Korea, Theological Training, and Missions
I was reading Operations World’s website’s daily prayer, where they highlight a particular nation. For today, it was South Korea.
As I was reading the Spiritual Challenges section, I noticed some very strong parallels to the 2nd generation KA ministries that I have served (and continue to serve). I’m not sure who wrote these ‘challenges’, but I have to say that I find myself in agreement with all of them. However, the part that caught my eye was the paragraph below:
Theological training in Korea is unique. In no other country of the world where there is a large, growing Church is there such a surfeit of people trained for pastoral work. There are possibly 280 theological institutions in Korea. In the top accredited Presbyterian seminaries are over 16,000 students. Right across the English-speaking world are thousands more Koreans studying for Christian ministry. For many who graduate there are few openings in desirable city congregations — yet the poorer rural congregations have many! Pray that the best of these men and women may humbly commit themselves to less prominent rural pastorates and bless the world through cross-cultural missions.
Some interesting facts to go along with the above statement. South Korea is now the 2nd largest mission sending country in the world, 2nd only to the US. (This is for career full-time missionaries, I’m not talking about short term missions for one or two years.) That means that there are more South Korean full time missionaries in the world than from any other nation, save the United States. However, if the above statement is true – that means that most of those who are career missionaries are not among the ‘best of these men and women’ at least relative to theological training.
What does this mean? It means that the most gifted (whatever that means), are staying to pastor large local congregations in Seoul – not getting involved in missions, or ministry to those in rural areas who really need their leadership. I find this true of many 2nd gen KA pastors. The most gifted in terms of leadership, education, and the like often stay in wealthy, affluent, suburban congregations while those that venture out into the ‘less than desirable’ ministries are often ‘lacking’ – at least in terms of gifts. Now, what makes this all the more interesting is that most of us pastors that are in the ‘less than desirable’ ministries (and thus are more lacking in terms of gifts), are often looking for ways out. In other words, we’re just using this as a stepping stone to something ‘bigger’ and ‘better’. It’s that way with missions as well. So many of us go on missions, as a way to raise our Christian value among other Christians (i.e. Oh, you’re a missionary? You’re so noble, so holy, etc.). It’s as if we’ve received our reward in full, b/c the Christians around us raise us on some sort of pedestal – when in fact, it seems to me the Bible is clear that there is no less, no more noble a calling if in fact God does the calling. (i.e. Jim Elliot is no more holy – even though he went to a dangerous place to do missions than Pastor Lee who is an associate pastor at a local suburban church). This is true IF God has called both of them to do their work in the body of Christ.
However, that’s a side point. The main point is that the above statement makes reference to those who are the most trained in terms of theological training / leadership / discipleship and are the most gifted – often stay where there already are a plethora of gifted leaders. Even in missions, there are the more desirable positions (i.e. head of a large organization) vs. less-than desirable ones (i.e. ministering to some rural folk who are unable to read).
It does seem, that those who are the most gifted seem to stay with the most affluent. Not that I think getting a Harvard education is the best in the world (it’s certainly a good education), but when was the last time you saw a Harvard educated Christian doctor or lawyer spend their time working for the poor in India? When was the last time you saw a really gifted musician or artist give up a music career in the US or Korea to spend their entire lives teaching music to children who have no future? And of course, when was the last time you heard of a really good pastor (whatever your definition of good is) or lay leader, working with rural communities or doing work with the less than desirables as their main ministry?
I have absolutely no idea where I stand in terms of the ‘best’ or even the ‘worst’ ministers relative to the above statement. I do know this, even though I’m in a period of training and perhaps I’m just getting anxious, but right now I’m one of those ‘highly trained’ in terms of education, who is working among the affluent.
Even though 1) I’m 100% sure that God has called me to be here in suburbia at this moment in time, 2) God is training me at this moment in school and ministry, and 3) God has called me to minister in a missions context for my life – I can’t help but wonder as a pastor if I will “humbly commit myself to less prominent rural pastorates and bless the world through cross-cultural missions ” as the statement claims that South Korean pastors are not doing.
Another related thought to the above is this: Why is it that most career missionaries I know who are Korean go without much training? I mean, when was the last time we saw someone with a Ph.D., M.D., J.D., M.B.A, or an M.Div etc. from well reputable schools go into missions full time? I’m not knocking Koreans, since Korea is an amazing country of Christians and their fervor for missions is really unparalleled in the world. However, in terms of those who become career missionaries – I just don’t see that many with advanced degrees going. I’ve seen a lot in terms of short-term (3 years or less), but still haven’t seen those who are really trained (at least in terms of education) as tent-makers actually become career missionaries.
The more I observe KA’s (as a KA and as a KA pastor) and our approach to missions, it’s that of short-term missions. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, I think short-term missions is a great thing. However, sometimes I wonder if the term ‘short-term missions’ is even missions at all – at least according to what the Word of God says. I’m convinced that missions is a lifestyle, requiring one’s whole life and being. How that can be ‘short-term’ I’m not sure, but I think what we mean by it is this: to pursue activities that missionaries pursue for a shortened time period. Of course this is a misnomer in some sense, since missions requires one’s entire life. Anyways, I don’t want to get caught up in what is or is not short-term missions. I just want to point out that it’s really different, the concept of ‘short-term’ vs. ‘career’ missions.
Consider what it takes to be a career missionary (i.e. missionary for the rest of your life): fluency in a foreign language, cultural adaptation, moving the entire family to another place and raising your children in an environment very different from where you were raised, raising financial support, and finally formal training. I can see why a lot of career missionaries skip the training, after all it’s the most difficult and sometimes we’re not even sure what that training would be sometimes. So it makes sense that those who are the most trained in terms of education would want to apply their skills. So a computer programmer trained in C++ is going to have a hard time using that specific skill of C++ programming in Kenya let’s say, since they don’t really have companies of that sort there. So he / she would have to look elsewhere if they wanted to use their training to do career mission work in addition to the language training that I described above.
Now, let me hone this thought a little bit more. George Verwer (founder of OM) at Urbana ’96, said that less than 1/10th of 1% of all Urbana delegates become full-time missionaries. (This is when Urbana was still a world missions focused student conference, after 1996 Urbana took on a more urban missions / reach the American family / reach the USA focus.) There have been 20 Urbana student mission conferences, with the first 18 focused on world missions and the latter more focused on home missions. Let’s say the average for the last 10 conferences was around 18k, so that’s less than 18 career missionaries per conference. So out of 180,000 people (mostly college students) who attended the last 10 Urbana conferences, a conference focused on world missions, less than 180 of these 180,000 became career missionaries even after a lot of them had experienced ‘short-term’ missions.
This makes me think of all of the KA churches out there that have sent short-term missions teams out there, probably thousands maybe even tens of thousands across the entire USA. I wonder what the percentage is? 1/10th of 1% that become career missionaries? Less? More?
Now, I’m part of this ‘less than 1/10th of 1%’ statistic. I’ve been to 2 Urbana’s (93 and 96), have been on 5 short-term trips since then, and am still living in the USA ministering to affluent Asian-Americans. I know it’s my calling right now so I don’t feel guilty about it, and I know it’s in God’s hands. I also know that I am in a time of training, and I have to wait patiently on the Lord.
But I can’t help think about this number… less than 180 out of 180,000 in the last 30 yrs…