Embracing the Diversity, and Transience, of an International Congregation
“No matter how short or how long, we want to be a family for you.”
This slogan captures Pastor Yoon Lee’s desire for every person who visits and attends Yoido Full Gospel Church’s English ministry (YEM), located in Seoul, South Korea.
YEM has been Lee’s church family since he moved to Seoul in 2012. But when he first took up the position to lead the YEM congregation, he found that building that community was vastly different from what he had experienced in America. Born in Portland, raised in Chicago, and attended seminary in Southern California, Lee had attended and served in Korean immigrant churches for most of his life, where most of the members were Korean American and were settled down in their respective cities.
Lee found upon coming to Seoul that the congregation at YEM was the complete opposite. Members came from all over the world, and many stayed only for short-term stints of a few months to a few years. Those who would stay for several years were few and far between.
“Those were the two things that caught me off guard – the demographic, and the transience,” Lee recalled.
“But the first church [ever] was like YEM,” he added. “People from all different nations, gathering in one place for a short period time, and then God sent them out. Once God revealed that to me … I started embracing that.”
YEM consists of some 250 members, many of whom have little in common, from the native Koreans, the Korean expatriates from various parts of the world, and the non-Korean members from countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Columbia, Ghana, and Guatemala, to name a few.
Lee says this lack of common ground allows the members to skip the small talk and “get to the important stuff really fast.”
“You can’t do small talk anymore,” he said. “You just get down to what is going on in your life, and that’s refreshing.”
“We have people from the States, from Columbia, from the Philippines, from Ghana. And we just think, ‘Okay, what’s something that we have in common? We love the Lord. Okay, let’s start there,'” said Lee. “It becomes very beautiful when you just get down to the most important thing.”
Meanwhile, embracing the transient nature of the international community meant breaking some unspoken “rules” that pastors followed back in America, Lee said.
For instance, while many pastors in the States would implement months-long membership classes in hopes to ensure a healthy base of committed members in the church, such a long-term commitment was often difficult or meaningless for those who may have come across YEM during the second month of their six-month-long study abroad program, for instance.
Lee felt that keeping such a commitment simply for the sake of doing so came at the cost of being able to provide a community that members could belong to as soon as possible in the midst of the transient, fast-paced culture. Instead, YEM focuses on getting people plugged into cell groups as early as their first week at church, and focusing on the training and communication between cell group leaders to discern whether certain individuals may need additional help in understanding the gospel, or if they might cause others to go astray.
While keeping in mind that the members may soon leave Seoul to return to their home countries, or take on another work stint at another nation, Lee said he considers each of the members as potential future partners.
“These are not just members while they’re here, but these are partners in the gospel,” Lee said.
Lee is hopeful to see more and more members of the international community rising up to take on leadership positions within the church. No matter how short or how long, and regardless of their ethnic background, Lee says, he has been investing in the members in his church family in hopes to cultivate leaders abroad and in Seoul.
“Honestly, it’s been a big blessing,” Lee said. “I really had to come out to Korea to experience the world in a sense. What God is doing is beautiful, and I’m getting a small taste of it here.”