Church, Or My
churches of their parents filling the spiritual needs of
second-generation immigrants? Can they?
are the churches I have called home.
Multicultural, large Pioneer Memorial church on the campus of
Andrews University; very small, much less diverse Pearl River
Seventh-day Adventist Church in Pearl River, New York;
large-enough-for-three-services, incredibly diverse Azure Hills
Seventh-day Adventist Church in Grand Terrace, California—along with
many Sabbaths of church-hopping at similar congregations throughout
southern California. And now, Southern Asian Seventh-day Adventist
Church in Silver Spring, Maryland—a large congregation with
considerably less cultural diversity.
My stops along the way at these varied congregations weren’t always
about my personal preferences. The churches of my childhood and
adolescence were decided on by my parents. The church-hopping of my
college years was decided by me—with criteria for attendance based
on speakers, music, and abundance of people my age. But the current
church of my adulthood is the church my husband was baptized into.
So when I married him, I followed him there.
It is also the first church I have attended in my life where most of
the members look like me.
But is that a good thing?
Like Our Own
The congregation I attend began in 1988 with a gathering of a few
South Asian families who sought to find a “home away from home” in
this part of the world. The Baltimore-Washington, D.C., corridor is
home to one of the largest populations of Southern Asian Adventists
in North America, and for many years these families attended the
variety of churches available to them in the area. The need,
however, of first-generation immigrants to feel comfortable among
others who shared their cultural backgrounds was always there. A
church such as this fit that need.
of course, that phenomenon isn’t isolated to South Asians.
As early as the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
Scandinavian and German immigrants formed their own Sabbathkeeping
congregations in the areas they settled in—even in the heart of New
York City. For example, Manhattan’s Church of the Advent Hope, which
is now very multicultural, was originally a German-speaking
1914 Hawaii—long before it was a state—there were about 243
Seventh-day Adventist believers of Japanese descent. By 1934 a fully
Japanese congregation had been organized in Honolulu.
Today there are nearly as many churches and companies built around
distinct culture and language groups as there are different
languages—think Samoan, French, Thai, Spanish, Malayalam, etc. And
these groups meet for regular Sabbath services throughout North
As these first immigrants from virtually every country around the
world settled in places with pockets of their fellow émigrés, it was
only natural that they would wish to worship together in their own
languages, sharing their own distinct customs and values. From a
sociological standpoint we are all programmed to feel the most
comfortable around what is most familiar to us.
But immigrants to North America come here to build new lives and, in
that process, raise families. While children of immigrant families
may spend Sabbaths in churches exposed to the languages and cultures
found in their home, they do so after spending a week in North
American schools. They watch television and surf the Internet,
associate with multicultural friends, and speak English (with
American or Canadian twangs). North American culture easily becomes
a large part of their identity—an identity that strongly shapes who
they grow up to be.
Do We Stay?
The issue of young adults leaving the church is one that is
obviously of great concern for this denomination. According to Monte
Sahlin, a leading researcher on this and similar topics, the rate of
young adults leaving the church (either temporarily or permanently)
may be as high as 90 percent. However, this statistic doesn’t
necessarily encompass young adults connected to cultural or
language-based churches. Pastors of ethnic churches have long
noticed a trend in which the instances of leaving the church
altogether are not as prevalent in the congregations where family
and cultural connections are strong,
So why would a young adult raised in a cultural/language-based
church who is fully assimilated into larger North American society
stay with that congregation? Worshipping among believers who share
common threads of language and culture is certainly helpful in
fostering a stronger connection to ethnic heritage, especially when
the influence of a more North American way of life is so strong.
Lillian Han Im is a young adult who grew up attending Korean
churches. “For the children born in the States, if they are
surrounded by Korean speakers, they would pick up the language,” she
says. Im now attends a multicultural congregation with her husband,
who is also Korean, and their two small children. “Some of my
friends who grew up in Korean churches said that they had a bigger
sense of pride in being Korean,” she adds.
“I liked growing up [in a church] with friends with a similar
background,” says Karen Lee,* who also grew up attending the Korean
churches her father pastored. Though she adds, “In retrospect, more
diversity would have been even better, but I think the social
situation was probably more helpful for my parents’ generation.”
A sense of cultural pride and a heightened sense of the diversity of
God’s church are surely reasons that these types of congregations
can still provide a good fit for young adults raising families in
which they hope to instill a sense of ethnic identity. “There is a
sense of unity,” says José Barrientos, a young adult and children’s
pastor for Community Praise Center in Alexandria, Virginia, who
previously ministered in Hispanic congregations. “Everyone is proud
to be from their country, holding up a different flag. But in the
end, we are Hispanics.” An interesting component to the unity
experience Pastor Barrientos speaks of is that of being united under
the “banner” of a particular church. “It goes from ‘I’m from this
country’ to ‘I’m from this church,’ ” he adds.
“It’s nice to see how other parts of the world worship,” says Deepa
James, a member of the Southern Asian congregation in Silver Spring,
Maryland. Though her family started attending this church after
several years in a mostly Anglo congregation, James recognizes a
unique blessing from continuing to worship in—and raise her children
in—such a church.
“It’s nice to see that people worship God in their own cultural way
with the musical instruments they have available to them. It’s
wonderful to see the different languages and songs that are written
to praise God,” she says.
In addition to a sharpened knowledge and appreciation of historical
heritage and cultural background, the familial connections that tend
to be stronger in ethnic congregations contribute to better
retention of young adult members. Pastor Louis Metellus, Haitian
ministries leader for the North American Division, concurs.
“Surrounded by their parents and families,” he says, “they are more
prone to remain in the church.”
In a cultural/language-based congregational setting, church becomes
family, because it actually is made of family. And those ties are
hard to break.
But is creating a cultural safe haven in which to surround your
children with the customs and values of your ethnic heritage the job
of a church?
Do We Go?
Young adults of immigrant families straddle a fine line between two
cultures, and sometimes find it easy to hop back and forth between
their ethnic and North American identities. But when they marry and
start families of their own, the game can change. They need to
choose how they are going to raise their children, and it may become
far more important—in terms of diversity—for their church experience
to accurately reflect that of the world they live in. According to
Sahlin in his book Mission in Metropolis: “Immigrant congregations
report that they have a significant ‘second-generation’ problem.
Adventist young adults who have grown up in America, attained higher
education, and have professional, managerial, and technical careers
do not feel that their needs are met in these churches.”2
Chandler was raised in an African-American church in Washington,
D.C.—First Church of Seventh-day Adventists, which holds the
distinction of being the first Adventist church established in the
Washington, D.C., area, in 1889.
Chandler, who married a woman of East Indian descent, now calls a
multicultural congregation home. He feels it is important for his
young children to have connections to both sides of the family’s
heritage, and experiencing cultural diversity in church life
contributes to that. “I love that the Washington, D.C., area is so
diverse, and I have always been a champion of celebrating all the
wonderful things different cultures bring when we embrace and learn
from each other,” he says.
Regarding the overall experience of his congregation, Chandler says:
“I love that our potlucks can provide you with egg curry, naan or
roti, haystacks, rice and beans, pancit noodles, and egg salad
sandwiches. When you get diversity to work and everyone feels they
are contributors to the system, it is a little taste of what heaven
will be like.”
Ellen White had clear counsel on this topic in the early days of the
organization of the church. “We have no right to keep our minds
stayed on ourselves, our preferences, and our fancies. We are not to
seek to maintain a peculiar identity of our own, a personality, an
individuality, which will separate us from our fellow laborers,” she
wrote. “We have a character to maintain, but it is the character of
Christ. Having the character of Christ, we can carry on the work of
Indeed, haven’t we all thought of heaven as a place where the very
things that divide us on earth would be no more? Does anyone really
believe that our worship experience there will be segregated? It’s
not difficult to understand that young adults who live and function
in a multicultural society may want their church experience to
reflect that ideal.
Im reflects on the diversity of her college years: “I did venture
away from the Korean church scene because it felt unnatural,” she
says. “During the week I was with friends and teachers from all
different nationalities and then to shift into an ‘all-Korean
setting’ on Sabbaths, I began to ponder this type of ‘segregation’
of churches. Thinking of this segregation in the context of heaven,
it didn’t align with what I was surrounded with in my daily life.”
Language issues can present serious challenges in the worship
experience for children of immigrants as well. “For example, the
hymns we sing [in Spanish] are the regular hymns of the [standard
Seventh-day Adventist] hymnal,” says Pastor Barrientos. “But for the
young people who have been born and raised here, they don’t
understand them because [the hymns are sung] in a totally different
way than what they are familiar with.”
“It’s like they are here in the United States during the week, but
on Sabbath they are not just going to church, but back to another
country,” he adds.
Is There an Answer?
Cultural/language-based churches clearly filled a need for a
distinct part of the North American population, and they always
will—that of making a new immigrant’s transition easier by providing
a spiritual home encircled by the threads of a rich culture and
ethnic heritage. As the children of these immigrants define their
lives in a multicultural society and identify themselves more fully
as Americans or Canadians, we accept that their needs in a place of
worship have evolved from that of their parents and will continue to
There is no right or wrong direction for everyone, and as many
aspects of religious life, this one is a matter of personal
preference. But perhaps Pastor Barrientos offers us a more complete
way to look at the issue. “We can be proud of our background,” he
says. “But let’s be more proud that we are Christians. That we are
Seventh-day Adventists. That we are from this church.”
* Not her real name
1 Mark Kellner, “Hope in Manhattan,” www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=3946,
Nov. 25, 2010.
2 Monte Sahlin, Mission
in Metropolis (Lincoln,
Nebr.: Center for Creative Ministry, 2007), p. 92.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies
for the Church, vol. 9, pp. 187, 188.
Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor for the Adventist
for children. This article was published November 17, 2011.