“The Beatles for the 21st Century.” That’s how the BBC describes seven-member South Korean K-pop group BTS, who have rocketed to global stardom since 2013. They have become “a global sensation that generates mania and devotion in equal measure” (comparable to Beatlemania), shattering records and breaking stereotypes in their ascent to become “the world’s biggest boyband.” A recent performance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert made the Beatlemania comparisons explicit. Watch below:
What should Christians know about the BTS phenomenon, and why does it matter?
“How did [BTS] do the impossible, and crack the elusive and highly competitive American market?” Forbes asked. But they didn’t just crack it. They “smashed it to the tune (no pun intended) of 1.6 million song downloads, over a billion online streams, and a veritable army . . . of screaming admirers at each and every appearance on their recent U.S. circuit.” The mania extends internationally.
Koreans everywhere are watching with curiosity. Some are a bit embarrassed, others are quietly proud, but for the most part, we can’t help but be intrigued at our fellow Koreans’ achievements.
Whether you’re a BTS fan or not, it’s hard to ignore their impressive headlines:
Perhaps most astonishing about the BTS phenomenon is that the band’s success has come without them ever making an English-language song. Yet thousands of teenage and adult fans around the world are enjoying, supporting, dancing, and singing along with BTS in transliterated Korean, which they may or may not understand. And they are loving it.
Recently, a non-Korean pastor friend tweeted the following dinner conversation with his teenage girls:
Me: “Who’s BTS?”
Girls frown and pull out their phones.
Me: “So it’s a boy band?”
Girls frown even more. More videos.
Me: “All I see are New Kids on the Block, with better complexion.”
Girls: Who are New Kids?
Two things stood out to me from this tweet: (1) the Korean-speaking/singing BTS is indeed the new New Kids on the Block (or Backstreet Boys, or NSYNC, or One Direction, depending on your generation), and (2) today’s American teenagers receive a minority cultural icon so naturally.
What Does BTS Have to Do with the Church?
The Western church should take note of the BTS phenomenon. There are a few lessons it can teach us about our changing world.
1. The next-generation church is more open to diversity and willing to be influenced by diverse leaders and influencers.
If the BTS phenomenon reveals anything, I can speculate with hope that the church of tomorrow will be more open to diversity and more willing to be influenced by diversity. Today’s generation of believers, unlike previous generations, will have been more exposed to diversity and will be more willing to submit to diverse leadership. This is a good and hopeful thing.
Today’s generation of believers, unlike previous generations, will have been more exposed to diversity and will be more willing to submit to diverse leadership.
According to Ephesians 4:11–13, God gave the church diversely gifted saints “for the building up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Imagine the advantage of a diversity of men (and women) in local congregations. How much more will we experience the fullness of Christ when diverse experiences, wisdom, viewpoints, and gifts are cultivated through covenanting together in local churches, by the common unity of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
2. The next-generation church ought to look more diverse.
By showing the way pop music can transcend borders and cross cultures, the BTS phenomenon reminds Christians that the gospel of Jesus Christ has always been this way. From the start it was cross-cultural, and today it touches nearly every culture and people group of the world. This is one of the most beautiful and unique aspects of Christianity, and it’s why our churches should work hard to represent the vast multi-ethnicity of God’s kingdom: for the sake of a faithful gospel witness. For our churches to remain generally segregated by color, while continuing to debate about racial reconciliation and social justice, would be to miss the biblical vision of the eternal congregation (Rev. 7:9–12). Our churches should endeavor to grow not in diversity for diversity’s sake, but in gospel-revealing diversity, modeling relationships that would not exist but for the truth and power of the good news. In such congregations, unity is God’s goal, diversity is God’s gift, and discipleship is God’s plan for church growth (Eph. 4:1–16).
Unity is God’s goal. Diversity is God’s gift. Discipleship is God’s plan.
In Western evangelicalism today, I am burdened that there are so few healthy multi-ethnic churches pastored by ethnic minorities. Why is it so difficult for ethnic-minority churches to become multi-ethnic churches? Would it not glorify Christ if more of those in the majority chose to lay down certain privileges and submit to the godly leadership of minority pastors? Of course, the same challenge should also be considered by ethnic-immigrant churches and second-generation homogenous churches. The burden of our segregated churches today should fall on both ethnic majority and minority churches.
3. The next Billy Graham may not be white.
On a recent episode of the For the Church podcast, Jared Wilson asked Ed Stetzer who he thought the next Billy Graham would be. Stetzer responded, “The next Billy Graham is the Uber driver who tried to evangelize my wife and me.” Indeed, the BTS phenomenon suggests that the answer to Wilson’s question may be quite unexpected.
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being a no-name house-church pastor in China, faithfully preaching the glorious gospel of Jesus under severe government persecution?
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being the bold gospel preacher in Kenya, mobilizing pastors and churches against the epidemic tide of prosperity gospel?
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being the ex-Muslim convert, pastoring alongside a 70-year-old missionary church planter in Iraq?
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being the persevering Christian in the underground church, evangelizing hundreds of hopeless suffering North Koreans?
No one said he couldn’t be, but I confess I didn’t imagine the next Billy Graham as a person of color—until BTS became the new Beatles.
This should remind us that the aim and standard of Christianity is not one kind of man—whether white, black, brown, or yellow—but the one God-man, Jesus Christ, who laid down his life as a ransom for many. For in him, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).