I am suggesting a strategy for evangelizing North Korea. I believe that intentional communities established by South Korean Christians and other Christians going to live in collectivist North Korea will be an effective means to evangelize the people. This article explains why. It also includes thoughts on how to begin preparing now, even though for South Korean citizens, North Korea is currently closed to this possibility.
North Korea is a state governed by a man who stands in the place of God for his people. The present ruler is the third in succession from the founder, Kim Il Sung. It is also a state founded on communist, socialist, and collectivist ideologies. The official ideology of Juche (national self reliance), also referred to domestically as ‘Kimilsungism’, decrees that the citizens have no personal property, live communally, and be dedicated to serving and defending the leader. These ideas are drilled into all citizens from kindergarten up.
In such a nation, how can one share the good news of the gospel in a manner that will be heard and understood? How can the love and freedom of Jesus Christ be conveyed to a people who have little understanding and virtually no experience of either?
I would like to suggest that Christian community can provide an answer.
‘For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.’ (Matthew 18:20, NASB)
When God’s people come together in the name of Jesus Christ, he is there; his body is present. It is the church.
When his people live together in love, joy, and commitment to one another, people sit up and take notice. We see this clearly evidenced in the first Christian community in Jerusalem.
‘They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:41-47, NASB)
What I envision when I suggest Christian community as being an effective way to evangelize North Korea is many groups of Christians, each group sponsored by a South Korean church, settling in the North. These would be groups of 10 to 20 individuals of varying ages, with various skills and experiences from all backgrounds, all sharing a commitment to the Lord, to one another, and, most of all, to being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in that land—being the church in place. They would go in together, settling in one location and creating a life together there. They would share their resources and their time with one another. They would live together. This would not be a short-term endeavor but a commitment to staying in that location together over the long term. They would support themselves collectively in whatever way was appropriate, from farming to providing services and teaching or doing light manufacturing depending on the skills in the community. They would be supported by a sponsoring church in South Korea through prayer and encouragement. The question of providing financial support is very sensitive and requires great wisdom. If the members of the community exhibit anything that the people around them might construe as a wealthy lifestyle, it could erect insurmountable barriers between them. Also giving money to the people of the area can be very damaging. Money has, in the history of missions, proven to be extremely corrupting, bringing about the destruction of many good ministries. In fact, St Paul raised money for the Mother Church in Jerusalem from the mission field, among the poorest of the new believers (cf. Rom 15:26 and 2 Cor 8:1-9). At the same time, money can be used with great care and wisdom to provide constructive help in ways such as providing micro loans, initial capital for a small business, or the like. This requires a great deal of careful thought, discernment, prayer, and wisdom.
I do not see these groups going in to organize churches, erect worship buildings, establish schools, or other similar endeavors, but rather simply going in to live together, to simply be.
As they live together, being a productive part of the neighborhood, they would be able to transfer skills and knowledge to the people around them. They would demonstrate the love of Christ in ways that could never be conveyed by words alone. They would also be able to show that it is possible to live and work together without suspicion and fear. They would give new meaning to the concepts of community and labor. Community would become not an ideological communist tool of the leadership but a manifestation of the love of God. Labor would become not a means to build the state but an expression of love for those around by being productive, not being a burden, but rather, by providing for self and others.
This example of communal life would communicate deeply to the people of North Korea in terms that are accessible to them. Precisely because of that, it would convey the amazing and radical nature of the gospel. The people of North Korea would see men and women living not in fear of one another but in love and joy. They would see people laboring not to meet state targets but as those who truly want to build up their community and the society, not being coerced but serving voluntarily.
As the people living near the community observe them, benefit from their labors, and interact with them, we anticipate that they will begin to wonder who these people really are and why they have come. They will begin to ask questions. At this point, the members can begin to share their own faith and stories. At this point, spoken messages will communicate.
Over time, we would expect the people of the area and the community to interact with increased friendship. We envision them seeking to join in the worship and wanting to understand more about the faith that motivates the community. This would lead to an organic and natural establishment of North Korean worshiping bodies, to establishing the church once again in North Korea.
The community must also be prepared to guide new North Korean believers with great humility, wisdom, and loving gentleness, and to be flexible enough to accept possible new patterns for church life and structure. North Koreans should be raised up and discipled in leadership to lead their own churches. It would be good to do this without burdening them with extensive educational and training requirements based on contemporary South Korean Christianity, but to seek together to discover new patterns that are both fundamentally biblical and particularly meaningful in that new context.
In order for groups to establish communities in North Korea, they must prepare beforehand. It will take time for people to prepare for their communal life in the North. It will take time to think and pray through the many aspects of the new life together in that new land. It will take time to learn the language and culture of the North. Here are some things that can be done now.
Begin the process of building community.
Living together in community is not easy. We, at Jesus Abbey, have learned over the past 52 years that the intimate involvement in each other’s life, day in and day out without let up, breaks down a person’s defenses, leading them to expose their inner selves. This is often quite traumatic. People tend to have a hidden self which they are loathe to share publicly. Living in community over time exposes that hidden self. In addition to this strong emotional stress, there are other stress factors having to do with sharing responsibilities and work loads, authority structures, expectations of one another, and so on. Our experience shows clearly that success in living together as an intentional community requires a strong commitment to the common purpose of the community, to prayer, and to complete dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.
It would be important to begin the process of common life together in South Korea, putting it into practice by living and working together. There are many ways this could be done. One is to rent a group of apartments together in one building, then meet together, sharing resources, meals, prayer and work, taking on special projects together, etc. Another is to build a small farming village where all work and worship together. It could be a group living together in one large building or a collection of buildings on one piece of land. Many different patterns for community life can already be found in the South Korean Christian community movement. Many of these communities, including Jesus Abbey, are part of a Christian community association.
Seeking to understand North Korea
I have referred in several places to the significant differences between North and South Korea. These differences include fundamental assumptions, culture, and even language. For a group of South Koreans or overseas Koreans to live together in North Korea and to communicate effectively, it will be important for them to learn all they can. This requires study and research.
Groups preparing to go into North Korea can share the effort of learning through reading and research, through participating in existing programs, and by inviting experts to come and speak.
Perhaps the most effective way to learn is also a way the group can begin the process now of sharing the love of Christ with North Koreans. That is to befriend North Korean resettlers in the South, to invite them to live together in the community. Direct involvement in the lives of North Koreans who have fled the North and come to live in the South can bring rich blessings to everyone involved. Those who hope to go into the North will learn about the culture, worldview, and language of the North, while those from the North, who frequently feel at a great loss in the South, experiencing prejudice, rejection, and loneliness, will become part of a loving and caring community. Many hope to return to share the gospel with friends and family left behind. Include them in the plans. Learn from their experience and wisdom.
It is my sincere prayer that thousands of South Koreans will answer this call to community, to being the hands and feet of Jesus in the North, and that they will begin preparing for this now.Further Reading
The following resources that will be helpful in thinking about community and evangelism:
The Korean Community Church Association (Hankuk Kongdongchae Kyowhoi Hyubeui-whoi)
Community Leadership Training Center (Kongdongchae Jidoryuk Hoonryun Won)
The Korean Community Church Association includes many of the various Christian intentional communities in Korea. These communities have a wide variety of purposes and lifestyles. Anyone in Korea interested in forming a community would gain a great deal of knowledge and insight through the communities in the association.
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl (Willliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge UK, 1999)
This is an excellent discussion of hospitality and the power of open and welcoming communal life to bring about reconciliation and healing.