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Jin S. Kim: People are dying for community

How did the Church of All Nations achieve diversity without talking about diversity? By talking instead about the need for racial reconciliation. And through honesty in marriage. And lots of Korean food.

August 31, 2009

To hear an excerpt of the interview with Jin S. Kim, click the play button on the audio player at the lower right of this screen.

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Jin S. Kim is the founding pastor of Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, Minn., a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation that is one of a handful in the United States with no ethnic majority and sizable groups of white, black, Asian and Latino members.

Jin has a passion for the ministry of reconciliation and a vision for the visible unity of the global church. He also has a way of disarming the tension around talk of racial reconciliation, often introducing himself as “senior racist” of his congregation and his associates as “associate racists.” With the ice broken, true dialogue can begin.

He holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia Theological Seminary and was a preacher at the 2004 and 2008 General Assemblies of the PC (USA).

Jin spoke about how CAN has flourished with Faith & Leadership in June 2009 while teaching at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute: “Shaping the Beloved Community.”

Q: You have what you describe as a paradoxical vision of leadership. Can you tell us about that?

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Similarly, to be able to handle paradox is the sign of a first-rate leadership. There's no reason we have to lead within a dualistic framework.

Difference is not an enemy. It's an opportunity for more creative leadership. But it has to be a difference with openness.

Q. Who are leaders from whom you have learned?

Moses had a privileged upbringing. He sensed that he had been called by God to exercise leadership for something larger than himself, maybe his whole people.

He was right. But he didn't have the character formation to do it. He was still violent, impatient and self-centered. Was Moses called to lead his people to liberation? Absolutely. Was Moses right in discerning that call when he was a young man? Absolutely. Should he have led at that time? No.

So God banished him for 40 years into the desert of Midian. Every impulse was wrung out of him: that he was important, special, indispensable, the smartest guy in the room. And when he accepted that he was just an ordinary man, then God calls and says, “I want you to do these things.” By then he had internalized his ordinariness almost too well: “I can't do any of these things. I have this flaw, that flaw, this limitation.”

Moses unlearns his power, his privilege, his formal education, his imperial temperament. He unlearns all that makes him him, and creates the space in his life that lets God be God. Those 40 years are why Moses could be faithful through every trial and betrayal and failure for 40 years after that.

And we go to seminary for three years and think we can then lead for the next 40?

Another model: Saul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus and asks, “Why do you persecute me?” Blindness. Healing. Does Paul do ministry right away? No. Galatians says that he spent three years in the desert of Arabia (1:17-18). What did he do? We don't know. My guess is that he was emptying himself of his Pharisaism (Philippians 3:5). He was an expert in the Torah, but he had to read the entire Torah again and interpret it all through the lens of Jesus Christ. Three years of emptying, of the desert, of barrenness. Just like seminary. Then out of that emptying is where he now can receive.

Q: The Church of All Nations has no majority ethnicity. That is truly a remarkable thing on the American church landscape.

Church leaders often want to know how we can shape congregations with techniques of leadership style. That's not how it works for me.

In our internship program, the first full year is about unlearning everything they learned about their personal ambition, family, generational narrative, expectations of ethnicity, gender role, marital status. We talk about the call process, the call to ministry, their insecurities -- everything has to be put on the table and deconstructed until we are empty.

Here’s what happens: A young person likes youth group, plays guitar and then becomes the pastor's pet. “You have some talent. You should think about seminary.” That's my story. How common is that? It's not about my character. It's not about the fruits of the Spirit. It's about some charisma. I'm there at the programs. I say the right Sunday School answers. I'm loyal to the institution of the church.

So then you go to seminary, where there’s also no place for emptying. It's just endless books, languages, knowledge, history, cramming, cramming, cramming. Then the call process, which is a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies don't disciple. They only dig for the lowest common denominator. Are you crazy? Are you sexually deviant? Are you going to cause a lawsuit? Are you going to be gay or lesbian and embarrass us?

So there is no space created in any ecclesial system -- Catholic, mainline, evangelical, Pentecostal -- for the kind of leadership development that we see taking place regularly in the Scriptures.

Q: It sounds like for you a leader doesn't need to divest herself or himself only in preparation for leadership but continually has to go on self-emptying.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught me about creatureliness. Even when we go to heaven we will be creatures. Lest I think I’m important, I'm one of 6.8 billion people. And there have been billions of people before me and likely will be billions of people after me. I have a saying that I have asked my congregation to repeat after me once in a while: “I don't need to do one damn thing.” If God needed anything to get done, God has countless angels to do God's bidding.

My wife and I had our children as an expression of our love. They're recipients of the outpouring of the love that the two of us have, which is the overflowing of God's love in us. Their only purpose is to luxuriate in that love and then share it with others. Now I'd love for my children to mow the lawn. And shovel snow (we live in Minnesota). But that's not why they're here. They're here to be loved, to love, to be part of a beloved community.

Q: I understand that as your church has thought deeply about racial reconciliation, you've found unexpected fruit borne in people's marriages becoming healthier. How has that happened?

Confrontations about race are the most difficult in this country because it's our nation’s original sin.

If we as a congregation can talk honestly about racial “irreconciliation” in this country across such vast differences, then we can talk about marriage. Racial reconciliation dialogue enters into marriage as a model. But then deep reconciliation between husband and wife carries over into our race dialogue. It's a kind of virtuous cycle.

The most surprising cross-cultural marital reconciliation I'm engaged in now often involves two white people. One person has, say, a lot of Scandinavian heritage, and the other person has a lot of Irish. One yells. The other withdraws. One says, “I can't get through to my spouse. Even if I yell, they just won’t engage.” The other, “This person is so violent. I'm peaceful. I don't yell. But my spouse is so violent.”

Not to stereotype, but what is the personality of the Irish people? What is the personality of the German people? If we know broadly what these things mean, then the married couple understands it is not just husband and wife that are unreconciled. They're bringing in thousands of years of their cultural framework. They're expecting their cultural heritage to be normative, so the other person looks abnormal.

When you're doing racial reconciliation, you can't call your culture “normal.” That is a huge problem with the race dialogue in America.

Q: Most liberal Protestantism is wringing its hands over being lily white. You’ve achieved what lots of the rest of us wish we had. And yet it doesn't seem that you're doing it by talking about diversity very much.

One of the fastest-growing segments we have is people who are fleeing megachurches. The megachurch is very slick. But the slickness gets tiresome. It’s the same perfectionism that people struggle with every day in their own personal lives. And then the alienation. And the superficial community. Everybody stands up together; everybody claps together; and everybody does offering together. But nobody knows each other.

There was a time when the anonymity of a megachurch was a benefit compared to all of the mess of small church where everybody gets into your business. But in an age when community is falling apart and there's such extreme individualism and massive alienation, people are dying for community. So they are coming to smaller churches.

We do a lot of eating together, a lot of potlucks. It's delicious -- the best food from all over the world. My pastoral style is to invite as many people as possible to my home. Most of the members of our church -- about 300 -- have been inside my home and have eaten Korean food at my table. And we have broken bread and rice, so that this person is not a project or an instrument. This is not a power lunch. Diversity is not a project for us.