The Joint

Today we celebrated the festival of the resurrection. It is, or at least should be, the most holy and high holiday of the year, much more important than the festival of the incarnation (Christmas). In preparation for the day, I read a couple of books in defense of the Christian faith and also read through the four gospel accounts. As is customary our church had a combined service in which all segments of the church participated; children, youth, English congregation, and KM. I briefly debated whether I should participate in the service or if I should take the opportunity to visit a church out of my own Black Pentecostal tradition (i.e. my father’s church). I decided, after praying and experiencing the Lord’s conviction, to go to my church – the Korean Presbyterian one.

The service was, of course, longer than is typical; nearly three hours altogether, with 3 sermons, two performances by the youth, and a full fledged cantata orchestrated by the KM choir. My upbringing in the Pentecostal church put me in better stead than many of my co-parishioners from the English speaking congregation who were unable to endure such a lengthy service. Did I mention we also celebrated the Lord’s Supper and had a baptism?

As I sat in worship singing along to the cantata in my broken Korean watching as a silent video of “The Passion of the Christ” played on the overhead, I had ample time to reflect on such question as the evidence of the resurrection. As I sang, and read the English translation, as I took my bread and cup, bowed my head in prayer, celebrated the baptism (though I disagree with the method) of new Christians, I had lots of time to allow what I experienced to sink in.

It is Christ that is the center of the resurrection event. Perhaps that is why “Easter” has never quite caught on as a holiday – we are decidedly on the sidelines in the celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead. There are no gifts given, no special songs, and no customary foods. There is merely the reality that a man, once dead, was made alive again by the power of God. That truth, that sacred reality is what made it possible nay even enjoyable to worship with these Korean folks. I marveled that in English, in Korean, in Twi, in French, in Swahili, in Farsi, in languages unknown to me – the Lord Jesus Christ is praised. I marveled that this day, above all other days, is a day that levels the field – placing us all at the foot of the cross and yet also elevates each of us, making us more truly man, more authentically woman, more fully Black, more completely Chinese than any other day. Today is a day of grace, wherein God demonstrates his mercy and exonerates his son, forever banishing the fearful specter of death, hell, and the grave.

What does this have to do with my decision to go to the Korean church instead of my Dad’s church? Simply this; the resurrection is the thing that even makes it possible for me to have that choice. For all the failings of “the church” in general and of my church specifically, it is the creation of this special day. Despite the complaint of our generation about how often out of touch or irrelevant the church can be, the wonderful gift of God is that we can be the church, and that I am indeed family with these Korean believers and with believers all over the world. In no other place or way is such a thing possible. Indeed, had I been anywhere else in the world on this day and see that this gospel, this obscure faith that by all human measurements should have been snuffed out, started as it was by illiterate men and poor women, is not a gospel confined to a people, a language or a place. I thought to myself, the privilege of being called a son of God is worth the very minor inconvenience of worshipping in a language not my own.

This realization makes me wonder if the bridge between generations in the Asian American Church can be built by beginning at the ground floor of our joint inheritance as sons of God and heirs of the promise. Unfortunately, I suspect that many are much more ready to build those bridges outside of the community rather than within it.

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How is this fun?

I have just returned from spending some hours with folks from my church; not the regular EM crowd with which I hang out, but with the chongyonbu… roughly translated as Korean young adult group. They range in age from around twenty to about thirty four. Since I was unable to participate in our EM ski retreat (why we organize a ski trip is beyond me) and because of an engagement at another church, I missed worship. I decided on a whim really to visit their Bible study. From the Bible study we went on to dinner at a Korean restaurant, and from thence to coffee and hanging out at one of their houses. The conversation was carried on mostly in Korean, which didn’t really bother me.

The truth is that I thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite the language barrier. We managed, somehow, to have conversation about things, about life, to laugh and to joke together. It was surprisingly refreshing, although I was admittedly lost a few times. The few words of Korean I know combined with being an astute observer of body language and gestures took me only so far. Nevertheless it was fun.

What I find more challenging and indeed disturbing is the extent to which such interaction and camaraderie is a rarity in the EM. In just a few hours of very limited conversation, I experienced hospitality on a level that it took months to achieve in the EM congregation. Indeed in one segment of the conversation, I and other member talked about the perception some of the chongyonbu have of the EM as being inhospitable and cliquish. And all this time I thought it was just my experience.

Yeah, I know it’s different and all that, but sometimes I just wish the EM folks would stop whining and grow up.

Dilemma

I recently joined the staff of the Korean Presbyterian Church I’ve been attending for more than a year. It is a strange feeling being somehow “official” although I honestly know about as much about the inner workings of the church as I did when I first came there. Ironically, I’ve never actually joined the church, nor even am I an adherent to Calvinist theology or Presbyterianism. It is a mystery indeed.

Nevertheless, I am on staff with the responsibility of preaching occasionally and teaching Bible study for the soon-to-be-renamed English Ministry of the church which, mercifully, does not include the youth group. I am not quite sure what I’ve gotten myself into in accepting this assignment, but even more, I’m not sure that they know what they’ve gotten themselves into. Here’s what I mean.

Moksanim and I decided that we really needed to focus on the doctrine of church; ecclesiology. He wanted some guidance for the congregation in what it means to actually be the church and suggested Ephesians, but left it for me to decide. I decided upon Acts; the book that most fully describes the establishment and expansion of the early church. So far so good, right?

Right, until of course you consider the fact that the book of Acts is full of signs, wonders, miracles, prophecies, powerful prayers, and of course people being saved left and right along with a great deal of speaking in tongues and baptisms, none of which things give me the slightest hesitation, but quite honestly aren’t exactly standard fare in the Presbyterian church.

The challenge for me lies not in teaching around these nearly ubiquitous occurrences or somehow steering our discussion so that such issues are defused. It is rather that part of me would like nothing more than to see a great outpouring of the Spirit in a Pentecost kind of way, or at least a genuine hunger for God’s Spirit to be stoked in our EM. I am struck more and more by the seeming lack of any spiritual fervor in the congregation and more attention given to the technical proficiency and musical excellence of the praise team than whether or not people worship in Spirit and Truth.

I personally get excited when I worship, or rather when I consider and reflect on the Lord, worship springs up in me almost despite myself. I find it difficult to understand people who seem to have no such experience, appreciation or depth of feeling for God and who yet claim to be Christian. It is not that I believe that a Christian commitment or worship can be measured solely by a person’s outward or even inward emotional responses, but one would think that there would be something there.

There have been times after worship “concludes” (meaning we stop singing) and the guy comes up to take offering and give announcements. Sometimes I imagine what might happen if I just kept on worshipping; just stayed on stage with hands lifted and tears streaming (though I don’t typically cry in worship). Actually I know what would happen; everyone would continue to sit there looking bored out of their minds and then the announcement guy would come up as if we’d just finished taking an exam and he was assigned to read out the scores, but less enthusiastically.

Anyways, back to my point. What a neat corner I’ve managed to paint myself into by choosing to study and teach the book of Acts for I cannot with integrity avoid the issues or skirt them, especially when the church needs so much to be renewed, changed and transformed by the power of the Spirit. On the other hand, I would never want to through my teaching sow seeds of disharmony nor cause people to stumble.

But lest I complicate things too much, allow me to make it clear my chief concern is that many people in our congregation may not even be saved, nor really even know what it is to be saved. There may be little evidence of the Spirit’s work because the Spirit simply may not be present. That is the dirty open secret that no one will discuss. And because the ecclesiology of the church is so focused on the work of the Spirit through the word, it sometimes seems as if the expectation is that people can be preached or taught into the kingdom. All the while the Spirit of God is relegated to a subordinate role of somehow drawing the people that God has already decided will be saved, but we can’t know who those elect are, since it is a mystery hidden in God or whatever. In the meanwhile we expect people who may or may not be saved to somehow show forth the light of God to dying world and to be witnesses. Or something like that; I know I’ve got it all screwed up some kind of way.

Anyway, that’s the strangeness of it.

I don’t have to go to church with you…

“I don’t need to go to church with you”

These words, quoted second hand by David Park of another mutual friend, aptly summarize the feelings I, and many Black Americans have about the whole multiethnic conversation. We often hear quoted the words that 11AM Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. These words, provocative though they may be, are probably untrue. After all, most of us are not in interracial marriages and our closest friends generally tend to be people who are most like us – ethnically, economically, and educationally. Many people view this as problematic, especially in the ethnic dimensions. I have come to a place – full circle really – where this type of self segregation in the context of the church is not terribly troubling to me.

That I say this is perhaps surprising to some who know me, given my commitment to multiethnicity and racial reconciliation. However, as I said to my friend David – most Black people are not running around in angst about the fact that their churches don’t have white people in attendance. Frankly, interacting with Whites is something as minorities that doesn’t strike us as particularly ground breaking. Our world is filled with people who are ethnically and in some ways culturally different than we are. We know how to interact with Whites and do so without difficulty. In fact, we’ve grown up together in this country – mutually shaping and being shaped by the other.

Why then has multiethnicity become such a watchword in so many places and churches – not least bit among Asian Americans? There are of course, theological considerations. The church as envisioned by scripture is a multiethnic community, a place where the distinction of Jew & Gentile, bond & free are not barriers to participation in the grace of God. Of course the multitude of churches of varying ethnicities throughout the world and across the American landscape is ample testimony that ethnic considerations are no longer barriers to being Christian, as they might possibly have been in Ephesus or Corinth. In addition, the church is multiethnic. The diversity or uniformity of any particular local congregation says nothing about the overall diversity of the body of Christ – which is arguably the most ethnically, culturally, and economically heterogeneous group in the world. Besides, the lack of diversity in other dimensions in local churches (i.e. the disproportionate number of women, economic uniformity, etc.) seems not to draw the same degree of ire.

I submit that at least two important factors are at play – one of which I’ve mentioned already, in this current fascination with multiethnicity.

One is the idea that my local congregation is somehow the body of Christ. This is not an often mentioned issue, but it is implicit in many people’s understanding. If it isn’t reflected before my eyes with the people among whom I worship, then it somehow isn’t happening in the body of Christ.

The second is more troubling, and that is the insidious and quite evil notion that minorities are somehow legitimated in their Christianity by their acceptance by Whites. The presence of Whites in an “ethnic” congregation, as quite often happens in the English Ministry of immigrant churches, or in traditionally Black churches does not serve to render these groups adequately “multiethnic” even if Whites are present in some number. Rather (and I admit to numerous exceptions) it is when minorities join White congregations that multiethnicity is said to be occurring.

When Whites gather together to worship, they are not said to be gathering in ethnic enclaves, even if their worship services are 99% White, led entirely by Whites and conducted in a way that is culturally relevant to Whites. They are said to be simply worshipping. The same does not hold true for others. Is it possible that many minorities are simply uncomfortable being around “themselves” in any intentional way, and the presence of Whites, or the status of being a minority in a substantially White context is a salve to a conscience too easily seared with the heat of a latent self hatred?

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.