Culture is like water to a fish: it is all around us but because it is so pervasive, it is often difficult to analyze. Culture is involved in every aspect of life, including religion. There are some religions that might be identified with one culture, but Christianity is a global religion, so it takes on a different flavor with every culture.
I have lived in three countries in my life: Canada, the United States, and South Korea. Canada is my home country and the one where I grew up, so I see the United States and Korea as my adopted countries. There are aspects of the cultures of each that I have seen in Christianity in those countries, aspects that the people there probably don’t even consider since it’s part of their culture. Some things I like, some things I don’t like. For each, it stems from some part of their culture that they consider important.
The United States: Patriotism
Not only are Americans quite patriotic, but American Christians closely link their patriotism with their faith. They’re not the only country to do this, but it is a very strong trend here. Do a Google search for “God and country” and you will find thousands of images of the Bible or a cross with an American flag. For American Christians, being a Christian is part of what it means to be a good American. They see America as a Christian country. There is an American flag in every church.
I think everyone should be patriotic towards their country, and I am very patriotic towards Canada. However, I have never felt a connection between my love of country and my love of God and in my experience, this is not a thing for Christians in other countries. I have always been uncomfortable with having a national flag in church. I understand where Americans are coming from, but here is my thinking:
As Christians, we belong to a group of people with ties that supersede national ties. Nations often go to war, making the people of those countries enemies, but Christians should never enemies of each other, even when they must act like it (for instance, the Christians on both sides in multiple European wars.) In my mind, the church is a place beyond nation and free of nationality, just as it is free of political systems and economic systems. There are Christians in other countries that do not like the United States, just as Americans might not like their country. But in the end, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
South Korea: Confucianism
Confucianism is a system of values and ethics, and not necessarily a religion. It is a way of promoting social harmony through strict hierarchy, so that everyone knows where they belong in a group. For example, in a family the father is at the top, then the mother and then the children. Titles are very important and honoring people who deserve respect.
In Korea, this system permeates every aspect of the culture from the grammar of the language on up. Christianity is very big widespread in Korea and the Confucianist aspects of the culture are present in the church as much as anywhere else in society.
On the positive side, the Korean church gets everyone involved. Even as a non-Korean, I was assigned to a small group in the church after only coming a short time. Each group was assigned tasks on a rotating basis, such as preparing lunch after church. Korean society is very communal and includes everyone.
On the negative side, from my perspective, the Korean church is very stratified with many different levels of deacons and pastors. The head pastor is like the father of the church and has much more power than a pastor in a Western church. Korean Christians generally can’t say no to the pastor and if he wants you, for example, to go to 5:00 am prayer meeting, then you have to. One stark example of this difference in culture was when I was in Korea and on a trip with a busload of people from the church. The bus had a karaoke system and the Korean deacon wanted people to sing. No one really wanted to, so he started choosing people. The Koreans he chose did it, reluctantly. The non-Koreans he asked simply refused. Korean Christians emphasize submitting to authority while Western Christians emphasize freedom in Christ.
Every culture has good and bad aspects of it although value judgments are subjective. After all, each of us can only evaluate culture through the lens of our own cultural upbringing. The points I bring up here might be handled very differently by someone from another culture and what I think is positive, they might think is negative and vice versa. What is important to remember when approaching cultural differences in Christianity is that while cultural differences cannot be avoided, they are not what is most important. It is very easy to concentrate on what is different since that is often what is most obvious, but the similarities are what are most important and what binds us all together in the end.