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When the salt loses its taste

When the salt loses its taste

Churches must show a way of living, says Rev. Dr Jaecheon Lee. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

16 December 2019

*By Claus Grue

Rev. Dr Jaecheon Lee, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, has a special way of welcoming visitors. An interview appointment with him begins with a step-by-step demonstration of how to brew a perfect cup of Korean tea. At the end of the sofa-table in his office, advanced equipment has been installed where water is boiled and poured over carefully chosen tea leaves in a heated pot before finally being served in small cups.

“A good cup of tea is a perfect start of the day in the office and the best way to start a meeting. It has a calming effect and makes it easier to concentrate”, Lee says.

It sure tastes delicious and his meticulous brewing-procedure immediately creates a relaxed atmosphere for a good conversation. After a sip, Lee gets serious:

“What is the church and what is Christianity? These are two key questions which have to be addressed over and over again”, he points out.

To him, the obvious answer is that Christianity should be guided by the Gospel, not Mammon, as he feels is the case today.

“In a vibrant, capitalistic society, as we have here in Korea, rapidly growing and financially potent mega-churches appear to be the name of the game. Growth and money have become main criteria of success”, Lee explains.

This development worries him immensely and he sees it as a sign of a church losing its “churchness” and the salt losing its taste.

“Churches in Korea have become big, capitalistic institutions with more power, more money and more opportunities, just like any other competitive business. Religion has lost its mission and is now integrated in the modern capitalistic way of life”, according to Lee.

He fears a development where an increasing number of Koreans can’t tell the difference between religious institutions and commercial businesses, and that young people in particular are becoming more inclined to join the mega-church trend, rather than staying with traditional, local congregations.

Not what Jesus intended...

“We have to deal with what it is to be a Christian church in a modern, capitalistic society, where growth and profitability are prevailing success criteria. But growth alone is not what being a Christian witness is about and not what Jesus Christ intended the church to be”, Lee points out.

“What it is about is living together in peace and harmony. Churches must show a way of living, guided by the Gospel”, he continues.

Again, his conclusion is that the basic principle of what a church is, is a question which has to be asked and addressed urgently.

His own response to that is that the church must express its identity in two manners. One, is the way of living, where living together as a Christian community is central.

“In today’s society, isolation, alienation and loneliness are prevailing phenomena. Christian churches must demonstrate - and be good examples of - what being a Christian in a modern world means. The manner of “being” is critical. Mega-churches is not our way of living”, Lee explains.

They practise what he calls a “prosperity theology” aimed at satisfying people’s basic, material needs, rather than spiritual needs guided by the Gospel.

The second manner of identity expression, according to Lee, is that the message of the churches must spring up from its own spirituality.

“We face neo-secularization, meaning that the reasons for believing are no longer relevant for younger generations. How Christian societies are able to sustain their own spirituality, is what people ask us. That has to come from within the church. We must look back at our origin and re-discover the real mission of the people of God”, he says.

It shouldn’t be about money

Lee makes it very clear that neither the church nor Christianity should be about money. Still, he concludes that money has become a critical factor, also in ecumenism, which gradually has changed the vocabulary of ecumenism into a more economically, politically and socially oriented language.

“Ecumenism is losing its own particularity and the authenticity of Christian messages is eroding. This is unfortunate, since ecumenism is evangelical and embodies the spirit of the Gospel. The ecumenical idea is about living and working together in peace as the people of God”, he reminds us.

An obvious example is the message of Korean reunification, which to a large extent was carried by the Christian church when South Korea was under totalitarian rule back in the sixties and seventies.

“Nowadays, our democratic government carries that torch”, Lee says.

Still, the separation of the Korean peoples into two countries, and the tension it has entailed for generations, continues to be a prime concern for the ecumenical movement. In August this year, the World Council of Churches (WCC) organized a youth pilgrimage tour around South Korea together with the National Council of Churches in Korea, which included a peace-march along the barb-wired Demilitarized Zone. Eighty youths from all over the world participated.

The South Korean capital Seoul also hosted the bi-annual meeting of WCC ECHOS Commission of Youth in the ecumenical movement, where 14 young commissioners and 20 staff convened to discuss today’s ecumenical challenges from a youth perspective.

Young agents of change

Next year, it is the 70th anniversary of the breakout of Korean war and 60 years since the student revolution, which was followed by the military coup in 1961. Almost 20 years later, in 1980, the Guangzhou uprising became a critical turning point towards democracy.

“The young generation has always been a driving force for change in our country. In the Gospel, new wine represents the youth. We cannot stand in one position eternally, we have to move on in the Kingdom of God’s everlasting movement, where the youths will make a difference”, Lee hopes.

What worries him is that today’s society is much more individualized than it was in the 20th century. He senses a vagueness in young people’s vision about their future, a general lack of confidence in themselves.

“Christian communities should be an environment where young people are able to discuss and deal with existential problems. If we become too institutionalized, we will lose engagement and voluntarism. We must carve out a strategy to revive viable activist youth movements of the past and get back to the core meaning of being Christians”, Lee concludes, while serving the last few drops of his carefully prepared tea.

*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.

This feature story is based on an interview with Rev. Dr Lee in Seoul in August this year.

WCC member churches in Korea