The two-language service was one of three evening liturgical periods centered on "Come, Let Us Worship," a Korean-English hymnal resulting from a joint publishing effort by the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church in the USA.
Attended by some 100 mostly Korean and Korean-American church leaders, the three-day, late January conference at Wilshire United Methodist served as a formal kickoff for the new book, published last November. In addition to attending workshops each day, leaders put the hymnal to the test each evening by singing from it in worship.
The songbook comes in both a Methodist and a Presbyterian version. The two editions share the main body of 334 hymns, but each has its own worship resource guide particular to the denomination. And where the Methodist hymnal has responsive readings, the Presbyterian book has a psalter setting portions of the Psalms to music.
Compilers tried to make the book singer-friendly, whether the individual worshipper prefers English or Korean. "From page to page, it is all bilingual," said the Rev. Paul Junggap Huh, a Presbyterian who served on the hymnbook committee. Huh said the songs matched so closely in the two languages that Korean and English-language worshippers could even pause for breath at the same time in a song.
The new bilingual hymnal has several categories of songs, according to the book's Methodist general editor, Dal Joon Won. There are what might be called old favorites of the Christian tradition, like "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty." Another group consists of songs composed by Koreans, then translated into English. Contemporary English-language songs rendered into Korean form an additional category. The hymnal also includes songs from global cultures outside the Korean or English-speaking church, hymns adapted, for example, from Latin America or Africa.
Editor Won said there were three criteria guiding the selection of songs. The hymnal's committees insisted that selections for the new book be readily translatable, noting that while some hymns communicated well to Korean speakers, for instance, either their words or music could not make a successful jump to English. And compilers were concerned about much more than finding equivalent meanings for words, Won said, explaining songs must serve as vehicles in two languages for "feeling and also theology and thoughts."
The burden of history was a second criterion. Referring to Christians' hymnic heritage of 2,000 years, Won said those responsible for the book wanted the hymnal's users to join the stream of tradition. "We are sort of obligated to transfer that to our second generation." A third criterion was that, however effectively hymns bridged the culture gap or represented tradition, songs had to be singable by people in the pew, not just worship leaders. "This book is for congregations, not for professional people," Won said.
The hymnal is making its debut at a time when Korean-speaking churches, like other groups, are feeling the tensions of the so-called "worship wars" between traditionalists and contemporary tastes in sacred music. For Korean-American Christians, issues that seem to result mainly from differences between generations are complicated by language preference and levels of cultural adaptation.
Huh said Koreans in the United States pass through phases in their use of the Korean language. While children grow up speaking Korean and English, when they get to high school, they favor English. But marrying and having children of their own rekindles an interest in their Korean heritage. "The major conflict in many congregations we have right now is ... related to hymn singing" said the Rev. Woong-Min Kim, senior pastor at Wilshire United Methodist. "The old people from Korea, they've maintained the old hymns," Kim said. "The new generation want to keep the old hymns, on one hand, but, on the other, they want to be much more flexible."
The new hymnal also addresses what its creators see as a lost musical style. When Western missionaries took Christianity to Korea, they took Western hymns. Because of this, Korean Christians did not bring their own indigenous musical traditions into the service of their new faith. The new book is different.
Presbyterian Huh said the new hymnal incorporates authentic Korean folk tunes. The idea, Huh explained, was for Christian believers to "embrace" this aspect of their culture. Similarly, general editor Won said committee members wanted the new hymnal to connect worshippers with their "Korean heritage."
The Methodists initiated work on the hymnal in July 1998. Invited by the Methodists, the Presbyterians joined the project in 1999. Asked if the two groups ever had their differences, editor Won said, "there's no single doubt about that." Rivalries sometimes formed, for example, when the choice had to be made between two arrangements of a song, one Methodist, the other Presbyterian. And Won said the committee had been careful about words dealing with the sacraments of Holy Communion and baptism, on which the two churches have some theological differences.