Editor’s note: In honor of the passing of Bishop Sundo Kim (1930-2022) last fall, we are pleased to feature our 1991 cover story on him and the remarkable Kwanglim Methodist Church in Seoul, South Korea — one of the largest Methodist congregations in the world. At Good News, we considered Bishop Kim a treasured friend. During his lengthy and fruitful ministry at Kwanglim, he served on numerous boards both in Korea as well as around the global. He was the president of the World Methodist Council from 1997 to 2001 and was a member of the Asbury Theological Seminary Board of Trustees — eventually serving as the Honorary Chair of the Board. In addition to his responsibilities at Kwanglim, he also served on the board of World Vision and the Lausanne Committee. Currently, Kwanglim is led by Bishop Chungsuk Kim, the son of Bishop Kim.
Seoul’s Burning Bush: What’s the Secret?
By Carroll Ferguson Hunt
Good News, July/August 1991
Our tour group of Westerners cowered against the wall at the top of the stairs, intimidated by the pushing, chattering throng of Koreans pouring past us. Even though for days we had inched through Seoul’s gridlock traffic in our van, confronting a solid river of people face-to-multiplied-faces was something else again – and outside Sunday school rooms of a Methodist church yet?
Our circuits crackled on overload.
But this is no ordinary Methodist church. We were visiting Seoul’s Kwanglim Church, one of world Methodism’s largest, with 50,000 constituents, four Sunday worship services, 6,000 people attending Tuesday Bible studies, multiple choirs and orchestras, plus 60 teenage Sunday school classes – whose members were keeping the timid visitors’ backs to the wall.
How can all this be? Why, in this secular, materialistic era when Methodism is declining, are the halls, the pews, the prayer meetings, and the offering baskets overflowing in Kwanglim Methodist Church?
As soon as the stairway traffic reduces to negotiable numbers at the 11:00 a.m. service, we were ushered to front rows in the balcony and handed earphones through which we receive simultaneous English translation. (The bulletin says they also offer Japanese on another channel.)
As we look around we see people rapidly filling the bright and warm 5,000-seat sanctuary. Masses of elegantly arranged flowers frame the huge wooden pulpit and crown the altar behind it. Orchestra members surreptitiously tune their instruments during the organ prelude and every seat in the choir section is filled.
Worship proceeds through components familiar to most Christians; hymns, Scripture, responsive reading, prayers. But if you sit quietly with your ears and eyes open, with all your antennae operating, you can sense a focus, a participation by the congregation not always present in average Sunday morning crowds. As you turn over in your mind the immensity of this church and its incredible success in ministering to thousands of Seoulites and other Koreans around the world, one question demands an answer. Why? What is so special here? What’s their secret?
Pastor Sundo Kim had Malachi 3:7-12 read earlier, and as he begins his message on “The Important Lessons of Stewardship,” heads drop throughout the auditorium. You wonder, Has he lost them? Do they resent harangues about money just like we do?
Look again. People are not dozing nor inspecting their fingernails. They are looking up the Scriptures Pastor Kim refers to and taking notes on what he says about tithing. They’re even saying “Amen!”
Pastor Kim believes in his topic. “If you don’t tithe,” he says, “you are not a whole Christian.” The points of his sermon are simple and clear: 1. The Bible teaches us to tithe; 2. Tithing is practical; 3. Tithing brings blessing.
Basic stuff, wouldn’t you say?
“Ministers who don’t preach on tithing impoverish their people,” Kim asserts, and this is the sole time all year that he preaches on tithing. He makes no idyllic prosperity promises to his people, just cites God’s blessing of those who obey.
Does this approach work? You only have to look around you. Kwanglim Church lacks for no good thing. State-of-the-art sound and video equipment, four building church complex, mountain prayer retreat center, domestic and foreign mission projects, 22 associate pastors. Seventy percent of this church’s members tithe – without signing a pledge.
“Just do it,” Kim tells them. Basic; yes, but with a twist. A trust twist, if you will. Trust God to provide needed income by stimulating his people to do what he tells them to.
How does one, even a seasoned Christian leader like Sundo Kim, learn this kind of trust? What are his spiritual secrets?
Like so many Korean Christians, Kim’s spiritual formation centers on prayer. His daily prayer time stretches from 4:30 to 6:30 each morning. Saturdays he spends at Kwang Lim’s prayer retreat center, the “prayer mountain,” a concept and practice common among Korean Christians. There he prays and prepares for the four Sunday services, returning home at midnight.
Why It Works!
Christians from all over the world make pilgrimages to Seoul to learn from Dr. Sundo Kim and his Kwanglim Church. No one, it seems, comes away unaffected by what is seen and observed there.
Frank Warden, author and corporate president of Trinity Bible Studies, has visited Kwanglim several times where his Trinity Studies are used. He speaks of the Korean congregation’s “enthusiasm in worship,” which he found especially affecting one Sunday morning when 4,000 new members joined the church fellowship.
“The people are enthusiastic about Christ and the church,” he says. “They are Christ centered and Bible centered. It is a most amazing worship experience. A hush drops, and especially during prayer there is a sense of holiness.”
George Hunter III, Dean of Asbury Theological Seminary’s E. Stanley Jones School of Mission and Evangelism and church growth leader, discovered during his visit to Korea that “the Kwanglim Church is an outstanding example of a church growing through meeting people’s needs; its preaching, group life, and teaching are all need-oriented. Also, they grow because they plan for growth, which is an important part of their long-range strategy.”
Anyone who visits Kwanglim and other Korean churches, large and small, cannot ignore the emphasis on prayer which permeates Christian living there. A delegation of Chinese pastors and lay leaders from Hong Kong went home determined to develop monthly all-night prayer meetings to fuel the growth and spiritual development they hunger for. American and Japanese Christian leaders carry away similar commitments when they see what can happen when God’s people pray.
Terry Faris, a member of the UM Kentucky Conference for 23 years, visited Pastor Kim in Seoul and heard him discuss the secret of growth at Kwanglim Church. Kim opened the door to a small room, his prayer closet, and said to Faris, “Here is the secret … I meet God before I meet people.”
Soaked in Prayer
Every part of Kim’s ministry is soaked in prayer. When Kwanglim’s $7.5 million prayer center was only an idea burning inside his head, Kim prayed, expecting God to provide it all. Then, in trust, he bought land on a mountain slope an hour out of Seoul. Now among the rocks and pine trees sprawls a complex with a brick, stone, and glass auditorium that can seat 5,000, and facilities to feed and sleep 800 people.
Huge numbers, however, do not dominate the purposes of Kwanglim’s prayer mountain. Scattered about the grounds are kneeling benches for private prayer. Tiny prayer cells, 104 of them, are private places with warning lights outside and doors that once closed can only be opened from the inside. Obviously the center was designed for serious intercession.
But intercession is not the only Christian discipline in action at Kwanglim’s prayer mountain. Pastor Kim takes one month each year for training church staff, plus deacons, elders, area leaders, evangelists; 3,360 of them, in fact.
“Without training we cannot have good leaders,” Kim asserts. Coaching his leadership staff is a priority in Kim’s ministry. In the most recent session, he talked to them about setting goals for their ministry.
“Back when our church had only 200 members,” he told them, “I set a goal of 1,000. People laughed at me and said ‘Impossible!’ But as soon as we reached 1,000, I aimed for 2,000.”
Kim’s audience listens carefully; he knows whereof he speaks since the church embraces a constituency of 50,000. “We know where we’re going,” he says. And he cites Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:28-35 about planning. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost … ?”
“Make a plan,” Kim tells his leadership team. “Set priorities.” Then he tells them how, and outlines the steps by means of his overhead projector.
After Kim’s lectures and after each Kwanglim leader writes out his or her goals, sharing them with a small cluster of co-workers, they all receive communion together. As they celebrate the Savior, Pastor Kim prays for them individually, committing each one to the Lord and dedicating them to their assigned ministry.
Why does any church, even one this large, require 3,360 workers? One reason is in response to one of Kim’s tenets: “Kwanglim may have 50,000 constituents, but it is not a big church. It is a collection of small churches.” Even small churches need leaders and if you have a collection of them – 100, say – the number mounts of those responsible for nurture of each flock. And when Kim talked to his leadership team about turning goals into action he cites “prayer, visitation, development of friendships, discovery of non-Christian neighbors.” Why? To tell them about Jesus. To evangelize.
Deacons and elders, lots of them, are a way of life in Korean churches. At Kwanglim they take their responsibilities seriously. So do the Sunday school teachers and workers, and Bible study leaders for small groups which may never grow larger than 10 participants. This restriction means there are now 400 such groups.
Kwanglim’s constituency – members, catechists, inquirers – are divided into 17 areas. Each area is shepherded by an evangelist and three Bible women who visit and counsel and love the 1,000 families of their flock. Numerous Wesley-style class meetings gather on Friday nights in each area and this is the blueprint for lay evangelism. Christians of the Kwang Lim fellowship find it easy to invite their non-believing neighbors to a small, warm group meeting in their home, and their neighbors find it easy to accept such an invitation – a common practice among most Korean believers.
This is why, as the 11 o’clock service draws to a close, we see several people move from their seats toward the front of the auditorium. Dr. Kim has called for all new believers to meet him in front of the pulpit. The congregation applauds as ten or a dozen individuals cluster around the pastor to receive his greeting and a small gift from the church. They, by this public appearance, tell God and their world that they are beginning training for baptism and embarking on the Christian way.
As we watch that small band of men and women who have begun their first steps onto the Christian way, as we see pleasure and embarrassment merge on their faces at this public attention, what secrets for success have we learned from Pastor Kim and Kwanglim Church?
First, we see that Jesus, God’s Son, is Lord here, and that a personal relationship to him underlies all else. Second, we know that Pastor Kim trains his huge leadership team with care and devotion. Third, we know that Bible study, prayer, and tithing are normal disciplines for the people of Kwanglim Church, as is evangelism among their neighbors, friends, and family.
People come from across the globe to query Sundo Kim about the success of Kwanglim (which, incidentally, means “Burning Bush”) Church. They discover as they look and listen that the practices and principles upheld by Kim and his astonishing congregation are the simple tenets of biblical Christianity instead of some new formula they hoped to find and copy at home.
Instead of unwrapping a new secret for success created by a clever leader, we who want to know how he does it are led to the foot of the cross and told to look into the face of the Savior; then follow him.
Carol Ferguson Hunt was a frequent contributor to Good News and the author of From the Claws of the Dragon: A Story of Henry Lee’s Deliverance from the Red Chinese Guards. This article first appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of Good News.
Dreaming a Church into Reality
By Joe A. Harding & Ralph W. Mohney
Sundo Kim is a man with a vision. Years ago the congregation was located in a building surrounded by factories and industrial buildings. A few miles away on the other side of the Han River, great high-rise buildings were being constructed to house the exploding population of Seoul. Dr. and Mrs. Kim began to search for property for a new church building to serve people where they were living.
The Kims found an ideal site for the new church in a pear orchard that literally was surrounded by buildings of the new city. Inquiries revealed that the property was not for sale. It was held by several members of a family that was not interested in the church. The Kims were not discouraged by the owners’ unwillingness to sell. Day after day they returned to the old pear orchard to kneel in the mud and pray. This continued for 30 days. They prayed that God would bless them with guidance so that they could have leadership in building a church that would glorify God and share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
After praying for 30 days, Kim went back to the owners of the property. They were still unwilling to sell. On Sunday morning, Kim shared his vision with the entire Kwanglim congregation. The people’s hearts were touched by the vision of reaching unchurched persons for Jesus Christ in this new location. Kim invited members of the church to join him marching around the property, praying that God would help them in their mission. Members responded. They gathered on the vacant lot and began to march around the property, praying and singing as they marched. Like Joshua and the people of Israel of old, they dared to believe that the impossible could be accomplished.
Something happened! The owners suddenly reconsidered their refusal to sell. Disgruntled family members had changed their minds. Now the family was in total agreement to sell the property at a favorable price to the church.
The dream has grown beyond anyone’s expectations. Now, a beautiful new sanctuary with an excellent educational building stands on the site of the old pear orchard.
The Kwanglim congregation has a dynamic ministry, paying pastors’ salaries in Poland and in other Eastern European countries. Ministries have expanded to China, Japan, and the United States. Every year hundreds of pastors come to Kwanglim for a spiritual renewal experience in a “Vision and Growth Seminar.” The Kwang Lim worship service is broadcast not only across Korea, but also to Hawaii and the western portion of the United States.
A young convert from Buddhism said to a visiting pastor from the United States, “I am so happy since I found this church. My friend invited me. I never knew about Jesus. I invited Jesus into my heart. I have found a new life in Jesus Christ.” The Kwanglim congregation is an exciting demonstration of the power of yesterday’s dreams and visions that have become today’s realities.
Reprinted with permission from Vision 2000: Planning for Ministry into the Next Century (Discipleship Resources). This article appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of Good News.