A Response to Julie Ma on Korean Missionary Work

Author: Dr Jonathan Ingleby, formerly Head of Mission Studies, Redcliffe College.


I suppose the fundamental missionary challenge remains the same in every place and whoever is doing it: hearing God’s call, responding, making a lasting commitment, and learning to contextualise – all undergirded by an effective personal spirituality. In this list, however, the one that stands out as specifically missional is the matter of context. And here’s the additional challenge. Context changes. So, I appreciated the way that cultural considerations came up again and again in Dr Ma’s presentation. Negatively, according to Dr Ma, Koreans are the victims of their own mono-culturalism – they are not always sufficiently aware of the culture of others, or find it difficult to learn another language, or are inclined to club together. They are the good product of their own context – Shamanism, a recent history of suffering and division, a hard won prosperity – because this has led to a disciplined spiritual life, a rugged life-style and a distinctive generosity. In these areas in particular we Westerners have much to learn from them. But, the big challenge for Korean mission is, as I have said, that cultural contexts change.
Korean mission strikes me as rather ‘modern’. It is rationally organised, technologically advanced, linear in its outcomes, driven by the idea of ‘progress’, with fixed goals and successful outcomes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but is culturally difficult in both pre-modern and postmodern societies. We had a Korean mission leader visit us here at Redcliffe some time ago. The big point he wanted to make was that numerically the church in Korea was growing and the church in UK was declining. It was time we Westerners took notice. He was considerably taken aback when I said that I did not think that you could measure the health of the church in the UK by counting heads! Because of our history, Christian institutions – parish churches and church attendance, for example – were part of our cultural heritage. But we were through that stage, and in many instances what we were shedding was institutional Christianity. In a postmodern society that was a good thing, freeing us up to take the gospel to the people, instead of spending all of our time on maintenance. My point was a simple one. If you are doing mission in a postmodern society it is into postmodernity that the gospel must be contextualised.

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