Ask Richard: My Korean Girlfriend Keeps Asking Me to Come to Church

Dear Richard,

My girlfriend recently asked me to come to church with her. She’s from Korea, and she doesn’t speak first-rate English, so she doesn’t know how to phrase things sometimes. She’s a very open person and she’s not interested in converting me or anything like that. She knows I’m an atheist, but she asked if I could come with her to church as just another place to go. I tried explaining to her how asking me to come to church is a very offensive question because it doesn’t respect my beliefs. Is there a better way I could explain to her why it is offensive to ask me to come to a church to attend a preaching session?

Thanks!

Brad

Dear Brad,

“I really don’t like it“ doesn’t seem like too complex an idea. That can be communicated even with pantomime, like the face you’d make when biting into food that should have been thrown out a long time ago. Your girlfriend sounds like a nice person and she’s probably not dense, so I wondered if there was some other issue going on here.

Just to see if your girlfriend being a Korean might have relevance to this, I consulted a good friend of mine, who is a member of an elite group of experts known as the Ask Richard International Research Team. She was born in Korea and has experienced being a member of more than one Korean Christian church in the U.S. She offered these insights that might help you understand what your girlfriend may be going through. She said:

“Of course, I could be wrong about this particular woman, and we should be careful not to make generalizations about nationalities too broadly. But I’ve never met a Korean who attends church regularly and asks someone else to go to church, but has no intention of trying to convert them. Although there are many Koreans in the U.S. whose spouses and partners are not as religious, the church-going Koreans are always, ALWAYS praying about them.”

“They do religion very well. It’s mixed up with the old Confucian teachings and the Christian thought, which means they are extremely affected by the pressure of duty and indebtedness. There are many Koreans who are Buddhists or even atheists, but even the atheist Koreans have the cultural Confucian upbringing. The mindset is very patriarchal and respectful of the elders and the ancestors. When you add Christianity on top of that and the belief that Jesus gave his life for yours, the sense of obligation to spread the word is very powerful. I attended a Korean church a while back, and they used to pressure the churchgoers to bring others there. ‘Just get them here, and we’ll do the rest.’ was the idea.”

My friend continued…

“It is possible that she may just want him to share in her life for another reason. If it is a specifically Korean church, rather than one with a general population, it could be as simple as wanting to introduce him to the food, since eating Korean meals after church is very common. Some people come to church just for the food, but if his girlfriend attends any church regularly, as in being a member of the church, I think chances are that she’s hoping that she can somehow change his mind about Christ.”

“If he does end up visiting her church, he would have to make himself very clear to her that he has no intention of changing his beliefs, although that will probably fall upon deaf ears. Whether Korean or American, so many Christians think, ‘If only you had the chance to hear the gospel message in the right way…’”

“Korean church people don’t push Americans too hard, just the other Koreans. They wouldn’t pressure him as much as his girlfriend to keep him coming. If he shows up once, that pressure on her will get worse. In fact, it may already be happening.”

“Since her English is not first rate, it’s likely that she goes to a Korean language church. They may have an English translation, but it’s not likely to be a good translation. It will sound like Greek to him.”

So Brad, if my friend’s experiences are relevant, this may indicate that this is not about a language barrier making it hard to explain yourself to your girlfriend. It could be that she understands you well enough, but she intends to get you there one way or another. To her, it may be much more than “just another place to go.”

Regardless of any underlying issue, it’s time to get the message across. Rather than further trying to explain why this is not your cup of tea, or why her persistently asking you is offensive, a simple, gentle and repeated “No, thank you, I’m not going” will probably cut through any barrier, whether it’s about language, culture or intention. “No thank you, I’m not going” repeated without anger or impatience, said warmly with no variation in the words. Tell her that you have no objection to her going all she wants, but “No thank you, I’m not going.” Forget explanations about why. That just keeps the subject open for discussion.

Do some research and suggest some specific things that you and she can share and enjoy about her background, such as Korean restaurants, cultural expositions and art exhibitions. She may be very pleased that you put forth the effort to explore her unique culture with her. But if you go within a thousand feet of that church, be prepared for whatever insistence, cajoling, wheedling, enticement and urging you’ve already experienced, to amplify.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Parse

    Forget explanations about why. That just keeps the subject open for discussion.

    This is 100% the case. Saying “I don’t want to do this because X, Y, and Z” just means that the listener thinks that if they can answer or negate X, Y, and Z, then you will change your mind. Everybody is guilty of this – myself included.
    By all means, work to share her background and culture. Meet her friends in outside-of-church situations. But just as you respect her choice to go to church, she should respect yours to not go.
    Finally, if you are able to work through the language and culture barriers enough to become boyfriend and girlfriend, for her to not understand your point after you have repeatedly tried to explain it to her suggests that in this issue she is being deliberately obtuse.

  • http://jessicasideways.com Jessica Sideways

    So, how could the message be any more mixed up than the rest of Christianity?

  • Christophe Thill

    I don’t get why it should be “offensive”. I’m beginning to think it’s a purely American concept… It can be misguided, it can be an error, but it’s not offensive, or I don’t see it that way. Even an open conversion attempt wouldn’t be, in my opinion. (Except, of course, if it’s the 5th or 10th after repeated “No, thank you”…)

  • Mountain Humanist

    It seems that is this is a relationship with potential, he should attend so they can discuss what is presented from their perspectives. I attend church with my wife and although I never argue about the sermons, I will often subtly bring up discussion points. Over time, she has become more liberal in her theology to the point that we are now looking for a more liberal church. That is one thought but not necessariliy the right path for this guy.

  • Drew

    I think “respect for belief” is a two-way street. I would go to church with a girlfriend, but she would need to be completely understanding that that’s as far as it would go (there will be no miracle conversion to theism), and that I should not be expected to go every Sunday.

    Similarly, I’d go to a movie that I had no desire to see simply because she wanted me to go with her. Or a store I hate because she wants/needs to go. These are things couples do all the time for one another. You’re not always a target…sometimes you’re just being a boyfriend. Deal with it. :)

  • sparkleriot

    Perhaps she really doesn’t want to convert him. Maybe she wants him to come to church with her for social reasons.

    If she goes to church alone, maybe people think she is single. From what my religious friends tell me, there is a lot of pressure on single women in some (especially more traditional) church atmospheres. Maybe she’s being approached by men or has people trying to set her up. If that is the case and I was in her situation, I would want to bring my boyfriend, too.

    I don’t think it’s particularly offensive to be invited to go to church as an atheist. It mostly depends on the reason. If someone honestly isn’t trying to convert me, I’d go once just to see what it’s all about. I actually like sitting in on huge Catholic Christmas Eve masses in Latin, with the candles, incense, and the awesome choir.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Richard, I always find your responses insightful and interesting. I think you should start an Ask Richard blog. Just publish all the questions and responses you send. Compared to how much time you clearly spend writing your answers, copying and pasting them to publish them online would take negligible effort and provide lots of edifying information.

    I doubt I’m the only one who would read all your posts!

  • ptah

    “I can come TO church if I can come IN church.”

    Never been asked again.

  • Brandon

    The title of the post was almost startlingly to me, as I have a Korean girlfriend that asks me to go to church with her!

    I actually do go with her from time to time, and it’s really not that big of a deal. It makes her feel nice to have me there, and it’s worth it to me to listen to an hour or so of bullshit to make her feel nice. I get that not everyone is willing to do that, for personal reasons, but I don’t see what’s offensive about being asked to go to church, so long as a simple “no, thank you” is accepted in response.

    On the flip side, I’ve been with her for two years and I’ve more or less known that she likes the idea of converting me. I’ve made it quite clear that won’t happen, laid out the reasons that I don’t just disagree with, but abhor religion and I think her hopes for that have largely subsided. It’s just one of those issues that’s mostly off limits for discussion at this point.

  • Trug

    The stance I always take on this whenever I have someone ask me to go with them to whatever flavor of church they happen to follow is pretty straightforward. I put the onus back on the believer by saying that it be disrespectful to their beliefs if I attended their service. While they were all praying and kneeling, I would be sitting there, arms crossed, thinking “what a bunch of morons!”. This usually gets the invitation withdrawn fairly quickly.

    Seriously though, even though I don’t believe in any religion, I do feel that it would be disrespectful for me to go into a church and scoff at their beliefs, so I don’t go into churches. Now if only the die-hards would stop trying to come into our schools and push their religion in a secular environment, we might just be able to get along! :-P

  • http://ottodestruct.com/ Otto

    I wouldn’t call asking somebody to go to church “offensive”, unless it became repeated and persistent.

    My advice would be to loosen up a bit.

  • Bryan

    As for the “offensive” part. If you had already explained to a person about your lack of religious belief and out of the blue they ask to come to Church, wouldn’t that be offensive? If I was Christian, would I ask my friend from Pakistan to come to my church and sit through a preaching session that may not reflect his beliefs? It may not be “offensive” but it may be a bit annoying to the person since it means the other person is not respecting the other’s religious beliefs.

  • Brandon

    I don’t think it’s offensive at all to ask someone to sit through something that doesn’t interest them. If she’ll deal with sitting through 3 hours of football, I don’t see the big problem with me sitting through a single hour of church. Are we honestly so sensitive that we need everything that we hear to jive with our belief system?

  • Edmond

    I don’t understand these relationships with people of two different faiths, or with one faithful and one atheist. I would always recommend learning of a potential partner’s religious worldview as soon as possible. Interfaith relationships seem doomed to trouble to me. When I first met my partner, I explained to him that I was a “no church-no way-no how” kind of person, and that was fine by him. Had he revealed that he was religious, that would’ve been a deal breaker. Religion is SO important to some people, it seems like it would be impossible to build a relationship with someone who believes you’re going to hell and they’re not.
    Brad’s already in his relationship, so it’s a little late for this kind of Monday morning quarterbacking (or Sunday morning?), but a word of warning, make sure you and your mate are “spiritually compatible” before making a commitment.

  • Oni

    i think it’s like going out and watching a matthew mcconaughey movie with the girlfriend. you may wish him dead, know the entire movie is bullshit, and hate yourself for agreeing to go, but it’s just something you do when you’re dating.

  • Lewis Thomason

    Run do not walk to the nearest bar and drink until you forget her.

  • anonymouse

    I think attending a church service with her will only give her false hope that she can change your beliefs. If you said no several times, then go, she will think she can get you to go again. You will gain more respect in the end if you are loving, but firm and say you are not going. Suggest something else, and take her out and have a good time.

    However, if she just wants you to go just to get a sense of her culture, maybe you can show up for the food after the service (?). That seems like it may offend people. Are there any Korean potlucks in the area? People congregate around food, so maybe you can attend those.

    I was raised Baptists and they have church potlucks ALL THE TIME.

  • Richard P

    How about, just say NO.
    simple is the best policy.

  • Indigo

    I can identify a little bit with the “offensive” issue, but that may be a cultural thing. I’ve been raised with the idea that a person’s religion is somewhere between their medical history and their sex life in terms of privacy – you never, ever ask a stranger about it, and if your very best friend refuses to talk about it, then you let it go. If they say, “I don’t want to talk about that, it’s personal”, then pushing the issue is deeply disrespectful. You certainly don’t invite them to your church when they’ve explained that they don’t share your beliefs.

  • atheomatix

    I don’t like the o-word. It tends to cut off conversation. ‘Irritating’, ‘naive’ and ‘insensitive’ are words that come to mind for me.

    But do you really see this substantial difference in worldview as something you can neuter of its divisive potential? If you follow others’ advice here and “just say ‘no’”, unwilling to discuss it, does *that* sound like the basis of a good relationship? To put it bluntly, I’m skeptical that this relationship can go anywhere.

  • Matt D

    words of wisdom from personal experience:

    A christian partner NEVER stops praying for your conversion. Their attempts may not be overt, but they always pray for their god to work in your life.

    I found some of my wife’s written prayers (i wasnt snooping – scout’s honour) and she actually thanked god in prayer that I had to go to church one time to see my nephew’s recital. She prayed that while I was there I would be touched by the spirit (I wasnt).

    They NEVER stop, they will take every opportunity even if it looks like they arent pushing.

    Someone commented about having a partner that thinks you are going to hell. My wife wrote (to God) that if our marriage broke up it wouldnt really matter because I wont be her husband in eternity anyway. It wouldnt matter to me if I didnt have 2 little kids that I love so much.

    My advice, be sure you are on the same page before you get in too deep

  • littlejohn

    Are you guys crazy? Everybody knows all Korean girls are HOT! Go wherever she wants you to go. Just don’t let her drive.
    Hang on, I’m pretty sure I can come up with some more ethnic stereotypes.
    Oh yeah, this is for you Hemant: I’m reading the book “Superfreakonomics.” According to the authors, comdoms have a failure rate of 15% in India, because the standard condom is, um, too large. Sorry, dude. I’m really not making this up.

  • Dandim Lee

    I went to a Korean church when I was younger (mother Korean, father American). There seemed to be a lot of pressure among the Korean women to involve their significant other (usually American. We were near an army base). Maybe you can go to the service spoken in Korean. She’ll be pretty sure that you’re going just to appease her since you won’t know what the preacher is saying. You’ll have to stay away from the older Korean women though.

  • yhj

    This is quite absurd. Just go once (only if shes truly wanting you to go for the cultural and social scene, which is still so sickly tied in with their faith), and if she asks you again, then she obviously wants the skyman to instill his “divine” spirit in to you.

    Korean Christians are the most relentless zealots I have encountered in my life, they are a problem in South Korea and it is horrid to see a certain quasi-theocratic movement sweeping the socio-political scene of Korea today.

    The best advice I can give you is ditch her if she asks you over and over again to go to her religious funhouse. Korean (Christrian)s are the fundamental evangelist jesus lovers of Asia.

    -from my own experiences with ill-minded people pulling me off the streets to ask me if I went to church. yeah it’s that bad.


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