The South Korea advance was a time of refreshment and frustration.
For someone like me who has been journeying, trying new directions in faith, our time together was wonderful. I felt a true camaraderie among the students and with those that led the Advance. It was freeing to hear of the different places in which we found ourselves, regarding faith and our particular ministries. And although there were differences on some of the most basic of doctrines, there was open and respectful dialogue. I truly appreciated that.
Frustration reigned however, as various pastors and leaders shared, I was unable to fully grasp the culture that we experienced as well as the church life in which we were exposed.
Impressive would be the word to describe Seoul and the transformation that has taken place in such a short time – a modern miracle. However, I had the feeling that although successful, because of the intense drive we sensed, the Koreans also seemed somewhat haunted – driven and haunted at the same time.
These impressions seemed to be based around the historical breakdown of society and social structure experienced by Korea various times during the 1900s and the loss of national pride during those years.
Possibly because of those disastrous events, the Koreans are driven to catch up and prove to the world their capacity of being a world class country. We can sense this in the pushing of their children to study and succeed, the work habits we heard about, and the infrastructure and modernity present and growing non-stop around us.
Besides drive, I also sensed something deeper. Their history seems to haunt the ability to move forward as a country in a complete or whole way. Unresolved issues with Japan and China as well as the ever-present desire of a truly unified Korea appear to be in the background of each conversation.
The little we saw of Christianity and Church also left me amazed, but at the same time confused. The size and scope of what the church has accomplished and continues to do is incredible. The missionary effort, prayer and evangelism are indeed impressive. But as the week progressed, insecurity appeared, or so I thought.
The sense of trying to “prove something” initially came up as well as the feeling that we were witnessing a type of missionary worship. I had seen the latter years before in Brazil, when groups of pastors felt that the only right way was what the missionaries had taught or desired. It led to a delay in indigenous leadership and church development and that’s what I thought I was experiencing at first – an insecurity – but now I don’t believe so.
God’s Spirit is active in great ways in the Korean church, and I don’t want to diminish that, but I believe that some underlying Buddhist and Confucian culture continues to influence the worldview of the church, and that’s what we saw during our stay. It wasn’t in fact, a type of missionary worship that is sometimes seen in Latin America, rather some historical cultural realities.
In Buddhism, shrines are very important, and we saw manifestations of that thought with the emphasis on success of the church, their wonderful buildings and the “shrines” presented toward missionaries. There is even some times in which Buddhism encourages benefits over spirituality. This thought was also a common theme we heard from the pastors – that of church growth and the prosperity gospel which was strong and evident.
In Confucianism, there is the teaching of respect for parents and the emphasis on cemeteries, and that they are important places to visit, as a way to respond with respect. Another tenet of this underlying Confucian philosophy is that “favor” needs to be repaid. Both of these cultural values were reflected in what we saw regarding the importance of the founding missionaries – as we visited the cemetery and witnessed the constant need for “pay-back.”
So, instead of my first impressions of insecurity or missionary worship, much of the uneasiness I experienced and felt was simply my lack of fully understanding the culture and it’s underpinnings of Buddhism and Confucianism. That said, even this interpretation could be completely wrong. Later, I’ll learn the language and return to fully understand those wonderful people and their country!