Finding Woori: forming a theology of Witness that bridges generational divides
By Yo Sep Heo
When preparing a summer retreat for the youth, we were told that everything should be approved by the senior pastor. We thought, “Of course, we should seek approval for (or at least let the pastor know about) the major pieces like the location, the theme for the retreat, and the budget.” The senior pastor, however, intended to review and approve everything – not just the speaker, but also the praise team leader, the small group leaders, the list of retreat attendees, and even the meals and the snacks.
At present there’s a lot of tension between first- and second-generation Korean-Canadians, particularly in the church. The story above is just one small example. As a pastor serving at a second-generation Korean immigrant church, and as a second-generation Korean-Canadian myself, I wondered: Why? What are the roots of these differences? Why are so many second-generation immigrants leaving the church? How can we as a church find a way to move forward in witness?
These questions have led my doctoral research as I seek to develop a Korean-North American theology of witness. My goal is to incorporate the understanding of the communal self (Woori in Korean) with some of the wider Protestant ecumenical conversation on witness.
I believe that theology should exist for the church, for ministry, not only abstractly. I wanted to dive into theology with this pastoral concern and to tackle a church issue. I wanted learn more about why there was a “silent exodus” of second-generation immigrants leaving the church, and how we can respond to this phenomenon.
This research, especially the concept of Woori, helped me understand some of the differences in thinking between first- and second-generation Korean-Canadians and propose a way forward as a witnessing church.
Woori is the word “we” in Korean, but the concept is much broader. It has to do with the Korean understanding of self, the communal self vs. the western individual “I.” This concept is the foundation of first-generation Korean immigrants’ everyday lives. The Korean immigrant church has a unique collectivity, a “we-ness” that is not just the sum of individual thoughts, but something deeper.
You can hear it even in the language. In Korean, we say “our church” instead of “my church.” Even when I say “my wife” in the Korean language, it’s more like “our wife.” I wanted to learn more about how this concept has influenced the Korean church – its liturgy and its people.
First-generation immigrants generally live according to the Korean culture, which is largely influenced by three religions: Korean shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The addition of Christianity is relatively recent, and a lot of this Christianity has been shaped to accommodate the Korean culture.
For example, the first-generation Korean churches focus very strongly on the senior pastor; this person brings the congregants together and leads them spiritually. This connects with filial piety consciousness – an integral part of Confucian teaching, and a part of first-generation Koreans’ collective understanding.
On the other hand, second-generation Koreans like myself aren’t 100% Canadian, but we’re also not 100% Korean. We tend to be influenced more by individualism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, and diversity. We don’t really understand the Buddhist, shamanistic, or Confucian influences on Korean Christianity. Instead of being so strongly oriented toward hierarchy, second-generation Koreans are more likely to see everyone as equal. We are all called to be leaders, witnesses, pastors, and followers.
Collectivity vs. individuality
Historically the Korean collective consciousness, the Woori consciousness, helped to bring the Korean immigrants together; the Korean church was always a source of belonging, a “Little Korea” where you could share freely without language barriers. That reinforced the collective consciousness, and the shared struggles in life and differences in culture helped to push people (even non-Christians) to attend church, just to be part of a community and fellowship.
Second-generation immigrants don’t have the language barrier, and they understand the Canadian culture better. They don’t feel this collective pull toward the church in the same way. As the second generation has gotten older, these tensions have grown: these people want to be more independent, they want to “be themselves” – whereas the first generation values collectivity and submission to authority. Eventually these increasing tensions led to what’s known as the “silent exodus” of second-generation Koreans leaving the church.
In recent years, many churches are shifting so that they no longer have only Korean-speaking services and ministries. They understand that the second generation needs to have English-speaking ministries with second-generation pastors. This has helped to slow down the silent exodus.
A theology of witness
I feel that the Korean church has been led by a survival mentality; it’s been here to help the immigrants and has provided a place of comfort – but I see a lack of genuine witness into the world. The churches have been focused on survival, on their own identity, and on the language barrier. I want the Korean church to now translate that survival mentality into a witnessing mentality, to say, “We can go out into the world. There’s value in us as a Korean immigrant church. There’s a role and a calling for us.”
David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin are prominent missiologists who also look at ecclesiology (the study of church doctrine). They have a lot to offer our witnessing theology. It’s fascinating to think of Newbigin, a British missionary in India, as an immigrant to India, acting as a witness there. His understanding of the church resonates with me. He helped me understand how we as an immigrant church can witness in the Canadian context. And Bosch’s work shows us how the church has been shifting its paradigm, and how we as an immigrant church can also shift to become a witnessing agent.
The Lausanne Covenant and the World Council of Churches’ missions and evangelism statements also offer helpful foundations. Both of these documents talk about witness as evangelism, as preaching the gospel, the word of Christ. Both also present witness as being part of social action, the physical living out of the gospel.
The Korean church primarily has been evangelical and conservative, pointing to primacy of preaching the gospel – sometimes even to point of being coercive. I see a need to shift toward living out the gospel as well.
I’ve always felt called to serve people, especially the second-generation Korean community. This Korean-ness has helped me become who I am, and the church has also helped to shape my identity and lead me to this role as a minister.
I hope that, beginning with my church, we can look towards the future with this understanding of our purpose in the world – and eventually also influence other churches to witness genuinely in the Canadian and broader North American contexts.
Yo Sep Heo is a Knox PhD student.