Fruits and Challenges of Adhesively Skeletonizing a Church Community: Korean Americans in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)


Thursday, November 14, 2013, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Porté Seminar Room (S250), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Religious Identities in Asia Series

Event Poster

Timothy S. Lee, Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Brite Divinity School (Texas Christian University)

Timothy S. Lee received his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is now Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Brite Divinity School (Texas Christian University). He has a wide-ranging interest in the history of Christianity, particularly in East Asia and Asian America. He is the author of Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea (2010) and co-editor, along with Robert E. Buswell, of Christianity in Korea (2007), both published by the University of Hawai’i Press; as well as ““From the Coercive to the Liberative: Asian and Latino Immigrants and Christianity in the United States,” in American Christianities, ed. Catherine Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2011). An ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lee has served as moderator of the North American Pacific/Asian Disciples and has since 2006 served as co-chair of the Korean Religions Group of the American Academy of Religion.

Discussant: Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School


In about a generation, the Korean American community within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) grew from one of about 20 congregations to that of about 380 congregations, becoming the second largest racial-ethnic minority community in the denomination, second only to the African Americans. How has this growth come about? What institutional implication did it have on the PC (USA)? Along the way, what challenges did the Koreans, mostly first-generation immigrants, and the denomination experience? In answering these and other pertinent questions, the paper relies on insights of historian Martin E. Marty and sociologists Won Moo Hurh and Kwang Chung Kim: applying Marty’s insight that ethnicity has been the skeleton of American religion—in the sense of being both an outline of a religious community and something to be embarrassed about (a skeleton in the closet)—and Hurh and Kim’s claim that Korean American immigrants have adapted to American society adhesively: neither totally assimilating into it nor keeping aloof from it, but adding onto their Korean way of life aspects of American life that served their interests. In short, the paper seeks to make the following argument: since the early 1970s, Korean Americans within the PC (USA) have skeletonized and enfleshed their community by selectively combining elements from their denomination’s majority group and their own ethnic tradition, with active support from the leadership of the denomination: a strategy that, on the one hand, yield notable fruits: e.g., the growth of congregations and formation of secondary institutions such as non-geographical Korean-language presbyteries; and that, on the other hand, engendered challenges: e.g., leeriness from other racial-ethnic Presbyterians who questioned the Koreans’ emphasis on ethnic particularity, in light of an integrationist ideal they and the denomination aspire to, and from Presbyterian women, especially second-generation Korean-American women clergy, who find Korean churches patriarchal and inhospitable.

Jointly sponsored with the Asia Center and the Center for the Study of World Religions

Generously supported by the Min Young-Chul Memorial Fund at the Korea Institute