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(Christian Week – December 2013)

DAEJON, SOUTH KOREA ✦ It was on the tenth floor café of a mega-church of 10,000 in this South Korean city, beside a floor-to-ceiling window, where a young man greeted me with a “sir,” and oh, by the way, did I have a word for him, any nugget, anything to help his future?

He knew I was involved with a missions’ conference some floors below and his spirit was so genuine – this is the beauty of Korean culture – that I was and wasn’t surprised when he asked particularly what I thought “success” was.

He shared that he had just failed to get into medical school and this was the difficult state of his life.

I listened and told him he already had some good notions on it all, then added that he needs to keep thinking it through himself, that what others – his girlfriend, his parents, certainly his culture – tell him may not have anything to do with who he is in his soul.

I told him my own story, how at his age I had left home against my father’s will, how I planned to go one direction but was led in the opposite, and how my vocation eventually came with as much planning as that of a man who turns a corner and falls into a manhole.

I said something about holding life with loose hands, and also something about farming, how a seed needs to die, how growth is often unseen, and that the hard truth is that this all takes time.

He was appreciative and we saw each other once more before, with my wife, I flew back to our African home. But his question followed me to Africa because I suppose it’s the sort of question that chases any of us, including the Church itself. What is success?

Certainly this is the question in front of the South Korean Church. After centuries of Confucianism and Buddhism in Korea, Christian missionaries tilled the spiritual soil in the late 19th and early 20th century. One, American nurse Ruby Kendrick, said, “If I had a thousand hearts, I’d give each to Korea.”

Korea, at least the south, has since been emerged remarkably anew in various ways. One church, Yoido Full Gospel in Seoul, apparently the world’s largest church, is attended by, conservatively, tens of thousands during seven Sunday services translated into 16 languages. When I walked in it was promoting an international conference on, no surprise, church growth.

But is this success? Or do we know that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than parking yourself in a garage makes you a car?

This is the rub of it. Jesus changed the world by suffering, exiting early and leaving the keys with a few scrubby followers. We, on the other hand, want much more.

As one South Korean mission director told me, “There’s now debate here about how healthy it is with all these mega-churches.” He lamented, for one, the infighting. Or consider the national uproar caused by a minister at one such church after he faked his PhD.

So it’s followed me a long way, this question from a youth in a café at the top of a high-rising church.

It’s as good a place as any to be asked about something like success. But the answer, it seems, is better worked out on ground-level because that’s where the truth is often clearest.