These 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.
But 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 congregation.1 In 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 America.
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
Harold 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 God together.”3
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 do so.
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 Review and editor of KidsView, which is Adventist Review’s magazine for children. This article was published November 17, 2011.