God and a Few Close Friends

God and a Few Close Friends

Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

Rebecca Kim discusses why ethnic-oriented, collegiate Christian groups grow faster than multi-racial ones.

Why should I be the minority and pander to whites? Why should I try to figure out what white people like?

In the 1990s, said Rebecca Kim, large numbers of Asian American college students began joining Christian student groups, and their desire for community, as well as for power and majority status, led to a rise of ethnic-oriented groups on U.S. campuses.

For some, even an Asian American Christian group was not as attractive as a solely Korean American one, said Kim, an associate professor of sociology at Pepperdine University. She discussed the UCLA graduate research that led to her book, God's New Whiz Kids?: Korean American Evangelicals on Campus, at a lecture hosted by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies on April 29, 2008.

Kim conducted research on five UCLA Christian organizations: two Korean American groups, one Asian American group, one multi-racial group, and one majority Caucasian group. When she asked students why they chose their particular Christian group, she said most replied, "It is just more comfortable." Kim assessed that "comfortable" for second-generation Korean Americans meant similarities in upbringing and in cultural tastes—like Korean pop music and the stickiness of Korean rice—and in bicultural and generational issues.

Also, the pastors and staff of collegiate Christian organizations observed that homophily, the principle that familiarity breeds connection, works better for membership growth. It is easier to evangelize and convert by starting with commonalities and minimizing linguistic and cultural differences. Ethnic-oriented, on-campus Christian groups grow much faster than multi-ethnic or multi-racial ones, Kim said, and they do so through social networks. She shared that whenever she showed up at services alone, "they look at me like I'm an alien."

"If you say 'I just came because I looked you up on the Internet,' they don't get that… because everyone comes with somebody. You don't just walk into a campus ministry because you like it," said Kim.

Therefore, while ethnic-oriented Christian groups provide students a comfortable environment, a sense of ethnic identity, and leadership opportunities, Kim said they also lead to more ethnically homogonous social circles. One student told Kim that he had forgotten how to start a conversation with non-Korean Americans.

The process also works in the other direction. Staffers at the UCLA chapter of InterVarsity Campus Fellowship, which has a multi-racial membership, admitted to Kim that when they tried to promote greater diversity, for example by singing in Spanish or in an African style, they saw white membership drop.

Not having to please whites is regarded by some as an advantage. As one second-generation Korean American student told Kim,

I'm tired of being apologetic. I mean, I'm at a top university. I'm going to make over $100,000. I have a hot car, a hot girlfriend. Why should I be the minority and pander to whites? Why should I try to figure out what white people like? I'm tired of "let's find a middle ground," so I was like, "screw this, I'm just going to do my own thing with my Korean crew."

Some second-generation Korean American evangelicals also recognize a problem in their willingness to "witness" to non-Koreans but not, in practice, to worship with them. It conflicts with the evangelical theology that "all are one in Christ." During Kim's research, one of the on-campus Korean American Christian groups changed its name to show it did not intend to be ethnocentric.

"If anyone should be a model of multi-racial community, harmony, it should be the church," said Kim, "but it's the opposite because there is that kind of tension."

Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2008