One of our hopes for this blog is that it will provide a venue for Christians, whether pastors, missionaries, or laymen, to learn from the emphases and characteristics of churches of other cultures. To that end, this will be the first of hopefully many posts on what we can learn from the Korean church.
At the outset, it should be said that I am not an expert. I can only share what I know from my own experience as a Korean-American, and from the experiences of other Korean-American friends in ministry. Because my knowledge of this subject is primarily anecdotal, I need your help to provide pushback, comments, questions, and input into what I write here whether you are Korean or not.
Why should this interest you?
Some of you saw the title for this post and were tempted to immediately close the window. That’s understandable. After all, what benefit could there possibly be in learning from churches originating from the Hermit Kingdom?
No matter where you live or work, you will encounter Korean Christians of some kind. South Korea is the second largest missionary sending nation in the world. Given the growth of the church in the global South (and the parallel decline of the church in the West), the future face of the church will be one that has been profoundly shaped by Korean missionaries. It should come as no surprise that missionaries cannot completely efface their culture when they travel overseas to plant churches. We shouldn’t be surprised if churches planted by Korean missionaries look different from churches planted by Americans. If that’s the case, then understanding these churches’ fathers in the faith will help alleviate any cultural dissonance or offense that may come.
Korean Familial Love
One of the most significant differences between Korean and Western culture is the structure of family life. The family is the bedrock of Korean society. Koreans (and other Asians) identify themselves first with their family names and then with their first names. Kim Jong Un’s first name is not Kim Jong, but Jong Un. Loyalty to your family is of the utmost importance, and this familial love is expressed more through service and sacrifice than through affection and time.
Why do Koreans express their love in this way? I’m no sociologist, but I have some ideas. My guess is that Koreans view love in terms of service more readily than Americans because things like affection and time are shared between individuals. My father can show me affection and spend time with me, but how does that impact the greater good of the family name? On the other hand, succeeding in my career and providing for my parents and extended relatives brings honor and serves the greater good of passing on the family legacy.
Korean-Americans grow up learning a definition of love from their peers and the media that is at odds with their parents’. Love is intimacy, affection, encouragement, etc. For Korean parents, love means sacrifice, providing an education, and ensuring a successful future. When my white friends were playing baseball with their dads and having conversations about “life” with their parents, I was being shipped off to another after-school program to master the SAT.
This also means Korean parents are much more willing to sacrifice time with their children if it means they can provide them with a better future. Many immigrant dads leave their families in America while they return to Korea to work, only visiting a few times a year. Even several of my Korean classmates in seminary were separated from their families or willing to separate from them for a season to pursue further studies.
How does this impact Korean church life?
Korean congregants expect different things from their pastors. In a Korean church, pastors are expected to shoulder more responsibilities and spend more time providing for the community through practical means. A pastor’s love is displayed through acts of service more than time spent in counseling. If the church is a first-generation Korean church, congregants will expect a pastor to make sacrifices as a measure of his love. Congregants will also expect other lay-members to display this same kind of love through meeting shared needs. A congregant who spends time talking with others and praying with them without getting his or her hands dirty in service is not seen as loving.
This makes things difficult for Korean-Americans who grew up in two competing cultures. Those who work in traditional churches need to strike a delicate balance between what they learn about shepherding in seminary from a Western perspective and what their traditional Korean pastors and congregants expect from them. They also need to have the right expectations in regards to mentorship from their first-generation Korean leaders. Most American churches do not overload their seminarians with full-time preaching schedules; instead, they provide opportunities for 1-on-1 mentorship through reading books or discussing pastoral issues. In Korean churches, you’re thrown into the deep end and expected to learn through practice and failure. This isn’t because Korean pastors are unloving (at least, I hope not), but because their ideas of love always think of the greater community and what you can contribute to shared needs. It’s too easy to assume that American-trained seminarians have all the answers for the Korean church’s problems. This fails to see where the Korean church actually has a lot to teach us.
What can we learn from the Korean church?
If Korean churches err on the side of overburdening their pastors and leaders, American churches can sometimes take such a casual approach to ministry that they neglect what is of the essence of Christ’s call to his followers: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
When I visited Cambodia a few months ago, a Korean missionary who was working with an international missions organization shared with me the struggles (as a Korean) of working with mostly Western missionaries. He shared how conflicts sometimes arose because of the pride of Korean missionaries. However, one thing he saw as an undeniable strength of Korean missionaries was their willingness to endure through suffering.
The attitude of some Western pastors and missionaries seems to be that their churches and missions organizations exist to meet their needs. Since love exists primarily between individuals, there is no sense that we as leaders should shoulder a greater burden for the sake of others. Since love is not primarily seen through the lens of sacrifice and provision, churches and missions groups that expect more from their leaders can be seen as overbearing and unloving.
Western Christians need to understand that different conceptions of love can impact ministry relationships. If you work with a Korean pastor, he will be more impressed with your displays of sacrifice than for the amount of time you spend with him at a coffee shop.
Korean-Americans need to recognize how much of their own conceptions of love are shaped by Western culture before they judge their pastors, missionaries, or even parents as unloving.
Sacrifice and provision are one of the greatest (and I would say, most biblical) ways of showing love to others. My American friends growing up thought it was unfair that my parents expected me to provide for them after college, but I never thought twice about it. When I thought back to how they broke their backs to provide me with an education, I saw it as decidedly unloving to cut ties after graduation.
God himself displayed his love for us – in what? “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8)
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (Eph 5:25)
The biblical picture of love is one that involves sacrifice and provision. While God surely shows his affection for us in his love, his love is also one that acts to meet the needs of his people. The idea of serving sacrificially for the greater good is not foreign to the Bible.
We can learn from the Korean church that love, if it is to be a biblical, Christ-like love, involves sacrifice. As pastors, this means having a willingness to bear the burdens of others in acts of service. As those who teach pastors, it means instilling in future pastors a sense that the pastoral call was never meant to be easy; pastors shouldn’t expect a cushy job with a fat paycheck. We don’t pursue suffering, but we seek to have the mind of Christ, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, and calls his sheep and under-shepherds to pick up their own and follow in his steps.
What are some questions you have about the Korean church? What are some things that should be discussed on this blog? Let me know in the comments below and I might address it in a future post.