A few weeks ago, after two and half years, I finally got on a plane again. It was to Korea, the destination of my last international trip before Covid grounded us in March 2020. It was a privilege to visit with my colleague, Dr Guichun Jun. Now I confess, I love Korea, having visited at least once almost every year since 2003. The beauty of the countryside, the hospitality, food and generosity, the singing, prayer and spiritual fervour, the discipline, respect and commitment – our earliest meeting was 6am with the 25-strong mission committee of a mega-church; I love it all and always come away challenged in my own discipleship.
Andrew Walls, who taught so brilliantly on the serial expansion of the Church through the centuries, reminded us that Christianity is not territorial, unlike Islam. Having lived in North Africa for 12 years, I became painfully aware of this reality as Liz and I ministered in a context that had once been the powerhouse of global Christianity. When we arrived in 1990, there were no other known believers in a 120 Km radius around our small team.
What has this to do with Korea, a country with an apparently vibrant church that constitutes the largest religious group and a huge mission sending force? Whilst it is true that 34% identify as Christian, according to Gina Zurlo in her excellent new book ‘Global Christianity’, that number is declining. So too is the fertility rate, which at 0.81 in 2021, is the lowest in the world (NB: a rate of 2.1 is needed to sustain a population). More troubling, young adults have been deserting the church for some time. On this trip I was told that some estimate that little more than 3.5% of young adults now attend church. It is no exaggeration to say that the Korean church faces a demographic cliff.
According to Alan and Eleanor Kreider, one of the core tenets of the Christendom paradigm is that mission is territorial: some countries are Christian while others are not. The modern reworking of this belief exchanges territory for ethnicity, and is, I suggest, equally misleading. When we reduce mission to certain ‘people groups’ we risk missing what is really happening around us. The Korean church, with all its strengths, is in urgent need of rethinking mission in its own context. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a context globally in which the church is not required today to reimagine the question, ‘what does the Kingdom of God mean here?’
That’s why OCMS exists. That’s why it is called to serve the whole church. It’s why Guichun and I were challenged by the humility of the request, made by a number of pastors, for OCMS to consider how to support the Korean church in rethinking mission. Please pray for us as we seek to respond to this, and other requests.