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The Koreans are Coming, The Koreans are Coming
Many Christians will not have heard of the Association of Military Christian Fellowships. One reason may be that this significant organisation is so Christian in its structure: founded in 1930 as a non-political, inter-denominational international fellowship of Christian military organisations, it deliberately has no central organisation, no budget and no staff except for the President, who operates from his home, taking his direction from the Lord.
The Association has had just four presidents since its foundation by Christian military men from four nations, Germany Britain, Holland and Sweden. The first president was a Dutchman, Baron Von Tuyll. In 1965, a British General, Sir Robert Ewbank, took over as president until 1976 when he handed over to an American, General Clay Buckingham. He in turn handed over in 1991 to a British General, Sir Laurence New.
In September this year the Association welcomes its fifth president, General Pil Sup Lee, formerly Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. It looks to be an exciting development. For General Lee is a remarkable man, touched by God in many ways during his military career, and with much to say about Christianity and the military. One example of his devotion: on his retirement he turned down lucrative offers of top jobs in commerce, in order to devote the rest of his life to Christian mission.
I wrote last week of the dynamic nature of Christianity in Korea. It seems to me inevitable that we are set to see a succession of Koreans assuming top positions in international Christian bodies. It is a development to be welcomed.
Some examples: two-and-a-half years ago I attended the Baptist World Alliance Congress here in Melbourne, and we elected as our new president Billy Jang Hwan Kim, pastor of the 15,000-member Central Baptist Church in Suwon, Korea.
The “Operation World” Christian handbook reports that 10,646 Korean missionaries are serving in 156 countries. That’s more than from any country except the United States.
The Catholic Church in Korea is as dynamic as its Protestant brothers and sisters. Around 150,000 adults are received into the Church each year, the highest baptism rate in the world. With a priest shortage in some Western countries, Korean priests are even manning parishes in France and elsewhere.
Probably all this activity would be even greater were it not that many Koreans have real difficulties achieving fluency in foreign languages. Archaic foreign language teaching methods at Korean schools force students to spend hours on learning grammar and vocabulary and syntax – treating language as something like a science - while largely neglecting listening and speaking.
Which is not to say that all Koreans can’t master foreign languages. I recall in the early 1980s when I was working as a journalist in Tokyo and was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal to spend two weeks in Seoul interviewing senior business and government leaders for a special supplement on Korea. I was amazed at the number of high officials and their advisers who spoke fluent English. Many possessed PhD’s from elite US universities. This was something I had seldom then experienced when interviewing senior Japanese officials.
(One memory of that trip: South Korea at that time was still a military dictatorship, and I asked a senior government official about whether the dissident Kim Dae-Jung might be allowed to return from exile in the US. “People in Korea have hardly heard of Kim Dae Jung,” replied the official. “It’s only in the US that he’s well-known. In Korea no-one cares about him.” Kim Dae-Jung is of course now president of South Korea. I sometimes wonder what’s happened to that official. Another memory of the trip is that the Wall Street Journal removed from one of my reports the sentence: “Many Koreans wish that the army would concentrate on defending the country, rather than running it.”)
I repeat: it seems to me that we are set to see a succession of Koreans assuming top positions in international Christian bodies. Who knows, we could soon also be seeing Korean missionaries shaking up moribund Christianity by reaching out to a new mission field – the pagan West.