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Why Churches Split: A Family Systems Explanation

Most Korean Americans I know have experienced or witnessed a church split in their lives. At least one. And by the time they’re adults just kind of shrug it off as if they are inevitable, because in their minds and experiences, it is. Even pastors will say, oh, it’s that whole depravity thing. We’re sinful creatures, blah blah blah, drivel drivel drivel. As though that is an acceptable posture to project in front of a world that is mocking churches these days. Shame on us, judgment on us, and boo for us. A church splitting is absurdly normal for Korean communities. And between church splits and new church plants, Koreans are prolific, sometimes embarrassingly so, but rarely profound.

One of the things I realized while serving a church that had been decimated by the associate pastor bolting for another local church was that the circumstances which created the dysfunction were still in place, which to me was troubling. Most of the time, when a church does split, it is viewed by the “faithful remnant” that finally there will be peace because the troublemakers have all left. But in many cases that is not true. And it’s not an individual thing, it’s a systemic thing. That is to say, you can purify each bucket you draw up all you want, the well is poisoned.

So when I read this in my Family Systems for Ministry class, I was floored. This really helps to articulate the dangers present in the Korean immigrant church.

From the book, “Creating a Healthier Church” by Ronald W. Richardson (which I highly, highly, highly recommend for pastors- and did I mention, highly?), he discusses four functional styles of congregational life. In one of those styles, he outlines the “Enmeshed” format. Here I offer some clips and edits (I apologize for the rather long reading, but really, it’s good stuff). Enjoy!

[Enmeshed is when] In the extreme, when individuals, families, and congregations…have trouble knowing where one person’s boundaries stop and those of others start….

The fear of abandonment, of being left alone in the world, would be the most powerful motivating force for people when operating in this quadrant, and they would do everything they could, including giving up major parts of self, to avoid this outcome. They have a deep-seated need to be loved, accepted, approved, of, and guided by others; or, conversely, to provide this for others. Their emotional life soars when they are praised, and crashes when they are criticized….

Here are some characteristics…

  1. We are on guard for any sign of interpersonal threat, always watching for any minor slight as well as overt attacks.
  2. We tend to think others are responsible for our experience, and/or we are responsible for theirs.
  3. We have a sensitivity to criticism, which creates a sense of feeling damaged or harmed by it, so we tailor our lives to avoid criticism, and we resent or fear those who give it.
  4. We seek approval and praise, perhaps believing we need this to be happy, and like an addict feel miserable if we don’t get it.
  5. We may work hard to please others, getting our feelings of okay-ness from pleasing them.
  6. We become overly concerned about our position in the hierarchy and whether we are receiving our due recognition or about whether our authority is being respected.
  7. We may have a reaction to the difficult circumstances of others that leads us to be overly sympathetic by trying to make things better for them, rescuing them, when they actually have to do the job for themselves.
  8. Conversely, we may think that others should be doing more for us, even when we are actually capable of doing for ourselves. (We see others as responsible for our happiness)….

The development of our own personal faith is difficult….The reaction of others to our beliefs will have a powerful modifying impact, so we play down or do not voice all our beliefs. We might even change our beliefs in order to fit in with the prevailing beliefs of the emotional system of or some subsystem within the larger system, or with the beliefs of the leadership of the system whose approval we want….

Walter Lippmann once said, “When all think alike, no one thinks very much.” That is a good description of some enmeshed church systems. There will be a low level of tolerance for differences in thinking, feeling, and doing. The leadership will tend toward authoritarian, autocratic, rigid, legalistic, and dogmatic stances. They will not allow any questioning of the principles of faith or of the authority of the leadership….

Even in spite of the appearance that they are “gifted” in many ways and appear to be “successful” by many standards, the emotional morass of their communal life will ultimately defeat their ability to maintain a unified and effective way of working together. So much energy will go into the internal life of the group…and the turmoil centered on this, that the group will ultimately be unable to accomplish its goals.

This kind of church eventually develops a major symptom of some sort–a “church split” is one of the most common.

It was like reading a church fortune cookie–unbelievably accurate from where I sit. So the million-dollar question (and I’m still reading the book) is how do you get un-enmeshed? Let me finish the book and I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

But back me up here, does this family systems theory description of an enmeshed congregation resonate with your experience?


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

16 responses to “Why Churches Split: A Family Systems Explanation

  1. elderj

    David the author has without permission clearly gone and chronicled exactly the emotional and social dynamics of my church and I’m not sure I’m happy about that. 🙂

  2. David, not being Korean and not having grown up within the Korean church, I am not sure how relevant my opinion will be to you or other Korean-Americans, but let me share my experience with you.

    I am Japanese and currently serve as an assistant pastor in a Korean-American church with separate English and Korean ministries and services. I have connected with many of the other Korean-American churches in the area through promoting youth ministry praise & worship nights once a month for the past 2 1/2 years. The same kids come out to the praise nights every month, but some have gone through two or three church splits since we first started. Apparently, this has been the norm in this community as long as anyone can remember. In the end, it never seems as if any healing ever takes place and I can’t see any positive result. The Korean churches are weakening and people who have cycled through several churches already are starting to just stay at home.

    Personally, I think the whole idea of the ethnic church can lead to church splits because the ministry is so inwardly focused from the beginning that it’s hard not to understand why when people feel threatened or unimportant that they would want to go find a more suitable church. Church becomes about them and not about God or sharing the love of Christ with the world. When people are accustomed to a culture of church splits it makes sense that they look to dividing the church to accommodate their views or needs whenever necessary. I have yet to see a large church in my city that has split and then come back stronger. They just keep splitting and new pastors keep coming into the community looking for people to take and start new ministries with a body of members desiring to leave an established congregation for the sake of finding happiness in a new ministry. It’s just heartbreaking.

  3. Dave,thanks for the comment and I commend the work that you are doing and are hoping to see. I totally feel your pain as to the ineffectiveness of our churches and this post was just a find in a pastoral care/leadership book to help us diagnose the problem as ethnic churches are probably not going away and dissolving them isn’t realistic. the multiple splits will continue until we address the anxiety of the immigrant community. and we cant really address (constructively, anyway) without diagnosing the problems while withholding judgment. when we can do that, i think it will be very constructive for these churches and their youth.

    in the short-run, you are right, i don’t think you’ll see much positive growth at all, but ethnicity needs to validated as a gift from God and our inheritance from our immigrant parents. so while i agree with your implication that many would benefit from a multi-ethnic or missional church (culture/ethnicity can be viewed as an inefficiency from many people’s eyes, but), an honest exploration into the question of why God created us to be from a certain place and of a certain people should inspire us to discover our ethnicities and cultures in a redemptive light.

    this is where i think the example of the people of israel and the biblical practice of remembering, remembering what God has done, who God is, and who God has made us to be, a very real practice to engage in the ethnic context. but we are, again, too enmeshed in our current church landscapes to do so. and this is why many english ministries have no real cultural component to them at all. in essence, if we cease to remember that God created the diversity and beauty of our ethnic culture and has called us out from war-torn nations, from the improbable East, then we forget ourselves and how God would truly relate to us and love us for who we are becomes forgettable.

    the enmeshment that is borne out of the anxiety of the immigrant experience is evidence that we need more healing and repentance, not simply to move on. there is a saying in this aforementioned book: “time and distance do not fool an emotional system.” and i think it definitely holds true in our ethnic contexts; we can run but we cannot hide from ourselves and therein lies the sin and the gift.

  4. Pingback: sibling systems cont. (part III i think) « chang|e one’s mind

  5. David, just a couple of things to follow up. I agree that eliminating the ethnocentric church is not the answer, nor is it even completely possible.

    Second, while I celebrate my Japanese ancestry and all that I have as a result of it, I will not limit my fellowship and corporate worship to a church that is concentrated on reaching Japanese people that already know the Lord. When you acknowledge and accept that Korean churches will not grow in the near future, I take that to mean that you acknowledge and accept the inclusiveness and inwardly focused theme that plagues many ethnocentric churches.

    When you use the Israelites as an example of why we should embrace our culture, this brings up another point. It was the Israelites, God’s chosen people, that have denied Christ and the gospel because it applies to those that are not circumcised. They can’t understand that Christ has come and staked claim to all of his people that believe in their heart that he alone is Lord and Savior. There is pride and exclusivity in the hearts of many Jews that will prevent them from experiencing the love and grace of Christ.

    Just as heaven cannot be segregated, why must our churches be segregated? In actuality, I think it is evident that there are some in the 2nd and 3rd generation within the Korean church that are making their way outside of what they have known. I don’t think escaping their culture and trying to blend in with others is the reason for the majority. I think it’s the hanging on of the old ways that just aren’t relevant anymore that causes splits, anger, and animosity within the Korean-American church today that is driving away the next generations. At the root of this problem, in my opinion, is pride and selfishness. personally, I just don’t see how being prideful, selfish, and divisive can have a place within Christ’s church.

    While serving in the Korean-American church as an assistant pastor I have seen so many relationships severed, so many ministries that have grown due to 100% transfer growth from other ministries losing members to move to theirs, so many families divided as the parents go to one church and their adult children leave to go elsewhere. Many times it has been a saddening and heartbreaking experience and I pray constantly that God will be heeded and eyes will be opened so that others can come to know and respect the Korean culture and embrace aspects of it and celebrate diversity by seeing hearts and minds of the Korean-American community reach out to others rather than exclude themselves on Sundays.

  6. elderj

    daveingland – is it possible for a church to be ethnic without being ethnocentric? and does the label ethnic only apply to churches that are made of minorities? if so, why? are white people and churches not also ethnic?

  7. beautifully said, dave, i feel you.

    i agree that exclusion to preserve pride, self-importance, and self-righteousness is not Godly or Christ-like. my point was that if many ethnic churches could help form ethnic identity out of Christ-likeness, then excursions in multi-ethnic worship would be more fruitful and diverse, rather exhibiting a “sameness” as unity. so while i agree with you that no ethnic church should hold onto their culture to the non-participation in the body at large, from my point of view, it is important that we hold onto the redemptive distinctness that will make the symphony of the kingdom worth listening to, if that makes any sense (i mix my metaphors generously, sorry :))

    however, none of this disqualifies your point about korean church dysfunction. my hope is that the dysfunction belies the gift, that is to say, it is the dark shadow of something redeemed by God, but clouded by our depravity. so the pride and the sin that you’ve seen the effects of is not what i am proposing that we keep, obviously. i’m after something deeper…something that may reflect our true calling that we sell too quickly before discovering. and yes, i’m also saying that we have yet to fully “discover” it, despite the fact that we have many churches and missionaries and whatever irrelevant metric koreans present when you and i, anyone really, can see that the core remains largely untouched by the power of the gospel.

    and to be honest, i think people are leaving the ethnic church exactly because of what you’re seeing: that unless the culture is transformed profoundly, the church which supports that culture cannot be of Christ. my contention is to simply beg the question: what if it were transformed? what if the church was the seat of cultural transformation? what if the church passed on the inheritance of the first believers and gave permission for the new generation to imagine and to bring to life the coming and present kingdom reality?

    while i think diversity within every worship service would be great, i am more preoccupied with how we live monday through saturday than that hour on Sunday. do we really change the reality of the society, which is still suffering from racism and segregation, or do we create an artificial reality on sunday to appease our conscience? that’s a little harsh, but i mean to say that perhaps we move too quickly to reach out without God ever reaching in.

    my apologies, it’s much too late for me to make any sense, and i feel as though i’ve gone in too many directions at once. so please, feel free to rein me in here. thanks again for your insight.

  8. David, I received your heart for the church before I ever replied. I respect your insight on this and know that being involved in Korean-American churches must almost be like being a part of a denomination like the PCUSA where ordaining gay men and women could be divisive and in disagreement with the theology of many in the local church, yet they are steadfast in supporting the overall goodness of what comes from being a part of the denomination. So, I applaud you for your faithfulness and for your desire to see transformation.

    I’m thinking maybe you see this in a similar manner as I do. I think as the old school first generation leads the Korean-American church that it will eventually end up repelling the future generations from wanting to keep it going. They may branch of into Anglo or multi-cultural churches, yet some part of them will want to retain their culture, especially for the sake of their children growing up. Eventually things may go back to the older ways with fresh leadership and a more gospel-centered approach. The same is true for the church in general. We can all try to be consumeristic and seeker-sensitive, but at some point what the people will crave will be getting back to being real, living out a life of faith and desiring to see the word of God be the key to salvation and not the works of man. What was once thought of as old will soon become new again. Thanks for the dialog!

  9. elderj, being in California, at some point we will see that caucasians will become the minority in this state. However, even then I don’t think having a church of predominantly white Americans in California would ever be considered ethnic. Of course, there are races of people with white skin like Russians that have ethnocentric ministries.

    To me the difference between ethnic and ethnocentric is the focus or mission. Some churches that are led by Korean pastors will reach Korean people. No matter how hard they try to be multi-cultural if it starts attracting mostly Koreans, it is hard to see that change. They could play country music for worship and offer hot dogs and apple pie after service, but it probably will remain a predominantly Korean congregation. However, some congregations with Korean pastors focus on reaching just Koreans. They have worship that is familiar to Korean people and will use illustrations in the sermon that speak to Koreans. Therefore, they will attract Koreans. The same is true for African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans or any other ethnic group. If they intend on reaching just their own ethnicity they can easily achieve that goal.

    As an example there is a lot of diversity in Houston, TX yet when I watch broadcasts of Joel Osteen I see a predominantly white congregation. When I watch Bishop TD Jakes on tv I see a predominantly black congregation. While I don’t think either of these two pastors are intentional in seeing the church be predominantly one race of people over another, I don’t they do much to change it. In contrast though, I know a lot of caucasians that like TD Jake’s preaching, but I doubt they would ever regularly attend the service if they lived in Dallas.

    This is the dilemma of the church that speaks to one ethnicity. It is something that as a Japanese or Asian pastor that is burdened for all people in a somewhat urban and very diverse community in Sacramento I am faced with. Some may not connect because of their perceptions of me being Asian. Some may want to connect because I am Asian. As I leave my position at the Korean-American church where I currently serve to plant a daughter church which is going to be intentionally multi-cultural from its leadership to its music and messages, I have to be concerned about how it will be received in a community with a lot of diversity, yet not one multi-cultural. In the end, it’s completely up to God and I must receive whomever he sends and love them and disciple them as Christ would.

  10. elderj

    Dave – thanks for your thoughtful response to my brief inquiry and for your delineation of ethnic verses ethnocentric. I share your passion and concern for reaching diverse peoples, yet also know that such a pursuit can become as much as an idol as the aforementioned ethnocentric church. In my experience multiethnic groups tend to be diverse in one dimension (ethnicity) but exceedingly homogeneous in others (income, culture, education, politics) and often ethnic specific groups are more diverse in other ways.

    In an diverse society, a multiethnic subcultural group (i.e. church)tends naturally to default to the dominant culture of society, which is why the early church transitioned rather quickly into being dominated by Greek culture and thinking even though its roots were Jewish and the congregations themselves were multiethnic. so I tend to be pessimistic about the prospects of ME congregations to be anything other monoculturally multiethnic

  11. diane elliott ⋅

    helpful article, not just for Koreans!

  12. John

    Interesting points. Have you finished the book? If so, what are you final impressions. In my life I’ve been through five church break ups. Here are my tentative conclusions:
    1. Since the Korean-American church is an immigrant one, which is often times marginalized and experiences status inconsistency (lower status in American than perhaps their homeland), they seek to find their identity in the church. Hence, the church becomes a place where people jockey for power. Conflict ensues.
    2. Pastors, who should retire or move on, do not, because there is no retirement plan for them. They need to hold on, even if they are no longer bearing fruit.
    3. Denominations, often times, do not protect the church, but their pastors (a horrible example of cronyism).
    4. Generally speaking, there seems to be sense of insecurity, which masks itself in pride – probably due to the difficult circumstances many 1st generation have experienced in a developing country and a country that needs to be highly competitive to thrive. When these things are brought into the church, it creates incredible conflict, because these things are antithetical to the gospel.

    • Charley Shurtz ⋅

      First, in reading the comments it strijes me that this is a universal problem and the emeshed church can and is found any were on the planet. Some things that could be fleshed out or looked into are, the redemptive quality of anyones race does not exist in any form. Redemption is and onle found in the blood of Jesus Christ. Next, realize this is not a Korean problem but an any cultural problem. It may seem more prevalant when a certain group is a minority church living in another country but that alone often gives the greater focus on emeshment, also the blending of the cultures and the precieved losses of ethnocentric identities may bring forward the focus on protectionism steeped in emeshment. Actuality, ethmicity came about due to the Tower of Babel and when it is written there will be every nation, tounge and tribe yet no one will be married or given in marrage, the possibility of a dynamic that allows for the differnce in ethnic peoples but not marriage could be something to ponder. Marriage and family are, in all cultures, a very important part of who and what we are, maybe as much if not more than the language we use or how we look. How you are brought up and how that affects you is possibly one of the most strongest binding elements of a culture. If this is so to any degree then maybe the arguement of emeshed ment is more of a learned responce for protection or control, aside from ethnicity, rather than ethnic idenity or preservation. What needs to be shown, taught and lived is that Jesus Christ is more than willing to love, give, honor and die for us in any culture. Having done so the christian life, alone and with out heavy influence from other culture changes the direction of any and all culture that he has entered. As the gospel has spread the truth of the Light and life of Christ has changed culture, everywhere. Much of the strulggle seen in any church is the one people go throug to become Christ like, to become a son or daughter of the King of Kings. If we look deep enough, dig far enough, strecth or selves and grow more, we may find that the simple truth is that an emeshed church needs to mature in the things of God, laying aside self for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Now that will change some of anyones culture. Possibly the struggle is that all have sinned and we are trying to define who we are by how we where born the first time rather than the commonality of who we are becoming by our second birth. Blessing and a great area for study and deveopement.

  13. I stumbled across your blog and this post while looking up information about Korean immigrant churches. As a Korean Catholic, I do not share nearly the same theological views as most of your readers do, but I find this blog post nevertheless interesting, as we do not have church separating. We do have however another more problematic issue relating to generation divide between the older generation and the younger generation, which are more assimilated with the American culture and eventually leave religion all together after they leave the household. I have written some of this on my blog.

  14. Luminita ⋅

    I’m Romanian American and when I read your blog I felt as if I was reading about the Romanian church. This is exactly what happened and still happens in a lot of the Romanian ethnic churches in America. There seems to be one split after another; the congregation (a very small part of the congregation believe it or not) overthrows a pastor because they think it’s all because of him. The pastor leaves and a new one comes, serves the church for a few good years and the same problems arise. Guess what? We need a new pastor again, that must be the problem. So, we get another pastor only to throw him away when other problems arise. I’m not when and if ever this will end. I don’t know what really happens in the Romanian church or the Korean one but I’m very tempted to go read the book you mentioned. Maybe I should write my thesis on it 🙂

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