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Seoul missions conference: Conversions and transformations

In 1443, King Sejong the Great created the Korean alphabet. With the help of his scholars, and using a scientific method, he created an entirely new script to replace the Chinese characters. By simplifying the writing system, he made learning accessible and transformed the country and its literature. Today, it is the fastest of the alphabets of the world to use on a computer keyboard.

Photo 10I learned about him, and the creation of the alphabet, from Thomas Key Jun on August 14. I was in Seoul for a conference of the International Association for Mission Studies on the theme “Conversions and Transformations.”

Thomas was the translator for my afternoon lecture at Seoul Anglican Cathedral on “Cathedrals and Mission,” and he offered to be my guide after that. He is an education consultant, was head of protocol for the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, and had recently returned from organizing and chairing an Anglican youth conference in Kuala Lumpur (July 26 to Aug. 1) for 90 young people from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, and Malaysia. I greatly enjoyed my time learning from him about South Korea.

In these reflections, I will consider the context of Korea, the conference, and related discussions on art and mission.


Korean culture in the past 5,000 years have included the longest dynasty in the world, the Joseon Dynasty from 1392 to 1897 (the country was then officially renamed the Korean Empire); colonization by Japan, 1910-45; occupation by the United States in 1945-48; the Korean War, 1950-53; the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee, who came to power through a coup in 1961, was elected President in 1963, and served until he was assassinated in 1979. In 1980 a student uprising was viciously repressed, which is powerfully related in the Man Booker prize-winning novel by Han Kang, Human Acts (Portobello, 2016). The protests against repression contributed to the establishment of democracy after 1997. Park Guen Hay, the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, was elected the first woman President in 2013 and under her Korea’s link with the United States has become even stronger.

The Sunday I was in Seoul was the eve of the annual celebrations of liberation from Japanese rule. Thomas Key Jun and I noticed a large police presence, complete with riot shields, in the squares and backstreets, covering three demonstrations: NGOs calling for peace negotiations with North Korea; hundreds of young people protesting outside the Japanese embassy against the treatment of Korean “Comfort Women” during the Second World War; and a campaign against the thaad (the Korean word for the American nuclear shield) being put in place against North Korea. I heard a dissident American voice proclaim that it was an aggressive installation. We saw no violence or police violence.

South Korea has a population of about 50 million (North Korea has about 25 million), with 10 million living in the centre of Seoul and 20 million within its metropolitan area. It is not clear how many refugees from North Korea are in the South, but it may number around 27,000.

The dominant religion of the country, has shifted from Buddhism to Confucianism to Christianity, with aspects of the first two still influential.

Christianity is vibrant in its considerable Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal forms: the Anglican presence is smaller. Seoul has three of the ten largest Protestant megachurches in the world. The phenomenal and famous church growth has slowed in recent years, which has coincided with the birthrate’s downturn. In our conference bags at registration, we received four books relating to theology and mission. I read one on the plane back to London: Jinbong Kim et al. (eds.) Megachurch Accountability in Missions: Critical Assessment through Case Studies (William Carey Library, 2016). The volume contained papers given at a conference in Seoul in November 2015.

In 2015, according to the statistics presented at the Korea World Mission Association annual meeting, the Korean church had 26,677 missionaries working on more than 170 continents (p. 44). A critical chapter by Chang Ju Kim, a pastor and Presbyterian missionary in Madagascar (lecturing at the Ambatonakanga Faculty of Theologie, Antananarivo) perceptively analyzes five current problems with the Korean missionary movement: it is too proud of numbers, too eager for fruit, and too quick to send people who are retired; he notes the drawbacks of its emphasis on short-term mission, and the dominating influence of senior pastors in Korea.

2. Conference

This was my fourth assembly of the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS), the ecumenical professional body for the academic study of mission. It was joy to meet with so many old friends and to make many new ones.

This was the 14th assembly since 1972. While lecturing in Cambridge, I attended the ones in Hawaii (1992), and Buenos Aires (1996), and, as a member of the executive, helped plan the one in Pretoria (2000). While vicar of Islington and Bishop of Sherborne, I missed the ones in Port Dickson, Malaysia (2004), Balatonfüred, Hungary (2008) and Toronto (2012).

About 180 academics from all continents of the world gathered at the Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary on August 11-17. We reflected on the theme “Conversions and Transformations: Missiological Approaches to Religious Change.”

The four plenary addresses, and four responses, were diverse in subject and perspective, and the presenters demonstrated diversity of gender and geography.

Christine Lienemann-Perrin, professor emerita of ecumenism and mission studies at Basel University, spoke on “Configurations and Prefigurations of Conversion in the History of World Christianity.” She reflected magisterially on six periods: the 1st and 2nd centuries of early Christianity; the 7th to 12th centuries in the Arab Muslim context; the 16th- to 17th-century conversion between denominations in Europe; the 17th to 20th centuries in China; the 19th to 20th centuries in Colonial Africa; and the 18th to 19th centuries in secularized Western Europe. As chair of that session, I gave the written response.

Joel Robbins, professor of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, asked, “Can there be Conversion without Cultural Change?” drawing on his research among the Urapmin people of Papua New Guinea, who converted to charismatic Christianity in the late 1970s. David Singh, lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and the Treasurer of IAMS, responded.

Hyung Keun Paul Choi, professor of mission studies at Seoul Theological University, considered “Missional Conversion and Transformation in the Context of the Korean Protestant Church.” From a systematic theological perspective, he described and critiqued various recent movements in Korea. Rose Uchem, Professor of Mission at the University of Nigeria, responded.

Elas Tamez, professor of biblical studies at the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica, gave a paper titled “Letter from James to the IAMS General Assembly in Seoul.” Speaking from a liberation theological perspective, she applied the Letter of James to contemporary academic work in mission studies. Paul Kollman, professor of mission studies at Notre Dame University, and the incoming president of IAMS, responded.

Apart from the plenary sessions, most of our time was spent in various study groups, in which about 180 papers were presented. The groups were: Biblical Studies; Children and Youth; Documentation, Archives, Bibliography, and Oral History; Gender in Mission; Healing and Pneumatology; Interreligious Studies; Religious Freedom and Persecution; and Theology of Mission. I presented a paper in the session on Religious Freedom and Persecution, “Developing Anglican Theological Responses to Persecution,” outlining Out of the Depths: Hope in a Time of Suffering (Anglican Communion Office, 2016).

The conference was very well organised by the IAMS executive committee and the local committee in Seoul, and included a choice of exposure trips on the Sunday, to the Demilitarized Zone, to three megachurches, or to the palaces of the capital. In the final session, the president of IAMS, Mika Vähäkangas, professor of mission studies and ecumenics, University of Lund, and the secretary of IAMS, Dr. Cathy Ross, lecturer in contextual theology, Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, and MA coordinator for pioneer training at the Church Mission Society, handed over their roles respectively to Paul Kollman, professor of mission studies, Notre Dame University, and to Aron Engberg, PhD student at the University of Lund.

The plenary addresses and responses will be published, with some study group papers, in the IAMS journal, Mission Studies, published by Brill and edited by Kirsteen Kim, professor of theology and world Christianity at Leeds Trinity University. She and her husband, Sebastian Kim, professor of theology and public life at York St. John University, U.K., wrote the acclaimed History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge, 2014), which was so popular that it had to be reprinted within a few weeks of publication.

Launched at the end of the conference was a new book series, published by Brill, Theology and Mission in World Christianity. The three editors are professors Kirsteen Kim, Steve Bevans SVD (Catholic Theological Union, Chicago), and Miikka Ruokanen (University of Helsinki and Nanjing Theological Seminary). The first book, Mission and Money: Christian Mission in the Context of Global Inequalities, edited by Mari-Anna Auvinen-Pöntinen and Jonas Adelin Jørgensen, was presented at the conference.


Three aspects of art and mission in particular moved me during my visit: a cathedral, a missionary in China, and a museum.

Photo 8The Anglican Cathedral was first built between 1922 and 1926, by Bishop Mark Trollope, the third bishop, and designed by British architect Arthur Dixon. The first three bishops were single and supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. It is in the center of the city, near the spectacular architecture of the new City Hall. There is a very fine mosaic of Christ in the apse, designed and executed in Sicilian style by an Englishman, George Jack, between 1927 and 1938. The service of Holy Communion, with incense and bells, was led beautifully by the dean, Moses Joo. The robed choir sang the psalm to Anglican chant, accompanied by the Harrison and Harrison organ, which was made in Durham. The Bishop of Seoul and Primate of the Anglican Church of Korea, Paul Kim, whom I had met in May 2015 in Salt Lake City, was preaching in another parish. I gave greetings during the service, and an afternoon lecture on “Cathedrals and Mission.” Jonny Baker, director of mission education at the Church Mission Society, led a seminar in the diocese after the conference on Pioneer Training.

At the conference, I greatly enjoyed meeting a young Korean scholar, Jean Kim. She kindly gave me a copy of her 2013 Yonsei University PhD dissertation, Jesuit Missionary Giueseppe Castiglione’s Mission and Artworks at the Qing Court: The Jesuits’ Art Mission Policy and the Response of the Qing Chinese. It is extraordinary. Castiglione (1688-1766) was an Italian Jesuit who served as China’s court artist from 1715 to 1766. He tried to depict God through the representation of beauty in nature. She wrote:

When the Chinese saw Castiglione’s paintings which integrated Chinese and Western art techniques, some literati and common Chinese people showed positive responses and appreciated his work both artistically and religiously. However, the Emperor separated art and religion, and fully embraced his perspective and shading art technique while denying his religion. On the other hand, most literati painters who believed that art can only contain appearances and not the essence, rejected both the Western art technique and religion. (vii).

Jung-Sook Lee, the first female president of Torch Trinity Graduate University, Seoul, is a church historian and scholar of Calvin who gained her PhD at Princeton University. She has founded an art gallery at her university, and the day after the conference generously took me around the Leesum Samsung Museum with her son Albert, who is an art student. There are three fine interlinked buildings: traditional art; contemporary art (with the branding “Memories of the Future”); and education centre with special exhibitions. The pioneering digital guide was intriguing and provided 360-degree manipulation of many of the objects in the museum. Over lunch and dinner, Jung-Sook, Albert and I discussed developing the theme of art and mission on our Mission Theology website and elsewhere.



It was my first time in South Korea and it coincided with the high-profile defection of the North Korean diplomat in London, Thae Yong Ho, and the disputed plans for the U.S. protective nuclear shield against North Korea. Eerily, I noticed a box in my hotel room for an emergency mask.

I was astounded by the beauty of the culture, the generous hospitality of the people, the speed of life in the city, the large number of universities, the long working hours, and the surprisingly low birthrate. The latter plummeted after a too-successful campaign of reduction and is now one of the lowest in the world. In a population of about 50 million people, 37 is now the average age of marriage for men and 33 for women.

The conference theme of “Conversions and Transformations” could have been seen as a response to the theological concepts of “justification” and “sanctification.” Conversions may be personal and corporate, the beginning of Christian life and its regular “turning back towards Christ” in daily repentance. Transformations may be the development of change in Christians and societies into the imitation of Christ and the kingdom of God.

An Anglican scholar who studied these themes over the centuries was Owen Chadwick, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. In that vein, it was a delight to meet for the first time at the conference the Rev. Dr. Jaakko Rusama, mission theologian of the Lutheran Church of Finland. We both studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge, during the 1970s, and he told me of Owen Chadwick’s academic and personal influence on him and on the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. They were both in the Master’s Lodge at Selwyn exploring possible subjects for their doctoral dissertations. Chadwick pondered and suggested: “Jaakko, it may be good for you to explore the work of Bishop George Bell and John the influence of Charles Kingsley.” They both followed his mentoring advice on subjects and were supervised respectively by Donald McKinnon and Geoffrey Lampe.

I conclude with the poem at the end my response to the first plenary session of the conference. In 1996, I wrote it about God speaking to Augustine of Hippo, in the garden through children and through his Word in Augustine’s study. He was converted to Christ in A.D. 387. The background is his wandering in the dualistic, missionary religion of Manichaeism and his pondering on the influential sermons of St. Ambrose in Milan. After his conversion, Augustine, from North Africa, became the father of Western theology.


Turning Point for Augustine

“Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine, Confessions VIII, 7.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Romans 13:14

Stalking in the garden in the heat of the moment,
Reflecting on complexity of voluntary movement,
Slunk in listless and leaden despair,
Tangled, contorted and tearing his hair,
Rapping his head and wrapping his knees,
Rabidly ravaging under the trees,
Wanting to wait and waiting to want,
Weighing the longing of laying and font,
Augustine hears the Word of the Lord
Drifting, insisting the voice of a child:
“Tolle, lege: take it and read.
Tolle, lege: take it and read.”
Vocative discourse spoken by God,
Evocative sing-song challenge of a child.

Turning and turning he opens to read
The Word of the Lord in the words of St Paul:
“Lust and debauchery, revelry, rivalry,
Now is the time to wake from your sleep.”
Eloquent professor professes his call.

Now, no procrastination, delay;
Later is now, tomorrow today.


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