I have often found myself moving between two strangely disjunctive worlds.

As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, I grew up in a world of Asian American neighborhood enclaves, cultural institutions and ethnic-specific churches. On Sundays I worshipped and took Mandarin language classes at our Taiwanese church, partaking in a life almost completely hidden from my classmates at the public schools I attended.

This sense of incongruity has become especially acute in recent years as I’ve attended a mainline Protestant academic institution and joined the world of Christian publishing -- settings in which I am often the only racial minority in the room, and usually the only Asian American.

I attended a recent lecture at Wheaton College by Peter Cha of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School entitled “The Persistence of the Asian-American Church: A Sociological Inquiry.” He shared his preliminary findings on what sociologists have termed the “silent exodus”: second generation Asian-Americans, weary of the cultural idiosyncrasies of their parents’ immigrant churches, who as young adults in the 90s fled to “mainstream” white churches.

When word of this mass departure first trickled down from the ivory tower over fifteen years ago, a slight panic broke out in first generation congregations. Pastors and parents like mine wrung their hands, anxious to staunch the hemorrhaging of their next generation of church leaders. But Cha has noticed a startling trend. The silent exodus, now comprised of child-rearing couples in their 30s and 40s, is steadily trickling back into ethnic-specific churches.

Like others in the silent exodus, Cha and his wife had left their Korean-American church some years ago to join a predominantly white Presbyterian church. Even though their children thrived in the Presbyterian church’s youth group when they were younger, they began to shut down as they entered their teens. Sensing that the children were having difficulties fitting in, the couple decided to bring them back to the Korean congregation.

He has also observed this widespread pattern in his discussions with other second generation Asian Americans who have returned to ethnic churches. While these young families enjoyed the preaching, worship and programs they found outside the immigrant church, they had a harder time making inroads into the social life of those congregations—an experience that became especially burdensome for the children. Many of these couples agreed that they were treated well, but politely. Like guests.

Though Cha once touted the virtues of leaving the immigrant church for a fuller vision of the Kingdom of God, he now cautiously espouses a “both/and” approach. Asian American churches ought to exist alongside multiethnic churches because of the role they play in shaping a healthy sense of self-perception for immigrant children. Cha also noted the social functions that Asian American churches perform in bringing widely scattered peoples together. These communities often serve as potent crucibles of Christian identity. Studies show that Korean immigrants are far more likely to embrace the Christian faith after arriving in America.

There was much here for me to identify with. From an early age, I was keenly aware that American society was something I had to learn how to fit into, and that my physical and cultural identifiers were somehow obstacles to be overcome (reading Asian-American literature in my later years would give me a name for this experience: “perpetual foreigner”). A history of slights, real or perceived—even something as seemingly innocuous as the question, “No, I mean, where are you really from?”—tends to cement the notion that you may never truly belong.

Like many in the “silent exodus,” I once chafed at the apparent parochialism of the church of my youth, coveting the resources that other churches and denominations seemed to have in spades. But I’ve come to appreciate the immigrant church in which I was baptized and nurtured in the faith. It was there that I experienced acceptance and belonging in tangible ways. I also saw Asian Americans in positions of Christian leadership. These were rare opportunities in Webster, Texas. And if not for that, I wouldn’t have later discovered the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God outside the Asian American church.

When I go home this upcoming holiday season, I will worship at my parents’ Taiwanese church—a world away from where I live and work. And of this I am not ashamed.