering his sermon with "Man!" and references to music-video TV channel VH1.

Despite his intention to make the church multiracial, at this point it's still primarily Asian American — mostly Korean American, in fact.

But Cho constantly urges the members to get out in the larger community, form relationships with different people, and invite them to "Q," as he calls his church.

"I learned to love the ethnic church," said Cho, who grew up in a Korean Methodist church in San Francisco and spent two years in South Korea as a pastor. "But now I learned I want to be part of the larger community and be a source and influence in the larger community."

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