“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.