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On Friday and Saturday we had the chance to explore Seoul and see something of the history and culture of this fascinating, if little known, country. Visits to the National Museum (the 9th most visited museum in the world in 2011), the National Folk Museum, Gyeongbok Palace and different markets highlighted the long history and sophisticated culture of Korea as well as its links with neighbouring countries and the wider world. For example, Buddhist scriptures were printed using engraved woodblocks in the 9th century.

Gyeongbok Palace was built in the 14th century

The Moderator preached three times in two churches on Sunday 23. The two morning services were at the church of the Moderator, Rev Son Dag-il and in the evening he preached at the 125th anniversary service of Saemoonan Church. This is the oldest Protestant Church in Korea and was founded in 1887 when an American missionary, Underwood, organised new believers who had been converted after reading the New Testament translated by John Ross. One of the elders, Wun Suk Soh is the great-grandson of Sang Ryun Soh who was one of Ross’s co-workers in translating the New Testament.

Moderator Albert Bogle preaching at Saemoonan Church 125th anniversary service

At first glance our partner churches, Presbyterian Church in Korea (PCK) and Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) seem to be successful churches. Both Saemoon and Saemoonan PCK churches have five services each Sunday and a midweek service. They have different choirs for most of the services, pews are full and they have large staffs of pastors, youth workers, administrators, etc. Some say that the massive growth of Korean Presbyterian churches in the 1970s and 80s was, in some part, a function of the drive for modernisation and westernisation of society and the economy under the then military government. Becoming a Presbyterian was part of that process.

Thirty or forty years on the children of some of these new believers may not be coming to church in the same numbers as the globalised, consumerist, individualist culture becomes ever more pervasive. Sadly, Presbyterians have a reputation of being pushy, even arrogant. We were told that people are leaving the Presbyterian churches, returning to Buddhism or Roman Catholicism where expression of faith offers more sense of sacred space in an increasingly driven, fast-paced life. We were told that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all OECD countries both for younger people who feel they cannot succeed and older people who feel isolated.

Many Presbyterian churches look like office buildings and the assertive brand of Christianity they offer does not appeal to those who want a more spiritual, contemplative faith life. We heard from people who would dearly love to see the PCK and PROK discuss how its traditional way of doing things has to change to meet the needs of Korean society in the 21st century. The theme of the General Assembly, “Christians, Friends of the Least,” suggests that there is some awareness of the need to change.

Seoul, a modern city