Stephen has a new ‘Pause for Thought’ page in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press. Here’s his first article for the new format, published in this week’s paper (30th May)
I was at a ministers’ conference in England last month, and was told that a South Korean man was very keen to meet me. It turned out he was bringing a group of people to a World Missionary Conference that was being held in Stranraer, and wanted to know of some local Covenanter sites that he could take them to.
Two weeks ago, over 100 of these Korean visitors arrived for their conference, impossible to miss with their bright yellow jackets bringing colour to the town. Many witnessed them singing in the town centre, with one video of it quickly gathering 15,000 views on facebook.
In fact, one of my favourite things about being a minister is the opportunity to meet fellow believers from around the world. In my three years in Stranraer, our small church has had visitors from South Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Canada – as well as from many parts of the UK and Ireland. Some of these have been fellow Reformed Presbyterians; others have just been looking for somewhere to worship when passing through, and searched online for a Bible-believing church.
There are others in countries such as India, South Africa and France who’ve never visited, but have signed up to receive news and prayer updates from our church in Stranraer.
As a family, we’ve also had the opportunity to travel to International RP Conferences, in North America, Scotland and Ireland, with fellow-attendees from too many countries to count. This time last year we spent some time with the RP Church in Los Angeles, whose assistant pastor is South Korean. He has his own version of the ‘Blue Banner’, flown by the Covenanters in Scotland in the late-1600s, emblazoned with a Korean translation of the slogan ‘For Christ’s Crown and Covenant’. Another friend, a Japanese pastor, has one adorning his motorcycle.
Indeed, despite the differences in language, culture, food etc, the overwhelming impression when talking to these brothers and sisters is not what divides us, but what we have in common.
One of my theology Professors recently returned from teaching in South Korea. He commented that having been privileged over many years to visit some far-flung parts of the world and experience church life in different forms, what has generally struck him is not how different things are, but how similar. It reminded me of a conversation with a couple of medical missionaries in Uganda – two of the biggest issues they face among young men are alcohol abuse and suicide. People are people, wherever you go.
Returning to Stranraer’s recent visitors, the fact that our town has a church sent out from South Korea is a local example of a trend academics describe as ‘reverse missionaries’. It is becoming more and more common for countries which we traditionally think of as missionary ‘targets’ to instead be sending missionaries here. So people from Africa come to start churches in England, and South Korean Presbyterians are sent to the mission field of South-West Scotland. Reverse missionaries come either because they think there aren’t enough churches in an area – or they perceive that existing churches are no longer proclaiming the message that once enthused traditional missionaries to travel the globe.
In 1950 an estimated 80% of the world’s Christians were in Western countries. By 2025 it’s estimated that at least half of them will be in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.
While some may feel threatened by this trend, I actually find it refreshing. As the UK moves further and further away from being a Christian country, those who follow Jesus find themselves in a similar position to that of the Apostles in the first century. The Apostles were regarded as ‘atheists’ (as they didn’t believe in the pantheon of Roman gods). They were outsiders whose views were misrepresented (the Lord’s Supper sounded a bit too much like cannibalism). They faced persecution, increasingly by the state itself (once it became clear that Christianity wasn’t just a Jewish sect). But all this combined to mean it was fairly clear where people stood. When people rejected the Apostles’ teaching, it wasn’t because they had been brought up in the church, and thought they knew it all already. And as people heard their message about Jesus with fresh ears, many found in strangely compelling.
Perhaps some will hear South Koreans singing on the streets of Stranraer as an invitation to listen to an old message with new understanding.