How the Korean Church Formed Me

Korean prayer

As I serve in a multicultural church context, I often think about the factors which have molded me as a leader. With some regret, there have been more immature seasons in my past when I attributed my ability to minister cross-culturally in spite of my background, especially with the Korean church.

Upon more reflection, though, I increasingly recognize that much of who I am and how God has worked through me to pastor across cultures has actually been because of the Korean church and other churches (2nd Generation Korean and Pan-Asian) influenced by Korean roots. God has helped to show me how my experiences were not hindrances to overcome but rather some of the very reasons I have been able to do what I do.

As with any culture, there are some aspects which are broken and need to be redeemed in the Korean church – even associated with some things I mention below – but here are a few areas in which I have benefited from my heritage and training:

Prayer

Perhaps the thing I am most thankful for is the legacy of prayer I received from being raised in Korean ministry environments. Some Korean churches are known for their need to have multiple early prayer services every morning because of the long lines of prayer warriors waiting to come in before the sun rises. Korean people pray. I have even observed some older Korean Christians shaking their heads at younger generations who don’t pray enough, which is probably accurate.

Yet, even as I desire for my prayer life to deepen, I see how this value of prayer has become a normal part of ministry in my life. It was not uncommon for me to remember most retreats, revivals, and conferences where the time spent in prayer far outweighed everything else as we prayed long into the night. That is where I learned to pray. (Even if some might blame it for why I pray so loud!) As Oswald Chambers said, “Too often we treat prayer as the preparation for the work of the church. Do you not see? Prayer IS the work of the church.” I learned to pray in the Korean church and I love sharing it with other cultures.

Sacrifice

Many Koreans carry stories of how sacrifice marked their family life. For immigrant families, there is the common narrative of how parents would sacrifice in working themselves to the bone for the benefit of their children. Korean churches I grew up in were likewise marked by this concept of deep personal sacrifice for the welfare of the greater good. Not serving in some kind of ministry was abnormal. Giving generously toward global missions was the norm. The expectation with ministry was that there should be a cost involved.

When I speak on the idea of dying to oneself as one follows Christ, it may sound radical to some but it really isn’t to me. I recognize that this is something that was a part of my regular rhythms of following Jesus. It was in the Korean church that I first embraced that following Jesus meant my life was no longer my own but that life was found through death. It is where I learned that in a culture that tells you to make the world all about you, there is value in denying oneself for something greater. It is something I find valuable in our church where we encounter many who are looking for more meaning in church. Rather than a place that provides a weekly entertaining message, what does it look like to be a part of a Kingdom that calls us to embrace death for the sake of true life?

Community

The Korean churches I grew up in were primarily immigrant communities. For us, church was much more than a service you attended once a week but it was the very center of community life. It became very natural to understand church as much more than an organization but a very real family with whom you walked together in this journey. Though other adults may not have shared common bloodlines, you still used familial terminology to address them.

In our current ministry, I have met some who never viewed church through this kind of lens but are drawn to the idea of church as a family. I think this is one of the reasons why many multicultural churches led by Koreans as well as other immigrant and minority cultures are able to cultivate a sense of relational closeness contrasted with more corporate models of church.

Generosity

The Korean church taught me that a Christian should be generous, especially in my finances. Realistically, some of this may not have always been motivated by fully pure motives. I grew up thinking that a normal part of the worship service liturgy was hearing a public reading of all the people who gave their tithes that week. And it probably was not a coincidence that some of the biggest offerings were given by some parents on the Sunday before SAT exams.

Yet, the reality was that the Korean church stressed the importance of sacrificially giving one’s money to God through the church. Along with regular tithes, special offerings were commonly given as the people would partake in many opportunities to give thanks to God with their money. I am thankful for the ways these lessons permeated my views on giving as I try to model and lead others to view our resources as God’s gifts to be stewarded for His Kingdom.

Suffering

When I speak on the concept of suffering, I’m typically caught off guard when some say they’ve never heard churches engaging in such themes. In the Korean church, we talked about suffering a lot. (Maybe a little too much but that’s something for another time.) Whether it was the immigrant experience which was naturally tied to hardships or the concept of Han with its understanding of deeply shared communal suffering, suffering was a normal concept in church. It was almost as if suffering should be expected in this world and all the more reason we cried out in even greater ways to God.

In our church, I sometimes joke that we talk about suffering and brokenness too much. But I also know that many of our people across different cultures have been drawn in because we talk very openly and embrace that God works through suffering as we reject a more sanitized version of Christianity. In our church, we try not to talk about suffering as merely something to endure but the very thing which God might be using to lead us to Him in hope. It is something ingrained in me and something I seek to pass on in experiencing the joy of Christ even in suffering.

I am Thankful for the Korean Church

There are some things that are broken in the Korean church. Realistically, it is probably the reason some have chosen to leave with the hopes of starting or joining multiethnic or non-Asian church communities. It’s why I hear some who’ve left Korean churches disparage it. Those wounds and issues are real and need to be addressed.

Yet, God has also been reminding me more and more that my life and the cross-cultural ministry I am honored to be involved with are a part of the legacy of the Korean church, especially in America. For that, I am grateful.

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