Home Equipping Leaders Adults What Korean United Methodist Churches Teach Us About Discipleship

What Korean United Methodist Churches Teach Us About Discipleship

By Jaekuk Jo

Korean UMC Gathering
Korean UMC of Santa Clara Valley (image used with permission)

How would you explain discipleship to someone outside the Christian faith experience? Would you say it’s a program? Would you say it is a type of certification? Or would you say it is a spiritual practice? Sometimes it is not easy to explain discipleship even to someone who has been part of a Christian community their whole life. Not because discipleship is an elusive concept, but because it is an ecosystem of experiences. This is one of the many valuable lessons I learned serving in Korean churches.

I should say that I am not someone who grew up in the Korean American context. You wouldn’t know by meeting me in person that I was born in Korea but spent my formative years (12 years) in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. So, when I came to the United States and began serving at a Korean United Methodist Church, I was and, in many ways, remain an outsider. I want to share some of the lessons I have learned while serving in Korean churches. I hope you find these perspectives from an outsider helpful in thinking more deeply about discipleship.

Lesson 1: Gather as often as you can.

Traditionally, Korean churches gather for daily early morning prayer, Wednesday services, Friday prayer services, and small groups in addition to Sunday services. Then there are usually abundant Bible studies and leadership training programs offered in accordance with each local church’s needs. When you put it all together, it can be a lot. I am not saying this is necessarily the healthiest model of ministry for pastors. It has, however, historically provided a rich environment of gatherings for church members and constituents.

Being encouraged to gather this often may not seem like the most practical way to approach our faith lives in this modern world, but the effect on one’s mindfulness toward the faith life is undeniable. If we set aside the toll it can take on pastoral staff, it is an effective way to frequently remind people they are Jesus followers on a mission.

Sadly, gathering frequently is falling out of fashion. Younger generations seek a better balance of life in and out of church. Some might feel it is unnecessary to gather that often. Some simply have no time. Add to that the shifts that have resulted from the COVID pandemic. While we have made church gatherings more accessible by digital means, convenience has become a higher priority for many. I too have attempted to consolidate more value into fewer gatherings. But cramming in as much as possible so people get as much as possible during that hour or two on Sundays does not seem all that effective either.

What I have observed is that there was a natural form of discipleship that occurred through the sheer number of times people gathered with fellow Jesus followers. There is a value in frequency that cannot be replicated with efficiency or convenience. It is an embodied way to affirm our identity and mission. It certainly is a challenge for modern Christianity. Given the tools we have available today, surely we can rise to meet the challenge. Surely we can hope to rebuild the vitality of a church that “meets every day” (Acts 2:26).

Jaekuk Jo headshot
Rev. Jaekuk Jo

Lesson 2: Go on mission trips! They are worth it.

Yearly mission trips abroad are part of the Christian formation programs in many Korean United Methodist churches. Both youth and adults participate. The kinds of ministries that occur in these trips are as varied as the places visited every year. Although this practice has fallen somewhat out of fashion, it continues to be an important part of the discipleship ecosystem. As a youth, I never got to go on one of these trips. But I was on the other end of them. I was the missionary’s kid welcoming Korean United Methodist mission teams to villages in the southern peninsula of Mexico. Every year, I would see twelve to fourteen of these teams come and go. Most years, I would see the same people come back. This gave me a unique perspective on the effect these mission trips had on the individuals who chose to participate in them, especially the youth. In the first year, we could tell that some of the youth had been dragged there by their parents. Some had come out of curiosity, and some for the prospect of visiting the Caribbean Ocean after their mission work was done. By year three, the transformation was palpable. Relationships had developed, and most of the youth had witnessed the transforming power of the gospel in the lives of the locals. By the time these youth graduated from high school, they had forged a lifelong understanding of what it means to be involved in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

One could argue that we need not incur the high investment of foreign mission trips to cultivate this form of discipleship. There are, after all, plenty of people to help in our neighborhoods. I won’t refute that; but in my experience, mission trips that take us far from our local context have a unique process that produces committed disciples of Jesus Christ like no other ministry does.

Lesson 3: Giving is a form of discipleship.

Outsiders often notice that Korean churches use multiple kinds of offering envelopes with numerous options on them. In addition to tithing and general offerings, people are encouraged to financially express their thanksgiving through the various special occasions of their lives: birthdays, graduations, weddings, a new house, a new job, or anything that is a cause for thanksgiving. Add to it the various types of offerings and the various services throughout the week. It is a church culture where money is a fundamental part of the faith vernacular. It has never been about the amount but more so about the ubiquitous nature of the act. I have noticed among millennials who have grown up in this culture that their giving habits remain relatively consistent with what they learned from their parents’ generation. While their lives go through seasons of “low commitment,” they never stop being financially committed to their local church. It is this giving that eventually brings them into active discipleship because, as Jesus taught us, where our treasure is, our heart is also (Matthew 6:21).

The most effective discipleship I have experienced is one that immerses the person into an environment; not just a program, or a training, but an ecosystem of simple habits and practices that help us remain rooted in our calling as followers of Jesus. While these lessons can be hard to translate to contexts outside the Korean church, discipleship is a fundamental directive for all of us. I hope to cherish the lessons learned and adapt to the challenges ahead. No matter the times, we are disciples of Jesus, and we will go and make more disciples of Jesus.

Rev. Jaekuk Jo (he/his) is an elder in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, currently serving as the pastor of Embrace Church in Alameda. He and his wife, Min, have a two-month-old daughter. Having grown up in the intersection of many cultures, he is passionate about serving second-generation ethnic groups.

Contact Us for Help

View staff by program area to ask for additional assistance.



* indicates required

Please confirm that you want to receive email from us.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please read our Privacy Policy page.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.