Q. I feel God has called me as a missionary to North Korea. I am ready to leave tomorrow. Can I serve in North Korea through Seoul USA?
The Bible’s stories of people being called to different ministries are pretty amazing. Almost always they involve God calling someone to a future that is unimaginable from a human standpoint. Think about the calling of Abraham, for example, or Moses, or Jesus calling his disciples. In each case, those called by God typically make one of two mistakes: Either they reject the calling completely, or they seek to fulfill it on their own. Abraham, for example, ends up with Ishmael when he tries to bring God’s word to pass in his own timing. Moses ends up murdering a man. James and John want to call down fire from heaven to burn people to a crisp before Jesus stops them!
So when we say yes to a calling, we are really saying yes to a process of preparation—one that is in God’s hands, not our own. Our job is to be both prepared to respond…and prepared to wait, as God directs. As Scripture shows, God uses his servants and our circumstances to prepare us, sometimes even over a course of decades.
God first called me to North Korea ministry in a dream. I woke up in a cold sweat, shook Mrs. Foley awake, and told her about this calling. Because she is a wise woman, Mrs. Foley counseled me, “If it’s from the Lord, then say yes and let him bring it about. If you try to do it yourself, you will mess it up.” I followed her counsel, unsure exactly how God would accomplish what he had shown me unless I acted on things right away.
But God took me step by step through his training process—one I could have never foreseen. That began with us learning new and more effective ways of discipling our own children. Next, we were called into serving at a Korean American church. After that, doors opened for us to do culture-sharing. Occasionally I’d get impatient and just want to jump right into exactly what the dream showed. But now, looking back, I see how each step along the way was crucial to us ending up with an Isaac and not an Ishmael. Wow, am I blessed to have a wise wife! And each of us needs to surround ourselves with wise mentors who can show us how to respond to the call of God. Where would Samuel be without Eli guiding him how to respond?
So when someone comes to us reporting a call to North Korea ministry, we always take it very seriously. But to us, taking it seriously means helping the called person understand what is required for this kind of service. It really takes much, much more than willingness, passion, and calling. It takes intense training and preparation:
- 1 Timothy 3:1-5 reminds us that we must first prove our missionary effectiveness in our family and immediate sphere of influence before we even attempt to serve in the local church.
- The New Testament and the history of the faithful church through the ages show a clear progression: demonstrated comprehensive ministry effectiveness in one’s family precedes service in the local body; demonstrated comprehensive effectiveness in the local body precedes service in one’s city; demonstrated comprehensive effectiveness in one’s city precedes service in one’s region; demonstrated comprehensive effectiveness in one’s region precedes international service. Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth. If someone tells you, “I’m not called to serve my local body first. I’m called to go straight to the ends of the earth,” buy a baby shower gift because, sadly, you are about to witness the birth of an Ishmael.
- As relates to North Korean ministry, learning Korean—both the language and the culture—is absolutely essential. Anyone who thinks that Paul was not intimately acquainted with the culture of the cities he visited has not read Acts 17:28 or Titus 1:12. As regards Korean language, for any non-native Korean speaker seeking a field ministry position we require a TOPIK or EPS-KLT score that demonstrates conversational proficiency in Korean, as well as facility with North Korean idioms.
- Also, we do not use Americans or Westerners for field ministry inside North Korea or in Northeast China. Students of East Asia quickly learn that anyone visiting North Korea is always under surveillance, and any American or Westerner staying in Northeast China for an extended period is always watched. If an American or Western missionary in Northeast China says to me, “The Chinese government does not know what I am doing,” that tells me that they are not well versed in basic security issues and thus have not taken that aspect of ministry preparation seriously.
- Where Americans and Westerners are useful—and needed—is on the front line of North Korea ministry: Seoul, South Korea, where 25,000 North Korean defectors live, 80 percent of whom have regular monthly contact with relatives inside of North Korea. It is here that proficient Korean speaking missionaries can serve in powerful and unique ways, due to the unique relationship between Americans/Westerners and North Koreans. But don’t fill out that Seoul USA job application quite so quickly: We hire from our volunteer pool—people who have been faithful to volunteer over an extended period of time (typically eighteen to twenty-four months) in progressively more responsible ways. And even when they are hired, they serve as probationers, progressing through an internship where they learn many things—from project management to secure communications to writing reports to uploading receipts—that hardly seem like “front line” ministry responsibilities. But as we tell our probationers, watch the Karate Kid movies: Wax on, wax off always comes before throwing your first punch.
After hearing all this, many of those called by God walk away disappointed like the rich young ruler. (Recall that the Lord Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”) They then decide that they are called to something else–something they can start doing a lot faster that seems a lot easier and a lot less of a preparation nightmare.
Others tell us that we don’t understand the Holy Spirit, who they believe is glorified and honored by their lack of preparation and who will step in to make up the lack. This to me is the saddest outcome of all, since more than a few such headstrong individuals end up working for the many, many ministries that can’t discern real NK underground Christians from the fake ones planted by the North Korean government (70 percent of all “underground NK Christians” you run into on the border with China are incredibly well trained government spies). These organizations inadvertently (or, dare I say, naively and carelessly) supply the very money and resources that enable North Korea to hunt down and kill the real underground Christians. Totally unaware of their being duped and manipulated, these unskilled missionaries believe they are doing good when what they are actually doing is destroying the work of the real NK underground church. That’s what I call giving birth to an Ishmael.
So if God has called you to North Korea ministry, take the counsel of the Scripture (as echoed by my wife!): Be ready…for God to guide you down a long, arduous road of training that will require at least as much patience as enthusiasm. But be encouraged: Every step of the way God will be shaping you into his effective instrument, capable of being used powerfully in one of the most dangerous and peril-fraught ministry environments in human history.
If, like Jacob, you don’t give up and you labor tirelessly through what difficult years of preparation with nothing more than the dream of your calling to sustain you, then that dream will come to pass. Because God doesn’t grant the dream or issue the calling unless he intends to fulfill it. I’m living proof!
For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay (Habakkuk 2:3, NIV).