I am writing this on the plane from Korea, returning home to Sydney after an eventful few days speaking at a conference for Presbyterian ministers. It has been an amazing experience – as well as a challenging and eye-opening one. The following are some simple random observations about culture and church that I take home with me.
- Seoul/Incheon is an incredible city. I didn’t see much of it but it is the biggest city I have ever been in. It seems to go on forever. Sydney is a massive city for me – but Seoul is in a different league. Combined, as it is, with Incheon, it has a population of over 23 million people. Along with others of the Asian super cities it was an interesting glimpse of the future. Seoul is one of the cleanest and most technologically advanced cities I have ever been in. The Koreans seem to be in general far ahead of us in technology.
Korea is the most homogenous country I have ever been in. 99% of people in the country are ethnic Korean. One man told me that the country was much more international and multi-racial – but I saw no sign of that. In church, in restaurants, even on the plane it seemed as though I was the only non-Korean. It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, even when a wee boy in the restaurant could not stop staring at me in amazement – but it was interesting to observe. I’m sure there are advantages and disadvantages to that. I wonder whether the cultural unity is worth the price of the lack of diversity. In that sense it is very similer to the Scandinavian countries – who are still, despite recent immigration, largely homogeneous.
- Koreans are older than us. Or at least if I was Korean my official age would be a year older. They count age from conception – from before you are actually born. Why not? I loved that recognition of the human baby in the womb.
- Korean food is unique. Every culture has its own cuisine – usually influenced by other regional cuisines. I tried to eat as much variety as possible – I love the Kimchi, the seaweed soup and the beef on the bone broth with rice – simple yet tasty and nutrious. We did have an Italian/Korean meal which was fascinating – I had the spicy seafood pasta. It was hot but not bad – but it was lovely that the waitress kept checking to see that the foreigner was ok!
- There is something wrong in Korean society – as there is in every culture. Korea has the highest female suicide rate in the world, and the third highest male suicide rate. As the society secularises and modernizes there are many good aspects – but there is also the danger that some good things from the past are being lost, and replaced by some of the worst things from the West. Individualism, consumerism and a superficial and shallow entertainment culture combine with a culture of seeking to avoid shame. Loneliness, despair and existentialist angst are I suspect major problems.
- There was a real and genuine fear of Coronavirus. The young man sitting beside me on the plane just leaned over excitedly and pointing at his phone which indicated that today another 15 people were infected he declared “we are just getting out in time!”. Masks are everywhere. I even got into the habit of using the many strategically placed hand sanitisers. After preaching in church on Sunday we did not shake hands, but instead bowed to one another. I actually loved the constant bowing – it seemed to me gentle and respectful. And that also struck me. I know we shouldn’t judge by appearances but if I did I would say that Koreans, especially the women, are the kindest people in the world! The faces seemed to me to be full of kindness.
Lets move on to the Church.
- The Korean Church has so much to teach us. The little that I saw and the much that I heard was in general very impressive. It’s not just the size and scale (22 million Koreans profess to be Protestants – most of them in the Presbyterian church – there are 60,000 churches in the country). We have a lot to learn from the history, thinking, prayer and missiology of the Korean Church. But it’s not all rosy.
- The Korean church has stalled. In fact if anything it is beginning to decline and much of the Church seems to be following the pattern we had in Scotland – a combination of denial and division. One small indication of this decline is that the seminary of one of the leaders of the conference has gone down from 2,500 students to 1,700 in five years. The church needs to come to grips fairly quickly with what is going on in the wider culture. I’m not all that sure how my talks went down but it seemed that there were at least a few who appreciated the application of the Gospel to contemporary life. That is a worldwide need for the Church. I greatly enjoyed meeting with some African and Indonesian brothers and sisters – who said they felt it was just what their churches at home needed.
The Scots have made a significant contribution to the Korean church. And the Welsh, Irish, English, Australians and Americans. And they are remembered to this day with deep gratitude and thankfulness. I suspect that none of the missionaries who left their homelands to come to Korea, not knowing whether they would ever return to their native land (some didn’t) could have imagined that more than a hundred years later the Korean Church would have 22 million members – or that Koreans would now be the 2nd largest national missionary force in the world (after the US). One minister I met today told of his Presbyterian mission agency which currently has 2,500 missionaries serving overseas in 140 different countries. Little could John Knox imagine that his Reformation in the tiny country of Scotland would lead to millions from a country he had never heard from becoming followers of Christ!
- The Puritans are big in the Presbyterian church – or at least amongst the pastors I was talking to. The pastors extensive library in the church I was speaking at – was filled with both Korean and English editions of Owen, Flavel, Calvin, Sibbes and others. This was enormously encouraging because for the the Puritans are the great expositors of Scripture to the heart. But there is a caveat – as one man pointed out today – there is the danger of those who take great pride in stressing that they are ‘Reformed’ but it is a head knowledge, not a heart experience.
- The Korean church is in trouble – I have come away with a great sadness as well as encouragement. It is of course impossible for an insider – let alone an outsider to say with any absolute certainty – but I fear that the Korean church is in great danger. Living in the midst of an increasing secular culture, just at the point where the church needs to be at its strongest; the church has been weakened by sexual scandals, material greed, petty divisions, lawsuits amongst believers, competitiveness amongst churches and a lack of vision. Having said that…
- The Korean Church has a great opportunity to bless the whole church of Jesus Christ. If the Church can wake up and strengthen what remains and is in danger of dying then the it has a great opportunity to be a force for blessing for the worldwide church. God blessed Abraham in order that he might be a blessing to the nations. God has blessed the Korean church in order that it might be a blessing to the nations. To some extent that is already happening – the many missionaries and the Korean churches in many countries. But the latter is a mixed blessing. Just as Korea is a homogeneous country so Korean churches tend to be the same. They seem to be really good at retaining even 2nd and third generations Koreans in the countries of settlement. But in some areas, such as Sydney, I hear that even that is beginning to crack. In my view it’s wrong to have a church based on ethnicity – and I doubt such a church can grow and thrive (in a spiritual sense). At one point 10,000 Koreans a year were coming to Australia – but that has rapidly decreased. Nevertheless that are some big Korean Presbyterian churches in Australia and other countries. Perhaps it’s time for these churches to look at how they can serve and bless the other (usually much smaller) churches in their adopted land. Maybe, just maybe, as different parts of the body of Christ work together we will see a double blessing – on the Korean churches and on the wider church.
May the Lord bless the nation, churches and people of Korea…