Stranger in a Strange Land in Church: Expatriate Christianity

I am an English teacher in South Korea. One of the primary reasons that I go to church here is to save myself from completely flipping my lid because I do not have anyone else to talk to in English. The other reason is, of course, to get spiritually fed in the language I think and feel in. Although I can see at least one or two red neon crosses in the sky almost anywhere I am, I do not speak Korean. Thank God for expatriate churches in Korea.My job is not in the downtown area at a school with lots of other foreign teachers, close to expatriate hangout spots. Going to church gives me a place to go where I can find friends who speak English and who even have my same sort of job. We can trade stories about surviving life and work in a foreign country. We can talk to each other without dumbing down our English, as we have to do for our students. One thing I particularly enjoy about the language aspect is that I can tell jokes that require brain power to understand. Although I have some bright elementary school students, it takes a few repetitions of a joke from narrowly bounded genres for them to fully understand. That doesn’t just kill a joke, it Chinese water tortures the thing to death.

Language and culture drive people together or push them apart in funny ways. I once went on a mission trip to Ghana with Americans, a Canadian, two Europeans, plus the Ghanaians we teamed up with in the country. The North Americans got on well enough, the Europeans were okay together, and the Ghanaians all knew each other in college. Putting us all together was what made things stressful. For the parts of the trip we were all together as a team, the use of English was mandated. This was fine for the North Americans, but it was rough on the Europeans and the Ghanaians. The North Americans did not speak Twi, the Ghanaians had to get used to foreign English and were not allowed to speak Twi, and one of the Europeans had to translate for the other from time to time. We had to work very hard to be able to stay together, but even if we toiled together for years, we would have to free each other to be incompatibly different from time to time for the sake of our own sanity.

Between my experiences in Korea and in Ghana, I have come to understand more fully what it is like for people who have moved to America to find church services in their own language. An international festival at a local foreign school here in Korea also gave me an idea of what a Chinese New Year celebration in America might do for Chinese people living there. The freedom to be your “real self” for even a short time while straining to adapt to foreign ways makes the strain bearable. When people come to America to work or study, they often stay for years. Some Korean friends I have here went to America and spent one or two years improving their English before progressing to years of MA or PhD studies, so they look at perhaps a three-year minimum commitment. Thank God for Korean churches in America.

I remember two kinds of solidarity defined by anthropology: mechanical and organic. In mechanical solidarity, everyone has the same skills and they know how to get along with each other because they all do the same things in the same way. In organic solidarity, everyone has a specializes like organs in the body and they cooperate in a unified whole. As I have seen it, mechanical solidarity in the Body of Christ is impossible. God has not ordained it, and humans cannot sustain it. The great thing is that the Bible itself suggests organic solidarity (1 Corinthians 12), and we do not have to march in lock step for Jesus; ethnically distinct churches can be very good things. For my own part, I am not keen on taking the plunge to do church in Korean, and I am sure that my counterparts in America are grateful to have church in Korean.

In the end, diversity is not strength. It is wealth. Strength comes from unity, not from diversity. Diversity makes things complicated, but diversity gives you more options. Diversity makes it hard to work together, but it makes your team more flexible. Let your diversity in Jesus be distinct, but of course let your unity in him be unquestionable. Let Christ be the Rock and do not petrify into a monolith.

Image via Flickr.