Mission of the Korean Church

by Suh Jung-Woon

Suh Jung-Woon, Ph.D., an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Korea, for many years was Professor of Missiology at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  He currently is President and Professor of Missiology at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Seoul, Korea.

The following text was presented as part of a conference on World Mission and the Role of Korean Churches, held in Seoul, Korea.


Today the churches in the Third World have grown to the point where they should take charge of an important part of world mission. The Korean church is one of these churches. While the Western churches are burdened by their history of simultaneous colonization and mission in the Third World, the Korean church does not have such a negative historical past and therefore has a special role in world mission.

I want to call the title of this lecture "Mission of the Korean Church." We live in a time when the missionary role of the Korean church is important. In the history of missionary movements, I think, the status and role of the Korean church has entered an important phase. Many churches in the world expect the Korean church to play an important missionary role, and many people in the Korean church feel the same hope. I believe that the Korean church can contribute to world mission, considering the following several reasons.

First, it is said that today the churches in the Third World have grown to the point where they should take charge of an important part of world mission. The Korean church is one of these churches.

Second, the fact that the Korean church has long been a church of the powerless people, gives it cause to play an important role in world mission. While the Western churches are burdened by their history of simultaneous colonization and mission in the Third World, the Korean church does not have such a negative historical past and therefore has a special role in world mission.

Third, the Korean diaspora has great significance for world mission. About 5 million persons, which are 5% of the Han people, live outside the Han peninsula. The percentage of Koreans who live abroad is bigger than that of the Jewish race. What is the reason for the great number of Han people living in other countries? In a word, historically the Han has been a weak people, and thus suffered from invasions by more powerful nations. Many of our people left to find a better life, or were expelled. And many of those did not come back, or could not. Now the Korean diaspora spread to every part of the world, is very important for world mission.

Fourth, it is very encouraging for world mission today that the Korean church has a powerful missionary devotion. In a certain sense, the missionary passion of the Korean church is over-heating.

In spite of such advantages, potentiality, and expectations of the Korean church's role in world mission, it is very often said that the Korean church's mission has created various problems in the mission fields, as well as at home. I think that the following problems are particularly severe.

First, it is a serious problem that there are competition and conflicts among missionaries, denominations, and missionary societies. Moreover, in recent times such things are getting worse, with the rise of heresies and pseudo-denominations.

The second problem concerns funding for missions. Mission needs financial support. The supervision and administration of missionary funds has to be clarified. In this respect, the Korean church must reflect on its present reality.

Third, the goals and strategies of missionaries, mission societies, and sending churches are usually ambiguous.

The fourth problem is the matter of cooperation with the indigenous churches in the mission fields.

The fifth problem is the missionaries themselves. This problem is related to all the others listed above. So to speak, the above problems can be solved easily or can remain very problematic, according to who the missionary is.

Considering the question of missionaries, the first problem is selection. It is too easy for the Korean church to select a missionary. Not only the candidate, but also his/her family and educational background have to be thoroughly examined. The second problem is training. An OMF report, saying that the percentage of drop-outs of missionaries in the Third World countries is higher than that of Western countries, pointed out that the main reason for this is the lack of needed training. This indicates that many missionaries who received no training or were inappropriately trained have gone to the mission fields, and Korean missionaries are no exception. "Inappropriate" mission training refers to the situation that results when mission instructors don't have experience in mission fields and can only speak theoretically. It is true that because of the short history of world mission involvement by Third World, people without practical experience are participating in mission training. Third, the Korean missionaries are too passive in their attempts to adapt themselves to the native situations. In their attitudes toward language study, in their attempts to understand the native cultures, and in their attempts to adapt themselves to the native people and cultures, the Korean missionaries are too passive.

Finally, it is also a serious problem that non-experts put their noses into the mission of the Korean church unnecessarily or incorrectly.

In fact, all the honourable missionaries were not perfect. Those imperfect people were used as the tools of God's mission by God's grace, the Gospel was preached, churches were built, people were saved, and the Kingdom of Christ spread on earth. This is the movement of mission. As the Church always has to be reformed, mission also has to be reformed continually. Now we are faced with the responsibility to try our best to make mission whole. What must we do for wholistic mission?

First, for sound mission we have to establish a clear mission theology. Mission should be a wholistic work. Evangelism and social responsibility must be harmonized. Of course, one worker can be evangelism-centered, and another can work to carry out social responsibility. Generally considered, however, neither of these approaches should be in a relation of exclusion or conflict. When mission disregards social responsibility, it can become un-historical work, and when it searches for the social responsibility one-sidedly, it can lead to non-biblical mission theology.

Second, confrontations, competition, and conflicts among the denominations must be overcome. Mission is not the work of human beings. Strictly speaking, it is not the work of the church or the work of the mission society. The people, mission societies, and churches are only God's tools, and have to work in cooperation for mission, God's work. Meanwhile, in order to overcome competition, and conflict among the denominations, it is not artificial regulations, but the question of the spirituality and theological consciousness of the missionary, the mission society, and the church which must be considered.

Third, selection and training of missionaries has to be more careful and realistic. The core issue in selection and training of missionaries is missionary spirituality. The articles of missionary spirituality which missionary has to attain are transparency, responsibility, courageous witness, freedom from greed, and the practice of service and diakonia, as found in the Apostle Paul's self-confession in Acts 20.

Fourth, right relationships have to be established with the indigenous churches. Though it is impossible to state a simple rule, considering the variety of situations in the mission churches, the following principles have to be observed. First of all, the missionary can play the role of pioneer in an unevangelized area. At the beginning, the missionary may play the role of a parent who nurtures and cares. Following that, the missionary in partner relationship can cooperate with the native churches which have the initiative. But it can be called a successful mission when missionaries arrive at the last stage, that of equal participant. So-called paternalism has occurred when missionaries try to stay in their mission fields enjoying their dominance, or in other words, staying at the first or second stage described above. Many churches in the history of world mission have not gone beyond the first or second stage because of their egoistic attitudes.

Fifth, missionaries should concentrate their concern on training indigenous leaders. Ultimately, the missionary is a guest. It is native people who must lead and take the responsibility in their churches. Thus, the Korean church must cooperate in fostering the native leadership in effective ways.

Sixth, the Korean diaspora throughout the world should be used effectively for the mission of the Korean church.

Finally, I want to add two things.

The Mission Consultation of America was held in Chicago in June 1995. One participant asked as follows: "Now is the time when the number of missionaries, and the amount of related books and articles is the biggest in history. The missiology classes provided in the seminaries are the greatest. Then, why are churches declining in America?" Though there were no deep and concrete discussions at that time, I have tried to answer this question, as follows.

First, there is a mission theology which encourages mission movement, and also a mission theology which enfeebles mission movement. It is not always true that articles or books on mission, or meetings whose titles are about mission, contribute to progress in mission. Historically, mission movements have arisen through faithful revival movements, along with theological insights and prayers. As time has passed, theologizing or theological work has progressed. After consideration and examination of goals, methods, ideas, problems, and results of mission, usually too many complete theories have been presented. Consequently, there has sometimes developed a no-action situation in which nobody does anything. Ironically, there is sometimes mission theology which encourages mission movement and sometimes that destroys mission movement. Mission is substantially movement. It is what springs out. It is an event. Paul was an apostle and a missionary prior to being a theologian. Writing the Epistles, he did not call himself a theologian even once. He was given his mission as an apostle who was to preach the Gospel to the heathen, not as a theologian. For him, the prime task was the mission work, and theological thinking arose only in the missionary situations. It was the same with Peter. The statement "The church is apostolic" has to be accompanied by the words, "The church is missionary." For, without mission, the faith and theology of the apostles could not have succeeded. Therefore, the church should remember that absorption into theological discussion can undermine mission movements.

Second, mission is not a work of human beings. There is no mission of the human being. It is not by power, thought, or knowledge and reason of the human being that mission is accomplished. There is only the mission of God, Missio Dei. God works. It is God's work. Though we, the human beings, are unqualified and incomplete, we are used as God's tools by the grace of the loving God and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is important that we do this work under the control, leadership, and power of the Holy Spirit, remembering the words "when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." 

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