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In South Korea, as church life goes online, ‘a church is a church for the world’

In South Korea, as church life goes online, ‘a church is a church for the world’

Rev. Dr Hong-Jung Lee, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea. Photo: Grégoire de Fombelle/WCC, 2019

18 March 2020

The following is the second in a series about the response of the WCC, member churches and all people of goodwill to COVID-19. The purpose of these stories is to share hopes, concerns and best practices among our one human family. - WCC director of communication Marianne Ejdersten

Rev. Dr Hong-Jung Lee, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea, shares his reflections on worship and churches amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In what ways are you seeing churches adapt to life amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Rev. Dr Lee: Faced with an emergency condition of COVID-19, the Korean church is adapting in three major ways, especially with respect to worship, as COVID-19 has a high rate of infection in enclosed spaces.

First, many churches have voluntarily joined the national initiative, social distancing, and recently decided not to gather for joint services for two to three weeks to reduce the risk of mass infection. Some churches prepare and air online worship videos (using YouTube, video chat, etc.) for church members to worship at home at a set time on Sundays, while others distribute worship-guidelines, and guide them to worship on their own at home or in small groups.

Second, there are some local churches where worship is conducted in their church buildings, but each church member can choose whether to come to the church according to his or her health condition, or worship online at each home.

Third, on the other hand, some churches still recommend church members to gather to worship on Sunday mornings, even if other weekly services are suspended, because they think worship is the core of the church. Sadly, however, there has been another recent mass infection in the church, which has not been able to avoid social criticism.

Would you please share some concrete examples and best practises from Korea?

Rev. Dr Lee: I am grateful that many churches in Korea are now reflecting on the meaning of worship and church presence again and practicing social distancing voluntarily. A church is a church for the world, and both gathering-worship and dispersing-worship in life are important. In this situation, there are exemplary churches that have temporarily suspended communal services to fulfill the public role of the church, because now is a special situation that gathering itself can increase the risk of infection in civil society.

Such exemplary churches are doing their best to help their church members worship at home or in private first. For example, some pastors film online worship videos during the week in advance so that church members can watch at home and worship together on YouTube during Sunday's service. There was even a voluntary fundraising campaign to help small churches without these broadcasting facilities to acquire minimal broadcasting equipment. Many pastors are sharing their know-how in preparing online-services on social media. Some churches offer weekly updates on family worship service-guides that church members can use to worship by themselves at home. These changes seem to be an opportunity for the Korean Church to go beyond pastor-centered churches and preaching-oriented services, giving each Christian the power to read and reflect in their own words.

There are churches which keep holding communal worship services at the request of the church members. In that case, they worship especially in accordance with the infection control manual. Such churches do not give communion for the time being, and worship without choirs. They are also trying to prevent infection as much as possible by placing body temperature sensors or hand sanitizer at the entrance to the chapel. In order to prevent the participation of strangers from a cult, such as Shincheonji, which is known to have caused most of the mass infections, some churches send invitations to guide only certain church members to attend the service.

What would you recommend as the first steps to pastors across the world who perhaps are not as far along as you in these best practices?

Rev. Dr Lee: It would be nice for the pastors to stop all the church's programmes for a while, to encourage church members to keep social distance for common good and to have time to reflect theologically and devotionally.

In what ways can Korean churches be a role model for others?

Rev. Dr Lee: Korean churches are taking the initiative to convert communal worship to online worship, and they are refraining from gathering of their own accord. There are also churches that divide material resources for people in need in the blind spots of the quarantine system and find a way to make and supply masks. In addition, Christians are campaigning to give up the opportunity to purchase public masks. The Salvation Army is also campaigning to donate masks.

As you confront unprecedented challenges, what can the global fellowship pray for you?

Rev. Dr Lee: I hope the global fellowship would pray together that the fear of the infectious diseases does not manifest itself as hatred, exclusion and discrimination against others. I pray that the people of Christ will not be infected by this virus because hatred, exclusion and discrimination against others are fundamentally more vicious than COVID-19.

As world turns virtual during COVID-19 crisis, it is easy to pray (WCC press release of 17 March 2020)

WCC takes strong measures to protect from coronavirus (WCC press release from 13 March 2020)