What South Korean Christians Want You to Know About Coronavirus
Article by Steve Chang and Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
About a month after the first coronavirus case appeared in South Korea, an infected man attended Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a cult of more than 300,000 that believes Jesus was reincarnated in its leader. This man ended up infecting thousands—in fact, more than 60 percent of the nearly 8,500 cases in the country have been linked to Shincheonji.
Though South Korea hasn’t required a lockdown, most churches voluntarily had closed their doors by March 1. That decision was emotional, since South Korean churches managed to keep services going even during the Korean War, said Steve Chang, a pastor in Seoul.
Sarah Zylstra asked if he has any advice for American churches. Here’s what he said:
Plan for a New Normal
Think long-term, at least twice as long as you think you need. South Korea was well equipped, with technology and infrastructure, to go online. We did it immediately. But most of us thought it would be temporary. So that’s the first bit of advice—don’t think it will be one or two weeks. It will more likely be two months or more.
Think long-term, at least twice as long as you think you need.
That way, we can begin to think about how best to minister to our people quickly—through online means such as video calls/visitations, group fellowship, prayer meetings, and Bible studies, in addition to Sunday services—rather than wasting time on “let’s wait and see” thinking.
So some of our group meetings that we planned to postpone until things were better, we realized we needed to just start through online means instead.
Look for Opportunities to Do More than Normal
We had the tendency to think of doing less than we’d normally do in the physical worship setting, because we thought, Why would people want to watch a video of a service for more than 20 to 30 minutes?
There’s some truth to that, but we also forgot that they don’t have the option of coming to church. This online thing is all they have. So why not make it the full service that we normally do?
In fact, we may need to do more than normal because people are isolated and can’t get out or get together. For example, our pastor is sending out a daily prayer video through Instagram, which he wouldn’t normally do.
Pay Attention to What God’s Doing in the Church
Our church is emphasizing family worship and spiritual growth, which isn’t something our megachurch can do well without a crisis like this. All the age groups normally split up into age-specific ministries on Sunday. Now, much of the delivery of children’s ministry has to involve parents, which naturally encourages them to minister to their own kids. We’ve also asked members to have family worship while going online, something a big church cannot do physically.
We feel this is an opportunity to be a witness to Christ by helping the most vulnerable. The young adults’ ministry is delivering food and supplies to the elderly in the community.
One member of our Chinese student ministry (an international Chinese student in a local Korean university), who became a believer in our ministry, decided to collect support from his fellow Chinese students to send to the hard-hit city of Daegu. As he gave the money (about $2,000) to his university president to pass on to Daegu city officials, the president was so moved that he added $900 on the spot of his own personal money.
We are seeing poorer members of our church giving beyond what’s normal. For example, one Korean grandmother wanted to donate her rationed face masks to our pastors.
We also think God is using this to encourage our members toward mutual care. The senior pastor asked the church members to practice “113” (like 911 in the United States), which is in 1 day, call 1 person to check up on them and encourage them, and pray for 3 people.
Pay Attention to What God’s Doing Outside the Church
I definitely think people are scared and more open to the gospel. If you have contact with unbelievers in or through the church, this is a great time to minister to them. If you do not have contact already, it will be difficult to meet them. Our college campus outreach has come to a complete halt, for example. We have yet to see how this will lead to more effective gospel ministry, but it is definitely an opportunity.
If you have contact with unbelievers in or through the church, this is a great time to minister to them.
In South Korea, several things are happening in the spiritual landscape. First, as you know, a well-known cult was at the center of this outbreak. It has shocked many Koreans to learn how this group operates and draws unwitting candidates. This is something many Christian leaders have known, but it’s now public. That will slow down the spread of cults in Korea, which are active and dangerous. As much as I cringe at those who boldly claim that God is judging these cults, I can’t help but think that his mercy for the church’s gospel ministry is present in this crisis.
There is also some pruning going on in the Korean church. All the megachurches have shut down. The larger the church, the more critical it was to close their doors. So this is a great opportunity to reflect on what worship “in spirit and in truth” means, and how some larger churches have drifted away from pure, biblical worship. Now that all those big, fancy sanctuaries and productions are dark, we are forced to consider afresh what pleases a holy God.
Finally, being the church without a central meeting place has been excruciating. It’s an odd feeling not to meet your brothers and sisters at least once a week. We miss it terribly and realize how much we took it for granted. But it also forces us to hold on to our oneness in Christ, and to be more intentional about reaching out and praying for our spiritual family.
Steve Chang is professor of New Testament at Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul, Korea, and pastors the English-speaking congregation at Hallelujah Church. He is a Korean-American living and serving in Korea since 2001.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer for The Gospel Coalition. She earned her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.