Dennis Oh on How He Became Convinced Christianity is More Than Ethnicity

Dennis Oh is a cultural theologian and freelance writer and editor, currently serving as a missionary in Southeast Asia. He is the author of I Will Repay: A Cinematic Theology of Atonement.


As modern society careens to alarming levels of racial polarization, one has to wonder if the ethnic designations on many of our church signs bear any complicity.

Korean PresbyterianGerman LutheranChinese Baptist. The monikers exist to identify the minority—to make distinctions where there is a difference. And immigrant churches are certainly different.

But just as cultures blend, our ecclesiastical identities can as well. I know this because I’ve lived it.

When my family left Malaysia for Canada, we probably didn’t know much more about our new home other than that the cold was going to be extremely challenging since we only knew the equator. But thankfully, being an immigrant family from Kuala Lumpur in the Great White North is not as dramatic of a culture shock as it may be for those from other nations.

As members of the Commonwealth, Malaysians completely understand, and appreciate, Canada’s British-ness. I was only six when we first arrived, so much of my rapid assimilation into North American speech styles and patterns of behavior was heavily indebted to popular culture—including drinking deeply and delightedly from the torrent of available television channels compared to the three or four we had in Malaysia.

So it came as a surprise when I met Canadians who deliberately chose not to own TV sets at all, out of their Christian convictions.

Presbyterianism, to which my Chinese-Malaysian mother as well as my Korean father belonged, was readily found in our new home of London—a city between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, a few hours east of Detroit—so it was natural for our first church experiences to be tethered to a familiar tradition. We attended a neighborhood Presbyterian church, and were soon taken under the wing by a wonderfully loving and hospitable senior couple. Uncle Jim and Auntie Sheila, as I called them, became long-time friends of our family; they gave us our first experiences of cottage vacation, apple pie, and stories of the Second World War.

Despite the love we received in a largely white congregation, my father thought it prudent to transition us to a Korean congregation—probably as a means to preserve Korean culture within our family, as well as his own need for community among his kinfolk.

Korean churches in Canada in the late ’80s through the ’90s were a haven for a burgeoning immigrant community that was only starting to discover southern Ontario. Church was the perfect social gathering point for Koreans to do things in a Korean way—a natural venue for mother-tongue worship services, as well as for business association meetings for the 90 percent of the congregation who owned convenience stores. Church life wasn’t so much about being a Christian as about being a Korean Christian, so most of my fondest memories are bound up with culturally-bound relationships and activities rather than specific spiritual content. I later understood that our denomination leaned on the liberal side, so looking back I’m not surprised at the lack of catechesis or biblical preaching.

Few things feel better to immigrant minorities than sharing familiar food, language, and customs; but the cultural adaptations of immigrant children and youth would eventually disrupt the status quo. We were forming our own identity: 2nd generation, English-speaking—and often only English—Koreans, also called “2nd Gens.” While we felt most at home and made our closest friends within our homogeneous ethnic communities, the influence of the surrounding majority culture was undeniable and massively impactful.

As I was entering high school, I learned of a Wednesday night boys program operating in the nearby school where I often played on the playground. It was a kind of Boy Scouts outfit run by a Pentecostal church down the street. They roped me in, and taught us how to tie knots and took us camping. I absolutely loved it. Before long, the ink drop of my Asian Christianity was bleeding into my surroundings. In the process, Christ captured my heart, and I knew him as Savior for the first time. I formed new friendships, attended youth groups and retreats, and was eventually baptized as a Pentecostal at age 15.

For the first time, I was plunged amid a people for whom religion was more than a pretext for meeting with their own kind.

These youth group friends came from families that cared about which words they spoke and which movies they watched. I remember being puzzled at my first hearing of the phrase “secular music,” which had never registered as a separate category before. To Asian families like mine, popular culture was something to be consumed lock, stock, and barrel in order to decompress from a 14-hour day of work and study, or it was a necessary supplement for improving one’s English. For my Pentecostal friends, resistance to media was a matter of obeying the Bible, protecting their families from harmful influences, and being God’s light to neighbors. Banefully repressive as these attitudes may seem to passionate engagers of culture today, within that context and community this was simply an exercise in practical holiness.

In order to hang out with them, I adapted to practices like hand-holding dinnertime prayers, conversations saturated with Scripture, and vibrant expressiveness in worship. But it seemed to me like white Canadian Pentecostals in the mid ’90s were a different kind of people altogether. As I would shuttle back and forth between Friday night youth group meetings with the Pentecostals—effervescent, tear-filled times of prayer—to my family’s church where groups of kids played Kai Bai Bo, the Korean version of “rock-paper-scissors,” I was becoming convinced that there was something beyond our ethnic Christianity.

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Source: Christianity Today