SEOUL, South Korea — Christians of the Global South are reimagining and reconstructing mission for the 21st century. The churches of South Korea are in the forefront. A group of Anabaptists recently visited South Korea to see the Koreans’ commitment to prayer and outreach for themselves.
Sixteen International Missions Association representatives visited April 16-26 as guests of the Shinbanpo church of Seoul.
IMA is a global Anabaptist alliance of mission and church leaders focused on church planting. It meets annually for fellowship, prayer and fasting, counsel and partnering.
Participants included members from the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Nepal, Kenya and the United States.
IMA President Yesaya Abdi of Indonesia planned the visit with Korean friends.
“During the past two decades I have visited South Korea several times, and I realized how much we have to learn from their vibrant mission focus and their faithfulness in prayer,” he said.
Shinbanpo covered in-country expenses for the visitors, including food, lodging and travel.
The church fully supports 103 crosscultural missionaries from its congregation of 3,000. It also serves as a catalyst for other like-minded congregations.
“When I came as pastor to this church 26 years ago, the Lord gave me a model — the Antioch church of the New Testament,” said Hong Munsu, the senior pastor. “Every member carries a mission vision, praying regularly for our missionaries. We have held a Saturday evening prayer meeting for world missions every week for the past 26 years.”
During the 10-day visit, the IMA team visited eight other Korean congregations. One in Gumi focuses on outreach to immigrant factory workers. Another in Yejun has created a culture of mentoring in which everyone in the congregation is either a mentor or a mentee.
Another, the large Sarang church of Seoul, is focused on discipleship, and people crowd in. Five years ago it completed a state-of-the-art building with an underground auditorium the size of a football field, linked directly to the Seoul subway system for convenient entrance.
IMA President Abdi noted the vigorous daily Korean prayer habits. From Monday to Saturday, the Shinbanpo congregation has two dawn prayers every day.
“The Soyoungro congregation in Busan has three morning prayers each day, and their senior pastor prays three hours every day; the junior pastors, two,” he said. “Pastor Hong of Shinbanpo reported that it’s very common for Korean pastors to spend two hours a day in prayer.”
IMA coordinator Tilahun Beyene of the U.S. was impressed with the uniform excellence of Korean Christianity.
“These churches are not ‘top-centered,’ ” he said. “Rather, every individual is involved. When we attended a cell group meeting, we observed that everyone was genuinely excited by their church. The congregations have momentum. Even the children are involved. Their dependence on the Holy Spirit is obvious. Nothing is wasted.”
Julian Khoo of the Singapore Mennonite Church admired the generosity of the Koreans.
“We’re seeing nonstop, lavish missionary sending,” he said. “What’s more, they care for their missionaries.”
Some IMA visitors wondered how to adapt Korean methods to the realities of their nations. When Pastor Gun Park of the Yejun church described how their congregation attracts community interest with small gifts like fruit baskets at Thanksgiving, Hira Gurung of Nepal remarked, “If Christians in our country give anything to a non-Christian, they are blamed for ‘buying converts.’ ”
Known for excellence
There was more to the visit than formal church visits and seminars. The group visited the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery, preserved by Korean Christians to honor pioneer missionaries who brought the gospel to Korea after 1885. That evening they were whisked to the top of the Lotte World Center, the world’s fifth-tallest building, for a view of the city.
Mission leader Paul Lee of Shinbanpo described how the congregation’s kindergarten has achieved such a reputation for excellence that non-Christians vie to enroll their children.
“Everyone knows that our kindergarten gives a commanding head-start for the university exams much later,” he said. “One of our alumni scored 100 percent on the national exam. In the course of a year in kindergarten, every child reads 100 books, memorizes Scripture daily and repeats the Bible stories they’ve learned to their parents.
“Pastor Hong tells parents, ‘If you can’t support our Christian world view, please don’t send your child. It will confuse them!’ But nobody pulls their child.”
Beyene said IMA launched a series of study seminars when the organization began more than 20 years ago in the 1990s. The purpose was to learn from churches that hosted gatherings.
“It’s time to do it again,” he said. “Despite their cultural insularity, the Korean church has so much to teach us. And there are others like them.”
On the bus to the airport, Bishop Kennedy Mbatia of Kenya described their plans for uniting 4,500 Christians of many denominations for a summer witness foray into Kenyan Maasai-land in August.
“Every year there are more of us,” he said. “This year we’ll need at least 60 buses to transport us. Our budget is 32 million Kenyan shillings ($318,000).”