International Development and Public Religion: Changing Dynamics of Christian Mission in South Korea

Ministry Mission

“Can we think of mission apart from evangelism?” “Yes”, Haemin Lee says in his book, International Development and Public Religion. He pinpoints that “Traditionally for Korean Christians, the term mission used to be synonymous to evangelism, which is to propagate the gospel to unbelievers” (p. 120). Yet, this seemingly unbreakable paradigm in Christian mission began to shift. Focusing on two Korean Christian humanitarian NGOs – Korean Food for the Hungry International (KFHI) and Good Neighbors (GN) – Lee delineates changes of landscape in Christian mission in and out of South Korea. Thus, he aims to explicate history, methodologies, socio-cultural backdrops, and characteristics of Korean Christian humanitarian mission. Employing various methodological approaches – missiology, practical theology, and qualitative research – in this groundbreaking survey and analysis of Korean Christian humanitarian NGOs Lee dismantles a binary model of development or mission and demonstrates a shift to development as mission.

To tackle this issue, Lee surveys in chapter one a history of Christianity in Korea, while providing a multi-dimensional analysis of Korean Christianity, particularly geographical, historical, socio-cultural, religious, and economic factors laid behind the remarkable success of Christian mission in Korea in 20th century. Facing the recent decrease in church growth, he calls for transformative mission of Korean Christianity in its service to the poor and marginalized not only in Korea but also in international society. In his analysis of Korean mission organizations, in chapter two he introduces three Korean organizations and their different approaches to mission: (1) Global Mission Society (GMS) focuses on “evangelism and Christian discipleship through local churches” (p. 33); (2) Korea Food for the Hungry International (KFHI) employs a holistic approach “to meet both physical and spiritual needs” of the people (p. 35); (3) Good Neighbors (GN) unlike two aforementioned organizations does not promote proselytization, but is committed to humanitarian aid/development inspired “by the Biblical mandate to love God and to serve our neighbors” (p. 37). In chapter three, he introduces changes in mission strategy “from purely evangelistic mission (saving souls) to holistic-humanitarian mission” (p. 120) and how these three organizations – GMS, KFHI, and GM – exemplify varying spectrum in Korean mission. In chapter four, Lee explicates different theologies of mission and their implications in Christology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology. In so doing, he argues that “Korean Christians have become interested in promoting the public, common good and in this process diverse public mission theologies emerge and impact their actual practices” (p. 120). In chapter five, Lee analyzes the rise of Korean Christian humanitarian NGOs and its cultural backdrop undergirding its development. He argues that in the face of secularization, globalization, and neoliberalism, Korean mission brought forth a unique cultural hybrid. Through the merge between American utilitarian individualism and Korean culture’s emotion-ridden communalism it brought forth holistic synthesis whose mission is “public, de-privatized, and international through its emerging international NGOs” (p. 91). In chapter six, Lee argues that methodological dichotomy between “development or mission” is fading away, but a new way of doing mission, “development as mission”, came to rise. Rather than being an analytical book on mission in and of itself, he provides a model, community empowerment, that will enrich works of Korean Christian NGOs. Frist, by letting locals take ownership and become agents for development, NGO’s mission work will be sustainable and able to build genuine partnership between mission agents and locals. Second, by employing “Asset-Based Community Development” model rather than need-based model and “Participatory Analysis for Community Action” NGOs will be able to bring forth “a sustainable and relationship oriented community development” (p. 124).

I want to point out two implications that Haemin Lee’s groundbreaking work on Korean Christian Humanitarian NGOs brings to missiology and practical theology. First, it refocuses one’s attention from imposing certain Christian doctrines on locals to impacting the lives of locals through the love of God. In the (post)modern society, old mission model of proselytizing non-Christians is proven to be inefficient as witnessed in the decrease of church growth of the Korean Church. It will soon (or slowly) be a case for other developing countries. In this sense, Lee’s “community empowerment” model will better equip those in mission to understand local communities deeply and help build self-sustainable development agencies there. I believe that in so doing missionary’s genuine care inspired by the Biblical love of God and neighbor will be communicated with locals regardless of their cultural, religious, and faith tradition and have lasting impacts on locals’ minds and society. Second, Lee’s work broadens one’s understanding of Christian mission. There has been animosity among (Korean) missionaries who employ different mission approaches. Some focus on “saving the souls”, some focus on humanitarian aid, and some try to do both. Lack of understanding on different mission strategies, however, often brought contention and even condemnation among mission agencies. Just as Lee points out in the beginning of his work, Christianity is a diverse and multicultural religion and thus its mission is as well. His thorough research and analysis of Korean humanitarian mission is, I believe, ample enough to help its readers to realize that there is more than one, but many ways of doing mission. I strongly recommend readers this work of Haemin Lee, a fine scholar, mission practitioner, and my longtime friend and mentor. I believe that scholars interested in missiology, Christian history, and practical theology and practitioners of mission will be greatly benefited by Lee’s work.


Hyun Ho Park

Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity

Graduate Theological Union (GTU)

Categories: (M) Book Review

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