In the Aftermath of a Kidnapping
South Korean Christians are having second thoughts about their approach to overseas missions as they pause to reflect on the 43-day hostage situation that left two men dead. Church leaders say they will still go forward with the gospel, but with more caution and wisdom.
"Remorse is the face of the church," Park Eun-jo, senior pastor of Saemmul Church, told Christianity Today. Located in the Seoul suburb of Bundang, his Presbyterian congregation, which sponsored the trip to Afghanistan, has a weekly attendance of about 5,000 people.
Expressions of remorse were apparently not enough. Criticism of the church and the Korean missions movement, already strong during the hostage crisis, reached a fury once the hostages were freed. Park sent a letter of resignation to the church in September. Even though the church refused to accept it, Park said he was leaving Saemmul for a month to pray.
The 23 church volunteers were abducted by the Taliban in July while traveling in Afghanistan on a medical-aid trip. The South Korean government negotiated for the group's release in August, but only after the Taliban had killed two members of the group, including a Saemmul Church pastor. There is widespread speculation that a ransom as high as $20 million was paid, but the only announced terms of the deal were South Korea's agreement to ban missionary travel to Afghanistan and to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
Park, who spoke to CT before entering seclusion, wants the church to send more missionaries to Muslim countries and to Afghanistan after the ban is lifted.
"We believe that this is God's providence leading us to other Muslim countries," he said. "I don't want this to be a stumbling block for missions."
Nevertheless, there is concern that the ordeal embarrassed South Korea internationally, and that this may have hurt the church's witness domestically.
"Koreans, particularly those who are not receptive to Christianity, are very emotional and critical about this incident," Park said. "Because of the hostage situation, people withheld their opinions, but since they are released, people are now really letting us have what they think."
South Korea has been known for its zeal for missions; it sends out more missionaries than any other country except the United States. The country currently sends about 1,000 new missionaries every year, according to Steve Moon, director of the Korea Research Institute for Missions.
"At this point, it's hard to guess how it will affect the missionary movement quantitatively," Moon said. "Qualitatively, it will be an opportunity for growth in maturity. Churches will need to think more strategically, and churches and missions will prepare better for short-term missions. Many people will maintain the same kind of enthusiasm, but what they need is wisdom and cultural sensitivity."
Park said that 20 of the South Koreans traveled to Afghanistan for a short-term trip to volunteer at a school and to provide medical aid. Three of the hostages were missionaries who had already been in Afghanistan when the group arrived.
In parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, unarmed aid volunteers are at high risk of being kidnapped or injured. They typically travel in very small groups and often with military or police escort. But this group traveled together on a conspicuous bus, without police or military escort. Furthermore, the driver was not carefully selected, since the hostages say he collaborated in the July 19 abduction.
Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow told CT that most American short-term missions volunteers travel to relatively safe environments for relief work. In contrast, many South Korean churches are willing to send short-term groups to dangerous parts of the world.