When We Talk About “Church”

28 Mar

Recently, my church situation here in Korea has changed. Being the native English-speaker closest to the situation, I was asked to write a report about it, for anyone who may be curious. I’ll share it below. Hopefully it will also shine some light on the Korean church as a whole, as it stands today.

Before I do that, though, I want to preface it with a few thoughts that have been swimming around in my head lately. Living abroad teaches you things. For me, the biggest learning curve has been the realization – not just the knowledge, but the actual witnessing of the fact – that church is personal. How we “do” church is so intertwined with how we approach God. And that’s something that differs from one Christian to another. I always knew this, of course, but this is the year I’ve been forced to confront, and then make peace with that (an on-going struggle). My preferences for how to do music, prayer, any sort of learning/preaching; the number of people I most enjoy worshiping alongside; style of communion; focus on Jesus versus the Holy Spirit – all these things are incredibly personal to me and my preferences. As humans we really like to put labels on that, and as Christians we’ve argued tooth and nail about which is most holy in the sight of God. Well…that’s futile. I’m so past arguing what’s the “right” way to follow Christ. Everything I’ve just listed is peripheral. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God – and we’ve all been bought back, too. As Christians, we need to recognize that that is all we need to have everything in common with the Mennonite, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, non-denominational, emergent, whatever Christian standing beside us. Let’s accept that those who don’t do it “our” way are still under God’s care. Let’s trust that He alone knows how to deal with those “doing it wrong”. And let’s pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith, no matter how they’re labelled. They are, after all, God’s people.

***

Korean house churches a response to the ‘mega church problem’

March 20, 2013

On March 10, 2013, Jesus Village Church (JVC) of Chuncheon, South Korea, had a last “sending service” with all one hundred of its members. As of March 17, those individuals officially comprised two separate churches: JVC and a new, smaller house church called Jesus Heart (JHC). However, thinking of this as a church “split” in the traditional sense is misinforming. With JVC’s blessing, another family has also left to start their own house church in the neighbouring city of Hwacheon, and there may be more like it in the near future.

“Right from the beginning, [the] church had a vision to grow by ‘multiplying’”, says long-time church member Kyong-Jung Kim, who now attends and shares leadership at Jesus Heart. Once Jesus Village got too big, the plan was to come up with a solution that directed it back to the small church model. This is because JVC was formed in response to some of South Korea’s mega churches, where community and quality relationships are often missed in favour of raw church growth. Says Kyong-Jung, “We are focusing on quality rather than increasing our numbers.” In Korea, that’s a radical statement.

And radical church reformation is where this story actually begins. Three years before JVC was founded in 1996, a small group of its original members met up bi-weekly, to read and discuss various church-related topics. Members of that original group guess they must have read over sixty books. The goal was to start a “New Testament” house church that emphasized neighbourly community and practical discipleship. By the time they discovered Anabaptism, it easily supplemented the vision JVC was born from.

If this new church was going to be different from the mass church in Korea, however, several core values needed to be set first. A quick conversation with Daniel Ahn reveals plainly what these are. Plural leadership is key: JVC has always relied on the joint leadership of a few appointed couples. This is to prevent one pastor from calling all the shots and running the show. Quite frankly, it assures that God is the leader. It also informs where finances end up. With no one on salary, even a small church offering can greatly contribute to causes within the local and global communities. Finally, an assertion that church can happen anywhere informs how this one in particular has gathered, and continues to gather, even as it separates. Peter Kim, a current JVC member, puts it thus: “church is not the building but is the body of Jesus Christ”. So what started as a small house church aims to stay that way.

As JVC grew, the reality of an imminent split was realized. The decision, in fact, took much longer to implement than expected. In the words of Kyong-Jung, the big question became, “How can we stay together emotionally, spiritually, even though we’re being separated?” The Church-as-Body rhetoric runs deep within this church, making it a very valid question. To make a clean break would be akin to losing a limb. Therefore it really is important to think of this as multiplication, even though it’s being done through an initial division. Daniel uses a cell analogy: if a body is healthy, its cells multiply by splitting. It’s only the “bad…cell that gets bigger without dividing.” Implementing a second service still didn’t solve the problem of keeping close relationships intact, and for this particular Korean church, that’s a red flag for disease. Separation was therefore the only answer, but how to go about it remained an issue. A committee was formed, with Peter as chairperson. He says they “talked about the cell church [for] over one year and prayed for that.”

Separation, in any form, is always painful. In this case there was some opposition between members, and of course it was saddening to many. Eventually, however, it was decided that five families would be sent out to start their own “cell church”. Jesus Heart is the result, now meeting in the Ahn household. Once every three months, and on special occasions (Thanksgiving, baptisms, etc.), the churches plan to meet as a whole. Financially, they also plan to support each other as needed. When asked what happens should the current cell churches then keep growing, everyone discerns the same answer: multiply as another cell, keeping the same core values. Naming is also important here. The committee decided that every cell from now on will have the name Jesus in their title, a tangible way of “planting” Him into new neighbourhoods. Especially within the Korean context, Kyong-Jung hopes “this becomes a good example for other churches; it’s not the only way, but it’s a good alternative way to give birth to a new church.” He also recognizes the ongoing challenge will be attracting and winning new members and non-Christians to church, while at the same time maintaining quality relationships. It’s a balance both churches are eager to achieve.

When asked what the vision is for all of JVC’s future cell churches, Peter gives an earnest answer that testifies to a heart in the right place: “Every [member] should do something for the church according to their gifts…our vision is for all members to be disciples to follow Jesus Christ.” And that’s something every Christian should strive for, no matter what sort of church they call home.

***

So there you have it. Of course, this alters my situation a bit. I will continue to attend my mid-week JVC cell (small group) meetings and, while I plan also to continue attending JVC, I’ll probably do it on a semi-regular basis. This Easter Sunday I plan to visit a big English church in Seoul, and sometime in the future, my sheer curiosity will probably lead me to the world’s biggest mega-church (it has one million members!). Current events help me see this as an opportunity to explore one of the most “churched” nations in the world…what that actually means, and how it plays out. Hopefully in the process God will teach me even more about this global community that is His family.

Onward and outward, to make His name famous!

Deborah

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One Response to “When We Talk About “Church””

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  1. Life is Beautiful | Deborah in Korea - April 8, 2013

    […] I’ve been so conscious of “church” this year (if you hadn’t noticed from my last post) – to the point where I’m considering taking at a few bible school courses when I […]

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