Missional Church Expert: 'Cultural Ministry' Can Reflect the Gospel in Asian Context

A church
A church
By Ruth WangOctober 18th, 2023

Editor's note: Since the 1990s, European and American churches have deeply reflected on the traditional development models of churches. On this basis, missional churches spring up. The trend has gradually spread to Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore.

In recent years, the trend has caught the attention of theological scholars in China, who are exploring how it can be applied to local situations.

Recently, Dr. Dongri Wu who holds Ph.D. from Yonsei University, South Korea invited Professor Suk Whan Sung from Presbyterian University and Theogical Seminary to speak on "cultural ministry" from the perspective of the missional church. (See episode 1 here)

Professor Suk Whan Sung first stated that the missional church's theory is based on a new look at the connection between popular culture and Christianity or the church. This is based on a reflection of the relationship between Christianity and culture. This reevaluation leads to a renewed concept that expands the scope of practice beyond the limited and visible spaces of the church or venue for religious activities. It broadens the scope of ministry.

As Christians, how should we perceive popular culture?

Professor Sung introduced that popular culture is a highly debated topic within the Evangelical sector. Some conservative churches believe that Satan controls popular culture. As a result, they strongly disapprove of young people wearing earrings, getting tattoos, singing pop songs, or watching popular movies. One notable example is Lady Gaga's 2012 concerts in Asian countries like South Korea and the Philippines. Many Christians organized prayer meetings, hoping for the concerts to encounter difficulties. Some Christians interpreted the wind's tearing apart of a banner during the concert in South Korea as divine judgment.

All these reactions stem from the belief that popular culture hinders spiritual life and clashes with Christianity. Consequently, many Christians have developed a completely negative and resistant attitude toward popular culture. This attitude was manifested in the "culture war" that emerged in the Western world in the 1990s.

"Therefore, we need to rethink aesthetics from a theological perspective. The concept of beauty must be disentangled from religious and political influences. Beauty cannot be divorced from ethics in theology, and adherence to God's Word sets a standard of beauty that transcends mere physical appearance."

"Christians are familiar with the idea that faith and action should not be divorced. Our lives should not be isolated from art, either. Enjoying beauty is not the exclusive domain of artists; the general public can also appreciate and savor art in their everyday lives. As Christians, we bear a responsibility to manifest our faith in various realms such as art, fashion, beauty, and beyond. By doing so, we can potentially reflect the glory of Christ in popular culture,“ he added. 

After God created human beings, He blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” To some extent, this could be our cultural mission.

Nonetheless, there has been a misconception among humans that only individuals of nobility, wealth, and status are entitled to appreciate the high arts. The profound transformations triggered by the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment during the 18th century, particularly in the aftermath of World War I and II, marked the onset of a new era of popular culture across Europe. Those who believed they held the exclusive right to participate in the high arts and who considered themselves to be noble, wealthy, and of status disapproved of this transformation.

Such sentiments exist not only among the general public but also within Christian communities. For example, the Puritans in England, upon settling in America and recovering economically and socially, began to reminisce about the classical culture they had enjoyed in England, considering it more noble and true art, while adopting a depreciative attitude toward popular culture. This perspective led to a division of culture and art into low and high forms, a division mirrored in academia. For instance, cultural critic Matthew Arnold classified culture into two categories. According to his opinion, the general public and blue-collar workers were deemed incapable of understanding art.

"Unfortunately, we in Asia have inherited this aspect of Western Christianity's legacy. It is evident that during the 19th century, many evangelical movements had a profound impact on indigenous peoples in colonies through colonization. This has resulted in some negative consequences. For example, many oil paintings and other art forms categorized as high art have Christian origins. While Western missionaries aimed to spread the gospel, many of them regarded local cultures as inferior and Western culture as superior."

This concept in modern philosophy has also caused negative effects. Consider René Descartes' famous statement, "I think, therefore I am," which implied that a thinking person becomes the standard for judging the world. Unfortunately, during that era, the dominant majority consisted of individuals who were Western, white, male, and centered around Christianity. Those who didn't fit into these four categories were labeled as 'others' and subjected to observation and definition by the dominant group. This limited perspective has become widespread in contemporary global culture.

In this ideological framework, when the gospel reached the East and Asia, local churches in these regions were inadvertently affected. They began to regard Western culture as superior, subsequently undervaluing their own indigenous cultures. Unintentionally, they created a division between high arts and popular culture and embraced a dualistic perspective.

We cannot deny the zeal of missionary groups from the West who were enthusiastic about spreading the gospel and had compassion for souls during that era. However, it is also likely that they were unaware of the contamination of the vessels carrying the gospel. It is imperative for Asian churches to discern and overcome this issue. It wasn't until after World War II, especially following the tragic Holocaust where six million Jews were killed, that Europe came to a deep awakening. They realized it was biased to base their value system on the values of the Western, male, white, Christian population.

"Suffering often paves the way for God's blessings. Both Joseph and Jonah experienced intense suffering. A source of great shame for us is the history of colonization in many Asian nations. Paradoxically, God utilized Western colonization experiences to expose their own shortcomings. Through these experiences, God humbled the West and shattered their pride."

Paul Tillich, in his wisdom regarding culture, proclaimed that all cultures have the potential to glorify God. While we may not be scholars in aesthetics, we hold the right to appreciate beauty in our own unique way. In fact, culture permeates every aspect of our lives.

How should Evangelicals reconsider popular culture?

The professor continued that over the past few centuries, the world has experienced profound transformations. It has transitioned from a dominantly Western, white, and male-centric paradigm to one that is non-Western, non-white, and increasingly influenced by women. This transformation aligns with the essence of post-modernism. Many things, including the terrible effects of war, the growth of cultural anthropology, the rise of pluralistic thinking, the return of grassroots cultures, and the empowerment of working class people, women, and students, have changed how we understand culture and hence how we see the world.

Two significant methods for studying culture emerged in the 20th century: culturalism, which the UK led, and the Frankfurt School, which Germany led. The Frankfurt School's perspective, similar to the cultural view of evangelicals, underscores the differentiation between popular culture and high culture. In contrast, culturalism in the UK does not endorse such a division but rather places emphasis on the everyday and popular facets of culture. From this cultural viewpoint, both highbrow opera and popular music originated in the UK and are relevant to people's daily lives.

"As evangelicals, we need to integrate the study of both. British cultural studies devote significant attention to the everyday and the expressive, and this is what we can learn from. However, we should remain cautious of the negative influences stemming from consumerism."

How should churches today interact with popular culture and postmodernism?

Popular culture and postmodernism exhibit various commonalities. Postmodernism surfaced in the 1970s, and significant events, like the Vietnam War, acted as catalysts for the feminist movement. Martin Luther King's civil rights movement also empowered African Americans. In essence, postmodernism can be regarded as a cultural shift in the Western world.

Professor Sung said, "Would embracing popular culture bring renewal to the church? For instance, when discussing the emergence of the Jesus Movement, we must acknowledge the prominent countercultural hippie movement of that era. In the 1960s, the hippie movement surfaced in the United States as a cultural rebellion. Hippies were known for their spirit of defiance against convention and established norms. They spent nights reveling by the seaside and were often perceived as demon-possessed in the eyes of traditional churches. However, during that period, Chuck Smith, the senior pastor of Calvary Chapel in California, who outwardly appeared conventional, placed significant importance on church reformation. He welcomed individuals from the realm of rock music into the church and adapted rock lyrics into hymns, which laid the foundation for contemporary Christian music (CCM). This aligns with Niebuhr's point: Christianity should be a catalyst for cultural transformation."

Creativity cannot be disregarded when ministering to postmodern young individuals in the church.

While rationality is the focus of modernism, imagination is the driving force for innovation among postmodern youth. Regrettably, conservative evangelicals tend to undervalue imagination. Churches often instruct believers to unquestioningly follow, leaving no room for them to engage in thoughtful reflection. As a result, many young people are averse to attending church because they perceive it as a stifling environment for their aspirations. Numerous second-generation Christians, raised in the church, begin to seek a sense of freedom outside of the church.

"It cannot be ignored that the church's future is intertwined with its youth. Some church members might view today's youth as immature and incompatible with the church. In fact, the church should adopt an inclusive rather than exclusive stance. It should function as a platform where young people can freely explore their relationship with God, nurture their dreams, and bask in His grace."

Conclusion: The concept of "cultural ministry" and the practice of "cultural worship"

"Asian churches today must reevaluate their understanding of culture. They should no longer be confined to the modern Western, white, male-dominated paradigm but rather recognize the characteristics of postmodernism and rejuvenate popular culture. It is equally important to explore Eastern perspectives in the postmodern era and manifest the essence of the gospel through Asian culture," Professor Sung urged. 

"The church has to address the desires of the public as conveyed through popular culture. It is the church's mission to transform the destructive, transgressive, lonely, unjust, and contradictory elements prevalent in popular culture into a revitalized popular culture that caters to people's needs," he stressd. 

Hence, the church can explore the realm of "cultural ministry," which extends beyond one single cultural project. Cultural ministry encompasses all cultural activities aimed at expanding the gospel through the execution of cultural actions. Essential components of cultural ministry include cultural communication, creative ingenuity, and social justice. Ministers engaged in cultural ministry should embody qualities of gentleness, effective communication, and imaginative creativity, addressing the demands of the 21st century while testifying to God's kingdom in innovative ways.

Korean churches began contemplating their interaction with popular culture after the year 2000. Cultural ministry stands out as a practical response based on Christian ethics and public theology. Within these practices, "cultural worship" holds theological significance.

"Cultural worship" embodies an act of faith that intersects the eternal within the finite constraints of time and space. It is the practice of worshiping the transcendent God within a limited space. Whether it be in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea, or China, people worship the same God. The contexts are different from country to country.

"How do we worship God in our unique space? The point is encountering God not only in the church building but in our everyday lives, such as workplaces, families, or even during activities like square dances. For instance, within the chapel of the renowned Yonsei University in South Korea, Jesus is depicted as a shepherd leading Korean disciples to preach the gospel throughout. The visionary perspective contemplates how Jesus might appear if his birthplace were Korea rather than Jerusalem. Sadly, Asian churches often fail to consider how to encounter God within their distinct contexts, instead imitating the worship practices of Western churches."

"We must integrate the core principles of cultural ministry into our worship practices. Worship is a versatile concept with numerous possible expressions... We need to discern the character of the community we are serving and understand why God has placed us in this specific community at this time. Envision this. With such a perspective, the community becomes a place of shared culture," he concluded. 

- Translated by June I. Chen

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