Every Sunday, in front of a big brown cathedral on Wilshire Boulevard and Berendo Street, a small purple sign can be seen that says “Servicio en Espanol,” or “service in Spanish.” A few yards above, a U.S. flag and a rainbow flag sway with the wind in unison, and further to the left is a banner advertising the afterschool program of a Korean church.
Times have certainly changed for the Immanuel Presbyterian Church. When the Christian congregation first opened its doors on September 3, 1888 in its original location in Downtown, the people that walked in were white politicians, businessmen, and other dignitaries wearing fancy suits, hats, and fur coats. The membership flourished and grew so big that the church had to build a larger facility in the undeveloped area of what is now Koreatown. The larger campus they built was dedicated in May of 1929, and it has been the home of the church ever since.
Today, the people who are preparing to celebrate the church’s 126th anniversary are very different from the people who were there at its founding or even its centennial. For one, there are far fewer of them now with less than 200 members, and two, the members are much more diverse in practically every sense of the word. People of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientation now fill its dark wooden pews, and the church also shares its space with a Korean church and an Ethiopian church.
The changes in membership are largely due to the changing demographics of the church’s neighborhood, according to Reverend Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder, Pastor of the church. Zehnder said that when the church noticed its neighbors becoming more and more Latino, they made the conscious decision to provide services in both English and Spanish, and also to provide all literature in both languages. Zehnder, who joined the church in 1995, learned Spanish during her time at the church. She said that now, about a third of the church’s members speak Spanish as a first or second language; another third speak English as a first language, and the last third speak another language as a first language, including Korean, Tagalog, and various African languages.
The church’s inclusiveness goes beyond mere language. Zehnder said that her church strives to be a highly interactive and inclusive church that incorporates the views and traditions of its people.
“This is not a place where people just sit, listen, then leave… we try to incorporate all aspects of people’s lives,” Zehnder said.
For example, the church has a Healing Center that offers free yoga twice a week and utilizes alternative healing methods found outside of western medicine. A Korean-speaking nurse and Spanish-speaking nurse also provide basic medical services and resources, and these services are all free and open to the public.
“This neighborhood is so diverse and these communities have so much wisdom, for instance about health and being a full person,” she said. “We’re still
Presbyterian so that provides a framework, but the question is what can other cultures add to that?”
Tina Mata, a fourth-generation resident of the Koreatown area who has been attending the church for 13 years, said that the level of personal engagement for all its members is what differentiates Immanuel from larger churches that tend to have a broader but less cohesive membership.
“The diversity in our church is not just in the appearance; we have people who grew up very privileged, we have people who grew up with nothing, and everyone has very different ideas about what’s appropriate,” she said. “It does get messy, but we role up our sleeves and get to work.”
The smaller membership of the church helps create a more close-knit community, but it is also causing some people to worry about the future of the church. Hector Figueroa, Lead Receptionist for the church who joined in 1991, said that the membership dropped from 500 to less than 200 during his time here, and he is concerned about the financial state of the church.
“Unless the church’s finances improve, I’m not sure it will still be here ten years from now,” said Figueroa.
Zehnder says that the annual operating budget for the church is just under $1 million, and to help cover the costs the church rents out its facilities for weddings, graduations, film productions, concerts and other events. It also recently rented a building to a new charter school.
When it comes to dwindling numbers, Immanuel Presbyterian Church is certainly not alone. In a 2010 report published by Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership, the multi-faith group found that the median size of congregations decreased in every Christian denomination group, and decreasing average attendance at worship was the biggest difference since 2000. Similarly, in a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, the number of religiously unaffiliated U.S. adults increased from just over 15% in 2007 to just under 20% in 2012.
At the same time, the report by the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership also found that congregations that adopt innovative worship and contemporary worship styles are significantly more likely to grow, and in this sense Immanuel Presbyterian Church seems to be headed in the right direction.
Michael Mata, adjunct professor of urban studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and Tina Mata’s husband, said that the decline in church membership does not necessarily mean there is less interest in spirituality or religion, just that there is less interest in organized or institutional religion. He said Immanuel is unique in that it kept its diverse members together in one congregation while experimenting to see what works or does not work for them as a whole, and while that may have made the church’s progress more messy or slow, it also made the church stronger.
“This is a much more challenging approach, trying to blend all the cultures together,” he said. “How do you maintain the inclusivity while serving the different needs of the members?”
Michael Mata says that these challenges apply to all churches in a diverse urban neighborhood like Koreatown, and he sees Koreatown as a microcosm of other developing urban areas in the world.
Whatever the challenges may be in the future, Immanuel Presbyterian Church seems poised to meet them if its history and longevity are any indication. On September 7th, it will be celebrating its 126th anniversary with a special event featuring concert, campus tour, and presentations, and the event will also kick off a year-long concert series at the church.
Zehnder, who met and married her husband at the church and now has two young daughters, understands and embraces the challenges, saying that “the only constant here is change.” Her young family is growing and developing within the larger family of her church, and she hopes more and more members of Koreatown’s community will become part of that family.
“Koreatown is still somewhat segregated, but here we’re building a life together, and that is the future of this congregation,” she said.