Impressions of Korea by Brian Chapell

Impressions of Korea by Dr. Brian Chapell, President and Professor of Practical Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, visited Korea on March 5-7, 2005 for a special conference. He wrote an informal “Impressions of Korea” for some friends. Rev. I. Henry Koh of the PCA forwarded this article to some English-speaking Korean American pastors. Because Dr. Chapell’s insights really “hit the nail on the head” (as my wife said after reading it), I asked Dr. Chapell if he would give me permission to post it on this website. He initially refused because it was meant as an informal article, yet later he graciously agreed to let me post a revised version under the condition that I mentioned that this article “was not intended to be an official report, but was just impressions that I sent to some friends.” Thank you, Dr. Chapell. (Billy Park)

IMPRESSIONS OF KOREA

Dr. Bryan Chapell, President and Professor of Practical Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, visited Korea on March 5-7, 2005 for a special conference. He wrote an informal “Impressions of Korea” for some friends. Rev. I. Henry Koh of the PCA forwarded this article to some English-speaking Korean American pastors. Because Dr. Chapell’s insights really “hit the nail on the head” (as my wife said after reading it), I asked Dr. Chapell if he would give me permission to post it on this website. He initially refused because it was meant as an informal article, yet later he graciously agreed to let me post a revised version under the condition that I mentioned that this article “was not intended to be an official report, but was just impressions that I sent to some friends.” Thank you, Dr. Chapell. (Billy Park)
Impressions of Korea

by Bryan Chapell
March 5-7, 2005

The occasion of my being in Korea for a very quick 3-day trip was the 20th Anniversary of the Nampo (The Lamp) Presbyterian Church in Seoul.

Nampo Church is one of the largest churches of the Hapdong denomination (the more conservative Bible-believing group that 40 years ago split from the Tonghap Presbyterian denomination over the issue of affiliation with the WCC). The Nampo Church is about 8000 members but has also started 10 other churches in Seoul in the last 20 years and sponsors many mission efforts throughout the world.
The leader of the Nampo Church is Pastor Young-Sun Park, a highly respected preacher in Korea. Pastor Park invited me to preach at his church and be the keynote speaker at an academic conference convened for the anniversary celebration. The academic conference, to the surprise of all became an historic occasion because it was attended by pastors and scholars from all three of the major Presbyterian denominations of Korea. Because of historic antipathies, these churches have not officially gathered together in decades. In fact, there was such an overwhelming response to the conference that attendees filled the Nampo Church and reservations for attendance stopped being accepted almost two months ago.

What subject has created such startling interest that it has caused the churches to ignore or break down old boundaries? The role of grace in sanctification.
Pastor Park tells me that the Korean Church culture has reached a crisis due to the way that it has taught faithfulness for the last 100 years. He says the Korean Church is basically a “salvation sect” that teaches justification by grace, but then layers on a Confucian perspective that requires ever greater levels of faithfulness to prove the validity of one’s conversion. As a consequence the average Korean either develops a mentality of the need to continually up his devotion through more prayer, giving, faithful church attendance, missionary work, etc. Historically the Korean churches and their pastors have taken full advantage of this mindset to elicit strong allegiance and sacrifice from members. However, with the dying of the founding pastors of the great Korean church movement of the last third of the 20th Century this loyalty is dissipating. Instead many church members are feeling that the standards of extreme faithfulness are impossible and tied to an authoritarian culture that is also dying in the face of modern influences, international culture, rapid economic expansion and an exploding Asian youth culture. The consequence is the rapid nominalization of the Korean Church and the implosion of almost all the great churches once the key leader dies.

The next generation of pastors does not want to pastor the way their predecessors did, but there is great confusion about how one can preach without the authoritarian methods of the past and not promote license as a consequence. Pastors want to preach a more biblical and powerful path to faithfulness, but they do not know how. Pastor Park, himself, has been preaching the message of grace-motivated and Spirit-powered obedience for twenty years, but he says that he has felt alone and not able to penetrate the Korean, legalistic mindset of his pastoral peers. Yet, when he read the book, Holiness by Grace, he said, “For the first time I felt that I was no longer alone.” Pastor Park’s desire to have others understand the truths of Gospel-motivated obedience (responding to God’s love rather than trying to gain it, presuming God’s faithfulness rather than trying to purchase it, and acting on the assurance of our eternal security rather than striving to secure it) led to his inviting me to come for his church’s anniversary conference, but still everyone was surprised by the flood-like response to the conference. Ten Korean theologians also presented papers at the conference. Pastor Park says, “Perhaps now the time is right for us to begin teaching a Gospel that is neither the product of Western or Korean culture but is truly of the Bible.” Pastor Park believes that one of the reasons that the present form of Korean Christianity cannot be sustained is that it is a layering on of the culture of the Western church (even now most of the Korean hymns are 19th Century English with words translated into Korean, and the worship services are structured like those in North America in the 1950’s) rather than a true development of Christianity within a Korean intellectual and cultural framework.
Pastor Park has written many books on these issues in Korea, and he presented an excerpt from one of his books as the initial talk at the conference. In the English translation of his talk I discovered many of the concepts and, even, similar phrases to those that I have been teaching for the last twenty years. Even the name of the conference, “After Salvation: Sanctification by Grace,” echoes themes that we have so emphasized here at Covenant Theological Seminary. We must pray that God will make his Gospel the true power of the Korean Church because it is presently the mission generating church for the rest of Asia. Korean missionaries are spreading throughout Asia (and especially China) by the tens of thousands. According to Pastor Park sometimes this missionary zeal is also part of a “proving” of faithfulness rather than a healthy response to God’s love. Nevertheless if this movement can be harnessed by the Gospel, its effects can be world changing.

In part, the Korean church senses the need to find a message truer to the Gospel because of Asia’s burgeoning youth culture. I have read previously of the multi-millions of under-thirty somethings that are dominating Asian culture but on this trip I experienced it in a way that I had not anticipated. I went to an underground mall in downtown Seoul to purchase gifts for my family. In this city of 10-12 million a stroll in the mall meant joining the crush of tens of thousands of people who were also shopping on a Saturday morning. What I did not perceive, until my guide pointed it out, was that I was the oldest person in sight – ouch!!! Whoever reaches the Asian youth culture, will control the world.

Other impressions of Seoul:

  1. A city of amazing size and amazingly modern.
  2. Technology outstrips ours in everything from amazing cell phones, to plasma TVs, to billboards – ten-story tall TVs on the sides of buildings that are crystal clear on the brightest days – to video games, to bullet trains, to lightning internet speed.
  3. So many people and buildings – it’s hard to convey the impression: a forest of gleaming skyscrapers that extends for forty miles in every direction. There are no suburban ranch homes, but rather tens of thousands of high-rise apartment buildings.
  4. Red neon crosses by the hundreds on the tops of buildings marking Christian churches in the older parts of town, but not so many in the newer parts of Seoul.
  5. The city’s growth has only accelerated since the Olympic Games attracted world attention, money and fantastic sports arenas. Korea now has the third largest Asian economy behind China and Japan, but Korea has the highest standard of living.
  6. Increasingly large churches in the downtown are purchased warehouses and shopping malls that are converted into church facilities – much as is happening here in the United States.
  7. The average Korean family lives in a small, but very expensive apartment, on the outskirts of the city. The husband and wife both will work in separate professions, in separate locations, in separate cities or even separate countries. The husband and wife will only see each other a few hours each night (or even a few days every few months if they are in different countries) after each has completed a lengthy commute before rising early the next morning to begin the commute back to work. The goal is to keep home and children near relatives and near prestigious schools. The marriage relationship is willingly sacrificed for these purposes, and it would be considered shameful to be unwilling to make this sacrifice. My unmarried professor host from my previous trip to Korea is now married. Yet, though he now teaches at a Seminary in Korea, his wife is a vascular surgeon in New York. This is neither rare nor looked down upon. Curiously, pastors’ wives are expected not to work.
  8. Pastor Park, a very unique man. In a culture where appearances and prestige are almost everything, he insists on a church (and an office) with no frills. He tells his people to go start other churches so that there will be no more money spent on enlarging the already large Nampo church. He tells people to go where they think that they will hear the best preaching and not feel they should come to hear him because his church is too full. He dresses simply and seems to have genuine advisers around him who are his friends and not just his “servants” as often seems to be the case in the Korean large church settings. Despite his emphasis on grace, Pastor Park is a “let’s get down to business” man and has little patience for what does not seem to promote the Gospel. He seems to be a man with a true mission and a biblical Lord. The consequence is his people love him, even though they are struggling to learn the kind of Gospel he is teaching them.

“THIS ARTICLE WAS NOT INTENTED TO BE AN OFFICIAL REPORT, BUT WAS JUST IMPRESSIONS THAT I SENT TO SOME FRIENDS. ” Dr. Bryan Chapell

Posted here with permission from Dr. Chapell.

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One Response to Impressions of Korea by Brian Chapell

  1. Esther Berg says:

    thank you for your careful and clear insite into the faith and Korean culture. Too often all the Western church reports is the great “faithfulness” of the Korean people (which is true, but is only part of the story) and they miss the heartbreaking oppression that also comes with imposed faithfulness through heirachical demands. I am please to hear what Pastor Park is saying against the tide of the Christian culture of Korea today. I have served in Korea for 3 years and am the great-grandaughter of the first Presbyterian missionary in Busan, Korea. The Korean church desires to know more the grace and mercy of God in a life freely given and freely lived.

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