Preaching to Possible Selves

A Contextual Homiletic for Second Generation Korean Americans

by Matthew D. Kim (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 226 Pages


This in-depth study on preaching to second generation Korean Americans, the first of its kind, is based on empirical and ethnographic fieldwork. Matthew D. Kim conducted surveys and semi-structured qualitative interviews with Korean American pastors and second generation young adult respondents in three geographic regions of the United States: the Midwest, the West Coast, and the East Coast. His primary conceptual framework employs social psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius’s theory of possible selves to facilitate the process of congregational exegesis in the second generation Korean American church context.
This book offers a new contextual homiletic model that enables Korean American preachers to engage in deeper levels of ethnic and cultural analysis in their sermonic preparation. Simultaneously, the author reconstructs conventional preaching roles of Korean American preachers and second generation listeners so that they may co-creatively imagine new possible selves that radically advance Christian mission and practice in the world. This book will serve as a primary or secondary source for upper-level undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate courses on preaching, communication studies, ethnic and racial studies, cross-cultural ministry, or social psychology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: A Journey Toward Possible Selves: Korean American Experiences
  • Chapter Two: Re-interpreting Experiences: A Possible Selves Homiletical Solution
  • Chapter Three: Research Design and Methods
  • Chapter Four: Embodied and Relational Possible Selves
  • Chapter Five: Spiritual Possible Selves
  • Chapter Six: Naming the Invisible: Themes in Second Generation Preaching
  • Conclusion: A Possible Selves Homiletical Vision
  • Epilogue: Where Do We Go From Here?
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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First, I want to thank the tremendous team at Peter Lang Publishing who made it possible to share the contents of this work. Thank you for helping me to refine this book with your wisdom and editorial skill.

My doctoral supervisors, Professor William F. Storrar and Professor Jolyon P. Mitchell, at New College, University of Edinburgh, provided excellent guidance and wisdom throughout my PhD studies on which this book is based. Thank you both so much. Your time, encouragement, and constructive comments will not be forgotten.

Scott M. Gibson, the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching and Director of the PhD in Preaching program at Truett Seminary, Baylor University, has served as a mentor to me for over two decades. Your imprints on my life are a blessing from the Lord which I don’t deserve. Thank you, Scott, for your mentoring, friendship, and collegiality.

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Words cannot express the gratitude I have for my parents, Ki Wang and Taek Hee Kim, for their love, sacrifice, encouragement, and ceaseless prayers. My in-laws, Chung Hyun and Jung Sook Oh, have blessed me beyond measure through their support. I also want to thank my brothers, the late Timothy David Kim (1979–2015) and Dennis Daniel Kim for the joy, laughter, and bond of brotherhood that we share. On November 7, 2015, Tim was brutally murdered in Manila, Philippines, where he was living and working. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. Tim, I love you and miss you so much. Dennis, I’m so proud of you for achieving so many of your possible selves. And there’s so much more that awaits you.

I cannot convey in words how appreciative I am to my wonderful wife Sarah who always knows how to put a smile on my face and who encourages me to look forward and never give up. Sarah and I have had the joy and privilege of raising three amazing sons: Ryan, Evan, and Aidan. I love you and I’m so proud of you. I pray every day that God will help you to glorify him.

This book is dedicated to my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Kay Friedrich, who inspired me to love reading, writing, and learning. After leaving her classroom over thirty years ago, she still keeps in touch regularly with me and my family. She’s been one of my greatest cheerleaders in life and has left a lasting imprint on me for which I am forever grateful. Thank you, Mrs. Friedrich! You have changed my life and have helped me to achieve many of my possible selves.

Finally, I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who opened and closed various doors in my life to show me that my sole purpose is to testify to his goodness and mercy. May he alone receive all glory and praise.

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We are living in a time of great diversity: racially, ethnically, culturally, politically, socio-economically, denominationally, religiously, and more. As such, the field of homiletics has witnessed some dramatic changes both in theory and in practice over the last half century in North America.1 Progressively, writers in homiletics have become concerned with helping preachers view the sermonic process as listener-centered rather than speaker-centered. The era of homiletical thought often referred to as the “new homiletic” generated vast interest in listener-oriented preaching from the late 1960s onwards especially in the United States.2 It could be argued that the “new homiletic” movement radically altered the discipline of homiletics by accentuating “the consciousness of the listeners”3 or put differently “how listeners receive the sermon.”4

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Despite this constructive shift in homiletics, listener-centered approaches such as those espoused by advocates of the “new homiletic” have not adequately acknowledged the varied and distinct backgrounds of ethnic minority preachers and hearers.5 In fact, it has become rather commonplace for preaching scholars to assume that ethnic minorities hear and interpret sermons exactly like their Euro-American counterparts without clear substantiation for their presuppositions.6 More specifically, Asian American seminarians have received little, if any, homiletical training in North American theological institutions which has appropriately contextualized preaching for the emerging needs of Asian American listeners.7 Consequently, many Asian American pastors have modeled their preaching styles after the pedagogies of their white American homiletics professors because no preaching paradigms have been constructed specifically for them.8

This book attempts to bridge this gap in contemporary homiletic theory and practice by focusing exclusively on a new “subculture”9 in the field of homiletics which concerns preaching to second generation Korean Americans. The objective in this study is not to provide a “how to” manual for the construction and delivery of sermons to second generation Korean American parishioners or to Asian Americans as a cohesive racial category.10 Instead, this book seeks primarily to exemplify the significance that ethnicity and culture have in the lives of second generation Korean American listeners who are inextricably tied to their dual Korean and American roots. For this reason, the central argument in this study will be that the act of preaching cannot be separated from the ethnic and cultural situations of one’s hearers. A second purpose of this book is to explore and reconstruct conventional methods of “congregational exegesis”11 for English-speaking Korean American preachers as they prepare sermons for their second generation Korean American hearers.12 Third, I seek to present Korean American preachers with a new contextual homiletic to exegete their second generation congregants employing Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius’ social psychological construct of possible selves as its principal conceptual framework.13 This introductory preaching model will facilitate Korean American preachers in becoming contextual “ethnographers”14 as they explore and analyze their second generation Korean American listeners’ lived experiences and images of themselves in future states (i.e., what I will refer to in this study as possible selves).

Possible Selves Defined

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The theory of possible selves was first introduced by social psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius at the University of Michigan in 1986. This concept represents individuals’ personal reflections and hypotheses on what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming in future states.15 These future images of the self are not “imagined roles” or “states of being” but rather “they represent specific, individually significant hopes, fears and fantasies” that each person possesses within his or her self-concept (Markus and Nurius 1986, 954). Possible selves are typically delineated into two different categories. For instance, a person’s ideal or hoped for possible selves may include: “the successful self, the creative self, the rich self, the thin self, or the loved and admired self ” (Markus and Nurius 1986, 954). On the other hand, feared or dreaded possible selves may comprise: “the alone self, the depressed self, the incompetent self, the alcoholic self, [or] the unemployed self ” (Markus and Nurius 1986, 954). A person’s significant behavior may be observed as an attempt to move toward or evade these various possible selves.16

For Markus and Nurius, possible selves are significant because they function both as “incentives for future behavior” and as “an evaluative and interpretive context for the current view of self.”17 Firstly, an individual’s self-perception of what is possible for him or her can serve as a motivating agent to execute certain actions that will accomplish the desired possible self.18 Only future self-images that are most valuable to one’s self-concept are eventually “accompanied by specific plans and strategies for becoming these possible selves” and will evoke the resultant behavior (Markus and Nurius 1986, 961). Secondly, possible selves may offer a criterion for evaluating one’s current self or current behavior. For instance, an undergraduate student with a medical doctor possible self may interpret a high or low grade on a biology examination differently from a student who possesses a lawyer or corporate executive possible self. In other words, possible selves can establish certain standards against which results are interpreted or evaluated. As such, the possible selves model supplies a conduit to explore the direct and indirect relationships between one’s self-concept and motivation (Markus and Nurius 1986, 954–956).

Possible selves are also described as being malleable for two reasons. First, they are usually internalized future self-perceptions that are not readily disclosed to others. Hence, any person has full liberty to modify his or her possible selves devoid of others’ awareness or influence.19 Second, possible selves are principally identified and evaluated on an individual basis. Only the individual can determine whether a particular self is possible or unattainable and whether the possible self in question has been fully realized.20

While the possible selves concept has been generally segregated along the lines of hoped for and feared selves, this study seeks to further differentiate second generation Korean Americans’ future self-images according to what I will refer to as “embodied and relational” possible selves and “spiritual” possible selves. Embodied possible selves concern physical or mental future perceptions of the self such as one’s physical prowess, mental faculty, education, professional career, marital status, family, and so forth, while relational possible selves regard one’s aspirations for social networks and relationships with others.21 Additionally, I attempt in this book to expand Markus and Nurius’ concept by creating a spiritual category to the possible selves model for the purpose of identifying and assessing these second generation Korean American respondents’ future spiritual self-perceptions concerning their religious, spiritual, or Christian identities and developmental processes. Stated another way, they will constitute a person’s internal aspirations and anxieties regarding his or her future spiritual existence as a Christian.22

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Ultimately, I attempt to explore second generation Korean American participants’ embodied, relational, and spiritual images of themselves in the future which will thereby help Korean American preachers delve into the consciousness of their second generation Korean American young adult listeners. Through surveying and examining these possible selves, Korean American preachers will then be able to affirm their second generation congregants’ positive future self-perceptions and challenge or raise questions vis-à-vis their more negative or harmful possible selves. As noted above, since individuals’ possible selves are adaptable, the objective is for Korean American preachers to begin assisting their second generation Korean American listeners in constructing new possible selves that reflect God’s purposes for them within an eschatological perspective.23

Origins of the Possible Selves Theory

Although Markus and Nurius were the first scholars to develop possible selves as a full-fledged social psychological theory, the notion of possible selves dates back to the writings of psychologist William James who identified the concept of the self24 as a primary concern for the field of psychology.25 James was one of the first thinkers to separate the self into two functional categories: what he referred to as the “I,” “self as knower” or the “pure ego;” and the “Me,” “self as known” or “empirical ego.”26 He then delineated the “Me” or “empirical self ” into three parts: the material, social, and spiritual.27 Within his discussion of these various selves, James explains that individuals “distinguish between the immediate and actual, and the remote and potential”28 within their self-concepts. In this manner, James became one of the first psychologists to articulate an understanding of an ideal, potential, or “possible” self. James even employs the term “possible selves” contending that people often reflect on which “one of the many possible selves or characters” will become realities for them.29 For James, human beings possessed myriad possible selves which were then ranked hierarchically within the individual person. He maintained that only the most significant possible selves eventually became actualized in real life:

Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick the one on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real.30

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More recently, other social psychologists have recognized a range of potentialities of the self. For example, the psychosocial expert on identity Erik Erikson maintained that individuals possess an “ideal self ” which comprises “a set of to-be-striven-for but forever not-quite-attainable ideal goals for the Self.”31 This ideal self was set in contrast with what Erikson referred to as the “ego identity” which was epitomized by a fully accomplished yet “forever to-be-revised sense of the reality of the Self within social reality.”32 Similarly, Ralph Turner proposed that “self-conception is more extensively shaped by what the person would like to be or is trying to be.”33 His notion of “self-conception” resembles Markus and Nurius’ possible selves concept in that it represents “what I am like in my best moments, [and]… what I am striving toward and have some encouragement to believe I may achieve.”34 Lastly, taking an ontological perspective and defining the self as an existential being, Edward Tiryakian contends that the self is “a forward-striving, future-oriented unfolding (remembering that existential being is a becoming).”35 Tiryakian proceeds to explain that it is only through death that an individual can cease becoming since with death “no further becoming in this world is possible.”36 From these examples, we see that there have been some comparable approaches to the possible selves theory within literature on the self-concept.37 What primarily distinguishes Markus and Nurius’ possible selves theory from these other concepts of the self is its concerted and explicit exploration of who or what the individual envisions himself or herself as becoming or fears becoming in the future. In fact, no other social psychological model has been constructed exclusively to reflect on one’s future potential as Markus and Nurius’ possible selves theory (Markus and Nurius 1986, 957).

Whereas possible selves are regularly perceived as being more individualized and thus “not well-anchored in social experience,” (Markus and Nurius 1986, 956)38 some of James’ contemporaries, notably James Mark Baldwin, Charles Horton Cooley, and George Herbert Mead, were tremendously influenced by him and each of these thinkers distinctively contributed to the concept of the self as being constructed primarily in social contexts.39 For instance, Baldwin directed his focus on the relationship between children and society arguing that children developed their self-concepts through imitating what they saw in society and in direct social experiences, namely with their parents.40 Eventually, he compartmentalized the self or what he called the “socius” into two interlinked parts, the ego and the alter, which are both social in nature.41

Cooley, regarded as one of the first “symbolic interactionists”, argued that one’s self-concept was inextricably linked to social dynamics.42 The term “symbolic interactionism” represented a school of thought which argued that the self is inseparable from both societal factors and how others viewed a given individual.43 In particular, he coined the phrase “looking-glass self ” as a way of explaining the significant role which others play in shaping one’s understanding of self.44

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Lastly, Mead defined the self as a social structure which arose out of one’s social experience.45 What differentiates Mead from James, Baldwin, and Cooley, however, is the radical or perhaps imperative function that the entire community or social group, “the generalized other” plays in the construction of the self (Mead 1934, 158). As Mead observes, “When a self does appear it always involves an experience of another; there could not be an experience of a self simply by itself ” (Mead 1934, 195). In effect, Mead argued that one can only be a self if he or she is a member of a community (Mead 1934, 162).

In connection with this work on symbolic interactionism, I will demonstrate how second generation Korean American participants’ self-concepts and possible selves are not constructed in isolation, but rather how they are directly shaped by their unique social experiences and other factors such as: ethnicity, culture, religion, family, education, socio-economics, and the role and function of others on the self. Particularly within a collectivist culture like the Korean American context, we will observe later how second generation respondents’ possible selves are often formed interdependently based on their social interactions with salient others.46

Research Questions

This book is guided by four research questions: (1) what are the possible (embodied, relational, and spiritual—hoped for and feared) selves of second generation Korean American respondents; (2) what is the present status of the preaching ministry within participating second generation Korean American congregations; (3) what homiletical tactics are Korean American preachers currently implementing to assess their second generation Korean American audiences during sermon preparation; and (4) what can Korean American preachers learn from the social psychological construct of possible selves as they explore the lives of their second generation Korean American hearers?

Possible Selves as a Conceptual Framework for Preaching

In this book, I conjecture that the theory of possible selves imparts a fruitful conceptual framework for homiletics that will enhance current methods for engaging in congregational analysis. I will briefly elaborate on some of the central ways that the possible selves theory can facilitate the sermonic process by broadening the preacher’s homiletical perspectives on the process of listener exegesis.

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To begin, since one of the essential purposes of Christian preaching is to initiate or foster change within individual and corporate listeners,47 the theory of possible selves initially benefits preachers by disclosing listeners’ motivations for future behavior.48 By learning about congregants’ possible selves, preachers can determine listeners’ incentives for thinking and behaving in certain ways. For instance, individuals that possess an affluent possible self may choose to concern themselves primarily with pecuniary activities such as working additional hours or managing their stock portfolios. With this newly acquired knowledge concerning what second generation Korean American congregants value, Korean American preachers can then incorporate into the sermon “a direction and impetus for action, change, and development”49 based on what their possible selves encompass.

Second, Markus and Nurius indicate that “possible selves function to provide an evaluative and interpretive context for the now self ” (Markus and Nurius 1986, 962). In other words, the way individuals view themselves in the present can be assessed by their aspirations or worries in future states. For instance, a graduate student working on an MBA in finance may currently be experiencing disillusionment because she in fact possesses a possible self of becoming a full-time university chaplain. Accordingly, Korean American preachers can start to explore with their second generation young adult listeners the connection between their current realities and their envisioned possible selves. At the same time, this study acknowledges the prospect that some people may not have intentionally explored their possible selves. Others may have experienced negative trauma in their lives or have perhaps felt trapped by their bleak circumstances. For these potential individuals, the preacher can investigate whether they possessed possible selves at some moment in their life journeys and what those earlier future self-images reveal about their present-day conditions.

Third, Markus and Nurius emphasize the relationship between current and future selves but offer little reflection on how past selves may affect future self-images and potentialities. For this reason, the present study attempts to draw attention to this de-emphasis on past experiences in Markus and Nurius’ possible selves model in order to show Korean American preachers how their second generation young adults’ hoped for and feared possible selves are directly impacted by their past and present lived experiences within Korean immigrant and American cultures (Markus and Nurius 1986, 954). Specifically, in later chapters, I will discuss the extent to which second generation Korean Americans’ potentialities of the self have been created as a reaction to their previous memories and social experiences as bicultural ethnic minorities in American society.

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Fourth, since the theory of possible selves is a multi-dimensional concept, it can help Korean American preachers identify the many different selves that might exist within their congregants. As alluded to earlier, the concept of the self has been presented conventionally as a duality which involves both a subject and an object50 or a dialectic referred to by James as “the knower” and “the known.”51 Others have argued that the self-concept embodies “a disrupted, plural, divided existence; the simultaneous existence of many selves.”52 Notably, Jan Hendrik van den Berg in his book Divided Existence and Complex Society suggests that the Industrial Revolution divided and pluralized the dynamics of social structure leading to a major shift in how people understood “the concept of the human mind.”53 He writes: “The industrial revolution is the result of the division of labour, which in its turn is the result of a general division. First there was a desire to divide, to split, to sever, to disturb the unity (of whatever nature), then labour was disturbed, split up, divided and then came the machine.”54 For van den Berg, the machine became one of the primary catalysts that “divided numerous activities into part procedures” (van den Berg 1974, 96) which eventually orchestrated the “disintegrated, divided society” and the multiplicity of different selves (van den Berg 1974, 131).


X, 226
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2007 (June)
USA Zweite Ausländergeneration Homiletik Koreaner Preaching Communication Korean American Congregational Study Possible Selve Ethnische Identität Second Generation Ethnic Study Kontextuelle Theologie
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 226 pp., 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Matthew D. Kim (Author)

Matthew D. Kim (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the George F. Bennett Chair in Practical Theology, director of the Haddon W. Robinson Center for Preaching, and director of Mentored Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.


Title: Preaching to Possible Selves