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Ten Unique Korean Virtues that EMs Aren’t Teaching Our Kids (But Should Be), Part 6

Back this week with Virtue #3 of the ten unique Korean virtues that EMs aren't teaching our kids. Yesterday I had a wonderful conversation over lunch with a co-worker who is Jewish and he spoke of his synagogue as a center of culture as well as of faith. Of course, one the issues with Jewish people, especially in North America, is that definitions of culture and the extent to which faith is incorporated or interpreted, can be very diverse over a wide range. This is to say that to be Jewish in America can means something very different from one Jewish person to another. While I think that one can still make a reasonable case that Korean-ness or Chinese-ness can still be defined, I think it begs the question for how many generations this can persist in the U.S. But with no further ado, here is Pastor Eric Foley's take on this "unique" Korean virtue.

Virtue 3: Respect For Elders

My family lives in Colorado Springs, which is home to one of the largest churches in America. The church is very famous and well respected by American Christian leaders, as well as Christian leaders around the world.

We were visiting this famous Colorado Springs church last year, and on that Sunday all of the children received a sports wristband emblazoned with the words, “Jesus is My Homeboy”.
(“Homeboy” is a slang term that originally meant a fellow gang member. Today it is used more generally to mean a good buddy or pal.)

This focus on teaching that God is your “good buddy” (as well as a lack of teaching about the awe and reverence that God should receive from us) is one of the most common characteristics of American Christianity today. This attitude towards God also impacts American Christians’ attitudes toward other authorities like pastors and parents.
Most American Christians would view this trend as a very good thing. They believe that churches have not been very friendly or approachable in the past, and that more people will come to church if the worship—and the attitudes toward God and other forms of authority like the pastor—are more casual and relaxed.

Several of the largest American churches (like Phoenix First Assembly of God and Willow Creek Church) even proudly announce that they have coffee shops in their church buildings. And for years, many American churches have encouraged church attenders to bring their coffee cups into worship with them. American pastors encourage church attenders to call them by their first name and to not use a title like “Pastor” or “Reverend”. The goal is to create a casual, intimate, friendly atmosphere that is not intimidating to first-time attenders nor too formal for church members.

This de-emphasis on authority coupled with a focus on making people feel comfortable has had interesting ramifications on American theology in the last three generations. In 1962, Lyman Coleman founded Serendipity House, one of the original producers of Bible study material for small groups. Serendipity House studies were very different than the Bible studies of previous generations. They de-emphasized the opinions of Bible scholars and instead encouraged ordinary Christians to study the Bible for themselves in an effort to determine what it says to them in their specific situations today.

Some of the effects of the Serendipity House studies were very positive: More Christians became interested in Bible studies. Home groups sprang up. Christians found Bible study to be personally useful to them.

But there were other effects as well. By de-emphasizing the work of Bible scholars, Serendipity House implicitly de-emphasized the importance and value of Bible scholarship. Suddenly, everyone’s opinions were of equal worth. What mattered most was what an individual Christian felt the Bible was saying to them. This opens the door, of course, for rather poor scholarship and superficial Bible interpretation that borders on fortune telling and idolatry. The pastor’s message simply becomes one more opinion among many, no more authoritative than that of any individual Christian. Christians believe whatever they want to believe—whatever seems right or feels good.

Today, according to the Institute for Natural Church Development Institute (INCD), the majority of the fastest-growing American churches are pastored by individuals who never graduated from seminary. Even more interestingly, 85% of churches that fall into INCD’s “declining” or “low quality” category are pastored by seminary graduates! American Christians have so fallen in love with “informal Christianity” that it is in many ways an advantage for an American pastor not to go to seminary at all—and a disadvantage if he does.

Many Korean 2.0 pastors and congregations share this same love for informal Christianity. They are repulsed by the reverence that Korean 1.0 Christians show their pastors, believing that it borders on idol worship. These concerns are not without cause. The old saying that Korean pastors don’t get a reward in heaven because they receive it all here on earth is a sad reminder of how often we inappropriately idolize our Korean pastors.

At the same time, however, many 2.0 pastors and congregations go too far in embracing the American model. What message does a high school student receive when, at school, they are not permitted to bring coffee into their classroom, call their teacher by his or her first name, or wear whatever clothes they want, but at church they are encouraged to do all these things? What do Korean 2.0’s learn when they are told to call their Tae Kwon Do teacher “Master” but they are encouraged to call their youth pastor simply “Joe”?

In college, 2.0’s call their instructors “Professor” or “Doctor”. They do so because they are taught to respect the intelligence and position of their teachers. When 2.0’s, then, are encouraged to behave casually toward their pastor, the message they receive is, “Pastors deserve less respect than high school teachers, veterinarians, and bosses at work.”
And in America today, that attitude is widespread. A survey recently asked Americans to rank various professions by level of respect. “Pastor” came in almost at the bottom of the list—below even “Used car salesman”. What professions appeared at the top of the list? Professors, businessmen, and attorneys—all people who command respect and rarely ask to be treated more casually and with less respect.

In American families, the children are always served first while the seniors usually go last (since the parents have to help serve their children). In so doing, we in America have created a “culture of youth”—young is good; old is bad. American churches don’t want older pastors; they want good looking young men in their thirties. “Old” means “behind the times”, “irrelevant”, and “backward thinking”.

Is this really the attitude we want our Korean 2.0’s to learn? They will—unless we teach them differently. If the largest, most influential American churches are teaching their congregations to think of Jesus as their “homeboy” and coffee drinking during worship as a major feature of the service, it won’t be long before our Korean 2.0 generation follows along that path. (In fact, it’s already happening.)

Being casual towards parents, pastor, and God seems to our 2.0’s like a great good. It is, however, so far away from the Bible’s way of thinking as to cause us grave concern. When Isaiah has a vision of God in the year King Uzziah died (in Isaiah 6), God does not appear to Isaiah as his “homeboy”. Isaiah describes God as “high and lofty”, surrounded by scary looking angels and billowing smoke; the thresholds of heaven itself shook because of God’s glory. When Jesus appears to John in Revelation 1, he looks like anything but a “homeboy”: His eyes were like blazing fire, the words of his mouth like a sword, his face brighter than the sun. John falls at his feet like a dead man.

This is not a God before whom we should casually sip coffee.

To fail to bequeath to our children the concept of respect that’s due to elders, pastors, parents, and God Himself is to fail them in a serious way for which God will hold us responsible, not just them. God commands every parent to teach their children to reverence and fear the Lord, not to make God (or even pastor or parent) their “homeboy”.

But how can we pass on a healthy concept of respect for elders? How can we leave behind the wrong 1.0 ways of respecting our pastors and parents too much and instead pass on a proper biblical respect for authority?


About David Park

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

5 responses to “Ten Unique Korean Virtues that EMs Aren’t Teaching Our Kids (But Should Be), Part 6

  1. Josh ⋅

    This is an excellent point in that reverence for God and for authority is in greatly diminished supply in American Christianity, which is a reflection of American culture. Yet authority is one of the fundamental underpinnings of Christianity. So the fact that respect for elders is being lost is a piece of true Biblical treasure that happens to be contained in a Korean jar being exchanged for something more American.

    It is interesting that people so often do not see the rampant American cultural elements in American christianity, and so vilify “ethnic” or “cultural” things in churches that are not white american. It betrays the very racist notion that white American is not a culture and therefore what comes from it is pure. You’ll never read a book titled, “Growing healthy White churches,” but there is one about Asian-American churches. The White book wold simply be titled, “Growing healthy churches” with the implicit assumption that what is White is normative, and non “cultural.” All the while cultural values are laden onto Christianity, as with the individualism and “good buddy” Jesus syndrome.

  2. Great point Josh. I think your comment on the fact that it is natural for Americans to assume that what they do is normative. I’m a little torn on this topic however as I’ve seen so many Koreans demand respect and misuse it. Coupled with the fact I feel that pastors are not professionals, I have trouble knowing where to place this last article. I know that many pastors have put in a great deal of study and work to earn their degrees, but I have trouble believing that is what makes someone a pastor. I have always been humbled even more when I was talking to a “Joe” before I found out later that he was an exceptional leader/speaker/teacher/pastor – when someone extraordinary lays down their honorifics so that they can just be ordinary. Isn’t that after all what Jesus did by walking among us?

  3. Josh

    I am not one to comment on what Koreans do as I am no expert there, but the misuse of respect / authority is certainly not exclusively Korean. The challenge of the pastor as professional is that pastoring is (or should be) a spiritual calling, so the respect accorded to it cannot be in the same vein as the respect accorded to “secular” professions like medical doctors & lawyers. Pastors study to earn their credentials in the same way other professionals do – but are not considered experts like medical doctors are, because spiritual knowledge is democratized within the Protestant Christian tradition. There is the tension between ascribed and earned authority/respect. Koreans tend towards the former, Americans to the latter. Both have Biblical support. As you say the model must be Jesus, who operates as one who has been ascribed authority but also earns the respect of his disciples. It is in this context that he “takes off his outer garment” to wash the disciples feet. So perhaps the challenge for Korean leaders is to demonstrate through their humilty and service that they are worthy of the respect that is righfully due them because of their ascribed authority and position, thus holding in tension these two ideals.

  4. paulmkim

    i like josh’s point about how other ethnic expressions of faith are measured by the “default” western forms of church. it wasn’t uncommon for me to have my non-asian xn friends in college declare that human rights and democracy were “biblical”; i’m not saying that they are bad concepts, just that we should recognize them as they are in the context of western culture without trying to deify their origins;

    authority is a complicated thing, clearly abused in the korean church– in a similar form as a shaman (or an OT prophet), rather than a biblical leader.

    still, i remember inductive bible studies in college being more of a support group (or practicing reader-centered criticisms) than a study.

  5. josh ⋅

    David, did you ever have anything to do with IVCF?

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