As a Korean-American man who serves in a Korean-American church, it doesn’t seem like my place to talk about multi-cultural churches (from here, I’ll use “KA” for “Korean-American”). Sure, observations made from afar often miss the mark on fine details of what is observed. Yet, one can be blinded to his or her own biases when immersed in his or her own identity. Sometimes, a broader perspective is needed. In the fashion of Walter Brueggemann, truth can be well-served coming from outside in. With that being said, I’ll do my best to justify my reasoning for making statements about the idea of “multi-culturedness” along with reflecting upon the KA church as whole. With multiethnic churches, I don’t think all of my observations are from too far outside with binocular vision. After all, I’ve been raised in the States. And though the churches I’ve attended have always been KA, I’ve had my fair share of experiences worshipping in non-Korean churches. I’ve always been raised in a community where racially I’ve been the minority and went to a seminary that was likewise.
I’m a fan of cultural diversity, particularly when it comes to food. Since coming to Philadelphia with my family, I’ve been able to go to Center City Philadelphia with my family on my days off of work nearly every week. One of the places that I’ve enjoyed very much is the Reading Terminal Market. There, you have a plethora of options for meals, desserts, and beverages. Better yet, there is commerce from all different regions of the world represented inside this building. Here, I got to thinking about the beauty of such a place where people can come and celebrate unique dishes offered from nations all across the globe. While consuming a combination of Cajun food with roast pork, an unoriginal thought hit me. What about cultural diversity in the church?
The local church is a place for people to gather and celebrate the common victory for believers in our risen Lord. At Pentecost, the progression of Christ’s commission to his disciples in making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) comes into effect as the good news is heralded in the words of all kinds of languages throughout the region (Acts 2:4, 7-11). The idea of a multi-cultured church is, thus, a biblical one that follows the progression made where people of many nations come to have common faith in a common Savior. Furthermore, the gospel-proclaiming church is a place where relationships are established and come to fruition through a common bond that is infinitely deep. This out of this world kind of message brings about togetherness and unique relationships within in this world people and churches. Tim Keller likens relationships to woven fabric that goes “over, under, around, and through the others at thousands of points.” This interwovenness brings harmonious peace to a community. This is the power of the gospel where rich and poor, strong and weak, nation A and B are brought to the feet of Jesus in worship and communion.
The bringing together of many nations and cultures is such a beautiful picture to me. So why do I serve at a KA church if I really believe a multicultural church is a reflection of the gospel ministry as Christ intended? Well, first of all, the KA church is also Christ’s church, just as any multicultural church might be. Secondly, it’s a group of people that are near and dear to my heart whom I understand better than a non-Korean might. The KA culture (second generation) is an interesting one, balancing between the pressures of first generation immigrant and western values. We are categorical anomalies in many ways, as we don’t culturally fit under the umbrella of both Koreans and westerners. You may have noticed that KA’s tend to flock to one another, creating sub-groups within KA’s. This is not only a picture of KA’s but the KA church.
Having been in the KA church for most of my life, I’ve come to understand some of the tendencies of it that I’ve become more conscious of. Many of these may reflect other predominantly mono-ethnic and/or immigrant churches and aren’t exclusively KA church traits.
- For many, the KA community is sought out to satisfy one’s comfort. Although comfort is not necessarily a bad thing, it should never override the desire for a parishioner to hear clear gospel-centered sermons and for a minister to continually grow in pursuit of knowing the Lord and loving God’s people. I do believe that an attachment toward comfort can create a negative reaction of complacency and selectivity. Though Christ doesn’t explicitly call his followers to be uncomfortable per se, uncomfortability seems to align better with how Christ calls us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in light of NOT gaining the world and forfeiting our souls (Matt. ) Isn’t being comfortable and creating divided groups in the church the reason why Paul tells the church in Corinth that they don’t come together for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-21). If the Supper were to bring unity to a diverse church, the Corinthians were not successfully implementing it. Disunity comes in all sizes and shades. Perhaps, we could be more conscious of disuniting factors that tear the body of Christ apart.
- I’ve heard countless times of members of KA churches saying, “I have this friend I want to invite to church, but I don’t feel comfortable doing so since he/she isn’t Korean.” This is not just members but myself included. I am SO guilty of this. In my mind, this is a pretty lame excuse for us not willing to step outside of our comfort zones for the sake of witnessing to another of the greatest treasure in our hearts. Am I alone in seeing KA’s as particularly disengaged in being witnesses of Christ’s name outside of the church? Why don’t we make the Lord the judge as to whether our friend would enjoy Sunday at a KA church or not? It might be a stretch, but I do believe that an over-desire for comfortable church life has a strong connection to a unwillingness to reach out to our neighbors.
- Just because a church is KA doesn’t mean the church is primarily mono-cultural. There are, in fact, a lot of different kinds of KA’s who come from different backgrounds. I’ve witnessed good gospel-centered KA churches to be able to bring different kinds of people together in harmonious relationships with one another throughout the body. This is, in a sense, a view of what a multicultural church might look like. I personally find this a cause for praise, as it is the gospel that is uniting people together.
Even in the midst of mentioning some of the flawed traits found with the KA churches I’ve come across, I don’t know if I can say that gospel-centeredness is necessarily better enacted within a multicultural church. I have a hard time believing that Christ’s primary goal for his disciples was founded upon a vision of churches that consist of people that look, think, and act differently from one another. However, I’m a firm believer that a focus on the gospel can create such within the church. In fact, the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Philippians was to have the same mindset that is theirs in Christ (Phil. 2:2, 5). This mindset that reflects upon the Lord who took on the form of a servant yet brings every knee to bow at his name (Phil. 2:7, 10) brings unity in being in full accord and of one mind within those in the church (Phil. 2:2). This attitude comes through persistent and faithful preaching and hearing of the gospel in our churches. I think there is a huge possibility that in overemphasizing a multicultural community, a church can take the focus off of the gospel that creates this one mind within brothers and sisters in Christ. In turn, there might be a church that looks different on the outside but are not necessarily strongly bonded by the true message of salvation on the inside. Though each person’s origin and upbringing may result in a unique culture, “the sinful condition is universal.” Thus, humanity shares a commonality that digs even deeper than one’s birthplace, first language, or ancestors. Then, rather than dealing with differences with others, honing on this commonality amongst each other points not only at our commonality in sin but our commonality for hope and identity in Christ. Multiethnicity must be a result of the focus that is the gospel, not the focus itself.
The sight of a multiethnic church is a beautiful thing, but I think there is a danger of misplaced emphasis if that is too much of the focus. If the gospel itself pours forth results of different kinds of people uniting together in Christ, will not a multicultural community form within churches? If the gospel is faithfully preached and heard, will not the church grow to embrace people of different political views, sexual orientations, and race? Does not the gospel incorporate unbiased evangelism to our neighbors? Then, I truly believe that multiethnicity can come through faithfulness to the gospel ministry, even in a KA church. However, let us not confuse multiethnic with multicultural. As noted before, there are plenty of KA churches that exhibit many of the multicultural qualities that are fruits of fidelity to the gospel. Just because one ethnicity is predominant in a church doesn’t mean different cultures and thoughts aren’t welcomed. The gospel unites.
Yet, the KA church is in an interesting position. At this point, language is not the reason why English-speaking KA churches exclusively have KA’s. As stated before, comfort can often drive us to be in a place that’s familiar. However, familiarity may no longer be a viable option for KA’s in coming years. With improved economic conditions of South Korea, Koreans have had less of an incentive to immigrate to the States. With Korean immigration rates to the U. S. having drastically decreased nearly in half since the early 90’s (while other Asian nations’ immigration rates continue to increase), the KA church might become less prevalent. There will always be the biblically valid need for KA churches to keep families from ripping apart doctrinally and spiritually. Yet, what happens when second generation KA’s themselves become fathers and mothers? Is there such a need to stay long term at a KA church that our respective parents aren’t even a part of? It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with and will continue to wrestle with in coming years.
I don’t have a clue as to what’s in store for the KA church, but I know the Lord’s called me to serve one. I do believe that the direction of second generation KA churches is to become more and more multethnic over the years. But who knows how long that will take? I merely feel a sense of duty in my heart to serve those who are struggling to cross over to the other side. In the meantime, the call to churches is to be faithful to the gospel. With a focus upon the gospel comes countless blessings. Broken hearts are healed, severed relationships are repaired, blind are made to see, and lives are changed for Christ. Still, in the midst of all of Christ’s blessings to the church, Christians, may we never forget to celebrate the victory that grants us freedom from sin and fellowship with him and one another. It’s the head whom the body needs to depend upon, and may look to him for direction and guidance with life in the church. The Word makes this clear:
Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.
No facts or rules here. Just some thoughts and reflections.
 Timothy J. Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010), 173.
 Michael S. Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2011), 115.