Gain the world, lose your…

The easy and clever thing to say would be Seoul, since this blog is a commentary on the intersection of faith and life. It would be fitting too, since questions of immigration and assimilation for Christians involve an intersection of the issues of material prosperity and living faithfully as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

America is a country founded not on a national principle of ethnic solidarity, nor even of geographic commonality. It is founded on an ideology that can be definitively traced back the European Enlightenment. Men of great wealth, extensive property, and high idealism formulated a republic loosely connected to Christian ideas, but more firmly rooted in “liberty,” whatever that means. This is encapsulated in our Declaration of Independence which affirms that men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The expansion of the American ideal has taken more than two centuries, and can still be said to be a great unfinished experiment.

Beneath these lofty and idealistic sentiments however, lie another, baser reality which has been as fundamental to the formation of this nation, and which must be taken seriously by Christians who want to engage the culture that surrounds us. If America can be said to have any god, any national religion – it is the god of wealth. Almost every controversy, every major social and political realignment, from the Articles of Confederation to the Civil War to Civil Rights is intimately connected with a “pursuit of happiness” that has all too readily devolved into the pursuit of material and economic prosperity. It was not, contrary to what some people believe, any innate hatred of Africans that led to their enslavement by Europeans, nor was the conquest of indigenous peoples driven primarily by a messianic vision of manifest destiny. Rather both racism and manifest destiny were post facto ideologies developed to justify what is a much baser motive: greed. Free land and free labor were the foundations of the American prosperity we today enjoy. The accumulation of material good is the contemporary manifestation of that religion.

The church, not only in America, but throughout history, has contended with the very real god of Mammon . From the beginning, the apostle had to write warnings against the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself and against the association of material prosperity with God’s blessing. Ironically, I have hardly ever heard a sermon on I Timothy 6.9 about the snares that inevitably trap those who desire to be rich and who find themselves pierced through with “many sorrows.” It is perhaps too unpalatable a passage for those who have swam in these cultural waters for so long.

Part of the mythology of America is that immigrants have flocked here because it is the “land of opportunity.” Like all myths, this one is rooted in fact. America was and is a beacon of economic and even political opportunity. What is obscured in this myth is that in most cases the driving motivation has not been political, but economic, and that those who immigrated are often those with at least some means within their own countries of origin. The poorest cannot afford to escape and the wealthiest have no incentive to leave. So then the immigrants that have come to America often come with the social and cultural skills to “make it.”

What does this have to do with the gospel? If it is difficult to dethrone the god of Mammon for those of us who have been born here; it is even more difficult in the lives of those who came here to pursue Mammon’s fruit. Most contemporary immigrants do not come for the privilege of being better disciples or of worshipping God more freely than in their home countries. Indeed many do not come to worship of the living God until after they have immigrated. Immigrants come to make the best living possible for themselves and for their children.

The cost of that decision is paid not only by the parents who leave comfort and familiarity for what is all too often years of sacrifice. The cost is also paid by their children who are bequeathed an inheritance of a twilight ethnicity and an irrelevant gospel that seems utterly abstracted from the challenges they face day by day.

Reared by parents who prioritize material success over gospel adherence and assimilation for the sake of such prosperity over the value of culture, is it any wonder then that many 2nd generation find themselves also worshipping at the altar of Mammon while experiencing an existential and spiritual void that remains unmet by the culturally neutered gospel to which they’ve been exposed? How can they worship a god who is dis-incarnated – removed from their lives and experience, and irrelevant to their concerns? A Jesus who does not sympathize with the issues faced by latch-key kids with distant parents who demands academic success or at least the façade of social propriety seems less a mighty savior and more a Confucian tyrant dressed up in Western garb.

The Scylla of an irrelevant gospel is met on the other side by an equally ravenous Charybdis that threatens to shipwreck the faith and life of those who ply the waters of this existence. It is the monster of un-ethnicity, a ethnic reality that is affirmed in one place, declared unimportant in another, and altogether ignored in the church, which should be the one place where the totality of our humanity must be confronted and reformed in the image of Christ.

So then over and again the wealth obtained through great sacrifice and worthy effort often issues forth in the destruction of those things held most sacred by all cultures and particularly by Christians. Relationship with God through Christ becomes less important than relationship with “stuff” through VISA. The sharing of hearth and table, the places across which identity and culture are transmitted becomes less important than simply being “a person” distinguished only by the shape of ones eyes, the color of ones skin, and the brand name of the label of the designer purse. All else of history, legacy, story, and culture are sacrificed to Mammon. Gaining the world and losing what matters most.

Don’t treat us like children

I haven’t actually heard anyone say this of course, but the sentiment is there. As I have been part of an English congregation (EM) at a Korean church, again and again I’ve observed small and large ways that the folks in the EM chafe against the strictures imposed on them by the Korean Ministry (KM). As a cultural outsider, I can only get a partial picture of all the complexities involved, but I’m a savvy enough observer of human nature to see some things that certainly give pause for thought.

Observation #1: The KM controls the resources and therefore sets the agenda.

This in itself is not a stunning revelation. The KM is much larger in number and, by and large, has many more financial resources to contribute to the ministry. But the issue goes beyond dollars and cents. Why should the EM have a larger part in setting the agenda for the church when their financial contribution is smaller even than their membership percentage in the church would indicate? In other words, the EM simply doesn’t carry its own weight financially, or in other ways. It isn’t only in giving that the KM outstrips the EM, but it is the KM that shows up early and stays late to pray, to prepare food, to maintain equipment, and to do all the things that are necessary to the running of a church. Of course to many in the KM, this isn’t done with an eye towards serving the EM, which leads to my second observation.

Observation #2: EM is an afterthought.

By this I mean that no Korean congregation sets out to minister to English speakers (the same could be said of other ethnic immigrant churches). Rather their primary missions thrust is to serve first generation immigrants and to provide space for them to encounter the Lord in a culturally “safe” way. EM develops only as a corollary to “real” church, and usually has its roots in children’s church which is set up to care for the kids while their parents worship God. Over time the kids grow up and increase in number and the church has to hire a youth pastor (if they’re lucky) to keep them occupied and hopefully to impart some measure of spirituality and Bible knowledge. These children grow up, and if they don’t leave the church outright – BAM! – an EM is born. But this newly emerged EM didn’t develop with any intentionality or ministry focus. In the minds of the KM, it is still a place to keep the “children” occupied while the adults worship, event though some of these “children” are full grown adults with children of their own. Consequently there is very little genuine appreciation on either side of the others needs.

Observation #3: EM congregations are often spiritually (and otherwise) immature.

This is a blanket statement to be sure, and the same could be said of many in the KM as well. However, a cursory survey of the prayer life or Biblical knowledge of many EM congregants would likely reveal a significant disparity between them and their parents. Prayer and Bible knowledge alone don’t make one mature, but the simple fact that dawn prayer is such an integral (if cultural) part of KM and that so many in the KM are part of cell groups that have Bible study and fellowship compared to the virtual lack of either in the lives of the EM says something. This immaturity can be traced back to the fact that for most of their formative years, the KM’s chief concern for their children was not their spiritual development, but their academic and economic success. Also due to the nature of KM’s ministry focus, there is no urgency in preparing their children to take over the financial, spiritual, or social leadership of the church.

Observation #4: The two congregations don’t see each other.

Not literally, of course, but figuratively the congregations don’t recognize one another’s spirituality, love for God, or heart. Some of this can be blamed on language barrier, but I am coming to believe that this is a scapegoat. After all it is not language that prevents parents from talking with their children about spiritual things or taking them to prayer meetings. Language barriers certainly do not prevent parents from encouraging, providing for, and moving to a better school district for, harassing, shaming, and browbeating their children into academic success. It seems to be more a matter of priority than of inability. Of course the full blame cannot be laid at the feet of parents, but EM members must also take responsibility for their own unwillingness to speak the spiritual language of love to their parent’s generation… which is usually service. How might each groups perception of the other change if EM folks decided to attend morning prayer, or when there are opportunities sing songs in Korean? Sure it would take effort, but much less effort than is required for someone like me who is a complete stranger to the language and culture. If EM folks volunteered to serve rather than serving grudgingly, it could go some distance towards bridging the gap. And even if it didn’t, it would still be a good step in their own maturing process.

Observation #5: Neither group really wants the other to change.

This is probably an overstatement on my part, but maybe not. After all, if the other group changed then that would necessitate change for us as well. As much as EM folks complain about the dominance of the KM, they really benefit quite significantly from it. The KM retains the power, but they also retain the responsibility, and so EM is let off the hook for their own spiritual development, growth in concern for the church, financial accountability, and other markers of being “adults.” As for the KM, as long as EM doesn’t change, they won’t have to be intentional in broadening their missions focus, there is no need to share power, and they can retain a feeling of spiritual superiority. Unfortunately both sides win in this downward race towards spiritual mediocrity.