Though the term “overseas mission” is now familiar, Korean Christians only began to be interested in overseas missions since the late 1980s. The years 1988 and 1989 were very important for South Korea and its Christianity. In 1988, people from various countries visited South Korea in mass numbers during the Olympics, when it was previously very rare for people to meet with foreigners. In 1989, overseas travel was permitted.
Looking back on thousands of years of history, these two events were a huge change for people living on the Korean Peninsula. Those who knew the Peninsula as the center of the universe began seeing the whole world as a single village, and Koreans who believed they were the best people in the world realized how many different countries live in different ways. Growing numbers of young people looked overseas for opportunities to study and employment, more newlyweds chose tropical beaches instead of Jeju Island as honeymoon destinations, and senior citizens from the countryside began tours to South-East Asia to visit relatives.
These changes were also seen in Christianity. The use of the term “overseas missions” became more frequent, awareness about the subject and method of missions expanded, and new terms such as “lay missionary,” “short-term missions” and “vision trip” appeared one after another. Such developments in Christianity were very organized and quick, but there is an important fact we must pay attention to. It was not the church which followed the trend for globalization and brought overseas missions to the attention of Christianity. Rather, it was university mission groups and interdenominational mission groups which mobilized and led overseas missions.
Interdenominational mission groups set the theory and practice for oversees missions, with young people playing key roles. They made a huge influence on South Korean Christianity and formed a paradigm for overseas missions. The theory and practice derived from this paradigm still dominate the whole of overseas missions. Of course, as time went by, some of the young people interested in missions became leaders and went over to local churches, and more churches joined together to send or support overseas missions. But the theory and practice behind these activities were created by interdenominational mission groups.
Interdenominational mission groups had inherent characteristics which inevitably led to tensions with local churches. Their Sunday meetings were mainly possible when members rushed out of their local churches after morning service. Rather than participating in local church activities, young people fostered a vision for overseas missions and focused their activities and interests in these groups. In these circumstances, mission groups could not stress that God’s work should be done through the church, they could not say they respected the church’s authority, and they could not teach that one should listen to an overseer’s counsel as God’s word and not the word of man. What they emphasized instead was the following: “Listen to God’s voice, who speaks to you in person.” “What matters is the personal relationship between you and God.” “Be that one person God is looking for.” These teachings not only weakened beliefs about the church, but they encouraged a subjective and mystical faith, with many ill effects seen today.
The church is the body of Jesus Christ. Local churches around the world are all under Jesus Christ’s rule. God sets up an overseer in each church by the Holy Spirit to shepherd those He purchased with His own blood. God works through the church. Believers should never forget that their work was commissioned by the church, that is, they themselves were sent by the church. Until today, there is no mention of the church in mission theory in South Korea. To bear more mature fruit in overseas missions, a church-based paradigm should be set up.
Pastor Ki-Taek Lee
The Director of Sungrak Mission Center