Silent Exodus: Asian American Christians Leaving Churches
For over 20 years now, ethnic Asian churches have lamented the loss of the next generation of Asian Americans, often the children of Asian parents who remain faithful to the ethnic Asian church, whether that’s Korean, Chinese, or one of the other 30-some Asian ethnicities.
Many church leaders have expressed their concerns over the attrition of Asian American Christians who leave their ethnic Asian church home when they go to college, in quotes like these (emphasis in bold added):
“At an alarming rate, many young believers who have grown up in these Asian congregations are now choosing to leave not only their home churches, but possibly their Christian faith as well.” (Helen Lee, “Silent Exodus: Can the East Asian church in America reverse the flight of its next generation?“, Christianity Today, August 1996.)
“A study shows that well over 75% of American-born Chinese in Chinese immigrant churches end up leaving their churches (Joseph Wong, “Bridging the Gap,” About Face, February 1990.) Some informal studies indicate that up to 90% of postcollege Korean American young people are also leaving their immigrant churches.” (“Finding a Church Home,” in Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents, 2009)
“Recent statistics show more next-generation Korean-Americans are returning to their Korean constituency.” (The Presbyterian Outlook, July 2017)
“… having grown up in an Indian immigrant churches… [a] majority of second generation who are dropping out are not going anywhere at all – not their parents church nor any local churches. They are in fact falling through the cracks of cultural disparity and getting dechurched and lost completely.” (Sam George, 2013)
Attrition Rate of Next Generation Faith
Okay. Many feel sad over this situation. We do often hear stories of people losing their faith for all kinds of reasons. But can we see the actual numbers of these statistics?
So I went searching. For hours. Here’s what estimated numbers I could dig up:
“Estimates of second generation Koreans leaving the church vary from 55% to 90%, depending on whether you count those who leave Korean-language churches but join Anglo or multiethnic churches, those who still call themselves Christian but don’t act on it, or those who completely leave church and faith behind.” (Joan Huyser-Honig, July 2005)
Now, to be fair, youth going to college and leaving the faith of their home church behind is not only an Asian American phenomena. It’s also a disturbing trend among mainstream Caucasian evangelical millennials.
Brett Kunkle found the statistics for evangelical youth leaving church after entering college to range anywhere from 61% to 88%. (“How Many Youth are Leaving the Church?” – February 2009).
Maybe faith dropout is actually a hiatus?
More recently, like in May 2014, LifeWay Research data shows that about 70% of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school do, in fact, drop out—but don’t miss the details. Of those who left, almost two-thirds return and currently attend church.
Back to the Asian American context, there are a few signs indicating that some next generation Asian Americans are returning to their ethnic Asian church home. (cf. The Boomerang Effect: The generation of the ‘silent exodus’ has now started coming back. Christianity Today, October 2014).
Let’s put some numbers to this.
If I’m reading this article correctly, this academically robust analysis of religious research, the authors observed that only 34% of those who grew up Protestant have lost their faith. Read for yourself; here’s the actual words excerpted from that article:
“The need for quantifiable data on religion among Asian Americans is ever more pressing as this population grows more rapidly than the rest of the nation. One of the most rigorous attempts at surveying Asian Americans comes from the Pew 2012 Asian American Survey … With respect to the silent exodus of the second-generation, we can look at the data from two vantage points, the percentage of those who retained their faith from childhood, and the percentage of current affiliates who grew up with that faith. The first number tells us whether religious individuals have remained committed to their faith tradition, while the second tells us whether today’s believers are made up of long-term followers or new converts. …
For the second-generation Protestants, these two figures are surprisingly similar. The data shows us that 66% of those who grew up Protestant were still Protestant at the time they were surveyed. Similarly, about two-thirds of today’s second-generation Asian American Protestant Christians grew up as Protestant. Either way we look at the data, there does not appear to be a mass exodus, if nearly two-thirds who started their faith journey as Protestants are still Protestant.” (Jerry Z. Park and Joshua Tom, May 2014)
Can you help us find more researched statistics? I know people that want to know.
Focusing on Reaching People, not Researching Numbers
Whatever the statistics may be across the overall American landscape, there are regional and local variations. Please don’t let the numbers lull you into complacency or shock you into paralyzing anxiety.
There’s much work to be done for passing along our faith to the next generations. Making disciples like Jesus said to do.