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The Prequel to “Ten Unique Korean Virtures that EMs Aren’t Teaching Our Kids (But Should Be)…

I received a very welcome email today from Rev. Eric Foley this afternoon. If you recall, Eric is the author of the original article that I posted last month that was an interesting discussion of Korean virtues that should be passed on in our EMs. One of the great challenges in many EMs, Korean or non, can be derived precisely from this issue, namely that injecting culture into our faith or, even more complex, the opposite, to inject faith into our culture has been a most difficult proposition. The following actually precedes the article that I posted last month, and elaborates on the need for how churches should contribute to the transmission of culture to the next generation. Again, the wonderful premise here is that there does exist a discernable flavor of cultural Christianity. Many a 2nd-gen Korean-American Christian has seen cultural Christianity gone sour, but here Rev. Foley posits that the culture itself has much to contribute to our faith. It's a necessary perspective to take as we continue to work out what God has given us to work with and through. Subsequent articles will be posted soon, but please feel free to discuss, comment here, or if you'd like to contact Rev. Foley directly, he's left his email below.




What is it that makes someone truly Korean? Is it their race? Is it their language? Or is there something more?

I am an American pastor with a Korean wife who, among other things, is a professional traditional Korean dancer. I have a deep love for Korean people and spend the majority of my time doing ministry in the Korean community. I write this article out of a deep concern for the future of authentic Korean culture in the United States. When I visit Korean churches in the U.S., most Koreans have one of three attitudes towards transmission of Korean culture to their children.

By far the most common attitude is not to think about the question at all. This is certainly understandable. Most Korean parents are far too busy running their small business and preparing meals for their children to think about anything abstract, let alone something as abstract as transmitting Korean culture. They speak to their children in Korean, serve them Korean food, and get a little annoyed when their kids act like ramyun is the only Korean food worth eating.

The second group watches their children become Americanized with resignation and at least a tinge of regret. They feel that it is inevitable that their children will be more attached to America than Korea, inevitable that their children will prefer pancakes to puchingae, inevitable that their children’s Korean will become rusty from lack of use, even if they’re enrolled in Korean school every Saturday.

The third (and smallest) group believes that it is natural, normal, and preferable for their children to become assimilated into American culture as quickly and thoroughly as possible. They make no effort to teach their children Korean language or culture, and they prefer to involve their children in traditional American pursuits: piano lessons, football, and McDonald’s hamburgers.

Interestingly, Korean EM’s usually fall into one of these three categories as well. Some EM’s are simply extensions of KM’s, run by Korean students studying in the US or saintly 1.0’s who just want Korean kids to have some kind of group. The leaders do their best to speak English but sometimes lapse back into Korean in frustration when they have a hard time communicating something.


Some EM’s (likely the largest number) are led by bilingual pastors who straddle the boundary between Korean culture and American culture, explaining kids to their parents and parents to their kids. These are the EM’s where after service the kids check what’s for lunch before driving down to Taco Bell.

The third group of EM’s (usually the largest) is the one that worries me the most. These are the EM’s that call themselves “multicultural” and that daydream about how great it would be if they were actually independent congregations no longer connected to Korean churches. Though they call themselves “multicultural”, I regretfully must confess that as a pastor who works with ministries and missionaries around the world, these EM’s seem more monocultural (American) than multicultural. When I’m with them I don’t so much get the feel of the great multitude from every tribe and nation praising God in the Book of Revelation as I do the great multitude singing the same American-style worship choruses and doing the same American-style church activities at one of fifty or sixty nondenominational megachurch campuses around the United States.


And this is what causes me such serious concern: None of these three strategies enables a robust, successful transmission of Korean culture to the next generation.


Some people might be quick to argue that it is not the job of the EM to transmit Korean culture. That job, some say, belongs to Korean families and Saturday morning Korean schools. But there is an obvious problem with tasking Korean families and Korean schools with the job of transmitting culture: most Korean families and Korean schools are led by 1.0’s who have only limited familiarity with the American culture in which their children are immersed 90% of the time. Thus, they teach Korean culture only from the perspective of Koreans. This seems natural and normal, but the success of this strategy is sorely limited: Korean children learn to see Korean culture as something of an oddity—something they study once a week (because their parents force them to); something that is separated from their normal (American) lives and normal (American) friends and which is thus not terribly useful. It becomes a chore, an annoyance, a disadvantage. “After all,” the Korean child thinks, “American kids can sleep in on Saturday morning or get up and watch cartoons. I have to get up and go to school.”

There is no doubt that so-called “multicultural” EM’s are generally the most successful numerically. But is this trend actually beneficial for our young people? Or is there a better way?


As you can tell by my photo, no one will ever look at me and conclude that I am Korean. I’m Irish by background, and I can’t speak a word of Korean. (That being said, I should note that I am a bit unusual in that I am a Korean food nut and a professional traditional Korean dancer, thanks to my wife and some excellent teachers from Korea. I almost always eat Korean food every meal, and I have eaten boshintang and bundeggi on multiple occasions. I own a number of Korean costumes, often watch Korean videos, and often check the Korean news on the Internet throughout the day. I can always tell you what the weather’s like in Seoul, or what President Roh did to make Koreans mad today.)

Even though I’m not ethnically Korean nor do I speak Korean, it’s interesting to me that Korean people will sometimes tell me that I am “more Korean” than they are. I always consider this the deepest of compliments.

That raises the question: Are our children more or less Korean than we are? If the answer is that they are less Korean than we are, why is that? And is it necessarily a bad thing?


I believe, sadly, that 2.0’s are almost always less Korean than their parents. Further, I believe that this is a bad thing. Further still, I believe that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that it can and should be changed. Furthest yet, I believe that EM’s are the ones best positioned to make this possible.


In fact, I believe it may be the most valuable contribution EM’s can make. I realize that this is a controversial claim, but please permit me to make my case. I believe that being Korean is primarily not a function of language or race; rather, it is a function of worldview. I believe, odd as it may sound, that there are many Korean people who are more American than me, and many people who are Korean by race or language who are not truly Korean at all.


If you think that this sounds silly, please reconsider. In fact, the entirety of the New Testament of the Bible was written to answer a similar question: What makes someone truly Jewish? Is it their birth? (No, says Jesus. God can raise up stones to be children of Abraham?) Is it their language? (No, says Peter in the Book of Acts. God shows no partiality based upon language. Besides, consider the multitude that praised God in every language on the day of Pentecost.) Is it their cultural practices? (No, says Paul. In Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters at all.)

In fact, the shocking conclusion that the New Testament comes to is that being Jewish—being part of God’s chosen people, or being a part of the New Israel—is what happens when you confess that Jesus is Lord and you choose to follow Him.

Today there are many people who call themselves Jewish simply because of their chromosomes or because of their cultural practices. But according to the Bible, being truly Jewish isn’t a physical thing at all. Instead, it’s a confession, a belief, a way of acting in the world but not of the world. That, says the Bible, is what it means to be Jewish.

What then, might it mean to be Korean? If the answer is something more than race or language or even food, then what is it?

I believe there are at least ten virtues that are either unique to or exemplified by Korean culture. I believe that these virtues are either absent or underrepresented in American culture. I believe that unless EM’s take responsibility for intentionally, purposefully, creatively, seriously transmitting them to our Korean children, then 5,000 years of unique culture—culture intentionally shaped by God for His purpose of blessing all the world—will be lost.

And that would be a tragedy, indeed.

Next month we’ll begin to explore what I call THE TEN UNIQUE KOREAN VIRTUES THAT EM’S AREN’T TEACHING OUR KIDS (BUT SHOULD BE). If you’d like to talk further before then about what I’ve written in this column, please feel free to e-mail me at . Since, unfortunately, I don’t speak Korean, you may wish to speak to my wife at .


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

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