Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Shift of the Center of Gravity for the Ecumenical Movement? WCC Busan Assembly and the Korean Churches

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Shift of the Center of Gravity for the Ecumenical Movement? WCC Busan Assembly and the Korean Churches

Article excerpt

The Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), held from October 30 to November 8, 2013, in Busan, Republic of Korea, addressed the theme "God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace." With 2,663 international participants from 141 countries, representing 345 WCC member churches and other partners, and with more than 9,000 Korean church members and day visitors, the assembly was the largest gathering in the history of the WCC.

The assembly began with an opening service of common prayer honoring diverse Christian traditions from around the world. The daily program of the assembly included times of prayer, Bible studies, thematic plenaries, ecumenical conversations, Madang (workshops), and business sessions, including elections. During the weekend participants visited local churches, stayed with Korean Christian families, and worshiped together. The experience offered exposure to Korean culture, spirituality, and life, and most particularly to the reality of the division between the two Koreas.

In 2009, when Busan was selected as the venue for the Tenth Assembly, some among the Western churches doubted whether the Korean churches would be able to host it successfully because of geopolitical instability and division between the churches. In contrast to previous assemblies, the WCC this time needed to rely heavily on the financial contributions and logistic support of the churches of the host country. Furthermore, it was a highly important moment in which the WCC had an opportunity for revitalizing the ecumenical movement with a fresh vision and inspiration emerging from the churches in the Global South. The Korean churches were being entrusted with the great responsibility of representing the phenomenon of the shift of the center of gravity of world Christianity.

Although it is too early to fully evaluate the Busan Assembly, many participants said that in many ways it was a highly successful gathering. After experiencing Korean hospitality, the dynamism of the Korean churches, and the quality of their witness, they forgot their hesitation regarding the capability of the Korean churches to host such an event. Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary, praised the Busan Assembly as "the best assembly ever" in terms of local preparation and contributions. (1)

For the Korean churches, too, it was a remarkable experience. Seong Won Park, professor at Youngnam Theological College and Seminary in South Korea and a WCC Central Committee member who was deeply involved in the assembly preparation, said, "We experienced world Christianity coming to the heart of our home. A bridge between the world churches and the Korean churches has been built now." (2) Park's statement shows that the Korean churches have begun to recognize their role and task in the context of global Christianity.

The Korean churches, however, also learned several critical lessons from the Busan Assembly, both positive and negative. This article examines how the various church groups in Korea reacted to having the WCC assembly in their homeland. It will also explore how the legacy of the Busan Assembly will affect the future of Korean Christianity, as well as its involvement and leadership in the global ecumenical movement.

Korean Ecumenical Context

The Korean churches are second only to the American churches in the number of missionaries sent to the four corners of the world, a remarkable achievement indeed. According to Samuel Kobia, former WCC general secretary, no other church in the Global South "has completely transformed itself, becoming a 'missioning' church from having been a 'missioned' church." (3) The South Korean achievement of independence, economic development, and democracy--carried out within the span of a half century--stands as an outstanding achievement, especially among countries that have experienced colonialism and an ensuing military dictatorship. Similarly, "the transformation of the Korean churches from a 'receiving' church to a 'sending' church, both in human and financial resources, is indeed a significant example for the churches in the global south. …

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