An American pastor has set forth 12 unconventional – even seemingly counterproductive – church planting principles that he learned from a highly unlikely source – North Korea, where the Christian community is completely underground.
Pastor Eric Foley, who has worked for ten years with North Korean underground Christians, says the way church is done in America would get a believer in North Korea immediately killed or imprisoned. Yet despite having to hide their faith, North Korean Christians have a lot to teach American Christians when it comes to church life.
“The major difference that we note between the development of discipleship practices in the free world, in the West or countries like South Korea, is that discipleship practices really do rely on a freedom of religion that takes the form of being able to develop people in a specially purposed building, with a specifically full-time trained pastor, and an abundance of resources,” said Foley, who is pastor of .W Evangelical Church of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Seoul, South Korea, to The Christian Post.
“Those things are absent in the persecuted church mostly, but certainly specifically in North Korea.”
In North Korea, citizens discovered to be Christians are thrown indefinitely into hard labor camps without trial, and some have been even publicly executed for their faith.
Last May, North Korea reportedly executed three leaders of the underground church and jailed 20 other Christians, according to AsiaNews. North Korean police raided a house in Kuwal-dong in Pyungsung county, Pyongan province, and arrested all 23 believers who were gathered there for religious activity.
The 20 believers were sent to the infamous prison labor camp No. 15 in Yodok.
And in 2009, The Associated Press reported that a 33-year-old Christian woman, Ri Hyon-ok, accused of distributing Bibles and “spying” for foreign countries was publicly executed in North Korea.
The communist North Korean government forces its citizens to adhere to a personality cult revolving around worshipping current dictator Kim Jong-il and his deceased father, Kim Il-sung.
Open Doors, a ministry that works with persecuted churches worldwide, has ranked North Korea as the No. 1 persecutor of Christians for nine straight years.
In spite of the fearful punishment for being a Christian, there are about 100,000 followers of Jesus Christ in North Korea.
The way these North Korean Christians live out their faith has been eye-opening to Foley. These persecuted Christians have no church building, no paid pastors, no Bibles in the pew or available at the local Christian store – “literally no nothing that we in the West consider so essential to discipleship,” the pastor writes in the pamphlet, “Church is for Amateurs: A Guide for ‘Fourth Order’ Christians Like You on How to Plant and Lead a Lay Church.”
Foley contends that the Bible supports amateurs to Christian ministry, or the laity, in leading the church. He points to Jesus and Peter who were not trained as rabbis but led the Church.
The term “fourth order” is borrowed from the Anglican Church, which calls lay people “the fourth order of ministers in the Church,” with the other orders made up of bishops, priests, and deacons.
But Foley is not adverse to the idea of the American megachurch. He says the goal of the church should be to grow members to fullness in Christ and churches should be open to all possible method while holding firmly to orthodox theology.
He observed that megachurches organically develop small core groups to disciple their members.
What Does a Church of the Fourth Order Look Like?
Like the persecuted church, a church made up of fourth order Christian does not meet in a church building. They do, however, have Bibles, but do not rely on them as much in the sense that most American Christians do. Instead, they train people to become “living Bibles,” having members memorize Bible verses and live out the Word.
All the members of such a church take turn preaching for Sunday service, with the preacher that service teaching from verses memorized by heart.
Also, such a church structure emphasizes that Sunday is not the main service. Each family is considered a church and each household holds daily worship, where leadership moves from person to person (including kids) and the family sings songs and shares messages from memorization.
Foley in the pamphlet told the story of a young North Korean Christian woman who was sold as a sex slave in China and was rescued by a Christian missionary. The missionary enrolled her in an underground seminary for North Koreans in China.
After just 4 ½ months, the 22-year-old woman returned to North Korea with the purpose of sharing the Gospel with friends and family. She was arrested after 1 ½ years when she was discovered to be distributing Bibles and hymnals in North Korea.
She was cruelly punished as if “a terrorist,” and was required in one instance to sit in one position for 24 hours without moving.
Then one day a prisoner was sent to her same prison. The new prisoner was a spy for North Korea in China, trapping North Korean defectors. The former undercover spy had tried to defect from China to South Korea, but was caught.
The new prisoner, EJ, asked the 22-year-old Christian if God existed and if He could forgive her because she regretted what she did to others. The Christian, who had only been trained for 4 ½ months in China, led EJ to Christ and wrote down ten Bible verses on toilet paper with a stolen pencil for EJ.
“The average American Christian has nine Bibles. One North Korean – who had been a Christian for four and a half months – constructs a 10-verse toilet paper Bible from memory,” writes Foley.
“Who is the more effective student of the Scriptures?
In a lay church prescribed by Foley, members learn by heart one Scripture verse and one song each week. The church is kept small, with 24 people or less. If it gets larger, then the church divides into smaller groups.
But perhaps the most surprising principle of the lay church is the concept of not making it easy to get in.
“In the free world, the goal is to set the barrier to entry as low as possible so that anyone who shows some level of interest is quickly ushered into the church, and the idea is discipleship happens after that point,” Foley explained to CP. “Well that strategy is fatal in the persecuted Church, due to estimates that between 70 and 90 percent of people that claim to be underground Christians are affiliated with the government.
“So the idea of a low barrier of entry is something that is impractical to them,” the Colorado pastor said. “That is in stark contrast to how people are ushered into fellowship of believing Christians today, which is typically heads-bowed, eyes closed, nobody looking around, raise your hand if you believe the lowest common denominator of what I’m about to share.”
.W Evangelical Church of Colorado Springs, Colo., was officially started in January 2011. Foley said the number of members in his lay church network – which includes churches in the United States, China, and South Korea – is in the hundreds.
“I think the distinguishing characteristic of the model we created from the North Korean persecuted church setting is it is rooted in the family,” said Foley. “In North Korea, it is rare that believers have the opportunity to gather outside of their family for worship. So the father or mother play the roles of the priest so to speak.
“So for us, the main service isn’t at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, the main service of worship is every night in a family’s home. We’ve found that to be the greatest unheralded way to grow leaders that is overlooked by the Western church, which is that fathers and mothers can learn to do all the things a pastor would do in a traditional church and children can learn to do that too.”
12 Lay Church Principles:
1. Don’t make it easy to get in
2. Establish that Sunday is not the main service
3. Train members to be generalists, not specialists
4. Receive, remember, pass on (hymns, Scripture)
5. Meet in places that you already use
6. Train people to become living Bibles
7. Commit to the inseparability of hearing and doing the word
8. Measure the growth of each member weekly
9. Leave the kids in the room with you when you’re doing church
10. Use volunteer lay pastors to lead local churches
11. Tithe … but not to the lay church
12. Do missions often, receive your provision on the road.
On the web: www.ericfoley.com