The Gospel in a Changing Korea

Stephen Um is the planter and senior pastor of Citylife Boston, a multiethnic congregation in downtown Boston. A Korean-American, he now serves as Associate Training Director for City to City Asia as well as a Council Member of The Gospel Coalition.

On February 20-21, 2012, City to City Asia hosted a two-day intensive Gospel in the City conference in the Yeong-jae district of Seoul, South Korea. Our meeting took place at Torch Theological Seminary on one of the campuses of Onnuri Presbyterian Church, one of the largest churches in Seoul.

With fifty to sixty leaders in attendance, we had a healthy combination of church planters, assistant pastors, and pastors of established churches. Many leaders in the Korean church have gone to seminary in the US and are tracking the latest ministry trends, and most had heard of but had not had direct contact with Redeemer City to City before.

The Conference
One of the highlights of my travels to Seoul was connecting with Jonathan Oh, who pastors New City Church, a City to City church plant in the Gangnam district. Jonathan and New City are doing well, and after having been there for a few years they have built a strong core. Jonathan did a great job organizing the conference, including getting hundreds of pages translated into Korean! He even served as a translator on the few occasions when, after teaching most of the sessions in Korean, I needed to switch over to English to better articulate the material. Duranno, a Korean publishing house, was also present to show their new edition of Tim Keller's book, Generous Justice, with hopes of releasing more books soon.

Of the 8 or 9 sessions that we taught, the more challenging to present and grasp were on contextualization and gospel preaching. The latter was particularly challenging because it breaks from the traditional method of preaching taught in many Korean seminaries. This somewhat moralistic preaching—largely shaped by a privileging of systematic theology—tends to be the norm. The concept of preaching we presented of reading the scriptures canonically and then preaching from a redemptive-historical, christo-telic perspective is new and challenging. However, I am hopeful that the consideration of this different approach to preaching will lead many pastors to gain a deeper knowledge of the gospel and how to preach it to others. It was encouraging to see Pastor Oh's example of someone who has truly grasped the Gospel DNA—that is, the core principles on how the gospel changes hearts, communities, and cities—and has contextualized it for the Korean culture.

The Church in Korea 
Even though Stephen Ro (the other trainer, a planter and pastor of Living Faith Community Church in Queens) and myself are ethnically Korean, this trip allowed us to learn more about Korean culture than any other trip we've been on in the past. And as I reflect on the state of the gospel in Korea, I first want to acknowledge that God has immensely blessed the nation, and Seoul in particular. Korea is the only Asian nation where Christianity has taken hold in a significant way, the result of the faithful work of Presbyterian missionaries over 100 years ago, and despite heavy initial persecution. It is clear to me that the vibrant spirituality of Korean believers is unmatched, and in many ways, through the faith of my parents and community, I am the product of the work that God has been doing there for many years.

Having said this, many now believe that the Korean church, on the whole, is in a season of decline. While Korea is often cited as being 30-35% Christian, the most recent census numbers indicate that that number has decreased to about 18%. While this is still a staggering number for Asia, the drastic decline is hard to ignore. Furthermore, it is now the case that less than 2% of twenty-somethings regularly attend church, leading us to believe that Korea's religious future may look quite a bit like that of other developed nations. Yes, there was a cultural moment 20 or 30 years ago when an attractional, come-and-see model produced results and numbers, but this is simply no longer the case. 

While there has been phenomenal development of theological education and ministerial structures over the last few decades, there has been little work done on how the church in Korea can integrate a gospel worldview into the culture, which has led to a lack of shaping influence and cultural renewal. The prevailing approach tends to have an unbalanced emphasis on evangelism and church growth without as much emphasis on church health, how the gospel changes us, social justice and mercy, and the integration of faith and work in an achievement-oriented culture. The prevailing expectation is that the world will continue to come into the church, effectively creating an ingrown church that lacks the means to reach out. (This is not according to my outsider perspective, but according to my conversations with Korean leaders and pastors who acknowledge that the church's influence in reaching the younger generation is slipping.)

For these reasons, after visiting Seoul this time around, I am compelled to communicate the need for a gospel-movement such as the one we are praying and working for through City to City. The church is in need of a thick gospel theological vision that shapes every dimension of its life and ministry. Churches need to be planted with sensibilities that will shift the directional flow from an outside-in to an inside-out gospel approach, that will turn the cultural idol of power accumulation upside-down, leading to radical power-sharing, which will avoid an overly triumphalistic approach to culture yet maintain a big vision for seeing the culture renewed with the gospel. Though all signs point to the church in Seoul experiencing a drastic and continual decline, it may be an opportunity for many new gospel churches to be planted—churches that will bring about gospel renewal and revival in new ways. Efforts like the recent Gospel in the City conference will go a long way toward equipping pastors and church planters with a robust gospel theology, winsome approach to skeptics, and an understanding of culture that can prepare the way for a gospel movement.

You can see photos from the event on Redeemer City to City's Facebook page.