Incarnational Cultural Ministry and Cutting Hair

As I prepare for my time living and working in Korea, I am hoping to live into an incarnational model of cross-cultural ministry.

Sherwood G. Lingenfelter describes in his book, Ministering Cross-Culturally, how the incarnation of Jesus represented a person who was 100% God, but also 100% human/Jew. Imagine how the ministry of Jesus might have been different if he had refused to become 100% human or had he refused to be completely embedded in Jewish culture. Jesus became a 200% person.

Now, there is also a recognition that we as humans are unable to so completely become another person. It will be humanly impossible for me to become 100% Korean. Not only will it be difficult for me to become so fluent in the language that I can pass as Korean (over a phone conversation), but I would never be able to fully incorporate the deeper cultural assumptions/values/interactions.


In the image of the “cultural iceberg”, I can easily learn the obviously observable pieces of culture sticking out of the surface of the water, but I could only fully understand the rest of the under-the-surface culture if I were actually born again and raised within Korean culture during the most formative times of my life.

However, Lingenfelter believes that we can aspire to become 75% of a new culture, seeking to learn about the 90% under-the-surface culture and learning to operate with much of those assumptions. As we seek to become 75% of another culture, we must also recognize a trade off wherein we also become 75% of our own culture. There is some of our home culture that we will have to give up. There are ways that I operate as a US young adult that I will have to forego if I hope to one day achieve 75% inculturation into the Korean culture. So, I aim to become a 150% person in ministry in Korea: 75% North American and 75% Korean.

To work toward that goal, I have made the difficult decision to cut my long hair. I have been growing out my long hair since I started college in 1998. I once trimmed my hair very short in order to meet Hyeyoung’s parents for the first time. In that case I knew that just being western, white, and unable to fully communicate in Korean would be a shock for them. I softened the shock by not only cutting my hair, but also completely shaving my beard, and receiving advice from other pastors I met in Korea.

I had known that I was meant to grow my hair out long when I started visioning my future image in middle school. Since college, Kurt with the long red hair and beard, has become a part of my identity. I was also able to live as an example that shallow stereotypes about men with long hair (and other differences) stunt our ability to create the beloved community. However, as a US citizen in Korea, I will not be in a position to live into that reality anyway. Korean culture is more communal than North American culture, and while that has many benefits, it also lends itself to conformity in terms of image. There will be many other ways that my very presence challenges the “conformity” of Korean culture without also shocking them upon first meeting me. Also, it will be necessary to build a trusting relationship with the managers of sites where YAVs will be working, and with agencies to which we hope to expand YAV volunteering opportunities. It will be quite valuable to soften the shock with all of them as I did with my parents-in-law. Perhaps some day I can slowly grow back into, as my father-in-law says, “Original Kurt.”

Thus, I present to you short bearded, short haired Kurt. No, I’m not going to completely shave my beard… remember 75% Korean not 100%.





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