South Korea was very successful in its response to the pandemic, especially during the early stages. The virus was contained and death rates were low although the government refrained from issuing drastic measures such as lockdowns or business closures.
However, the Protestant community was highly criticised within Korea for its behaviour during the early days of the pandemic. Traditionally, a South Korean church on average has about 10 worship services a week. Korean churches put a lot of weight on face-to-face public worship: this made the COVID-19 pandemic particularly hard. Many continued faceto-face meetings overtly or in secret. Videos of Christians violating public health codes and ignoring scientific facts in the name of “faith” went viral. The South Korean church had been already deemed selfish and ultraconservative by the public in the past decade; this led people to think of it as detrimental to society.
Megachurches were able to prepare well for online services. With abundant resources, they produced forms of online worship that were even more systematic than offline formats, and are reaching even more people than before. But for small to mid-sized churches who rely on faceto-face meetings, large portions of their congregations did not return to the pews.
Peace and Joy Mennonite Church
Peace and Joy Mennonite Church is located in the countryside of a small city called Nonsan in central South Korea. The location is somewhat isolated, and most of the congregation either live on the church premises or in the nearby villages.
Our Sunday worship had to go online for a few months in the beginning of the pandemic, and then turned offline with limitations – no eating together; masks on; seating arrangements, etc. – adhering to government regulations. Brothers and sisters living on the same premises had to work and eat together even during the weekdays, so they still gathered, but took measures to limit as much contact with the outside world as much as possible.
Entering the “new normal” after the pandemic, most Korean churches are calling for the “revival of the face-to-face worship.” For Peace and Joy Mennonite Church, all of us have a sense of belonging and solidarity no matter where we are. The question of whether face-to-face worship service is the “true” form of worship wasn’t such a big issue for us. When we had to be online because of circumstances, we simply discussed how we could serve those in need.
For example, when we had confirmed cases in our midst or our village, we put necessary supplies and food on the doorsteps of quarantined people. We also began recording church services and uploading them on the church SNS group. We wanted to provide the sharing of the Word and the ongoing congregational context to brothers and sisters unable to attend the service. The weekly meeting of all members where all church matters are discussed and decided upon take place online during the week.
Even when you are completely cut off from the entire world, you can still worship God alone. Abraham and Jacob’s most significant encounters with God took place when they were both alone.
The Mennonite church reveals its faith in God through the relationships it fosters with brothers and sisters and neighbours; therefore the church community is of utmost importance. However, COVID-19 is not an one-time phenomenon. Human greed is getting bigger and the whole creation will suffer.
But even then, there is no reason to fear or despair. We shall not try to run away from worship, or tear ourselves away from the cord of three strands that Jesus tied us with, no matter the circumstances. If Sundays are no longer available for worship, we will simply worship on some other day. We do not look for excuses to not worship, but we look for different ways to worship.
Peace and Joy Mennonite Church tries to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard in our church service. Instead of a sermon, the facilitator (whose role rotates amongst the members) invites everyone to share their insights into the Word of God. Bible verses, questions and commentaries relating to the text are shared during the week so that the brothers and sisters taking part in the worship service can prepare their reflection and interpretation. Worship is teeming with life and more people are undertaking the necessary steps to become a full member of the church. It could be that each person is offering a hand to the congregation’s effort to put Jesus at the centre of peace and reconciliation, in a less authoritative and more communal manner.
We do not wait for church service because that is when and where we meet God: we wait for it because we can listen to the stories of how our brothers and sisters have met God in their lives. How precious is the time when we can see each other’s face light up as we share our stories of thanksgiving? How precious is the time when we can sing in one voice the same songs of praise? How precious is the time when all or any of us offer the common prayer that reflects our communal faith? Thanks be to God that we have our brothers and sisters in faith!
Pandemics are rooted in human greed and therefore may return any time and in any form. We do not know what destruction humanity’s uncontrolled desires may bring, but Peace and Joy Mennonite Church will take the road to a community of peace, where we love our brothers and sisters and put Jesus at the centre.
The same questions people brought in John 4:20-23 are heard in the church today: “Our fathers worshipped here, but you say…” The place and the format are not important. Jesus’ answers are the same, back then and even now: “the true woshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
— Yongha Bae is general secretary of Mennonite Church South Korea. This article was translated from Korean into English by Hakjoon (Joe) Ko.