The 2007 Korean hostage crisis in Afghanistan was very difficult for the Korean church, but it has not stopped Christian organizations from sending workers to the country. They have come under fire, literally and figuratively, for risking ministry in an unstable and sometimes unwelcoming country.

The hostage crisis was the source of much grief not only for the leaders of the Korean church but also for Christians everywhere. After more than 40 days in captivity and the loss of two of their companions, the 21 remaining hostages were released. Saemmul Church, which sent the kidnapped workers, expressed remorse and has taken a conservative approach to missions since the crisis.

In late October 2008, a South African Christian aid worker was killed on her way to work in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying they tracked and shot her because she was trying to spread Christianity in the country.

Sang-Hwa Lee, an editor of Christianity Today Korea, interviewed two of the key men on the Korean side of the hostage crisis a year later. Eun-Jo Park, lead pastor of Saemmul Church, and Tae-Woong Lee, director of Global Missions Fellowship and Global Leadership Focus, spoke about Christians' attitudes and the anti-missions mood pervading Korean society.

What influence do you think the Korean hostage crisis had on the Korean church and its missions?

Tae-Woong Lee (TWL): After modern missions practices began in 1792, the Western church incurred countless losses. In comparison, we have been doing missions for only 25 to 30 years with much less sacrifice, at least in terms of human life. I think that because we were unprepared and weak, God had been especially protecting us and extending this grace period of sorts.

But the Korean church will run into more and more obstacles in the future, and in such circumstances, we must not abandon our mission or [move] away from sacrifice.

From this perspective, I believe that the Afghanistan situation ultimately will not have been for nothing. It came at an immense cost, but we came away with lessons we could not have learned otherwise. Especially in terms of crisis management, various organizations demonstrated their concern. Also, numerous training protocols came from crisis-management seminars and conferences.

What is at the root of the negative reaction Korean society has had toward the hostage crisis? It might be foolish to ask, but is it "their" fault or "our" fault?

TWL: I think we should not attribute causes of the crisis so simply. We should bear the majority of the responsibility; we were irresponsible and complacent because we thought we were dispensing much more aid and love than other religious bodies. We should have been faithfully and honestly reporting our work to the world.

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On a more immediate note, I think that one of the causes of [the hostage crisis] was that the mission was conducted with a crusade-like attitude, despite public disapproval. The fact that [Saemmul's ministry team] ignored frequent media warnings of the dangers of their actions and obstinately conducted their missions, only to be kidnapped soon after, could do nothing but cause grief among the public.

Although we shouldn't worry much about perceptions of us, we can't just demand that others accept actions that clearly lack common sense.

If we lose public support, it might be many centuries before we regain it. In some cases, we must be very careful not to offend, and in some cases, we must have faith and go ahead, even if our actions are unpopular. It's a very difficult decision, surely. However, the church has survived despite constantly having to make such decisions.

What kind of principles should we follow when making decisions about whether to proceed with an unpopular action?

TWL: We should generally follow two rules: First, the church is in the world but does not belong to it. We should consider this but be careful not to lean too much toward or away from pleasing the world when making our decisions.

The second rule is not to underestimate the principle of community interpretation, provided that it does not violate the first rule. In making decisions affecting the church community, a few groups or individuals should not dominate or disregard the rest in an attempt to promote their own interests.

I do recognize the dangers of such a rule. There are times when the few are right and the masses are wrong. However, in a church of considerable theological maturity and experience like the Korean church, I truly believe that decisions made by the whole church community will more often reflect Scripture than decisions made by the few.

It has been a year since the kidnappings in Afghanistan. Has Saemmul Church changed or improved its missions strategy?

Eun-Jo Park (EJP): The [hostage crisis raised our level of concern for] those who don't believe in Jesus and haven't received the gospel, so our young adults prepared to go on missions to safe areas of the world. But there was much argument in the church over the matter.

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Many people were saying, "[Not sending short-term missionaries] isn't a matter of faith but is the responsibility we must bear for having caused nonbelievers in Korea so much grief." And the elders were saying, "Why should we care so much about what others think of us?" and also, "It's not even a dangerous area. We should send them."

We debated for a time in this manner, and after a vote, we as a church decided not to send them.

TWL: I think that was the right thing to do. That wasn't a lack of faith or a devaluation of the gospel. Loving your countrymen is very important. It is important to show the public a sincere attitude of self-discipline and respect for its opinions.

I wonder, because the public perceives the Korean church and Christians in general as disrespectful and self-righteous.

TWL: We must be extremely humble. This is what I ask of missionaries. If one insists on going to an Islamic state, I tell them, "When you are doing your work, whatever you do, do not buy the land that they love and pride themselves on. If you were to buy their land, how do you think they would feel? Don't you think the country's people would feel a sense of loss? Or, if you were to march into an Islamic state by the thousands, how do you think they would feel? Don't do this or else, even though you might feel the ecstasy of victory at first, in the long run you would cause immense damage to the mission."

EJP: When we go out to people who don't know Jesus, we should go out not as Jesus' privileged representatives, but more as followers of Jesus' teachings. We should have an attitude of servanthood.

But I wonder, even when reflecting on my own ministry, just how much we have lived by example, and how disrespectful we might have been as Korean Christians to the non-Christians of the world, and whether we offended many people by pushing only doctrine on them and giving off an air of self-righteousness.

Shouldn't there be change perhaps in Korean society or even the global community?

TWL: In the past, "evangelizing" meant going from a place in which missions were in place to an area where missions weren't. We who live in an age of globalization must not remain stagnant in our missions and must not overlook the fact that there is much more land to cover. We need to figure out the kind of missions that is right for this globalized age.

One of the problems this incident exposed was our lack of preparation for danger. We must be mindful of the fact that terrorists plan in great detail and act with unfailing devotion. In the future, missionary activity in all regions must plan for the worst.

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Some may believe that, in doing God's work, they are protected by God, and thus may not prepare for danger. Surely God has said that he would protect us, and he does protect us. However, he did not tell us that it was okay to do our work carelessly. In the future, missionary activities, especially those conducted in danger zones, must be conducted only after more elaborate contingency countermeasures.

The efficacy of short-term missions is limited in nature. The church must weigh the benefits of short-term missions and decide beforehand just how much risk to take. In areas of civil war or frequent terrorist attacks, such as Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, short-term missions must be carried out, if at all, only by the most experienced missionaries.

And in the case that we do go on missions, if we carefully consider and understand the perspective of the people we are targeting, we can prevent many mistakes. The world church deems this one of the Korean church's weaknesses. This is because any individual or group can topple over decades and even centuries of work.

Have you discovered any hope during the past year of hardship?

EJP: Even though the Afghanistan incident was a very difficult time for us, I came away with one very important lesson. When criticism was first leveled at my church, I spent about the first ten days praying to God about the indignation we felt. Brother Sung-min Kim died on July 31, and my heart was filled with indignation.

But on August 1 or 2, a day or two after Sung-min's death, God gave me a vision while I was meditating early morning. It was a picture of people casting stones at my father and mother.

That day I confessed to God with all my heart, "God, the Korean church is my father and mother; I am the Korean church's child." As I prayed, the fears in my heart disappeared. God had me reflect in this way, and I wasn't being heroic when I thought, God, when the Korean church is criticized by the world and I too receive the world's scorn, I will not longer feel indignant. Whatever happens, if I must be scorned, then I will accept it.

It had been a week since we declared a period of fasting, and members of our church were still fasting. At our evening prayer meetings, we told our members to stop fasting, that since it seemed the crisis would last for some time, we should overcome with prayer, endure scorn, and take care of our grieving families.

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It was almost embarrassing to try to take care of these families who had lost their children. It was so difficult. Because they had nowhere else to go, they came to church, and when I went into the room [they were waiting in] each day, their glares were really venomous. But can we really blame them? This all happened because the church had sent their children.

As we spent time with these families, it seemed that God transformed not only me, but also the entire congregation. Little by little they were transformed, and after the incident was over, seven members from the families of those kidnapped were baptized. At first, they had come to our prayer meetings asking God to let their children live, but later they began praying, "If you save our children, we will believe in Jesus." In that circumstance, God came to touch their hearts.

The last day of prayer meetings, when we learned that the victims had arrived in Kabul on that 42nd day, we held a special evening worship service of thanksgiving. We asked all the parents to come up to the front of the church. One of those parents, who hadn't believed in Jesus, unexpectedly went up to the microphone. He walked up and confessed, "God lives. God really lives." This was the hope God showed us in the midst of hardship.

This article was excerpted and translated from "1 Year After the Crisis: 365 Days of Introspection," published as the July cover story of Christianity Today Korea.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today named the hostage crisis in Korea our top news story of 2007.

CT's coverage of Korean missions and Afghanistan are collected on our site.