Are you hurting and broken within? Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling…”
I’ve sung these lyrics from “O Come to the Altar” countless times. I’ve heard the song at church, at conferences, in my car … but never did I expect to hear it on a hit Netflix show.
It wasn’t just the song. The entire church scene from Beef felt pulled from my life. As the worship band sang, the camera panned through the room to reveal congregants with their eyes closed and hands raised, a sea of black hair swaying in a rhythm that I knew all too well.
The sanctuary was well worn and outdated, the kind of space that could easily be converted into a multipurpose room. Mismatched chairs in rows served as pews, and the tilted commercial vertical blinds didn’t really block out the light. The doughnuts after the service were all too familiar. The only way it could’ve been better is if they had eaten rice, kimchi, and bean sprout or radish soup.
In the Netflix dark comedy Beef—currently the most popular show on the platform—actor Steven Yeun costars as Danny Cho, a struggling contractor who gets involved in a road rage incident. He’s had a hard life, and in a rock-bottom moment, he walks into a church sanctuary. Danny feels out of place in a room that aesthetically is anything but conducive to worship, yet he gets immersed in the communal praise around him. He cries, and a pastor comes to pray over him.
The worship hit especially close to home for me; not only did it remind me of nearly every Korean American immigrant church I attended growing up, but I also used to serve at the Los Angeles church whose band appears in the show. Hearing lyrics about God’s grace extended to us in our brokenness was so familiar that it felt exposing, nostalgic, and even embarrassing at the same time. The experience was so authentic, it almost felt contrived.
For many who grew up in the Korean American church—or in Asian American Christian communities whose church experiences were shaped by Korean American Protestantism—the worship scenes from Beef were instantly recognizable and generated a visceral response. And the reactions proved to be a bit of a Rorschach test.
For some, the scene evoked fond memories of growing up in the church in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, or 2000s. It brought to mind those powerful spiritual moments at church that marked their weeks, months, or even years. It brought them back to a time and space where they felt like they truly belonged—a place of shared culture and shared faith.
Viewers who knew these kinds of churches may have longed for the communities they had growing up, imperfect but loving in their fellowship. One Korean American pastor friend shared that it reminded him of the moment he said yes to Jesus in college, even though he grew up as a pastor’s kid.
Others saw Danny’s tearful visit to the church more negatively. They remembered the ways they were manipulated by church leaders, disillusioned by a performative spirituality, and hurt by the people they were told to trust. The church sanctuary in Beef took them back to spaces where they were ostracized, exploited, and even abused—toxic and traumatizing places that they have worked hard to escape.
One reason the worship scenes felt real to us and could immediately trigger our memories may be that the worship was real. That’s what Citizens LA pastor Jason Min, whose praise band played for the church scenes, shared with me.
By Min’s account, they were actually leading worship before the cameras, not performing or pretending to do so. Many of the extras in the congregation came from Citizens LA church, and they worshiped like they do each Sunday morning. I know because they were my worship band when I lived in LA.
Their worship in Beef resonated before it even aired. The show has an all-Asian cast, and many of those who were working on the set or in the background commented that the worship set scenes impacted them.
Min told me that people at the filming commented on the peace they felt or said that singing the lyrics to “O Come to the Altar” a hundred times did something to them. They shared that they didn’t know whether it meant they would go to church or go back to church but that they would be sitting with what they experienced for some time.
How could the same scene lead to such different conclusions? The different responses to the worship in Beef reflect the complexity and complications of the church that we often fail to hold in tension. The same community can embody both faithfulness and failure. Good and evil can coexist among us and within us, and there can be holes in our holiness.
Despite our best intentions and efforts, the expressions of church that have blessed so many people have also left many others broken. This is something that we are challenged to reckon with, both for the sake of those whom the church has harmed and neglected to heal and for the church’s witness going forward.
The people who cringe at the portrayal of worship in the show are not just critics on the internet. They are people we once sung and served beside, who are brokenhearted to leave behind a faith that once meant so much; they are the youth in our community who have little patience for performance, edifice, or cover-up.
I serve as the executive director of TENx10, an initiative at Fuller to make faith matter more for 10 million young people over the next 10 years. Research by the Pinetops Foundation projects that a million young people will walk away from Christianity every year, putting the faith in a minority within the next 30 years.
I also serve as the president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative, and while Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial demographic in the United States, our Christian affiliation has already dropped around 8 percent within the past decade.
Korean Americans—who make up about a third of the Asian American evangelical population, despite being just a tenth of the Asian American population more broadly—are seeing some of the most significant decline. I’m still surprised and saddened when someone I never thought would walk away from the church tells me that they just don’t believe and don’t know if they’ve ever believed. Much of the time, they’ve seen hypocrisy and failure to self-reflect within the church—and found more meaningful community outside it.
Faced with growing numbers leaving the faith, our options aren’t just to build a fortress or to burn everything down. We know that with enough humility, repentance, faith, courage, and conviction, we can make space to cultivate more of the blessed and address the broken.
Instead of villainizing those who are questioning, doubting, or “deconstructing” their faith (or even walking away), the church should be a place that embraces them. We can create ample space for concerns—after all, Jesus never turned someone away for asking an earnest question, though he did confound the religious leaders who tried to box him in.
We must work together to discern and address the things that have left so many devastated and wounded: hypocrisy from leaders and legalistic theology. This means making appropriate adjustments while remaining faithful to what is true, pressing into the pain instead of moving away from it.
There are pastors, elders, deacons, and entire church communities who are seeking to find ways to “do church” in a way that accounts for the hurting, wounded, skeptical, and cynical because they understand that God is big enough for it all.
Leaders have become more aware of the language and terminology they use around those navigating church hurt. Rather than expecting or forcing participation, we can set up gatherings to explain the purpose of what we do and invite people to participate if they are ready. Leaders in these setups can preserve gospel truths in their teachings while letting people choose how to engage and making room to hear out their pain and wariness.
The church needs to find better ways to address its failures and brokenness while maintaining its commitment to what is good, true, and beautiful. We need to press into all that makes faith true to Christ and what God calls Christians to be. We need to develop a place that can truly care for those who are “hurting and broken within.”
Part of that means creating more avenues to explore and interrogate the factors that have shaped us and our communities. In a small way, by creating a realistic window into the Korean American church experience, Beef has placed a mirror before the church and sparked a much-needed discussion that I hope we continue.
Raymond Chang is the president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and the executive director for the TENx10 Collaboration, an initiative of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Seminary. He lives in the Chicagoland area with his wife, Jessica, and daughter and speaks throughout the country on issues pertaining to Christianity and culture and to race and faith.
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