Showalter: Dynamic, yet insular

Jul 16, 2018 by

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The Korean Christian churches are an intriguing phenomenon of the past 100 years. Protestant Christianity arrived in Korea only after 1880, but the Korean church has flourished since then in ways that have catapulted it to the forefront of the global Christian movement.

Consider:

  • The largest Christian congregation in the world, numbering some 500,000 members, is located in Seoul (the Yoido Full Gospel Church).
  • South Korean Christians send more cross-cultural foreign missionaries, per capita, than any other country. Only U.S. churches send more missionaries, but fewer per capita.
  • What may be the largest and most beautiful modern Christian meetinghouse in the world, the Sarang Church of Seoul, was completed in 2013 by a congregation of 95,000 members. It has a direct entrance to the city subway system.
  • The prayer movement within the Korean church has challenged the entire global church. It is estimated that a typical pastor spends two hours in prayer each day.
Richard Showalter

Showalter

Ironically, the Korean church is also known for its insularity. Preference for Korean language and culture runs so deep that it seems particularly difficult for Korean Christians to adapt to the cultures of others.

Of course, ethnocentricity is not unique to Korea. It’s a common human characteristic. Yet among the world’s major cultures Korea seems to rank fairly high on this trait. When a Korean couple lived as guests in a North American home, they virtually took over the kitchen and introduced their entire cuisine to keep from going hungry.

Many Korean missionaries have developed a reputation for an inability to adjust to local cultures. Cooperation and cultural flexibility are a huge challenge for every cross-cultural worker. Yet the Korean reputation for inflexibility is probably not entirely undeserved.

However, Korean mission leaders are determined to transform those stereotypes. I hope they succeed. When the Shinbanpo congregation in Seoul recently hosted a 16-member group of Anabaptist church and mission leaders from the Global South, they turned in a stellar performance. They covered all costs for a 10-day visit. Lodging, food, transportation and orientation were superb. They were profoundly considerate of guests’ needs.

As a member of that visiting group, I won’t soon finish digesting what I saw and heard. Might God use cultural insularity as a womb to nurture and release vital expressions of Christianity that would never see the light of day in more diverse contexts?

Korean Christianity is an amazing gift to the global Christian movement. Perhaps it could only have been created in a mountainous Asian peninsula within the highly-focused parameters of a single culture.

It reminds me of another mountainous region on another continent — Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. There, too, is an impressive Christian movement in a homogeneous group that doesn’t break easily from its ethnic mode yet is blessing the global church. Today it contains the largest Anabaptist communion in the world.

It also reminds me of the Swiss Anabaptist movement, which sprang from an insular mountainous region of Europe in the 16th century. Perhaps it could only have been birthed in such a region with its attendant insularity.

Perhaps that is still both the blessing and bane of Swiss-German Anabaptism 500 years later.

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.


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