Ask Rooted: How Do You Structure Your Youth Ministry in the Asian American Church? (Part I)

Rooted believes the best ministry creatively and winsomely communicates the gospel in each church’s unique setting. We asked our Rooted writers how they disciple teenagers, partner with parents, and integrate the generations in their Asian American and Asian immigrant churches. Whatever your own context in youth ministry, we trust their answers will be edifying as you serve teenagers.

Sign up to join us for our next Rooted Webinar on March 22 at 1:00 CST on a related topic: “Gospel-Centered Ministry to Asian American Teenagers.” Host Clark Fobes will lead a conversation with panelists Danny Kwon and Connie Nelson about leveraging Rooted’s five pillars for youth ministry to Asian American teenagers and their families. We’ll take time to brainstorm together as well as for Q&A. 

Brian Ryu, Youth Pastor at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, MD

The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously lamented 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning as “the most segregated hour in Christian America.” While Dr. King was alluding to the racial divide in America, we experience segregation of a different type within in our Korean-American church. Our segregation reflects language and cultural barriers, generational divisions, and family disintegration. This results in eight different worship services taking place at our church on Sundays, including our youth service.

As a youth pastor serving in this context, I haven’t experienced a Sunday morning without leading a separate, youth-specific worship service. This is simply the expectation in many Korean-American church contexts. Parents drop their students off. Our youth worship team runs through their morning set. We put out the offering baskets. Our tech team takes their places, and we hold our own separate worship service each Sunday. 

Our students are certainly learning and growing during this hour together—but what are we teaching about the nature of the church? We want them to catch a biblical vision of the local church as the people of God across generations. We want to nurture a future-oriented faith, one that models integration, welcome, and lifelong maturity. How is this possible when our students look around on a Sunday morning and only see reflections of themselves? I worry that as our students get older and graduate out of youth ministry, their understanding of church will be one dimensional and limited. I often ask myself: Could we be doing more as a church to encourage lifelong faith after youth group? If so, how are we starting with our Sunday worship services?

Dorothy Lau, youth director at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland

Our church’s ministry to teenagers is consistent with the Chinese heritage church narrative in North America. Many students’ parents are first-generation immigrants from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. So it’s normative for the second-generation, American-born teenager to wrestle with the tensions of ethnic, national, and spiritual identities. Our church members proclivity for early advancement in education and saturated involvement in extracurriculars prompt the questions about how to follow Christ while getting ahead in this world. In essence, we face the challenge of tending to families as they navigate this tension.

Despite the transience that characterizes the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, there is consistency and earnestness in our work with teenagers. We enjoy invaluable contributions from veteran youth leaders, ranging from yuppies to empty nesters. That range of life experience challenges our students with the simple wisdom of those who want to see them know and profess Jesus. We’ve been encouraged to see our teenagers pursuing a deeper relationship with Christ, growing in the Word, and desiring to live their faith in all spheres of influence. At the same time, youth ministry at our church can often be yet another extracurricular alternative for students who would rather obtain personal validation, social engagement, or entertainment elsewhere. Still we have hope that youth ministry may yield a harvest that far exceeds what we could ask or imagine of the Lord.

Peter Kang, Youth Minister at Living Faith Community Church in Flushing, NY

One of the most humbling things I had to quickly realize in ministering to students from sixth to 12th grade was admitting to my limits. I see my students for 4-6 hours every week. Other than that, they’re off at school doing extracurriculars, studying, hanging out with friends, etc. And I noticed how pressured the students were—from school especially. I often felt behind the ball because students were being pushed to their breaking point each week. Even now I find myself scrambling each week to listen to them and help mend them back together somehow. There were two things I realized I needed.

First, I needed gospel rest. I had to admit that I have limits but God does not. He is the one who saves my students, not me. Resting on the good news gave me the emotional space to continue ministry. 

Second, I needed help from others, particularly students’ parents. As a predominantly second- and third-generation Asian-American church, there are no real barriers with language between our students and their parents. We can’t assume, however, that because they speak the same language, they have none of the cultural or generational barriers that other first or second generation Asian-Americans experience. Some of that barrier still exists. I want to continue developing our ministry to partner with parents by giving a platform to things like parents’ testimonies and increasing opportunities for parents to be involved in our youth ministry. I also believe it’s critically important to be in constant communication with parents and to realize the bounds of my own capability and desperate need for partnership with them. Gospel partnership through intergenerational integration is the key to melt cultural/generational barriers and our students’ hearts to the love of Jesus Christ.