Safe Sundays in Korea - Sharing Hope through Hospitality

Today we have a cross-cultural Sunday hospitality story from Kara, whose American style of hospitality has been stretched as she has practiced hospitality in China and now in Korea. In Korea she's seeing how simple hospitality gives people the opportunity to open up about their hurts and find hope. Her story provides insights for anyone seeking to connect with a Korean friend or a friend of another culture at a deeper level.

"Kara realized that Asian hospitality is more formal than American hospitality."

Kara grew up in the middle of America, where hospitality was casual and comfortable. Meals were plain and desserts weren't fussy. The important thing was simply that people were always welcome around the table. Moving to China after college to teach English, Kara realized that Asian hospitality is usually more formal than American hospitality. However, she carried her more casual American style of hosting with her to China, often inviting students over to her tiny apartment to speak English and eat platefuls of brownies or banana bread. (Hint: both desserts are almost always a win in any culture!)

When Kara married her Korean husband Peter, whom she met in China, they wanted to create a home that would be open to people needing a safe place to talk, to laugh or to cry. Their first home together was in China and later they moved to her husband's home town in Korea, where they started both their family and a small English service at the church next door. 

 Peter, Kara and their children

Peter, Kara and their children

Korea is a place of great beauty, as seen in the rolling hills, in the art of the traditional food and in the faces of the gorgeous people. But the beauty of Korea is often weighted down by what Kara describes as a photo filter that increases the shadows, darkening everything. It took a while for Kara to put her finger on the overwhelming oppression in Korea. In fact, it was only when she felt the oppression come over her, too, that she recognized it for what it was. There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over the country. Kara sees it on the subway, on the street and on the playground. Hopelessness peers out from under forced smiles and concentrated faces.

"There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over Korea."

This hopelessness stems from the stressful everyday life of Koreans. From the time children are able to walk, they are placed in a school environment and shoved into literacy and achievement. By high school, students study from morning to midnight. It's a gruelling schedule that seeks to open up opportunities to attend the best universities, and therefore to get the best jobs in Korea. Once students graduate, they are pushed into an even more gruelling workforce where most people work 12 to 14 hour days, 6 days a week, just to make ends meet. This hectic schedule means families rarely see each other. There aren't many alternatives to this extreme way of life.

 A Korean church building

A Korean church building

You would think that for churched Koreans it might be different, but unfortunately for many, the church has become a place that increases stresses instead of providing a refuge from them. Competition and deep hierarchical divisions from outside the church are perpetuated in the church as well. Many churches are more like social clubs than places of worship. For some, church attendance is another guilty obligation. For others, church is an unsuccessful formula for a happier life. For most, church doesn’t offer a real solution to the hopelessness.

"In Korea's honour-based culture, being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved."

Koreans tend to consider pastors (including Peter, since he is an ordained pastor) as more holy and elite. In contrast, the Bible says that Jesus Himself “came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The implications of Jesus’ example of servanthood are profound for people of any culture, but for Koreans, whose society is based on understanding honour, being served by someone who is above them in the hierarchy carries a deep significance. Being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved in Korean culture. 

 A Korean church steeple

A Korean church steeple

Kara and her husband have found that inviting people from church into their home helps to break down hierarchical barriers. When church friends come into their apartment and see her husband playing with their kids or doing their dishes, it powerfully illustrates how Jesus turns human ideas of hierarchy upside down and calls believers to serve each other. Eating and sharing mundane aspects of life with a pastor's family has a powerful effect on guests, and puts them in a safe place.

 Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Almost every Sunday,  Kara and Peter invite the small English congregation to join them for food and conversation in their home after their 2:00pm service. Ten to fifteen people slip off their shoes and gather around the table. Peter and Kara joke that they are "boring" people, and that their intention is not to entertain or impress anyone with their hospitality. They simply want to provide a safe place to serve and be served. Their goal is to have conversations that offer hope.

 A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

"Using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors."

The conversation in their home on Sundays is in English, although most of the guests are Korean. Interestingly, Kara and Peter have found that using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors. This is because the Korean language is deeply tied to the cultural concepts of hierarchy, age and status. It can be difficult for Koreans (Peter included) to talk freely about deep, heart matters in Korean. But around their table they've noticed that guests often over-share when speaking English. Speaking English with Koreans in their home breaks down barriers.

For Kara, one of the most significant Sundays so far was when a new church friend sat at their table and shared with her husband that he doesn't believe in God. It was not faith but obligation and habit that had led him to serve in the church. In Kara and Peter's home he finally felt comfortable enough to admit this. Through simple hospitality, he found a place to unload, disarm, and just be without needing to impress people or compete for attention. He continues to come regularly to the Sunday service and to the fellowship time afterward.

Hopelessness still hangs heavy over Korea, but Kara and Peter are learning how Christian hospitality provides hope to the oppressed. Cross-cultural hospitality doesn't take fancy desserts or a fully adapted cultural understanding. It doesn't even require fluency in a common language. There is something significant about welcoming people into what seems insignificant: our everyday lives. Sometimes the most powerful way to bring hope into hopeless situations is simply to open our doors and let people in. 

How We're Reclaiming Sundays for Hospitality

In my last post, I wrote about a few reasons why we've been trying to have guests over more often on Sundays. The Bible commands hospitality, but it doesn't command Sunday hospitality. However, I wrote about why we are trying to have more Sunday guests. It's because: 

...eating together is a long-held church tradition. 
...Sunday is a day when we see others at church anyway.
...Sunday is a day when people often have spare time.
...it makes Sunday a distinct, fellowship-oriented day. 
...spiritual conversation comes up naturally on Sundays, and
...it starts the week on a positive, encouraging note. 

We've also been thinking about how to turn our good intentions into actions. Here are a few things that are helping us make Sunday hospitality a reality more often than not.

We're not making a lot of other Sunday plans.

Reserving time on Sunday afternoons to give or receive hospitality is something that is possible when we we make it a priority. We try to limit how many recreational weekend getaways or activities that could be done at other times keep us from being regularly present with other believers on Sundays. We know that if we choose to spend every other weekend out of town, Sunday hospitality and fellowship won't happen much. Thankfully, neither of us have jobs that require Sunday hours, although we know that for some believers that poses a challenge to sharing Sunday meals.

We're attending (and encouraging others to attend) the monthly Sunday potlucks at our fellowship.

Our fellowship usually shares a meal together every first Sunday of the month and we do our best to be there. In the last few months, the potluck attendance was waning, and so we encouraged people to put reminders out ahead of time, and tried to take along a bit of extra food in case people forgot to bring something. We can encourage people who plan Sunday meals by attending and helping out. If your fellowship doesn't have a regular time to eat together, this might be something you could easily organize.

We're trying to keep our Sunday hospitality simple. 

"When we keep the meal simple, having Sunday guests doesn't have to mean exhausting ourselves."

This is something I have to constantly remind myself (especially in Europe, where our guests may be accustomed to fine cuisine): our guests aren't coming primarily for the food, they're coming to spend time with us. The food is secondary. If I come home from church and rush around frantically, Sundays will be stressful. When we keep the meal simple, having Sunday guests doesn't have to mean exhausting ourselves.

(Note: we might assume eating out rather than in would be the best way to keep Sunday meals simple. However, we prefer to eat in rather than out, because our home sets a better stage for freer, more intimate fellowship than a restaurant does. That said, we do what we can with our time and resources. Some Sundays we haven't taken the time to prepare a meal at home, and we invite others to eat out with us. If we aren't offering to pay the whole tab, we try to go somewhere affordable so the price won't stop our friends from coming along.)

We're trying to intentionally host people from our church whom we don't know very well. 

When making invitations, we try to think about who might be encouraged by a visit with us, not just whom we would have fun hosting. When we have the same guests over and over, it's easy for the conversation to move toward common hobbies or recreational topics, but adding a less-known person or two to the group (or hosting accquaintances on their own) can help keep the talk from turning to trivialities. Recently we had several guests that we didn't know very well, and we asked them to tell us the stories of how they came to know Jesus. Learning how God reached into their lives and rescued them was one of my favourite parts of the afternoon.

We're not having guests every Sunday. 

It sounds funny to say that we're reclaiming Sundays for hospitality by not having guests every Sunday! But for us, every Sunday can't be a have-people-over Sunday. Some weeks are just too busy,  and a long Sunday afternoon nap is in order. We're trying to make sharing Sunday lunch a rule rather than an exception, but sometimes we need a quiet Sunday to rest and reconnect to God and to each other in a way that isn't possible when we're serving guests. (Today was one such Sunday.) Not having guests every weekend affords us the energy to enthusiatically host guests when they do come. 

"Not having guests every weekend affords us the energy to enthusiatically host guests when they do come."

Hosting guests always makes our Sundays more beneficial and constructive than they would have been otherwise. We feel more connected to our local fellowship and to the family of God. We hope you'll find the same thing, as you generously serve through Sunday hospitality. How are you reclaiming Sundays for hospitality? 

Why We're Reclaiming Sundays for Hospitality

If you grew up in a church setting, you may have known people whose homes were regularly open to guests on Sundays. However, if you're still part of the church today, you've probably noticed that most of us fill our Sundays with—well—not hospitality. Once the formal gathering time is over, we shake a few hands and then we're off to shop, watch a movie at the theatre, take the kids to soccer, or catch up on housework. Lest you think I'm pointing fingers, I've done all of the same things on Sunday afternoons as well (except take my non-existent kids to soccer) and there's nothing morally wrong with such activities. But lately we've been  asking ourselves if there is a better way to spend our time on Sundays.

Paul wrote, "'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but not everything is constructive." Sure, we can do many things on Sunday. But for us, we're realizing that one of the most beneficial and constructive way to invest our Sundays is by giving and receiving Christian hospitality. Here are a few reasons why we think reclaiming hospitality on Sundays in particular is worthwhile. 

(Note: Please don't get stuck on the word "Sunday". I know that for some of us, Sunday is not the day that we meet with other believers. If "Sunday" doesn't work in your context, please apply these ideas to the day of the week when you are able to meet others to worship God together.)

We're reclaiming Sundays for hospitality because...

...eating together has been a tradition of the church since its early days. 

When we read about the early church in Acts, sharing meals in homes was a regular part of their practice. To this day, eating together remains an important part of fellowship in your local gathering. Sure, it's not a command, "Thou shalt eat together after worshiping together." But if it is something the church has done for thousands of years, there must be something to it. Besides...

...Sunday is a day when we see others at church anyway.

Sunday is the day when we usually meet with our local fellowship. We currently live within walking distance of the hall where our fellowship meets, but others ride or drive 30 minutes or more to meet us there. Inviting people over after church is often more convenient and natural than asking them to come to our home another day of the week.

...Sunday is a day when people often have spare time.

I asked my husband to help me with this list and he stated the obvious: for many of us, Sunday is a day off, which means that most people have a bit more time to enjoy a meal together. Also, for those who are struggling with temptation, loneliness or anything else that seems to be accentuated when he or she has hours alone with no plans, being invited to spend time with believers on Sunday can be a lifeline.

...it makes Sunday a distinct, fellowship-oriented day. 

Another thing we like about inviting someone to "come 'round" on Sunday (as our friends from New Zealand say it) is that it keeps church from becoming just one of many pitstops on a day that is like every other. Many churches feel like spiritual gas stations, where people drive into the pews for an hour or so, get a quick spiritual fill-up, and drive on to do the rest of their Sunday errands. But one hour of being preached or sung at doesn't top up a soul running on empty after a long week in the world. Sunday hospitality can make Sunday a uniquely edifying day, also because...

...spiritual conversation comes up naturally on Sundays. 

When you've just heard teaching or sung good songs together, it's natural to steer the conversation in a spiritual direction. It can be as simple as asking, "Did you learn anything new in the message?" or "What is something you heard that will help you this week?" Recently a friend joined us for Sunday lunch, and within minutes of arriving he was telling my husband about the sermon at his church that morning. The words he and we had just heard set the tone for our afternoon together. 

...it starts the week on a positive, encouraging note. 

The people in our German fellowship have faced many discouraging circumstances in the last year, and some Sundays our gathering is small. We haven't received a lot of invitations to Sunday lunch, and so we know that others probably haven't either. There are some kinds of ministry that we cannot have because German is not our native language, but inviting people over is something that doesn't take advanced German skills. Through sharing our Sunday afternoons, we can remind people that God is going with them into the new week, and that we are, too. Sunday hospitality encourages us and others.

 As I was preparing this post, I remembered these words from Rosaria Butterfield, one of my hospitality heroes. She says that Sunday is the perfect day to allow people into our lives, even uninvited.  "Why do we make certain days ‘family days’? Sunday is the Lord’s Day. It is not ‘family day.’ It is the day for God’s people to be in each other’s lives without invitation." Those of us who are Christians belong to a family much wider than our blood families, and our homes should be open to that wider family.

We're not Sunday hospitality heroes. Actually, we're just a few weeks into our goal of being more regular about Sunday hospitality in particular. I'm not sure how often we'll have guests on Sundays, but our goal is to make it happen more often than not, like the early church and many godly people before us. Articulating some of the reasons why hospitality is a worthwhile investment of our Sundays (which belong to God, after all) has been helpful to me. In the coming weeks I'm looking forward to sharing a few ideas about how to reclaim Sunday hospitality, with stories from people whose lives were changed—or are still being changed—through giving and receiving Sunday hospitality. But before we get to that, who will you have over this Sunday?