On our way to an English speech competition, my Korean co-worker asked me if I went to morning prayers at the local Korean Presbyterian Church. I said no, I usually attended on Sunday mornings and afternoons, and that was it. She was surprised and probably thought I lacked devotion. Each morning, my Korean co-teacher woke up before 5 a.m., went to morning prayers, and then came to work. I did well to get up on Sunday mornings for a few hours once a week.
Personally, attendance at a Christian church has always been part of my life, and when I moved to Korea as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, I wanted to continue the habit. However, churches in Korea and the United States are very different in practice and demographics. I was blessed to be a part of my local Presbyterian church, and it was in the Korean church that I understood what it meant to be a different culture. There were six distinct practices or habits of attending a Korean church that surprised and delighted me all at the same time.
1. Age and Family Dynamic
In Korean churches, there are small children and the elderly. Of course, there are a few middle aged adults and teenagers, but overall, these are the two age groups you will see in a Korean church. Perhaps it’s the demanding work hours or a disinterest in religion that keeps older teens, young adults, and middle agers out of church, but the age difference was noticeable. Also, you will rarely see full families in the pews like in the United States. It’s not unusual to sit in a pew full of older Korean women attending services alone.
2. Stand up, Stand up for Jesus!
In American churches, we like to make visitors feel welcome, but we usually don’t want to single the visitor out. This American notion was thrown out the window when I visited my home congregation on Jeju Island. My first Sunday, the pastor asked me to stand up, wave, and introduce myself to the whole congregation. Everyone nodded and applauded politely. However, it wasn’t just for me. Any visitor was asked to stand and introduce him or herself. This is very common in Korean churches, regardless of denomination.
3. All-day Services
Sundays are an all-day affair for many Korean Christians. A morning services may begin at 6 a.m., followed by Sunday school, followed by yet another repeat service. Several hours later, at about 2 p.m., it’s time for the afternoon service. Typically, I attended Sunday school and late morning services. It’s not unusual for a whole congregation to stay from late morning to late afternoon on a Sunday.
4. Morning Prayers
Almost every Korean church (even those in the United States) host morning prayers like those that my co-worker attended. These are usually an hour before the work day begins, and not surprisingly, it’s a practice many Korean Christians hold dearly.
5. Weekly Meals
A visit to a Korean church is not complete without after-service lunch. This usually occurs between the late morning service and the afternoon services. Dishes are simple: usually cold noodles and kimchi, but it’s delicious and something that happens every week! At my home church, meals after services occur on special occasions. I assumed the same of my Korean church until I witnessed it every Sunday during my time here. Some of the best meals were eaten after church services during my time in Korea.
6. “Are You Saved?”
Korean Christians are open and proud of their faith. It’s not unusual for a Christian coworker to ask about your religious beliefs as a casual piece of conversation. This is the same inside the walls of the church. During the end of my time in Korea, an associate pastor asked through my friend (and translator) if I was baptized and knew Jesus as my personal savior. They even gave me a copy of the Korean Presbyterian Catechism. Most people may be frustrated with personal questions, but I appreciated the gesture. Regardless of our cultural boundaries, I knew someone was looking out for me.
If you’re a practicing Christian, or you’re curious, I would encourage you to visit a Korean-speaking church if you find yourself in Korea. Though the practices are very different, you’ll find that Korean Christians are some of the most fervent and welcoming believers on the planet. Just make sure you come with an empty stomach and speak loud and clear when you stand up to introduce yourself.
About the Author: Sarah Carey is a 2012 and 2015 graduate of Georgetown College. She has a BA in English, and was a 2012-2013 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to South Korea. When not teaching English as a Second Language in her native Kentucky, Sarah enjoys traveling back and forth to Asia.
Note: This article was originally published on Pink Pangea, the online community for women who love to travel.
Photo by Sara Carey
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