On May 4 Jackie and I left for a week-long visit to South Korea where we were welcomed by four different schools. This was my third trip to Korea and Jackie’s first. We were ably accompanied by Rev. Christian Oh from Han-Bit Christian Reformed Church (Rochester Hills, MI). While there we took many pictures and we were in many pictures. The key to photography is to have a point of view or perspective.
Travel helps focus perspective. My time away from the “usual” routines at the Seminary helps me see more clearly the contours of the world I know and am getting to know even better.
After our return home, more than a few folks asked us what we learned or what our take-aways were from this visit? So here are a few “learnings” and “take-aways” from our Korean experiences:
Hospitality: In North America, we may think we are hospitable, but when you enter into an Asian culture, you really experience the honor of hospitality. We were treated very well and with great kindness. When you exchange gifts in Korea, you see thoughtfulness in gift giving.
The Corrosive Effects of Materialism: As is my practice, I packed a book to read that connected to my travels. For this trip, I began reading David Halberstam’s The Coldest War which is a history of the Korean War (1950-1953). When you think of this war’s destruction and how quickly the South Korean economy has recovered in the last sixty years, it is just amazing.
Seoul is a dense metropolis of 25 million people with a “modern” city look, very consistent with a society that has built and re-built over the last sixty years. At the same time, I heard church leaders deeply concerned about the growing grip of materialism and the dividing force of individualism, both corrosive to the community of the church. When the people of South Korea were recovering from war, their sacrifices created a very different environment from today’s environment where “prosperity” is present on every street corner.
Concern over the Youth: Many church leaders are concerned that the “current” and “next” generation of youth are leaving the church. They recognize that growing cynicism over church “fights” and poor moral examples in some church leaders are two factors among others that have alienated younger members and many are deciding to leave rather than stay. From my own North American perspective, I could certainly empathize with my Korean brothers and sisters.
While this is a growing concern, I did not see a growing consensus on how best to respond to the exodus of the next generation. Again, I fully empathized. But an additional factor for them relates to their Asian culture. The dominant value of respecting one’s elders (and elders expecting respect) contributes to hesitancy in sharing leadership with this next generation. The elder leaders of the church are finding it difficult to identify, disciple, and bless that next generation.
The Longitudinal Lines of History: While on our visit, Jackie and I visited the Chang Deok Gung Palace that served the kings of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It was constructed as a secondary palace of the Joseon Dynasty. After its destruction during the Japanese invasion (1592-1598), it was rebuilt in 1610 and served as the main palace for 270 years. It was not lost on us that these historical markers all preceded the British settlement of the colonies that led to the birth of the United States.
A more recent marker event in Korean Church history was the Pyongyang Revival of 1907. South Korea may be seen as a Christian country and it is certainly a great “missionary sending” country, particularly to China, but it is a society where the rise of Christianity is recent and the “pull” of “traditional” faith expressions is still seen every day as evidenced by the many celebrations for Buddha’s birthday we saw along the way.
Flying home over a 24-hour stretch gave Jackie and me opportunity to reflect on how we should be praying for our Korean friends in the faith. We came home with a greater appreciation for the sacrifices of Korean students who come to study at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids. We also sensed the call to deeper prayer for the church in South Korea that is still seeking ways to collaborate with one another and overcome the recent struggles that have marked the life of the church.
Thank you for reading and for joining Jackie and me in such prayer.
President Jul Medenblik