2018 marked a new wave of Christian persecution in China–a coordinated, country-wide offensive against the church in both its registered and unregistered forms. One battle in that larger war has been the identification and expulsion of South Korean missionaries. As a result, North Koreans, who have typically learned about Christianity from two sources–Korean missionaries and Chinese churches–have also been caught in the undertow of this persecution tsunami.
Chinese churches were once the primary “stations” on the North Korean underground railroad. It used to be whispered in North Korea that anyone escaping into China should look for a building with a cross on top. There, they were told, someone would help them. And the whisper was true. Now, however, China is tearing the crosses down from these buildings and putting their leaders in prison.
Owing to these twin developments–the expulsion of South Korean missionaries and the desecration of Chinese churches–it would seem increasingly unlikely for North Koreans in China to hear about Jesus.
It would seem that way. But we should never question whether God has a Plan B. He always does. The only question is whether what looks to us like Plan B was in fact the Plan A he intended in the first place.
OUT WITH PLAN A AND IN WITH PLAN B. OR IS IT OUT WITH PLAN B AND IN WITH PLAN A?
In this case, Plan B–which looks and sounds a lot like the kind of Plan A’s one encounters in the Bible and throughout church history–involves ordinary, untrained, and in most cases unbaptized North Koreans who wouldn’t on the face of it appear to know a whole lot of what we would consider essential knowledge of Christianity and thus would appear to us to be unlikely missionaries. However, these unlikely missionaries are increasingly turning up in the most unusual places and encountering God in some of the most unusual ways. And God seems to be using them to do some very unusual missionary work.
Much has been reported about North Koreans watching South Korean dramas inside North Korea and how these dramas inspire them to defect to South Korea or desire a more prosperous material life. But more and more we are discovering that North Koreans watching these and other videos are desiring a more spiritual life also. It is a phenomenon we’ve labeled “Movie Discipleship.”
“Movie disciples” are North Koreans who begin to believe in and pray to God because of scenes they see in secular movies and dramas that mention God or Christian themes or which show church buildings or Bibles. Often, these movies are not explicitly Christian and the religion featured in them is an afterthought to most viewers. But for North Koreans, the references to religion are becoming more and more of interest.
Even Indian “Bollywood” movies are stirring North Koreans’ hunger for God.
Indian movies and South Korean dramas sometimes show church buildings, crosses, and pictures of Jesus. A character might even say something like, “I pray to God.” Since North Koreans have never seen these things before, they begin to ask their friends about them. In this way, word begins to spread, in the form of questions.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea has been smuggling Christian materials into North Korea for years, including popular Christian movies with high production values. Even older movies like “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben Hur” are extremely popular with North Koreans. A few years ago we worked together with our sister mission, Voice of the Martyrs US, to make an animated story of the life of Jesus called “He Lived Among Us”, which placed special emphasis on the persecution he faced. Now, ordinary North Koreans are “re-discovering” these movies, as a spiritual hunger spreads. They’re looking for something more than economic success.
Although many ministries broadcast or smuggle in audio or videos of sermons, our organization finds movies far more effective. A pastor giving a sermon can sometimes seem to North Koreans like a North Korean self-criticism meeting or a Kim Jong Un speech. When the same material is presented as a drama, we’ve found North Koreans are more receptive.
This month Voice of the Martyrs Korea also begin to smuggle into North Korea the new movie Tortured for Christ, the story of Romanian pastor and VOM founder Richard Wurmbrand, who remains faithful to God despite 14 years of torture in a Communist prison. We think ordinary North Koreans will be especially receptive to the movie’s message, since they are wrongly taught in grade school that Christian pastors made Communists suffer. But this movie shows the truth. It shows Christians suffering under Communists but still praying for them and loving them. It’s the kind of thing that is sure to get North Koreans whispering.
For years we and our Underground University (UU) North Korean missionary students have evangelized North Korean workers sent abroad to make hard currency for the regime. Typically the biggest impediment to reaching them has been their North Korean labor bosses, who are specially trained to spot people like us.
North Korean labor bosses are different than North Korean labor workers. Their spirits are bold, their actions confident. Their hands are soft, not calloused or scarred. Their eyes are sharp. Their clothes are warm.
So recently, when we were on a missionary trip to reach laborers, we were surprised to be sitting across from just such a bold-spirited, confident, soft-handed, sharp-eyed, warm-clothed man. Our UU student missionary leaned across the table and whispered that this was not a laborer, but a boss.
“He has the power to have someone killed!” the student hissed quietly to us.
Yet, there our student sat, holding the boss’ hand and telling him about God. The only thing more surprising than the UU student’s calm demeanor was the boss’ calm response. He stated, with boldness of spirit, that he already believed in God.
“When I started to doubt whether the North Korean government was doing the right thing, I needed to cling to something bigger and better,” he explained. “I didn’t know that this being was the God of Christianity, but I trusted and believed in him all the same.”
The UU student excitedly briefed the man that the unknown God he was worshiping was actually the Triune God. It was this God, the UU student explained, that had brought us together in order to reveal himself more fully.
AN UNWISE (AND THUS GOD-BLESSED) MISSION
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called,” wrote the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-30. “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
Who is nullifying whom? To us, it may seem like the Chinese government is nullifying the hard work of many South Korean missionaries and Chinese churches. But Paul says that God himself is the one who nullifies. He nullifies the things that are so that he may nullify our boasting. After eighteen years of North Korea and China ministry, I have learned not to boast about our projects and not to regard anything we do as indispensable, un-nullifiable. If God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, he can certainly raise up North Korean missionaries from Bollywood movies and labor bosses.
Not only can he do this; he already is.