This is the fifth and final article in a series penned by Joel Kim, President of Westminster Seminary. In each entry he is reflecting on the Olympics from a Korean-American perspective.
I want to thank Tim Challies for the opportunity to use this platform to share my thoughts. I’ve enjoyed my time and I hope that the posts were helpful and informative. As a final post, I wanted to share with you my prayers for the churches of South Korea.
[How can you pray for the Korean church? I am in no position to represent the Korean church as a whole, but here are some things for which I pray. ]
I pray for theological fidelity. The churches in Korea have been blessed with many theological institutions of higher learning, theologians both past and present who were trained in the best schools around the globe, a culture interested in books with multiple reputable publishing houses for Christian writings, and a history of focusing on Bible studies as a way of maturing and establishing churches. Yet, many lament the noticeable decline in theological knowledge and maturity where the churches now seem to focus on quantity over quality, pragmatism over faithfulness, and subjectivism over the revealed truth in both worship and practice.
Many may be familiar with the mega-church phenomena of South Korea. It is worth noting that over 85% of South Korean churches have less than 100 members and over 95% have less than 300 members. Yes, there are many large churches but they are a small segment in the South Korean church landscape. The growth of these mega-churches has spiritual and sociological reasons. With rapid urbanization and economic growth, many Koreans now live near large, densely populated cities, including Seoul where nearly a quarter of the population live. These churches often make positive contributions – the ability to bring together major resources for ministries, sophisticated programs and ministries for various ages and groups, and a visible presence of Christianity in the community. However, such benefits come with weaknesses. Many of these churches are built upon personalities of the founding or leading pastors. These churches tend to focus on programs and ministries that are popular where pragmatism seems to win out over principle. Perhaps driven by the desire for growth and success, many of these churches pursue “mere Christianity” where their worship and practice look surprisingly similar to one another despite the differences in tradition and denomination. And for some churches, the dominance of prosperity gospel and charismatic practices remain a concern for many.
I pray for faithful witness. According to a recently published longitudinal study assessing public trust in different religions, the percentage of respondents who thought that Christianity was credible and trustworthy was 21.3%, behind both Buddhism and Catholicism. More alarming is the downward trend among young adults (20s in particular) among whom only 12.9% of the respondents thought that the church was trustworthy. This has directly affected many of the churches where the average age is getting higher and young adults are missing from the pews.
This decline in credibility certainly has something to do with the ever-changing social culture that sees the church as exclusive and arcane, but there is plenty of room for self-assessment and evaluation. In this age of social media and online news, both believers and unbelievers are daily confronted with stories of churches and her leaders falling from grace because of moral failures, financial improprieties, or failed leadership that undermine trust in the churches. Headlining the news in the last year included charges of nepotism and dynasty-making for a presbyterian church for installing the son of the founding senior pastor as the new leader and a large presbyterian seminary embroiled in controversy over alleged financial improprieties of its leader. Such failings are not unique to South Korean churches, but the size and prominence of some of these ministries intensify the negative public perception. We pray for faithfulness witness of the churches and leaders that Christ alone might be seen and exalted.
Finally, I pray for Gospel-driven unity. On the one hand, I am praying for the unity of Christians and churches in South Korea. Historical, theological, and relational reasons explain the existence of many denominations in South Korea. Did you know that there are over 100 Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in South Korea? Certainly, without comprising convictions, I pray for a growing desire and genuine reconciliation among brothers and sisters for the sake of the Gospel.
On a more national scale, I do pray for peace and unity between North and South Korea. I share the concerns of many that the Olympics have masked the atrocities taking place in North Korea. When I was attending grade school in South Korea, we regularly engaged in air raid drills, were taught how to identify North Korean spies in our textbooks and classes, and have seen firsthand the devastation and brokenness that the Korean War and the ongoing tensions have caused in my family and others. Yet, I recall countless conversations with many older generation Koreans who were born in what is now North Korea, including my parents, who long for home and family. I remember as singing a song that everyone from my generation would know, “My only wish is reunification.” Perhaps this is why many Koreans around the globe understand – even if they disagree with – the decision to march together in the Olympics and field a combined hockey team. But peace and unity cannot be achieved by social, political, military, or economic policies and methods. We trust in the Lord and pray that the light of the Gospel shines upon North Korea leading to lasting freedom and peace one day.
Watching the Olympics taking place in South Korea has been bitter sweet for me. It exposes the pain, brokenness, and idolatry of the human heart even as it inspires, offers hope, and promotes unity. It reminds me that this is not my home and increases my longing for that day when unity and peace are not a temporary spectacle but a permanent reality.