Praise Competition

“Did I hear that correctly? We’re having a praise competition, complete with judges and quite possibly prizes?”

These were the thoughts firing rapidly through my brain recently as I outwardly wore a carefully composed pleasant smile that betrayed little of the inward discomfort I felt as I listened in on the discussion taking place among some of our church’s worship leaders. Apparently this idea of a competition between different components of our ministry (EM, youth, KM) is not at all as radical as it seemed to my uninitiated ears. I suppressed my desire to raise questions and critiques and waded into the uncertainty waters of this informal conversation: what song would the EM group do for the upcoming praise competition.

Mostly I listened as various songs were thrown around, mostly well known contemporary Christian music. Off handedly then I mentioned a song I’d heard before and found quite beautiful and powerful. It was a Korean song. The response to my suggestion…?

A lot of questions and a definite ambivalence about the whole idea.

As I left the church that day, the reality of the ambivalence that was expressed reverberated in my conscience for the rest of the day. How is that at the recent Urbana missions convention I watched as thousands of students learned to sing songs in Spanish, French, and yes, even Korean enthusiastically and without hesitation and yet here in a Korean church meet with a firm ambivalence about doing the exact same thing?

It seems odd, but yet here it was, a remarkably awkward moment of truth when the dissonant relationship between culture – which is expressed most powerfully in language – and faith, in this case worship, became clear. There seems to me to be ambivalence, an unresolved relationship between a desire to live in, celebrate and enjoy one’s culture (as evidenced by participation in a Korean church or even in a “praise competition) and the expression of oneself in worship wherein the simplest expression of culture, language, becomes problematic.


Why does such ambivalence exist? Why did it seem conspiratorial, even subversive to suggest the song? Why did the idea of it make people feel uncomfortable? Why am I, a cultural outsider, asking these questions rather than those who have the most to lose and the most at stake? Why do these questions go unasked and unanswered? Is it okay that they do?

It would be strange if a Black church never sang any music in the gospel style. It would be stranger still if a White church only ever sang in that style. Why is it then that it is more comfortable for a Black man to suggest, learn, and be willing to sing a song in Korean than Koreans themselves? There seems to be a definite discomfort with being Korean American and Christian all at the same time.

I don’t have any of the answers to these questions, and as a cultural outsider, it is in some ways not even my place to ask them. There is so much I don’t know, can’t know, and don’t understand that permanently impairs my ability to accurately assess or judge. There are nuances of experience and dynamics of culture to which I am not privy that make my observations crude sketches at best and grotesque caricatures at worst. Even so, I hope for the day when my 2nd generation brothers and sisters have as little ambivalence about the questions as I do.

Just Right for Jesus

Here is a little something I wrote while reflecting on worship in the Black tradition. I hope you enjoy it, but don’t steal it…

Just right for Jesus

They told us not to dance
Dark feet beating out heathen rhythms in dusty circles on the ground
Is not suitable for the worship of a White man’s god

They told us not to shout out loud
Spirit possessed bodies crying loud their liberation from evil dark
Is not suitable for the worship of a White man’s god

They told us not to sing
Throaty voices straining haunting melodies of freedom tinged with pain
Is not suitable for the worship of a White man’s god

They told us not to dance
But we dance anyway
And stomp our feet to the rhythm of our joyous hearts

They told us not to shout out loud
But we shout anyway
Screaming our celebration and our pain

They told us not to sing
But we sing anyway
And take lines of dusty hymnals and restore to them their soul

Our dance
Our shout
Our song
Not suitable for the worship of a White man’s god
But just right for Jesus!

Women & Ministry


I grew up in a church with a woman pastor.  Indeed most of the ministers and preachers I knew from my youth were women.  My Sunday School teacher was a woman (and also my mother) and included in the doctrines of my church was a clause asserting the equality of male and female before God with the implicit assumption that women could and should function at all levels of service within the church.  If that were not enough, I work for an organization that has a very clear and strong stand on issues of women in leadership; permitting their full participation without prejudice.  I’ve know many gifted women preachers, teachers, and pastors.  I’ve defended the rights of women to do all of the above and more, as the Lord leads 

Why I am then troubled? 

As a historian, I am aware of the countless ways women have been devalued and oppressed by men and by the systems that men have constructed to protect their power and privilege.  I know that these systems have not just been social and political, but theological as well.  And I know that women struggled and still struggle for due consideration as joint heirs of God along with men. 

Still I struggle. 

I struggle because I am aware of history and how readily Christians have shaped by the prevailing winds of culture whether the Church-state alliances of the Crusades era, or the consecration of slave ships and the slave trade in the 18th century.  We find it difficult to mount ourselves on the solid rock of Christ, and too often are carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine.   I struggle because 50 years ago divorce in the church was a blessedly rare occurrence, not because the people were any holier or committed than we, but because it was socially unacceptable and that now divorce is as common or more in Christian communities than in the “world.”  I struggle because what was unthinkable in a conservative Christian church 50 years ago is now becoming commonplace and I fear what “unthinkables” will be common fifty years from now.  

I am troubled by the fact that the discussion of women in ministry is in large part made possible by the fact that in the past fifty years we have embraced unhesitatingly medical and social practices that have freed women from what had heretofore kept them bound to home and heath, that is to say childbirth.   That is not to say that I oppose birth control, but really our attitude towards it is much the same as those who advocate for abortion: it is our body and our choice – it really is only a matter of degree. 

I am troubled that despite my mental assent to the idea of women in ministry, I would find it very difficult to join a church with a woman as senior pastor, and that I would probably suspect that her husband was less than a man.  I am disturbed my own hypocrisy. 

I am troubled that the whole issue of mutual submission is drummed up in any discussion of Ephesians 5 when it relates to the husband and wife relationship but not when it comes to children.  No one is arguing that parents ought to be subject to their children under the “mutual submission” clause even though it falls in the same passage. 

I am troubled by the many women I see who are devalued, or valued only for their looks or lack thereof, or who doubt their God given worth.  Even more I am troubled by the ways I do all of those things to them. 

I struggle to reconcile the godly and gifted women I see who have ministered to me and poured out their lives to others with the somewhat contrived exegesis I sometimes read that justifies their ministry – as if it needed justification.  And yet it often does.  I struggle with that.   

I am troubled by the feeling I sometimes get that if I don’t believe that women should serve in all levels of leadership in the church that I am somehow a theological reactionary and quite possible a misogynist, and most assuredly a chauvinist.  It disturbs me that I feel as if I must edit myself in certain company lest I offend people. 

I am troubled by many things, and most of these things have no easy answer.  I wrestle with them and live with the ambiguity.  For me the settled certainties of women serving at any level of leadership in the church are not so settled anymore.  I am not sure what has changed for me.  Perhaps I have simply grown more prejudiced as I have grown older.  Perhaps I see more broadly than I did when I was young. In many ways nothing has changed: I still support women in ministry.  In other ways everything has changed and still I struggle.

Intergenerational Asian Church Report

 Our conversation on Sunday about the challenges and opportunities facing the Asian immigrant and Asian American church was a compelling one.  In addition to me, DJ Chuang, Dpark, and John Lamb all participated, which gave a particularly diverse flavor to the mix as all of us hail from different ethnic groups and church experiences. We utilized the 6 hats paradigm to frame our discussion and it was helpful, as it kept the conversation moving and kept us from dwelling too long on the ciritical analysis (Black hat) to which I think such conversations are prone. 

In any event, some of the more intriguing things that emerged from the conversation (in my view) was a sense of optimism and hope that the immigrant church does have a unique function in American society despite the many ways in which it is failing to live up to its mandate.  We discussed the obvious challenges of being merely ethnic enclaves that fail to be as committed to the mission of God as they might be, as well as the ways in which age specific ministry within the ethnic church is sometimes unhelpful in bridging the culture gaps and in being effective in ministry.  The negative consequence of such ministry was apparent to us even as we saw the need (due to language and other barriers) that led to its development.  One such consequence was the possibility that the segmentation of the church was actually working against helping the 2nd generation to own either its culture or its faith in a helpful way. Despite this, the overall tone was that of hope as we thought about ways that each generation can be a blessing to the other – the 2nd generation serving the 1st by helping to bridge the language gap for instance, or the 1st generation being intentional about sharing its own story of faith in such a way that can inspire and instruct the 2nd generation.  We talked about ways that joint worship, prayer, and mission opportunities can be used to increase kingdom witness and also bring the church together.

This discussion was recorded and I believe that DJChuang is going to make it available.  It is unfortunate that a conversation of such depth happen so rarely. Our hope is that the next conversation can include some of the voices of the 1st generation.
 To God be the Glory