As Christ-followers, we are familiar with the beauty and the power of the good news of Jesus Christ. The good news (εὐαγγέλιον) is a synopsis of God’s truth and love toward us. The good news grounds us in the existential reality of our origins, direction, and aim. It brings redemptive hope into all areas of our lives. As the Reformers affirmed with the five solas and as the apostle Paul boldly proclaimed in Romans 1:16, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”
What we may not as readily perceive is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is also the power of God that brings restoration to every community that believes in Christ’s name. The gospel of Jesus Christ reigns supreme among all the teachings of the world because it not only redeems souls, but it redeems cultures in organic, never-before-seen ways. When the gospel is planted among a people group, it is able to penetrate the very fabric of its cultured realities and generate a wondrous new version of the imago dei reflected in and through their distinct customs, mores, stories, and heritage.
Oftentimes we treat “culture” and the various topics of “diversity” as appendages to the Christian faith, if not nuisances to deal with for the sake of civility or political correctness. But let us be reminded that cultural diversity is part and parcel of what it means to be human, and more importantly, it is part and parcel of God’s story of salvation. The Bible tells us when Jesus returns as the judge of the living and the dead, he will redeem not only our souls, but our bodies (1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4). And when the Lord redeems our bodies, he will not strip us of our race, ethnicity, and cultured experiences, but will redeem and restore all our cultural giftings and bring them into the New Jerusalem as an everlasting heritage. Revelation 7:9 gives us a glorious vision of God’s children from “every nation, tribe, people and language.” Revelation 22:2 anticipates the “healing of the nations” through the tree of life planted in the new city. Clearly, cultural diversity is a lasting component of the imago dei in us and in the kingdom of God. When Jesus returns, we will worship in the plurality of our healed cultures, languages, and ethnic experiences.
So much can be said about Korean worship, and rightly so, but here I will share brief reflections on a few of its distinct qualities. There are more than 350 Christian denominations in Korea. Not surprisingly, their practices differ by denomination, geographical region, and age group. The Korean immigrant churches throughout the globe have unique experiences of their own as well. Yet there are certain characteristics of worship that are true of almost all Korean churches. Three of these widely shared traits are a unified Korean hymnal, dawn prayer services, and the postwar ethos of loyalty and sacrifice.
The spirit of kinship runs strong in Korea due in part to the country’s small size, homogeneous ethnic makeup, and Confucian ethics. It is not uncommon for Koreans to feel great pride or shame about the performance of other Korean people, even if they are perfect strangers. In this tightly knit society, unity reigns as one of the most sacred societal values.
This ethos feeds right into Korean worship practices. A shining example of this is the Korean Church’s use of a single united hymnal. Since 1983, the Hymn Society of Korea (hymnkorea.org) issued one hymnal, TongIl Chansongga, to be used by all Korean Christians across all Protestant denominations and regions. This hymnal was used ubiquitously by all Korean Christians until 2006, when it underwent a major revision and became The New 21st Century Hymnal. The 2006 hymnal, together with the older version, is currently used by most Korean Christians. Without a doubt, there is great unifying power in using the same literature, catechism, or hymnal. And, as one might guess, Korean Christians’ use of one unified hymnal across all denominations and regions indicates the strength of the ethnic identity shared by thousands of Korean Christians.
Dawn Prayer Services
Daily dawn prayer services are a well-known feature of traditional Korean worship. Typically, a dawn prayer takes the form of an abridged worship service, with singing and the receiving of the Word. The service is followed by prayer sessions of various lengths. These sessions frequently open with a group chant of the name of the Lord, “Ju-Yuh.” Everyone is then encouraged to pray out loud, individually and simultaneously (though some choose to pray silently).
For first-time participants, these prayer sessions can be somewhat hard on the senses: they can be cacophonous, emotive, and heated. Praying in tongues is a common practice across denominational backgrounds (though some do so more conservatively than others). Weeping in prayer sessions is also considered normative. In Western worship services, it may be deemed unfitting to demonstrate such a degree of emotion and vulnerability in public worship spaces. But in the otherwise reserved and controlled Korean society, dawn prayer services function as one of the few spaces for believers to freely express themselves before God and in the presence of others. Also, because Koreans often communicate indirectly, the incomprehensibility of simultaneous praying and speaking in tongues may not be considered a critical issue, theologically or otherwise. Younger generations of Korean Christians tend not to place so much emphasis on dawn prayers, but it is still common for Korean Christians to regard dawn prayer as a mark of true Christian devotion.
Loyalty and Sacrifice
Another common element of Korean worship is the postwar ethos of loyalty and sacrifice. In the past year and a half, we all have felt the impact of the global pandemic, leading us to discuss the meaning of post-COVID worship. In the same way, the corporate ethos of the Koreans has been powerfully shaped by the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910–45) and the Korean War (1950–53). Many economic analysts consider it a sheer miracle that South Korea transformed itself from a country in utter ruins into a developed country within a few short years after the war. A major factor was Korea’s “five-year plan” under President Park Chung Hee. From 1962–66, Korea underwent massive economic expansions that essentially recreated the nation. These postwar years were desperate times, and under the hard hand of Park’s military dictatorship, Korean citizens were forced to make huge sacrifices for the survival of the nation.
Today, South Korea has the tenth-largest economy in the world, with household names like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai and cultural exports like K-pop, K-dramas, and K-beauty. But such a feat did not come cheaply; deeply ingrained in the Korean culture even today is the postwar ethos of communal loyalty and sacrifice. Koreans are known for their relentless hard work, and this shared disposition affects Korean worship practices as well.
Korean worship is marked by unrelenting commitment and sacrifice. Many devout Christians give much of their free time and resources to the local church. Korean clergy and lay leaders alike are expected to give everything they can for the work of the Lord. Devout Christians meet to worship together five to ten times a week. In traditional Korean churches, Sunday worship is always followed by preparation of a meal together for all the worshipers, no matter how many.
While the Korean church may have something to learn about Sabbath-taking, God’s calling in the workplace, and resting in God’s grace, there is much we all can learn from the sacrificial nature of Korean worship. Surely, God invites us to humble ourselves and seek God’s face (2 Chronicles 7:14) and to approach the Lord with a broken spirit (Psalm 51:17). Korean worship vividly demonstrates what that can look like for all the faith communities of the world.
Cultures Will Be Redeemed
Culture is an essential part of what it means to be human, and cultural diversity is a gift from God that testifies to God’s divine image in us. Of course, our cultural makeup, along with every good thing about us, has been severely marred by sin. But in Christ our Lord, our cultures, along with our bodies and souls, are destined for redemption. When we keep our gaze upon heaven and God’s promised renewal of all things, we will be able to make room for various cultures—loving, appreciating, and learning from them. We have so much to learn from each other, and learn we should, as that is how we can make Christ’s name known in the world (John 17:21). May we continue loving and learning from one another, and together in Christ may we be brought to fullness of his glory (Colossians 2:9–10)!