Korean Contextualization: A Brief Examination

by Seung Min Hong

The author discusses important theological and
cultural issues that have been largely ignored in
contextualizing Christianity in Korea.

 Contextualization is the dynamic process in which Christianity is incarnated into specific cultures (Flemming 2005, 19). For the first-generation Christians who received the gospel from Western missionaries, contextualization was not a major concern; and perhaps it should not have been, for their major concern was separation from the indigenous religion and identifying themselves with the new faith (Kraft 2005b, 263-267).  

However, missiologists recognize that sooner or later contextualization does become a major challenge in countries where Christianity is passed on to subsequent generations. In 1975, Bong Rin Ro argued for the need of contextualized theologies that would be suitable for Asian countries, including Korea (Ro 1976, 47-58). The Seoul Declaration of 1982 declared that Western theology fails to be sufficiently relevant for Christians facing Majority World issues (Netland 2006, 26-27).

Now that it has been over one hundred years since evangelical Christianity was introduced to Korea, it is time to assess whether it has been contextualized well into the culture of Korea, the most evangelized East Asian country.

A good way to assess successful contextualization would involve applying the pattern that John Travis has developed: the C1–C6 continuum. The definition of each category can be simplified as follows (Travis and Travis 2005, 400):

• C1: Western church using the language of the West
• C2: Western church using the local language
• C3: A church that uses the local language and some neutral cultural forms
• C4: A church that, in addition to C3, uses biblically acceptable non-Christian religious forms
• C5: A Christ-centered community that maintains the identity of the local religion
• C6: Secret or underground Christians

Evangelical missiologists who have utilized this model generally seem to conclude that the most biblically appropriate model in the long run is somewhere between C3 and C4 (Gilliland 2005, 518). Korean churches are somewhere in between C2 and C3, but much closer to C2. Charles Kraft stated, “Koreans have developed the art of imitation to such a degree that one worshipping in any of the churches of Seoul could easily imagine him/herself in America, except for the language” (Kraft 2005b, 265).

Considering the time that has passed since Christianity first reached Korea, and considering the position and influence of the Korean Church in global Christianity today, we must conclude that further contextualization is needed.  

What would a better contextualized Christianity look like in Korea? In many cultures, efforts for contextualization have unduly focused on de-westernization, but one must ask whether that is necessarily the key point for the ultimate goal. There may indeed be cases in which westernization is the major problem and therefore the church needs to adopt as many indigenous elements as possible as long as they are biblically permissible. However, since the main purpose of contextualization is not reviving the local culture itself, sole emphasis on non-westernization may not be the remedy.

Kevin Vanhoozer points out that the aim should be going more-than-Western instead of non-Western (Vanhoozer 2006, 119). The point is to discover what needs to be done further so that the Christian faith can be more relevant to the Korean society than it is now.  

Theological Challenges
For a detailed blueprint of a better contextualized Christianity in Korea, a brief note must be made on the theological aspect. Paul Hiebert and Tite Tienou argued for the need of more context-relevant theologies (Hiebert and Tienou 2005, 117-133). The traditional theologies are not wrong in themselves, but the way they have been developed so far fail to provide biblical answers to many of the issues (e.g., the spirit world and ancestors, curses and fear, even other religions) critical to the Majority World.  

Theological emphasis on selective issues shaped by the Western Church has been passed on to Korea. Small booklets for new believers reflect this perfectly. The creedal study programs offered in Presbyterian (the dominant denomination in Korea) churches typically do not go much further than the Westminster Confession of Faith. While the topics addressed in these traditions are important, do they have everything we need to live in the Korean culture as Christians? For example, although it may be of minor relevance to evangelicals in Europe or America, our orientation vis-à-vis our ancestors is one of the most critical matters in East Asian religiosity.  

Does the Bible have anything to say about ancestry? Yes! Nonetheless, there are areas in which the biblical view of ancestry differs dramatically from what is believed and practiced in Korea at least twice a year, on the Lunar New Year holiday and the Korean Thanksgiving. One different view is the relationship between the spirit world and the physical world. Although some relevant insights can be drawn from traditional eschatology, Korean Christians need to learn more explicitly, specifically, and extensively scripture’s teachings on these subjects. As observed in many other cultures, ignoring the issue due to the lack of attention by Western theology will not make indigenous Christians ignore the issue as well.

Instead, such issues either go underground or are dealt with in unbiblical manners. For example, Kraft reports a case of Christians in Korea who beat a person to death because of the grouop’s wrong beliefs about how to deal with the spirit world (Kraft 2005a, 381). Development and propagation of an evangelical theology of the spirit world is still needed in the twenty-first century for the Korean Church.  

We must also remember that contextualization is an ongoing process. As times change, so do cultural practices, and so must our understanding of cultural engagement. For example, Korean Christians generally agree that they should not incorporate non-Christian religious elements into funerals. These include placing food before the pictures of the deceased, bowing down before the pictures, and using incense. However, is it still the case today that all of these practices should be banned completely, without giving room for the possibility of changing the meanings of some forms? (cf. Hiebert 1989, 101-120).

For example, can burning incense be seen as similar to putting flowers in front of the grave in Western cultures? Korean Christians, in general, also have little idea of why they should not bow before their ancestors’ graves or pictures. They are told it’s idolatry, but is it? Do most of the people who bow before the graves take the deceased as their gods?

Perhaps a more biblically-sound answer to those who aren’t Christian is that following traditional ancestor veneration contradicts Christian beliefs regarding the spirit world and the afterlife. Although declining to bow down before the pictures of the ancestors might remain, we must remember that contextualization is not about avoiding offending the local culture at all costs. Sometimes it includes offending it for the right reasons (Whiteman 2005, 64).

In addition to this restructuring of thought, an excellent theological concept that can be utilized in Korea is that of Mary Yeo Carpenter, who articulated God not as the adversary of ancestral spirits, but as the Ultimate Ancestor (Carpenter 1996, 503-517).

It would be fallacious to think that there would only be large differences between contextual approaches in Korean and Western cultures. Particularly in light of globalization, the challenges of materialism and atheism are universal. On the one hand, Korean Christianity can greatly benefit from how Western churches have dealt with such challenges. On the other hand, for example, it is odd that Korean Christians still rely upon Western evangelical resources on religious pluralism, when in fact the presence of Shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and their dominant influence on the culture have always been a reality. This is also the case with the emergence of new religious movements.

Despite this, I have found only one comprehensive work available on Christian engagement with other religions; that work is written by Korean Christian scholar Jum Shik Ahn (2007). Using this resource and what I learned from a course at Trinity International University, I conducted a two-month course in my church on Christian engagement with other religions. The feedback from participants reflected that Christians would greatly benefit from such programs if they are accompanied by studying their own worldview.  

Cultural Practices and Expressions
One of the premises of this article is that cultural expressions and practices in the Korean Church today need more contextualization. However, in addition to the fact that contextualization must take place continuously, another important factor is that different generations require different approaches (Kraft 2005b, 255-273). It is therefore helpful to briefly discuss generational issues of two major groups: (1) the older generation, which includes those who heard the gospel from first-generation Christians and (2) the younger generation, primarily those in their 20s and younger.  

Today, few will accuse elder Christians wearing the traditional Korean costume (hanbok) of mixing unacceptable Korean religious elements with Christianity. On the other hand, most evangelicals would ban the practice of beating someone for exorcism. However, there are many cultural forms that lie between these two extremes and deserve further analysis.

Music. One particularly critical form is music. On many occasions, traditional Korean music has long been used for pagan religious purposes such as the Gut (Korean shamans’ ritual performances for allaying spirits). First-generation Christians, perhaps rightly, avoided using such music for Christian worship, using Western hymnals instead. Today, however, even those who aren’t Christian are learning that Western Christian music had its own origin outside of the history of the Church.  

Much of what is now considered “Christian” music is not a genre that the apostles would have recognized as such. If the Western world was able to redeem their music instead of abandoning it, why should Korea, the world’s second-largest missionary sending country, be any less active in redeeming Korean folk music? Quite notable is the fact that Korean traditional music is very close to Hebrew folk music in terms of instrumental tonality, melodic themes, and the dominance of minor keys.

Today, Korean Christianity is facing challenges because of its anti-traditionalism, evidenced by comparison with other major world religions brought into Korea. But we can no longer procrastinate worshipping our Ultimate Ancestor (who has incarnated into the human world and communicated in our terms) in a Korean way. If Paul could do this with a poem originally dedicated to Zeus in Acts 17:28 (Flemming 2005, 78), certainly the effort to redeem Korean folk music could be taken up by more than the tiny minority now striving toward this goal.

While the purpose is not to go only Korean and replace all Western elements, we do need to go more Korean. Particularly useful can be the Korean concept of Han (the kind of sadness embedded in many Korean cultural forms as a result of many national tragedies in history) for musically appreciating the kind of emotion portrayed by Jeremiah. Music used for celebration in old Korean farmlands may also inspire the kind of joy expressed in Leviticus 23:40.

Visual communication. For the younger generations, however, reviving Korean traditional forms is not of major concern. As a matter of fact, it is sometimes observed that the younger Koreans’ cultural practices are being almost uncritically westernized. However, even the attempt to imitate Western culture sometimes gives birth to new subcultures.

One notable phenomenon in Korea is the preference of visual over textual sources. Anyone who compares the West to Korea can easily notice a dramatic difference in Korea’s reliance upon visual communication. For example, younger Koreans use incomparably more emoticons than Americans when chatting online. A comparison between the most popular community websites (cyworld.co.kr vs. facebook.com) and search engines naver.com vs. google.com) in Korea and the U.S also clearly shows the difference in their focus on design.

Communications media in the church. “Just read your Bible” may not have been heard so often in the first-century church, but it certainly is today. But is reading still the dominant method for communication in Korea? Of course, we should not ignore the advantages (accuracy and permanence in preserving information) of the text-based communication methods. Slightly changing Vanhoozer’s words then, the purpose here is not to go non-text, but to go more-than-text. Those who are really eager to know the word of God will overcome their discomfort with reading. But only demanding that the younger generations adjust their communication methods is perhaps against the incarnational model of Christ.

Fortunately, Korean pastor Dae Won Jo, who is also a comic artist, has created a two-volume comic Bible. Notably, he commented that the purpose was not to replace the traditional Bible, but to enhance or assist those who are having “difficulties” despite their desire to learn the word of God (Jo 2009, back cover). Again, using this resource and what I have learned from a class taken at Trinity, I began a two-month comic Bible course at my church.

Of course, we need to be cautious that only imitating the world’s communication methods can actually lead the Church away from purity as a godly community. Neither of the two words of the term Paul Hiebert has coined—critical contextualization—should be left out: critical, for the church must be aware of the danger of syncretism and erosion of core Christian claims by “baptizing wholesale” the world’s cultural practices, and contextualization, for the gospel itself is incarnational (Whiteman 2006, 57-58).

Two Additional Issues
Addressing important issues of contextualization in Korea necessitates two additional comments. First, Koreans should be aware of the East-West dichotomy brought about by orientalism. Such views teach, for example, that the West is rational while the East is mystical, or that the East is all about transcendence while the West searches for reason. Such views are misleading, and if accepted uncritically, can cause a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must remember that cultural differences should be neither ignored nor exaggerated (Netland 2001, 293-297).  

Second, there are cultural elements that can be lacking in the Korean culture and therefore must be learned from the West. One religious phenomenon shaped by the Korean culture is that it is extremely rare to observe Korean Christians praying joyfully. Most public prayers are for mournful repentance and earnest supplications. Such elements themselves are certainly biblical, and perhaps Western churches can learn from these practices. However, not having a custom of rejoicing in prayer may indicate that an important cultural element is missing. In this case, Korean churches might learn well from Western churches.

This article has discussed some of the important theological and cultural issues that have been largely ignored in contextualizing Christianity in Korea. The gospel is incarnational, and we are called to be as well. Furthermore, as society changes, so should the incarnational practice while remaining faithful to biblical principles.

The Church faces great challenges. As Dean Gilliland observes, unlike the incarnation of God himself, our attempt at contextualization always has the possibility of mistakes (Gilliland 2005, 497-498). Our perfection still awaits us. Unfortunately, some attempts in more liberal circles to contextualize Christianity in Korea have shown syncretistic results (Ahn 2007, 317), and as such may have led evangelicals to be over-guarded against the very idea of contextualization. The last thing we need as Christians is to undermine the universal principles of our faith in order to emphasize the local (Ott 2006, 312-314).

Nonetheless, the incarnational nature of the apostolic call still applies to our world today, of which Korea is an important part. Hopefully, there will be more Christians who will take this matter seriously and implement contextualization in their various fields.

Ahn, Jum Shik. 2007. Worldviews and Spiritual Warfare (in Korean). Seoul: Joy Mission.

Carpenter, Mary Yeo. 1996. “Familism and Ancestor Veneration.” Missiology (October), 503-517.

Flemming, Dean E. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Gilliland, Dean S. 2005. “The Incarnation as Matrix for Appropriate Theologies.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles H.Kraft, 493-519. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1989. “Form and Meaning in the Contextualization of the Gospel.” In The Word among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today. Ed. Dean S. Gilliland, 101-210. Dallas, Tex.: Word.

Hiebert, Paul G. and Tite Tienou. 2005. “From Systematic and Biblical to Missional Theology.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles H. Kraft, 117-133. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Jo, Dae Won. 2009. Comic Bible in One Day: Old Testament (in Korean). Seoul: Kyujang.

Kraft, Charles H. 2005a. “Appropriate Contextualization of Spiritual Power.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles H. Kraft, 375-395. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

_______. 2005b. “Contextualization and Time: Generational Appropriateness.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles H. Kraft, 255-273. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Netland, Harold A. 2001. Encountering Religious Pluralism. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

_______. 2006. “Introduction: Globalization and Theology Today.” In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Eds. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, 14-34. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Ott, Craig. 2006. “Conclusion: Globalizing Theology.” In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Eds. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, 309-336. Grand Rapids, Calif.: Baker Academic.

Ro, Bong Rin. 1976. “Contextualization: Asian Theology.” In What Asian Christians Are Thinking. Ed. Douglas J. Elwood, 47-58. Quezon City, The Philippines: New Day Publishers.

Travis, John and Anna Travis. 2005. “Appropriate Approaches in Muslim Contexts.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles H. Kraft, 397-414. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2006. “One Rule to Rule Them All?” In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Eds. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, 85-126. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Whiteman, Darrell L. 2005. “The Function of Appropriate Contextualization in Mission.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles H. Kraft, 49-65. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

_______. 2006. “Anthropological Reflections on Contextualizing Theology in a Globalizing World.” In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Eds. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, 52-69. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.


Seung Min Hong recently earned an MA in communication & culture from Trinity Graduate School and a Certificate in Christian studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 206-212. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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