I’m in Korea now. If you’ve read my brief bio, you know that I’m married to a Korean woman. We’re going on four years and two children, and she has been one of the greatest blessings to my life. From my bio, you will have also learned that I am not Korean; I am Mexican-American. You might be surprised, however, to learn that I love my wife not in spite of our cultural differences, but because of them. To love my wife is to love, or at least appreciate, Korea and its unique cultural characteristics. Little by little, I am becoming more acquainted with the language, the customs, the humor, the food, and even the extreme summer and winter weather. (It’s presently in the single digits here.)
When my wife and I talk about what our future holds, we often bring up the possibility of living in Korea for a time. And with all the major adjusting I would have to do to make that transition, there are really two major reasons I think it wouldn’t work. One reason is that I believe my wife and I were made–individually and as a couple–for a place like Southern California. We love and appreciate the cultural diversity, and it’s important to us; we have a lot to offer a place like the one where we live, and I think that we are people who learn/gain a lot by living in such a place. At the risk of over-spiritualizing the issue, I think we would both feel as if we were not fulfilling God’s calling for our lives, if we removed ourselves from a place as culturally diverse as our current home in Los Angeles county.
There is another reason I’m not sure I could live in Korea: the church culture. You see, when I mentioned above how I’m gradually becoming more acquainted with Korean culture, the church culture is one of those things that disturbs me increasingly the more I learn.
Here are three things I find most bothersome about the dominant Korean church culture. My goal here is not to unleash my vitriol on the Korean church, but simply to explain why I might have a very difficult time adjusting to living and being part of a church congregation in Korea. Everything I mention will be either from my observation or from the 20+ years of experience my wife has had.
1) Hierarchy: Most churches have a structure of authority, in Korea and everywhere else. That’s nothing new. But, there seems to be very little variation in the male dominated and very exclusive leadership structure of most Korean churches. So what? Not only does it perpetuate an already male-dominated culture, but as a church member I would be missing one important element I would want to see from someone I would readily call my pastor: accessibility.
2) Unquestioning Submission: With the above mentioned power/authority systems prevalent in most Korean churches, the stage is set for pastors to walk in some dangerous pathways, from questionable demands for the congregation’s money to outright inappropriate sexual misconduct. However, according to my wife, who attended one of the largest churches in her home county, one does not dare question a pastor when he does these things. You just don’t do that to a pastor.
3) Shaming: The combination of the first two items are perfect ingredients for something I have seen firsthand, and something my wife says happens all the time. It is common for a pastor to use the pulpit to shame his congregants, right in front of the hundreds or even thousands in attendance on a Sunday morning. My wife recalls one incident where her former pastor called a woman up to the stage to present something, and when she did not cover ground as fast as he liked, he yelled at her for not running up to the stage when the pastor calls. Then there is my sister-in-law’s church, where the pastor calls out random names of congregation members every Sunday. You never know when your name is going to be picked, but woe be to the one whose name is called when he is not there.
These bothersome characteristics are not unique to Korea. There are churches and pastors like the ones I’ve described in America, where I live. I grew up in a church where things happened that I find hard to believe when I think back on it now. I am still in awe at how intelligent, gifted, normal, God-loving people can be so easily brainwashed into just about anything. In America, there is a church to fit any and every personality and vulnerability, and that’s a scary reality.
I just need to live in a place where I have an option, and I’m not sure I would have that living in Korea.