Seoul: Learning Across Cultures

My name is Samuel Lee and I am the Assistant Pastor of International Worship at Youngnak Presbyterian Church in Seoul. I had the thrilling opportunity to serve with City to City Korea as a translator of the media team for the first City to City Conference held in Korea in March. As someone who spent 15 years in Korea and another 15 abroad (mostly in the U.S.), bridging these two geographically and culturally disparate worlds has grown to be something of a God-given mission. Through the conference I feel a small part of that mission has been accomplished.

The first time I truly connected with the message of Pastor Keller was when I was in college. I came across a Youtube video of him speaking to an audience of ministers about discerning and confronting “idols” — whatever they are, in whichever race, gender or class of people. I watched Pastor Keller contend that unless we challenge people’s idols as Paul did, they may confess with their mouth that Jesus Christ is their Savior, but in their heart’s actual function, they’ll continue to receive salvific affirmation from something else. At that moment, the Spirit worked powerfully in my heart and mind, exposing that I was susceptible to following pseudo-saviors as a college-aged boy and also as a Korean.

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For these reasons I was utterly excited when I learned Pastor Keller was coming to Korea to hold a City to City conference. In my dire hope to be a part of his sharing with Korean ministers the need and ability to discern our own spiritual context, I hastily sent in my resume to City to City Korea.

In his book Center Church, Keller mentions that a church must be theologically driven, not program driven. But just what is the theology that should propel a church? I believe it is the theology of consistently discerning and confronting the idols of the people and replacing them with the only lasting hope and salvation — God’s grace manifested through Jesus Christ.

During the conference Pastor Keller indeed spoke of some of the poignant aspects of postmodernism that are besetting Korea, and some 1,300 pastors who attended the conference went away exposed to the cultural captivity the gospel needs to address and redeem.

For example, as it may well be the case elsewhere, the message of postmodernism in Korea insinuates that anything goes. There is no obligation to live up to any moral standard. However, Keller pointed out that the same people who vie for moral relativity show austere moralistic sensitivity when it comes to politics or public affairs. They cannot stand when a politician makes an indecent decision or when they find out an otherwise revered sports star has been having an affair. What do we make of this contradiction? This means, of course, that we all have a desire to live in a world where things run according to the way we believe to be right. Having this view in mind, Keller advised the pastors that we must preach the gospel in a way that postmodernists would “wish that it were true.” Of course, the gospel is indeed the ultimate fulfillment of what we all wish to be true and right in our heart of hearts — our deepest desire for peace and wholeness, our greatest need for joy and love unending.

I believe it is now the turn of the Korean pastors, like myself, to confront the counterfeit gospels of this land. I also believe that a different set of cultures can learn from each other for renewal and reform. I pray that through the interaction between cities all over world, especially between the two cultures across the Pacific, God’s idol-crashing, multi-ethnic grace would abound, “as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).  

By Samuel Lee