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After leaving Romania, Richard Wurmbrand had various experiences with individuals and organizations in the free world before founding the organization that became Voice of the Martyrs. Watch this video to hear the story!

Very few people are as familiar with suffering and persecution as Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of Voice of the Martyrs.

Pastor Richard Wurmbrand was one of the top figures in Romania’s underground church during the time of Communist occupation. He spent more than 14 years in a Communist prison, where he was tortured, brainwashed, and drugged—all of this because he was a Christian. Wurmbrand was not a Christian by birth, however, and his journey into the faith is a long and complex one.

A Romanian Jew by background, Pastor Wurmbrand was discriminated against by non-Jewish neighbors long before the Nazis arrived. Young Wurmbrand struggled with the loss of his father, who died when he was nine, and turned to Communism for the answer. For a time, Wurmbrand was a Cominterm agent who was pursued by Romania’s secret police. He was arrested several times for this.

When he wasn’t busy working towards Revolution, young Wurmbrand was also keenly interested in seeking out all the pleasures that life had to offer. Even after he married his wife, Sabina Oster, the young Wurmbrand continued to chase after gratification and thrills. It was this tendency that left him with a particularly bad case of tuberculosis.

While recovering in a sanatorium, Wurmbrand met a Romanian Christian carpenter by the name of Christian Wolfkes. For years, this carpenter had been praying for the opportunity to bring a Jew to Christ and so he saw Wurmbrand as an answer to his prayer. Through Wolfkes’ care and prayer, Wurmbrand accepted Christ.

Wurmbrand, and later his wife, joined the Anglican Church’s Ministry among Jewish people. He was ordained as a Lutheran minister and, despite the obvious danger, began ministering to those who were persecuted. When fascists took control of Romania, Wurmbrand ministered to war-torn families. They smuggled Jewish orphans from ghettos, preached in bomb shelters, and organized relief programs for Hungarian gypsies. Then, when Communists took control of Romania, Wurmbrand continued to minister to the persecuted. He and his wife—despite being Jewish—helped several German soldiers escape Romania.

“God is always on the side of the persecuted,” Pastor Wurmbrand said.

When the Communists gathered together a meeting of Romania’s religious leaders, Pastor

Wurmbrand risked his life to speak the truth about the relationship between Christ and Communism: “Our loyalty is due first to Christ.” Although Wurmbrand managed to escape the meeting unharmed, this action was one of many that lead to his 14-year imprisonment.

Pastor Wurmbrand was subject to all sorts of stomach-churning torture while imprisoned: he was deprived of sleep, beaten relentlessly with truncheons, drugged into delirium, and had his feet flogged to the bones.

“It was an image of hell,” Wurmbrand said, “in which the torment is eternal and you cannot die.”

The torturers wanted to know Wurmbrand’s contacts in the underground church. But Pastor Wurmbrand never once relented—even when he nearly died of pneumonia.

Eventually, Pastor Wurmbrand was ransomed out of Romania for a sum of $10,000. Rather than enjoying an easy and pleasure-filled life, Wurmbrand worked to become the voice of the persecuted church. He founded an organization called Jesus to the Communist world, later renamed Voice of the Martyrs, to meet this end.

Although “freed”, Pastor Wurmbrand continued to face persecution in the free world when he attempted to raise awareness of the underground church in the communist world. Many prestigious Christians and Christian groups refused to believe Wurmbrand’s testimony of Christians being persecuted in the Communist world (a testimony which history has overwhelmingly proven to be true). Furthermore, Christians in the “free” world were not as

passionate about their faith as the Christians in the underground church.

“Whoever has known the spiritual beauty of the underground church cannot be satisfied anymore with the emptiness of some Western churches,” Wurmbrand explained. “I suffer in the West more than I suffered in a Communist jail because now I see with my own eyes Western civilization dying.”

Wurmbrand saw in the “Free” world the same pattern that he saw in Romania: Persecution would come to the “Free” world, just as it had come to Romania. In an attempt to prepare the church in the “free” world for the coming persecution, Wurmbrand wrote the book Preparing for the Underground Church.

If you would like to read more about Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, you may find many of his books in the Voice of the Martyrs Bookstore. Voice of the Martyrs has also recorded an audiobook about Pastor Wurmbrand’s life which you can find here. You can also learn more about the Voice of the Martyrs organizations around the world whose founding was inspired by the legacy of Pastor Wurmbrand here [link to ICA page].

Many people wonder about the denominational affiliation of Voice of the Martyrs. What did Richard Wurmbrand think about denominations? Let’s hear what Elder Merv Knight, Pastor Foley, and Dr. Foley have to say about these questions in this week’s Wurmbrand Wednesday video.

The story of Voice of the Martyrs begins in Romania with a Lutheran pastor named Richard Wurmbrand. As an ethnic Jew, Wurmbrand faced persecution under the heavy hand of fascists during World War II. Then, as a Christian leader, he faced persecution at the hands of their Communist successors.

After boldly proclaiming that Christ would never be subservient to the Communist regime, Wurmbrand was captured and imprisoned without trial. Officials had Wurmbrand tortured in the hopes that he would reveal information about the underground church. Wurmbrand, however, refused to co-operate.

Wurmbrand was in prison for more than fourteen years before he was formally ransomed out of Romania for $10,000. Despite his newfound freedom, Wurmbrand never forgot his persecuted brothers and sisters and strongly believed he had been ransomed from prison to serve as a voice for the persecuted church. In 1967 he founded Jesus to the Communist world, the organization which would later become Voice of the Martyrs. Through this organization, he supported the underground church around the world in any way that he could.

Life in the “free world”, however, had its own challenges.

“I suffer in the West [the free world] more than I suffered in a communist jail, because now see with my own eyes the western civilization dying,” Wurmbrand explained.

Not only did the church in the free world overlook the suffering of its persecuted brothers and sisters, but it did not understand how to suffer in Christ’s name. Wurmbrand found several similarities in the free world to Romania in its honeymoon phase with Communism and felt responsible for preparing the church in the free world for inevitable persecution. He wrote the book Preparing for the Underground Church to this end.

Dozens of Voice of the Martyrs organizations sprung up around the world from the seed that Wurmbrand sowed. Although each of these ministries are independent, they work together to achieve a common goal: Supporting the underground church.

The Korean branch of Voice of the Martyrs dates back as early as 1967. A small band of South Koreans worked together with Wurmbrand to smuggle Bibles into North Korea via balloon and to spread God’s word in North Korea through radio.

VOM Korea was officially founded in 2001 by the Reverend Doctors Eric and Hyunsook Foley. After being called to aid North Korea through a dream given to Pastor Foley, they partnered with North Koreans to support the underground church.

At the time, most North Korean ministry was being conducted by South Korean missionaries and International aid agencies. The Foleys pioneered the idea of an organization that partnered with underground North Korean Christians in which the underground Christians set the agenda and indicated which tools were needed to do the work.

That philosophy has expanded now to China, the Middle East, Eritrea, and more than 50 other countries as VOMK partners with ChinaAid, Uncharted Ministries, and underground believers around the world to ensure that the voice of the martyrs never falls silent. VOM Korea has as its spiritual foundation the early Korean Christian martyrs, who through word and action taught our ancestors how to take up their cross and follow Christ.

The mission of Voice of the Martyrs Korea is to ensure that the voice of the martyrs never falls silent but is instead carried forward in our own voices and lived out in our own lives.

By “martyr”, we mean the faithful witnesses to God in Christ across all geography and history who “loved not their life even unto death” (Rev. 12:11, ASV). By “voice”, we mean the teachings, sermons, and testimonies of these faithful witnesses. This extends back to the Scripture itself. God did not cause the Bible to suddenly descend from heaven, complete. Instead, he gave us his inerrant, inspired word through faithful witnesses. That word even uses the name “the faithful witness” to describe Christ himself (Rev. 1:5), which shows the centrality of faithful witness to the Christian life. While only the Scripture itself is the inspired, inerrant word of God, Scripture teaches that the testimony of faithful witnesses—the voice of the martyrs—is an essential part of how God equips the church to triumph over the accuser (cf. Revelation 12:10-11).

In our fallen world, faithful witness to Christ can indeed entail death. But it is important to remember that for Christians, martyrdom is not focused on death. It is focused on faithful witness. The Greek word, martyr, means witness. That is why the mission of Voice of the Martyrs is not to report on acts of violence against Christians, nor simply to pray for survivors. Instead, our mission is to make sure that the voice of the martyrs is never silenced by the violence enacted against their faithful witness.

Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, the global founder of Voice of the Martyrs, was a faithful witness for Christ in Communist Romania. He wrote the story of a fellow inmate in prison. Although a prisoner, this man was preaching. Guards dragged him out of the cell, beat him, and threw him back in the cell. But the man picked himself up, dusted himself off, and said, “Now where was I?”

Sometimes faithful witnesses are not able to return to where they left off because of murder, torture, or imprisonment. Voice of the Martyrs Korea picks up where they leave off: seeking out the words of these martyrs and finding ways to keep their words alive in the places and languages where they were first spoken. We also translate the messages into Korean, English, and Chinese so that those words can find new hearing in our lives as well.

This work also takes us across history. Sometimes the voice of the martyrs is simply forgotten with the passage of time, or neglected as the church struggles to remember what it once knew. That is especially true in the case of the early Korean Christian martyrs, who, though still honored by Korean Christians, are rarely heard as important voices in church gatherings or everyday life. Through preaching their words in our Covenant Renewal services and radio broadcasts, and through sharing their teachings in our Underground University and discipleship training programs and resources, we foster the renewal of the martyrs’ spirit in the church in Korea. Through partaking of the Lord’s Supper whenever we gather, we remember that we are one body in Christ with these early Korean Christians and with all those who faithfully died in Christ before us.

There are three reasons why we undertake this mission:

First, we can never be the true church unless we are one body with all believers across all of geography and history, speaking in one voice and one witness with them. Think of martyrdom as a cross. The horizontal bar of the cross represents the martyrs around the world today. The vertical bar of the cross represents martyrs throughout history. The witness of the church across geography and history is our treasure and responsibility, and we are held accountable by God for its stewardship and transmission.

Second, we grow to fullness in Christ as we make the voice of the martyrs our own voice. All who follow Christ are called to martyrdom. Whether or not we ever face physical persecution and death is in the Lord’s hands, but is certain that when we commit to follow him, we covenant to die to ourselves and the world and be alive only to him. Thus, martyrs are produced not by acts of violence but by the waters of baptism. How do we learn to live the life of the faithful witness? By carrying forward as our own personal witness the witness that Christ has entrusted to the church across all geography and history.

Third, it is God who keeps the voice of the martyrs alive. When we join him in that work, we are privileged to serve as his instruments. Scripture says that God never forgets a faithful witness. Psalm 116:15, says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Even though the world seems to be able to silence faithful witnesses to Christ, God ensures that their voices will reverberate throughout the world until the end of time. As 1 John 2:17 says: “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” God does not call on us to idolize the martyrs or memorialize their lives in museums. Rather, he calls on us to “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also” (Hebrews 13:3, NKJV). Even when their bodies die, we are “chained” together with the martyrs and their message in the one body of Christ. Through these “chains”, we are honored to be able to be a means by which God keeps the voice of the martyrs alive: first, in our own lives; second, in our homes; third, among the believers with whom we fellowship; fourth, among the Christians in our nation and around the world; and fifth, as faithful witnesses to those who do not yet know Christ, but for whom he died.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea professes the same faith that faithful martyrs have always professed.
We find, along with countless faithful Christians throughout time and space, that the tenets contained in the Nicene Creed most completely express this faith. Therefore, we present the Nicene Creed here as our official statement of faith.

Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

북한과 남한의 한국어는 40% 이상의 언어적 차이를 갖고 있고, 이로 인해 탈북자들은 남한식 한국어 성경을 읽는 것을 어렵게 느낍니다. 이것이 한국 순교자의 소리가 조선어 스터디 성경(신구약 합본)을 출간한 이유 중 하나입니다.

한국 순교자의 소리의 목적은 단체만의 어떤 것을 만들어내는 것, 또는 기존 번역본을 쉬운 말로 바꾸거나 있는 그대로를 가져다 쓰는 것이 아닙니다. 진정한 목적은 언어적으로 그리고 신학적으로 제대로 평가받은 북한 방언으로 된 성경 번역을 사용하는 것입니다.

놀라운 사실은, 이 조선어 성경 본문이 북한 정부의 지시로 조선기독교도련맹 중앙위원회를 통해 제작되었다는 점입니다. 조선기독교도련맹 중앙위원회는 북한 국영교회를 운영하면서, 북한에 종교적 자유가 있다는 외부 선전을 돕고 있습니다. 그들은 공동 번역본(평양식) 성경을 제작했는데, 이는 1977년 대한 성서 공회와 함께 발간했던 공동 번역본을 기초로 한 것이었습니다. 그 당시 대한 성서 공회는 천주교나 개신교에서 많이 사용해 왔던 ‘교회적인’ 언어 사용을 자제하면서, 교회를 다니지 않는 사람들을 위한 성경본문 번역을 만드는 데 집중하고 있었습니다. 북한은 1983년 신약 성경 10,000권을, 1984년 구약 성경 10,000권을 출간했습니다.

1990년, 조선어 성경의 두 번째 개정판이 구약과 신약의 합본 형태로 발간되었습니다. 이 성경은 중국 성서 공회 연합의 도움을 받아 평양 보통 인쇄 공장에서 만들어졌습니다. 그들은 개별적인 성경 번역본을 제작하는 대신, 원래 번역본에 약간의 수정과 변화만 주기로 결정했습니다. 두 번째 개정판의 목적 중 하나가 최초 공동 번역본을 유지하는 데 집중하는 것으로 보입니다.

한국 순교자의 소리는 조선어 성경들을 발간하면서, 조선어 ‘하늘님(하늘의 신)’을 개신교의 ‘하나님 (오직 한 분이신 진짜 하나님)’으로 교체한 것 외에는 전혀 다른 수정을 허용하지 않았습니다.

Perhaps God has put North Korea on your heart but you are confused about the best way to help. Here are some questions we frequently receive at VOM Korea, along with our most heartfelt and deeply researched guidance in response.

Generally, the most straightforward questions about North Korea are the hardest ones to answer—not only for the general public, but even for North Korean analysts and intelligence agencies. For years, North Korea has been called “the failure of the intelligence community,” because even major events (like the death of Kim Il Sung) often go undetected until North Korea chooses to announce them. And often the information that intelligence agencies release about North Korea proves to be exactly wrong.

Even the question “How many people are there in North Korea?” is a carefully guarded state secret. The answer usually given is, “Somewhere between 20 and 25 million.” That’s a lot of variability!

So when it comes to determining with precision a subset of that population—especially a subset that by definition must remain deep underground—the question is notoriously difficult. Underground Christians must remain undetected not only by their own government but also by their own neighbors, their co-workers, and even their family members. (You can read more about this in my book, These are the Generations, which is the testimony of third generation underground North Korean Christians. Mr. Bae, the third generation Christian, marries Mrs. Bae, who is not only not a Christian when they marry but is actually an ethics teacher at a North Korean school, responsible for teaching the students the one hundred stories of Kim Il Sung’s life that every North Korean must memorize. In the book, the Baes share the surprising way Mrs. Bae came to know Christ.)

North Korean underground Christians do not even reveal their Christian identity to their own children until the children reach the age of fifteen. That is because North Korean school teachers are tasked with the responsibility of getting children to inadvertently reveal that their families are Christian. They ask questions like, “Do your parents have a special book they hide in your home? Do they sing different songs than the ones we sing in school? Do they ever bow their head or close their eyes and mumble?” In this way more than a few children have been the cause of their own families (including themselves) ending up in concentration camps.

The story that best illustrates this situation was told to Dr. Foley and me by a woman who came from an underground Christian family in North Korea. When she was about seven years old, she found a Bible in her home. Without hesitation, she knew she needed to inform the police. Her parents, underground Christian leaders, tied her up in a chair in order to prevent her from going out. They shared the gospel with her, and she became a Christian (and later a church leader) rather than a government informer.

So with all of this secrecy, is there any hope that we can estimate with any degree of accuracy the number of Christians in North Korea?

The answer is, fortunately, yes. And for several reasons.

First, underground Christians typically keep detailed oral records of church life. Many can trace their heritage back to the beginning of the gospel arriving into North Korea. They even know what denomination they are—despite the fact that almost no denominational distinctives are practiced or maintained by underground North Korean Christians. This oral history allows us to reconstruct data like the spread of Christianity in North Korea, the persecutions, and the current status of the church in the local area. (Typically, North Korean Christians know nothing about the status of the church outside of their own area. They are unable to travel from town to town without special permits, and the church in North Korea is highly diffuse, not centralized.)

Second, there are now more than 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. According to studies (which our own research and experience continue to confirm), 80 percent of North Korean defectors in South Korea maintain regular monthly contact with their relatives in North Korea. Sadly, many Christian ministries and churches do not build close relationships of trust with North Korean defectors, and so defectors share very little with them about their families inside of North Korea. But for organizations like VOM Korea, building relationships of trust with North Korean defectors has been the foundation of our ministry for more than fifteen years. As a result, we sit amidst rich data resources about what is happening in local areas across North Korea. This has allowed us to make increasingly accurate observations and predictions over the years as relates to the current status of Christianity inside North Korea.

Third, there is more data available than ever before. The South Korean government Ministry of Unification conducts its own surveys about life inside of North Korea, including religious life, as do other organizations. Also, there are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who are still North Korean citizens but who are either working overseas at the assignment of the North Korean government, or who are living in China illegally in order to make money for their families. This has created a veritable flood of data about North Korean life Taken collectively, these studies paint a very detailed and credible summary of the current state of religious life in North Korea, which allows analysts to, for example, estimate the number of Christians in North Korea.

Even given this volume of data, you will see widely varying estimates of the number of Christians in North Korea. Some Christian organizations claim that as many as ten percent of the North Korean population, or about two million people, are Christian. However, most organizations—from governmental agencies to human rights organizations to Christian ministries including VOM Korea—typically estimate that the actual number of Christians in North Korea is around one hundred thousand, of which thirty thousand are detained in concentration camps. In our view, based upon our own research, the research and analysis of other credible organizations and data gathering entities, and the collective experience of us and other groups, we are comfortable saying that the total number of Christians may be as low as sixty thousand and as high as one hundred twenty thousand.

But why do some groups say that there are two million Christians? There are three reasons why.

First, the organizations who make these claims typically do not attempt to integrate their own data with that of other organizations. As a result, they extrapolate from a very small slice of data (like the number of Christians along the border with North Korea and China, or the percentage of Christians in the areas where they work, which tend to be the areas most permeable to outside communication) and, in our view, overestimate significantly. It is like the story of the blind men feeling parts of an elephant and trying to figure out what it is. It takes many blind men cooperating together in order to figure out what they are feeling. In the same way, it takes many organizations and researchers working together and sharing data in order to come up with accurate estimates. When an organization makes an estimate based only on their own data, that estimate is far less likely to be accurate than when organizations work together, sharing information where possible, and humbly listening to one another’s insights. North Korea is a far more diverse country demographically than people realize. Some Christians are rich. Some Christians are poor. Some live on the border with China. Some live in Pyongyang. Some live on the sea. Some towns have a stronger Christian presence, while others have a weaker presence. All organizations have to cooperate together in order to develop as accurate a picture as possible. And that picture needs to be continually updated, literally month by month, as new data becomes available. Regrettably, some organizations do not cooperate well with others, and, as a result, their data and insights are not as accurate as others.

Second, some Christian organizations either are unable to tell the difference between real North Korean Christians and North Korean spies posing as Christians. Intelligence agencies report that more than ninety percent of North Koreans who encounter missionaries on the North Korea/China border are spies, specially trained and dispatched by the North Korean government to infiltrate missionary organizations in order to gather information and draw money and resources into North Korea. If an organization is unable to tell the difference between an actual North Korean Christian, a North Korean seeker, and a North Korean spy expertly trained to imitate a North Korean Christian or seeker, then they will estimate that there is a much greater number of Christians inside North Korea than there really are. If ninety percent of North Koreans visiting missionary bases are spies, it stands to reason that their estimates will be ninety percent higher than those of organizations that can and do tell the difference between spies and Christians. And that is indeed the case: Some organizations say two million Christians. We say one hundred thousand Christians—and an even greater number of spies.

Third, the number of Christians in North Korea is definitely not static. Given that about a third of North Korean Christians are in concentration camps according to best estimates, and that life in a concentration camp does not last long, imagine the number of new Christians required even to keep the number of Christians level. And yet all indications—regardless of who is estimating—is that Christianity is continuing to grow in North Korea. But even a phenomenal, exponential growth rate would be barely enough to keep the Christian population level.

Fourth, even the question of who counts as a Christian is a matter of some debate. I read a recent review of my book, These are the Generations, in which the reviewer liked the book but wondered whether the Baes were actually even Christian. The basis of his concern? In the book they do not use the same kind of language that Western evangelicals use to describe their faith, e.g., personal relationship with Christ, born again, accepting Christ as Lord and savior, etc., etc. In South Korea, some Christian leaders debate whether there are any North Korean Christians because North Korean Christianity does not look like South Korean Christianity, e.g., there are no pastors, no church buildings, no regular gatherings outside of family members, etc., etc. Our dear friend and ministry partner Pastor Tom Doyle, the author of Dreams and Visions and a number of other books, told me that he had a member of his church that doubted that Middle Eastern Christians were actually Christian, despite the fact that they were living and dying for Christ. One day that same church member didn’t show up at church, so Pastor Tom called to check up on him. “It was too windy for me to go,” the church member said. It is perhaps too easy for us to judge what counts as Christianity in other countries, and our own cultural lenses often prevent us from seeing the extreme devotion of believers in other countries and the tepid faith in ourselves. At VOM Korea, we extend the hand of Christian fellowship to all those who can subscribe to the Nicene Creed as the rule of faith and life. Other groups would find that an unsuitable definition of what counts as a Christian. We leave the matter to God and simply state our definitions openly so others know where we are coming from.

I would conclude by suggesting that however many Christians there are in North Korea, and however you might define Christianity, you can certainly pray with them, that God will find them faithful where they are, and that God will find you faithful where you are. If we are uncertain how many Christians there are in North Korea, it may be that we can not be too certain about the question in our own countries. What we know is in countries like the United States and Korea, the church is on the decline. We believe that the North Korean underground church, and underground churches around the world, are God’s plan for renewal for the church worldwide. However many Christians there are in North Korea, the United States, and South Korea, may there be more tomorrow, and may we who know Christ be even more committed tomorrow than we are today.

Do you have other questions about how to provide real help to North Korean people? Write us and we’ll be happy to reply!

 

Perhaps God has put North Korea on your heart but you are confused about the best way to help. Here are some questions we frequently receive at VOM Korea, along with our most heartfelt and deeply researched guidance in response.

The Bible’s stories of people being called to different ministries are pretty amazing. Almost always they involve God calling someone to a future that is unimaginable from a human standpoint. Think about the calling of Abraham, for example, or Moses, or Jesus calling his disciples. In each case, those called by God typically make one of two mistakes: Either they reject the calling completely, or they seek to fulfill it on their own. Abraham, for example, ends up with Ishmael when he tries to bring God’s word to pass in his own timing. Moses ends up murdering a man. James and John want to call down fire from heaven to burn people to a crisp before Jesus stops them!

So when we say yes to a calling, we are really saying yes to a process of preparation—one that is in God’s hands, not our own. Our job is to be both prepared to respond…and prepared to wait, as God directs. As Scripture shows, God uses his servants and our circumstances to prepare us, sometimes even over a course of decades.

God first called me to North Korea ministry in a dream. I woke up in a cold sweat, shook Mrs. Foley awake, and told her about this calling. Because she is a wise woman, Mrs. Foley counseled me, “If it’s from the Lord, then say yes and let him bring it about. If you try to do it yourself, you will mess it up.” I followed her counsel, unsure exactly how God would accomplish what he had shown me unless I acted on things right away.

But God took me step by step through his training process—one I could have never foreseen. That began with us learning new and more effective ways of discipling our own children. Next, we were called into serving at a Korean American church. After that, doors opened for us to do culture-sharing. Occasionally I’d get impatient and just want to jump right into exactly what the dream showed. But now, looking back, I see how each step along the way was crucial to us ending up with an Isaac and not an Ishmael. Wow, am I blessed to have a wise wife! And each of us needs to surround ourselves with wise mentors who can show us how to respond to the call of God. Where would Samuel be without Eli guiding him how to respond?

So when someone comes to us reporting a call to North Korea ministry, we always take it very seriously. But to us, taking it seriously means helping the called person understand what is required for this kind of service. It really takes much, much more than willingness, passion, and calling. It takes intense training and preparation:

  • 1 Timothy 3:1-5 reminds us that we must first prove our missionary effectiveness in our family and immediate sphere of influence before we even attempt to serve in the local church.
  • The New Testament and the history of the faithful church through the ages show a clear progression: demonstrated comprehensive ministry effectiveness in one’s family precedes service in the local body; demonstrated comprehensive effectiveness in the local body precedes service in one’s city; demonstrated comprehensive effectiveness in one’s city precedes service in one’s region; demonstrated comprehensive effectiveness in one’s region precedes international service. Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth. If someone tells you, “I’m not called to serve my local body first. I’m called to go straight to the ends of the earth,” buy a baby shower gift because, sadly, you are about to witness the birth of an Ishmael.
  • As relates to North Korean ministry, learning Korean—both the language and the culture—is absolutely essential. Anyone who thinks that Paul was not intimately acquainted with the culture of the cities he visited has not read Acts 17:28 or Titus 1:12. As regards Korean language, for any non-native Korean speaker seeking a field ministry position we require a TOPIK or EPS-KLT score that demonstrates conversational proficiency in Korean, as well as facility with North Korean idioms.
  • Also, we do not use Americans or Westerners for field ministry inside North Korea or in Northeast China. Students of East Asia quickly learn that anyone visiting North Korea is always under surveillance, and any American or Westerner staying in Northeast China for an extended period is always watched. If an American or Western missionary in Northeast China says to me, “The Chinese government does not know what I am doing,” that tells me that they are not well versed in basic security issues and thus have not taken that aspect of ministry preparation seriously.
  • Where Americans and Westerners are useful—and needed—is on the front line of North Korea ministry: Seoul, South Korea, where 25,000 North Korean defectors live, 80 percent of whom have regular monthly contact with relatives inside of North Korea. It is here that proficient Korean speaking missionaries can serve in powerful and unique ways, due to the unique relationship between Americans/Westerners and North Koreans. But don’t fill out that VOM Korea job application quite so quickly: We hire from our volunteer pool—people who have been faithful to volunteer over an extended period of time (typically eighteen to twenty-four months) in progressively more responsible ways. And even when they are hired, they serve as probationers, progressing through an internship where they learn many things—from project management to secure communications to writing reports to uploading receipts—that hardly seem like “front line” ministry responsibilities. But as we tell our probationers, watch the Karate Kid movies: Wax on, wax off always comes before throwing your first punch.

After hearing all this, many of those called by God walk away disappointed like the rich young ruler. (Recall that the Lord Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”) They then decide that they are called to something else–something they can start doing a lot faster that seems a lot easier and a lot less of a preparation nightmare.

Others tell us that we don’t understand the Holy Spirit, who they believe is glorified and honored by their lack of preparation and who will step in to make up the lack. This to me is the saddest outcome of all, since more than a few such headstrong individuals end up working for the many, many ministries that can’t discern real NK underground Christians from the fake ones planted by the North Korean government (70 percent of all “underground NK Christians” you run into on the border with China are incredibly well trained government spies). These organizations inadvertently (or, dare I say, naively and carelessly) supply the very money and resources that enable North Korea to hunt down and kill the real underground Christians. Totally unaware of their being duped and manipulated, these unskilled missionaries believe they are doing good when what they are actually doing is destroying the work of the real NK underground church. That’s what I call giving birth to an Ishmael.

So if God has called you to North Korea ministry, take the counsel of the Scripture (as echoed by my wife!): Be ready…for God to guide you down a long, arduous road of training that will require at least as much patience as enthusiasm. But be encouraged: Every step of the way God will be shaping you into his effective instrument, capable of being used powerfully in one of the most dangerous and peril-fraught ministry environments in human history.

If, like Jacob, you don’t give up and you labor tirelessly through what difficult years of preparation with nothing more than the dream of your calling to sustain you, then that dream will come to pass. Because God doesn’t grant the dream or issue the calling unless he intends to fulfill it. I’m living proof!

For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay (Habakkuk 2:3, NIV).

 

Do you have other questions about North Korea? Write us and we’ll be happy to reply!

 

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