When I first met my future wife, I could tell that she liked me but that for her marrying a non-Korean was simply out of the question—just not practical, she said. So I set about seeking to convince her that if she married me she would not need to become any less Korean.
This was actually an easy pledge for me, since from the day I met her I had begun to read everything I could find about Korea, and I found it all fascinating. I began eating only Korean food, and I found it all delicious—plus I lost a lot of weight and became healthier. None of it seemed like a sacrifice to me. I was being personally enriched.
After we married, I was the one who actually coaxed my wife into serving Korea together. I drove my wife crazy by practicing traditional Korean dance overnight in our garage so that I could accompany her in her performances, despite my lack of natural talent. I took on part-time jobs as an English Ministry pastor at several tiny Korean American churches, even though I had consulted for more than 1,500 ministries and denominations around the world and had served as senior pastor of much larger American churches and ministries. I felt I had so much to learn from Korea, and I was willing to receive that learning in whatever way I could.
But I quickly became surprised that Koreans themselves often did not share my high value of their culture or history or even their basic existence. One glimpse of the Seoul skyline shows a deep truth about contemporary Korean culture: Koreans do not like old things. They are always tearing down modestly aged buildings and replacing them with new buildings. They regard themselves in the same way. It is as if they consider it an unquestionable truth that they are born ugly, and they must correct these natural deficiencies through plastic surgery at earlier and earlier ages and in more and more invasive ways. Even gray hair is difficult for Koreans, unless it is chosen by the young as a trendy style option.
The phenomenon is even more pronounced among Korean Christians. There is little emphasis placed on receiving and living out their lives as gifts from God. Particularity and difference are weaknesses to be eliminated; resemblance to something popular, or great, or successful is always to be sought. The imitation is apparent in the form of contemporary South Korean Christianity. In no other place outside of America do church buildings look more American than in South Korea. In no other place outside of America do pastors dress more American than in South Korea. Or, at least, how American churches used to look and how American pastors used to dress.
And the South Korean pastors I met early in our marriage worried whether it was time to update the look. Membership in the South Korean church had been in decline since 1991, so South Korean pastors were traveling around the world seeking new ways to bring about revival or renewal. My wife and I would host large groups of these South Korean pastors in our home when they visited the US. They wanted to meet with me because of my relationships with many of the top ministry leaders in the US. I was happy to introduce them.
But as time went on, I was struck that solutions to the problems these Korean pastors were describing could not come from listening to successful American pastors. Spiritually, I believe God has ordained that solutions to the serious problems of today’s Korean church—and today’s divided Korea—can only come by our humbly listening together to the faithful Christians of the early Korean church. These early Korean Christians faced much bigger problems in far more difficult circumstances in their time and, as a result, came to know the character of God in ways that few others in Christian history have. They accepted their lives, their culture, their language, their alphabet, and even their ability to suffer as gifts from God to be placed at his disposal, not as raw material to be discarded or reshaped the way they saw fit.
In fact, I would contend that many of the problems the South Korean church faces today came as a result of South Korean Christians setting aside the hard-won “gold refined in the fire” of the early Korean Christians and replacing it with the new theological baubles and trinkets offered by American Christians in the aftermath of the Korean War. The mega-buildings and great grandeur and “beautiful Christianity” of today’s South Korean church are not the fulfillment of the vision of early Korean Christians, but rather the forgetting. And now, modern South Korean Christianity, no matter how beautiful it may yet appear in places, is tarnished and crumbling from the inside. Much of it will simply cease to exist in our generation. Most South Korean pastors remain in denial about the steep decline of the South Korean church. Others continue to look abroad for answers.
But answers are not to be found by looking abroad for something Korean Christians haven’t yet learned but by giving a new hearing to something Korean Christians once knew but have since forgotten. My wife and I have learned that one of the best places we can hear what early Korean Christians knew is from underground Christians in North Korea and in other closed countries around the world. As we have served these believers for the past fifteen years, we have seen how their lives continue to reflect the beliefs and practices of early Korean Christians far more than contemporary South Korean Christianity does. That is because believers in North Korea and other closed countries do not become Christian in order to become successful or comfortable in the world. Instead, they became Christian in order to die to the world and live for the truth, which is what the word “martyr” means. And long before the earliest Korean Christians, the first Christians defined discipleship as “training for the heavenly contest”—that is, preparing themselves in body, soul, and spirit to live out Christ’s suffering love to the world. They talked of three kinds of martyrdom, distinguished by color. Green martyrdom meant dying to self: Not my will, but thy will be done. White martyrdom meant dying to the world: He who does the will of the Father is my mother and my brother. And red martyrdom—laying down our lives in a bloody instant in witness to Christ—differs from green and white martyrdom only in degree, not in kind.
The early Korean Christians may not have known the colors of martyrdom, but they knew that death to self and death to the world are required of all Christians as the first steps into the kingdom of God. In countries where that is still true for Christians, the church is growing. In the places where that truth has been set aside or spiritualized, the church is in decline. So it should not surprise us that Christianity is growing in North Korea as rapidly as it is declining in South Korea. But it may surprise us that underground Christians in North Korea and the rest of the world, focused on martyrdom, are much more joyful than Christians in South Korea, who are often focused on furthering their own happiness.
My wife and I founded our ministry, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, to help South Korean Christians learn green and white martyrdom from underground Christians in North Korea and around the world. Now, the Lord is leading us to help South Korean Christians learn green and white martyrdom from the earliest Korean Christians as well.
My thought is this: If South Korean pastors are willing to look to American Christians for solutions to church decline, then I, as an American Christian, will answer them in the voice of their forebears—the voice of the green, white, and red martyrs of the early Korean church: Kim Kyo Shin, An Chang Ho, Cho Man Sik, Ju Gi Chol, Son Yang Won, Han Sang Dong, Kim Chi Seon, Lee Seong Bong, Gil Seon Ju, Kim Ik Du, Yi Yong Do, Kim Chung Choon, and Namgung Eok. Daily I will bring their words up off of the pages of the dusty history books and faded photographs and let their voice be heard, broadcasting them via satellite, AM, shortwave, and social media, to Koreans in the North, the South, Northeast China, Southeast Russia, and the Diaspora. Though I am still learning the Korean language, my wife, now also a pastor, has pledged to help me preach these daily messages. And I pray that in time other Korean Christians will help us bring the “voice of the martyrs” to life as well, by volunteering with us to research, record, broadcast, and distribute their words so that not only the whole Korean church but all Koreans everywhere can hear and meditate upon them every day.
That is our goal: That the voices of these martyrs be heard again daily, shaping our daily conversations, restoring true Korean Christianity, renewing the church, and changing our country as well.
I knew the form this daily “voice of the martyrs” message sharing needed to take: a covenant renewal service. This is a special kind of worship service that John Wesley conducted once a year, usually at New Year’s, for Christians to remember the covenant they made with the Lord at baptism, and to renew that covenant through the Lord’s Supper. But the covenant renewal service is not only a Wesleyan service. Growing numbers of Reformed churches are recognizing that all Christian worship is covenant renewal worship, and they are structuring their weekly worship services accordingly.
In our daily Voice of the Martyrs covenant renewal service, we do the following:
First, we remember the covenant with the Lord that we made at our baptism. It is a covenant to die daily to ourselves and to the world. We are to live each day of our Christian life as green and white martyrs. We are to use our bodies, not just our money or our prayers, as our primary tool for sharing the Lord’s suffering love in our sphere of influence.
Second, we hear the scripture and a sermon from one of the early Korean Christian martyrs. No introduction or commentary or historical notes or provided. In this way, we do not encounter the voice of the martyr as a historical curiosity but instead as a living word, used by God to speak to what we are facing today.
Finally, we take the Lord’s Supper together, remembering that our primary identity is as a member of the body of Christ in the one holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. The martyrs are present with us at the Lord’s table. They are not dead and gone. Daily we renew our covenant to be one body with them in Christ. This means that we are accountable not only to ourselves and the Lord and our local church, but to them as well. The Korean church does not belong to us. We belong to it. It is not ours to define or change to suit our times or tastes. We are accountable to all the Korean Christians who have gone before us, and to those who will follow us. Most particularly, we are accountable to the early Korean Christian martyrs to faithfully receive and pass on to others what they faithfully received and passed on to us.
People may find it surprising that we do all of this under an underpass in Jeongneung at 6AM, but there’s a very important reason why. The location is the very spot where the great early Korean Christian teacher Kim Kyo Shin cried out every morning for his beloved Korea. At that time the space was a broad, flat rock, surrounded by towering sheer vertical faces of rock, fed by a waterfall and graced by a pure mountain stream. Kim Kyo Shin would pray there every morning, through the snow, the rain, the cold temperatures, and the marvelous thaw of spring.
Today the area is far less scenic—a monument to Korea’s economic might and its restless culture, on the move every hour. Cars roar overhead, buses and trucks rumble past ceaselessly, day and night. It would appear that Kim Kyo Shin’s prayers have been silenced, his cry for Korea denied, his vision ground to nothing beneath that soaring concrete edifice.
But appearances can be deceiving. The Bible tells us that that overpass is far less permanent than we can imagine, and that Kim Kyo Shin’s voice—and the voice of all the Korean martyrs, and all the Christian martyrs around the world—will endure forever. God will make sure of it.
The world and its desires pass away,
but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
–1 John 2:17
You can participate in the daily covenant renewal service under the underpass in Jeongneung every Tuesday through Friday at 6AM beginning November 22, or by accessing the service through Facebook, YouTube, satellite, AM, shortwave, or Internet radio. You can also help to research, record, and broadcast the messages of the early Korean Christians. For more information, contact [email protected]vomkorea.kr.