Christian divergence in a tale of two churches

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Christian divergence in a tale of two churches


Two prominent churches from opposite ends of the religious spectrum turned 60 years old this month. Over the decades, one has concentrated on traditional doctrine, while the other has spread the Gospels in Korea via liberalism and social outreach programs.
Youngnak Presbyterian Church, adopted by the Christian right, has been active in maintaining traditional spiritual values.
Meanwhile, Gyeongdong Church, founded in December 2, 1945 by a pair of young Korean pastors, has pioneered participation in social work, mobilizing a group of evangelists called the “Good Samaritan Brothers.”
Under past military regimes, Gyeongdong Church, located in the older Jangchung-dong neighborhood of Seoul, was a sanctuary for the democracy movement, endorsing political views outside the conservative orthodoxy of Presbyterians.
In the 70s, when a labor movement among local factory workers started, Gyeongdong quickly became active in singing gospel songs with lyrics openly critical of the social injustices perpetrated by the country’s ruling elite.

From April 1974, the church operated education programs for workers near the garment factories in Cheonggyecheon, where the nascent labor movement emerged. The church played an important role in scholarly criticism of the Bible as well, hosting forums, debates and cultural events attended by controversial theologians.
One of the church’s main achievements throughout the adoption of Christianity in Korea, however, has been to combine Christian traditions with Korean culture. From 1974, it began integrating local traditions into church worship, organizing special services on Chuseok (the Korean harvest festival), an unprecedented move among Korean Christian denominations. Today, it continues to add ecumenical hymns to Sunday services based on traditional tunes, and operates a free clinic for migrant workers.
Meanwhile, Youngnak took a more staid and traditional role theologically and in society, with its Presbyterian congregation.
The original church was founded on December 21, 1945 by the late pastor Han Gyeong-jik and elders made up mostly of people who sought religious freedom after fleeing communists in what became North Korea. Rev. Han became a leading figure in Korean Christianity. In 1992, he was awarded the Templeton Prize, a prestigious award given to individuals who exemplify the ideal of spirituality in contributing to the Christian development of Korea.
The founding principles of Yeongnak lay mainly in charity and missionary work, particularly administering to members of the Korean Army.
During the Korean War, the main church was used as a sanctuary for war refugees. It gradually grew into one of the largest churches in Korea and today has 22 pastors dispatched to 19 smaller churches nationwide, preaching to 50,000 Christians.
But as its scale increased, the politics within the church gained some notoriety.
Earlier this year, inappropriate deals involving bribes paid by candidates for elder positions highlighted hidden problems in the church. Lay positions were treated hierarchically with an associated power structure based on seniority. To wipe out such corruption, the church recently introduced a new election system.

by Park Soo-mee, Lee Heon-ik
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