I recently had the opportunity to visit ministry partners and church leaders in South Korea with MBTS Provost, Jason Duesing, and Dean of Asian Studies, Sun Jin Park. I wrote these reflections for my team at Midwestern Seminary and was later encouraged to submit the piece for a broader audience. I hope you enjoy my reflections on our time overseas.
I knew that Eastern culture was a traditional culture, with formalities and pleasantries embedded into everyday life. I did not know just how embedded these customs would feel. As this was my first trip to Asia, I was overwhelmed by the perpetual politeness and steady stream of service coming my way. The bowing, the greetings, the ushering, the gifts, the food… The Food… THE FOOD. I was honored to be the guest everywhere we went, but I was also ready to be something other than a guest. I suppose this is how our Korean students feel, except I wonder if they ever feel like our guests in the first place? Knowing now what they expect a guest to receive, I am somewhat ashamed at how little I notice or welcome them with hospitality that is befitting of a heavenly host. I walk away from this experience much more acquainted with Eastern culture and hope to bring a little of it back for our Eastern students at home.
During one evening’s dinner, Dr. Jason Duesing and I were able to hear Dr. Minsoo Sim (a professor in the doctoral program at MBTS) describe the identity of the Korean people. In Korean-English, he reiterated repeatedly that Koreans are “fast, fast!” What makes Koreans unique from other Asian counterparts is their smarts and their hustle. They are “geniuses,” he claims, and they are willing to make a move when others are not. They hustle when others slog behind. Quite literally, if you go walking with a Korean, they are not walking. They are scurrying. This is who they are.
One of the values I have appreciated during my time at Midwestern Seminary is our commitment to a “fast, fast” strategy. The new Korean undergraduate program at Spurgeon College is a great example. We noticed a need for more theological education among the younger Korean demographic, and we went for it. There are countless other similar initiatives over the years that have been launched with great hustle and strategic speed. We pride ourselves in being an agile institution, ready to spring for action when the moment is right. There’s no room for dilly-dallying when Christ’s mission is urgent. I hope we will continue this culture of hustle, and perhaps learn a thing or two along the way from our “fast, fast” Korean friends.
Upon arrival in the country, I was immediately struck by English signage everywhere – on street signs, buildings, walkways, packaging, checkout counters – you name it. These markers were just small symbols of how modernized and westernized the country has become. Unfortunately, we have imported the bad with the good. Just as one can travel to the liberal coasts of the States and find more dogs than children, so also in Korea, there is a rising denigration of family life. South Korea is ageing faster than any other developed nation in the world. They have an extremely low fertility rate of 1.05 children born to women of child-bearing age. This is one of the most significant problems facing their country today, and most citizens do not even see it.
As we partner with their churches and train their future leaders, we must help them disciple families to prioritize children. How can we do this? I do not ultimately know. But I do know that a church without littles will soon be a church without elders. Let’s continue to pray that their churches – along with ours – recover vibrant homes for the gospel’s sake.
Near the end of our trip, we were able to visit the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea. The experience was sad and sobering. It was “blue,” you might say.
While there, visitors are able to scale a perch and look over a valley with barbed-wire fence separating the North from the South. Through binoculars, one can survey North Koreans in the distant rice patties and statues glorifying the Kim regime.
As you engage the tour, you learn about South Korea’s Dorasan Train Station, which contains an international customs facility built in 2002 along the North Korean border. The customs facility has never been used. It contains a ticking clock counting the hours since the peninsula was divided in the 1950’s, and it sits in waiting for the day when the North reunites with their kin in the South.
Before walking into an underground tunnel (dug by North Koreans who hoped to surprise-attack the South decades ago), there is a short video explaining the DMZ. Halfway through the video, I noticed one word sneaking into the script repeatedly: “Peace.” The experience was oxymoronic. How can South Koreans be so convinced of a peace that does not exist? Why do they hold such hope for a reunification that is not coming?
What makes for such hope? I think it is heartbreak. The North Koreans are not ugly enemies to Southerners. They are family. They are not “another country.” They are them. They recite the mantra of “peace” and “reunification” because that’s what the heart does when someone so loved is so lost. You hope against all hope. Perhaps this is the heart of the Father on the porch in Luke 15, waiting for his prodigal son. And perhaps this is the heart of evangelists, waiting for friends and family in the far country. We who are God’s people should be heart-broken for our long-lost brothers in the world until they come to their senses, until they change, until they come back.
Until they do, let us recite one word… over and over. “Peace.”