By Peter Sung, Director of Church Planting, PacNWC/Lead Pastor, Evergreen Covenant Church
Before we immigrated when I was eight, growing up in South Korea meant immersion in the way of life that was the Presbyterian church, and that meant conforming to fit in. Now I can see that for what much of it was: bad theology, default culture, and really, just human nature.
1981 was the start of a new life in America but the continuation of the same social and spiritual environment: put on the mask and fit in. But a new imperative showed up in the immigrant church: Be good and succeed. This too was human nature coursing through the veins of bad theology and an even more oppressive cultural mandate. Stiff burgundy and white envelopes with names and dollar amounts were read out loud each week in each of the three Sunday services. These unashamedly public tithes and offerings were the perfect emblem that proved goodness and success.
Repulsed, and feeling spiritually and culturally homeless, I decided 11th grade was old enough to leave the nest and go find… something different. With vague ideals and words like acceptance (not performance), belonging (not fitting in), grace (not merit), and true community (not masked ones) swirling around my head, I went off in search of a better land and began my second immigration journey, this time a chosen one.
I found an inner city church with a white pastor, a woman worship leader, and a congregation that was culturally mixed. I had few categories but I felt like I was getting closer to home and a seed was planted. In college, I didn’t just join InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, but I deliberately rejected many others that I felt were gathering for reasons other than the Gospel. Inspired by a sense of mission to propagate a new kind of church, I abandoned my mother’s call on my life to become a medical doctor, switched my major, and applied to seminary. With my acceptance letter to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in hand, one week after graduation from college, I planted my first church. Then a second. Then a third. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. Then I met the Covenant, fell in love and joined, and the 90’s were over.
This whole time, underneath the surface, the cultural ground was shifting and presumptions were being challenged. The internet, and the technology to access it, began to fill the earth just like the waters cover the sea. Postmodernity became less of a talking point and less threatening to the church relative to the opt-in culture that was the child of individualism, consumerism, and technology. How people related to information, to authority, to people, places, and things – shifted. Coming to church, committing to church, church being a serious contender in culture and in calendars – shifted.
Lots of fails. Lots of studies. Lots of books. Lots of consulting groups later, we’re beginning to see the church doing what it has always done – adapt, and eventually thrive, again. But many churches and leaders are getting lost in the shuffle. It’s all just happening so fast and furiously. At times like this, we are able to appreciate the difference between resilient and strong. Strong is like the pyramids – powerful but now, mostly gone. Resilient is like a forest – easily destroyed but able to spring back to life. Resilient endures, adapts, and finds a way to thrive again. Strong cracks, wears down, and goes away.
Beginning with my own spiritual journey, then church planting, then directing church planting, and now engaged in the work of church turnaround, my respect for the church has been growing again, not because it’s perfect or strong but because it’s resilient. It’s resilient because it’s alive. Buildings and programs and strategies and cultures – these all have their place in life but are not life. The end purpose is life and life will find a way as God guides his Church through time and space.
If I stop anchoring in the past and show up here and now with Christ’s Gospel in heart and hand, the opportunities to engage the present day, as it is and not as I think it should be, abound. Is today’s missional challenge for you? No, the gates of hades will not prevail against the Body of Christ.
This is my sense of call as I continue the work of church turnaround locally and partner with the Conference more broadly: to competently engage culture and society with light and salt, sweat and tears, and the enduring blood of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit who is moving in our world more than we can think or imagine.
Let’s end with a benediction for all of us, for all generations before and yet to come:
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”