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?
“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:
“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…
“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.