There are few spiritual forces more potent than the Asian youth group. It is a unique avenue of blessing. I was talking to another English ministry pastor in a bay area Chinese church and we both agreed on the incredible bonding effect that happens within youth groups in Chinese and Korean immigrant churches. He met his wife through their youth group. Many of my friends and acquaintances who attended an Asian youth group on a weekly basis formed lifelong friendships in the process. 20 years later, these social networks are still alive and vibrant, even when former youth group participants no longer attend church.
Young people make decisions in their junior high and high school years that shape the trajectory of their lives. How does the Holy Spirit work uniquely through Asian youth groups? How are they different from their mainstream (white) counterparts? What might a sociological explanation look like? Here are some attributes that make Asian youth groups a uniquely influential spiritual and sociological force:
1) High rate of participation: In non-immigrant churches, church activities for youth are held at separate times/venues from the adult events. Not so in the immigrant church. It functions as both a faith community and socio-cultural refuge for a displaced (usually voluntarily) people. And in Asian cultures, the family is the core building block of society. This means church is a family event and the family worships together. Well, at the same time in the same area at least. Most Asian church youth groups and children's ministry programs meet on Friday and Saturday nights - at the same time as the immigrant adult activities. Weekends are perfect for busy dual-income families (whose social life IS the church) and want their kids home studying on weeknights. When my family moved to Atlanta from San Jose when I was in 8th grade, my dad, a functional atheist at the time, reluctantly decided to go to a Chinese church because that was the easiest way for us to build a social life. And that's how our family met Jesus.
Because personal freedom is a secondary value in Asian culture, if your parents go to church, you don't have the option NOT to go. By my non-scientific estimate, this translates to a participation rate of 80-90% for youth where both parents attend church and somewhat lower if the only mom does. Again, based on my observation of the size of white youth groups relative to the number of adults, this is 2-3 times higher than the rate for large mainstream churches, whom not only have separate youth programs but also segregate junior high and high school students.
2) Time together: Since most immigrant families (especially those living in expensive areas) are dual income, their latch-key kids tend to have lots of unstructured free time. Two weeks ago our church sponsored a five-day program where kids came to church from 10 AM to 4 PM. We had a great turn-out. Some kids would have spent even more time with us given the choice. It's difficult to overstate the benefits of spending so much of time together. Lifelong friendships are built during this formative phase. I know a couple Asian churches that put on youth musicals. These events involved hours of practice and one even went on tour across the country. Road trip = bonding.
3) Similar background: Being the child of Asian immigrants has unique features. Your house smells different from your white friends. Your parents don't speak English well. It is enormously beneficial to hang out with other kids who can relate to the experience. Larger churches have racial/background diversity but the size of the group can be intimidating and can make it difficult for shy kids to build relationships.
4) Freedom from parent supervision: Most parents are pretty clueless about raising children. For immigrants, this is compounded by the challenges of dealing with a foreign culture. These unfortunate people have to struggle making a living while at the same time attempting to bridge the cultural and generational gap with their kids. By the time they get to the weekend, parents are more than happy to hand off their kids to the youth ministry. This means youth pastors and leaders get tremendous freedom to do whatever they want with the kids, often away from parent supervision.
What's it all mean? For those involved in Asian youth ministry, I often hear leaders complain that they function as surrogate parents. It is true in the best possible way. Embrace the opportunity. You can have an impact on these kids in ways you may never fully appreciate on this side of heaven.
As a teenager, I remember asking my former youth leader, Al Yuen, about masturbation. I can't remember exactly what I asked but it was a sensitive topic for me. He said a couple things and then a week later, discretely mailed me an article he found. When I received the letter, it hit me that an adult besides my parents cared about me in a significant way.
Lastly, I heard someone complain about a sister church that is composed of young adults. He said it reminded him of his Asian youth group experience. Though I believe his comment inferred that the activities and atmosphere of the church felt juvenile, perhaps his disparaging remark is not as bad as one might think. The Asian youth group experience is powerful and it speaks to the nature of community.