Sugarloaf Korean: reaching the nations, generations for Christ

Bong Choi SLDR

For the past 16 years Bong Choi has served as pastor of Southern Baptists’ largest Korean congregation in the Southeast. He and his wife, Tina, began their Georgia ministry with a 70-member congregation in Tucker. JOE WESTBURY/IndexSUWANEE — The year was 1976 and Americans were celebrating the country’s bicentennial. Along with the patriotic theme the nation’s pulpits were also celebrating freedom from tyranny as well as the freedom believers have in Christ.

During the same era, a small group celebrated the birth of a new church that, unknown to the founding members, would grow into Southern Baptists’ largest Korean congregation in the Southeast.

Georgia New Seoul Baptist Church began by renting space in Druid Hills Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, one of the then-Georgia Baptist Convention’s strongest church planting congregations. That same commitment was a part of the fledgling congregation’s DNA from the day it was constituted as the Convention’s newest church.

Korean professors from nearby Georgia Tech soon found their way to the new church and eventually brought large numbers of students to the site.

Nearly 850 Koreans of all generations attend Sunday services at the Gwinnett County church. One service is for English speakers to reach the next generation. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Within three years the Korean congregation had planted its first church, Savannah Korean Baptist Church. The next year Hinesville Korean Baptist Church was launched, followed within months by Valdosta Korean Baptist Church.

The congregation soon found itself in cramped quarters and needing a larger facility of its own. The Convention, with the help of legendary language missions state missionary Jerry Baker, helped the congregation relocate to Tucker, just outside the Perimeter, where an enclave of Koreans did not have a church.

It added an international dimension as it sent out missionaries to Russia, Tanzania, Haiti, North Korea, China, Taiwan, Mexico, and other nations The congregation continued its focus on international student ministries at Georgia Tech, Emory, UGA, and Georgia State. As a result, hundreds of professors and professionals became faithful lay missionaries on the world’s mission field.

Today that small congregation, originally meeting in a Sunday School room at Druid Hills, is the oldest Southern Baptist church in the state and is in the top five  among all Korean churches of all denominations in Georgia.

Others followed in quick succession. Congregations were planted in Macon in 1982, Riverdale on the southside of Atlanta in 1986, and Columbus in 1987. Within an eight-year window, six Korean congregations were sharing the gospel with the state’s slowly growing influx of Koreans.

The growth did not rest during the next decade but added an international dimension to its commitment to sharing the gospel. Between 2015 and 2016, Montgomery Korean Baptist Church was launched in neighboring Alabama.

Bong Choi is observing his 16th anniversary in September

In July 2002 the 70-member fellowship called Pennsylvania residents Bong Soo Choi and his wife, Tina, to the Tucker church with Bong as pastor. He was completing his doctorate degree at Temple University and she was serving as Church and Communities Ministries director with the Philadelphia Baptist Association. The couple had met and were married while students at Southern Seminary.

More than 600 members, nearly a third of the entire Sunday worship experience, enjoy lunch that creates a bond between the generations. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Two months later, on the first anniversary of 9/11, the couple boarded their flight to Atlanta to being their new ministry. Tina Choi remembers the Sept. 11 flight very well as their airline tickets cost only a dollar or two because no one wanted to fly on the anniversary.

Much work awaited them. Tucker was undergoing a steady shift of its Korean congregation, with most everyone moving to Duluth in Gwinnett County. Virtually the entire congregation had moved away but were commuting back to Tucker for worship services.

The new pastor and his wife began to search for a new location closer to the Korean enclave and settled on a location on Old Peachtree Road. The congregation renamed their fellowship to Sugarloaf Korean Baptist Church and the new location quickly resulted in explosive growth. In addition to the new sanctuary, the congregation soon added educational space and a gymnasium which doubles as a fellowship hall.

Church straddles Duluth and Suwanee in Gwinnett’s fast growing Korean community

While officially located in Suwanee, it shares an identity with fast-growing Duluth, which is the county’s largest Korean community. The subdivision behind the church has a Duluth address. The congregation now averages 850 in Sunday morning worship. Another 120 youth also attend Sunday School and worship services as well as 150 toddlers through elementary age who are involved in a children’s service.

Bong Choi and wife Tina meet members of the congregation at the end of a service. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Another 50 college students and adults attend an English-language service, known as Sugarloaf International Fellowship, which was renamed by English Ministry Jim Burton.

The age demographics show the youthful flavor of the congregation; of the 850 who attend on Sunday, 450 are under the age of 30. That age group continues to grow.

What is different about the church’s format, however, is its size. While it has a full-service facility with a sanctuary seating 500, it has no desire to build a larger worship space.

The pastor’s philosophy is centered around simply adding more worship services throughout the day to accommodate future growth. And it is working very well, with crowds at nearly each of the 5 services beginning at 8:30 a.m. A weekly lunch sandwiched between the 11:30 a.m. and the 1:45 p.m. services attracts nearly 600 members for fellowship which helps the church maintain its sense of family.

“I didn’t select this location; the Lord led us here.”

“I didn’t select this location; the Lord led us here,” Bong Choi explains about the Suwanee site. And it is apparent the Lord’s choice is exactly where the congregation needed to be to grow and reach hundreds more with the gospel.

Bong Choi likes to fish, both in the spiritual as well as physical sense of the word. “To keep it simple, to catch fish you need to go where the fish are. There are many young families in this area with three public schools nearby who need to hear the gospel,” he explains.

Gwinnett County has become even more of a magnate for Koreans since the church relocated, and now comprises the country’s largest ethnic population. Statistics show that about 200,000 are expected to call the area home by 2020.

Sugarloaf Korean worships in 5 services each Sunday. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Future growth patterns show North Fulton, Forsyth, and south Hall counties expanding their Korean populations, as well.

A drive down Pleasant Hill Road shows the influx of Koreans into the culture. The county, with its explosive growth of Korean business – ranging from a highly rated sauna to bakeries and grocers to restaurants, doctors and banks – attract shoppers from as far away as Alabama who drive over for the weekend for shopping.

With that ready-made group outside the doors of the church, Sugarloaf Korean is committed to starting small Bible studies to reach the unchurched as well as providing other services. Among those are counseling, support groups, tutoring, and other special classes. Recreational programs and summer camps are popular with children and youth.

“We want to help meet the needs of new immigrants and help them adjust to their new lifestyle,” the pastor explains. We plan intercultural fellowship and worship services with other churches of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds to build a stronger Christian presence, as well.”

Church has English-speaking service in addition to traditional Korean language

Part of that ongoing expansion will be to increase its English-speaking ministry for second-generation Koreans, as well as traditional English speakers.

The church is also actively involved with the Gwinnett Metro Baptist Association, Georgia Baptist Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and International Mission Board.

Sugarloaf Korean has grown from 70 members 16 years ago to become Southern Baptists’ largest Korean congregation in the Southeast. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Bong Choi says the future is challenging when it comes to reaching the next generation, which is “the most critical part of our ministry.”

“Second generation Koreans are estranged from their parents and many have avoided church altogether once they leave home. That’s because of the perception that they don’t fit in anywhere,” Tina Choi notes.

“Our goal is to have a dynamic English ministry that will bring the generations together to work effectively as a team.”

Over the past decade many Korean senior citizens have retired to Atlanta from all parts of the nation. That shift has resulted in a natural growth of the senior population.

Sugarloaf Korean has responded with a very robust senior day recreational programs featuring computer classes, instruction on how to use smart phones, stretching exercises and foot massage, and classes in calligraphy, American history, citizenship, flower arranging, and line dancing and folk dancing, among others.

The church has a well-balanced outreach to multi-generations and continuously seeks ways to share Christ with individuals from any walk in life.

Sugarloaf Korean Baptist Church is the largest Korean congregation in the Association – as well as the Southeast. It averages 850 in Sunday morning attendance. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Hugh Townsend, executive director of Gwinnett Metro Baptist Association, expressed his appreciation for the congregation’s outreach into the Korean community.

“Sugarloaf Korean, under the leadership of Dr. Choi, has done an extraordinarily good job in reaching the residents of the entire community. They are supporters of the work of the Association and have a very cooperative spirit in our work. Brother Choi has also furthered theological education by serving as director for the Korean Theological Institute of the seminary extension center of New Orleans Seminary.”

Those classes are taught at First Baptist Church of Duluth.

Bong Choi underscores the gratitude the congregation feels to Georgia Baptists and wants to pass the blessing to the next generation. The state convention’s Language Missions Department played a major role in helping the church become established through training and financial help; now it wants to return the favor by helping to plant other churches.

“We want to bless others, just as we have been blessed,” he says.

To underscore that gratitude, Sugarloaf Korean has become a percentage giver to the Cooperative Program. It sets aside 4 percent for the unified offering and will increase it to 5 percent in 2019. Other increases are projected.