When he set out on the plane to Seoul in 2001, Pastor David Hwang only planned to stay there for two years. Little did he know that he would end up planting his feet there for 16 years (and counting) as a local church pastor.
Hwang’s journey in the motherland began when he decided to go to Seoul to take care of his younger brothers who were pursuing music careers there. Though Hwang himself was born in Korea, the language and the culture were unfamiliar to him, as he immigrated to the U.S. at the age of five. He only planned to stay in Seoul for two years and return to the U.S. after finishing up his studies at Torch Trinity Graduate School. But it was those very two years that “radically changed [his] perspective,” in Hwang’s words, and he received a calling from the Lord to stay in Korea.
Hwang hadn’t even been sure when he set out to Korea whether he would become a pastor at all, and even if he did become a pastor, he imagined himself more of a “free, traveling preacher,” as he put it. As the son of a pastor himself, Hwang said, “I saw the pains of the local church pastor, day in and day out, week in, week out.”
But while Hwang served as the English ministry (EM) pastor at Jeil Sungdo Presbyterian Church during those two years, he said, “The Lord showed me, number one, how much he loves his church – universal and especially the local church.”
“We’re not omnipresent like the Lord, so if you really want to love the church, if you want to love like he loved us, you have to do it with a limited number of people on a regular basis,” he added, saying that that was what led him to commit to local church ministry.
“The other big piece is that while I was serving at Jeil Sungdo EM, I was taking people to mission trips all over the place and I noticed – the answer is Jesus for everyone. Every nation needs Jesus,” said Hwang. “I saw with my own eyes the nations are hungry for the truth that sets free, for life and for life abundant, and that’s only in Jesus. No matter what the context, it didn’t matter – everyone needs Jesus.”
That also led him to realize that Korea is “geographically strategic” to reach many nations in Asia.
“Korea is so geographically strategic. It’s the only reached country in the 10/40 window. It’s so quick to go to countries in Asia, and so much more efficient from a geography standpoint.”
Hwang added that the economic development of Korea was another factor brought to his attention. The rapid economic growth in Korea over the past several decades also places it at a strategic position as a missionary-sending country.
“Clearly God has been doing something remarkable here in Korea,” he added.
“All these factors were shown to me, and I just said, ‘I see why you’re showing me this. My citizenship is not in the U.S.; it’s in heaven. Until you call me home, I’ll live as a sojourner in this land. If you want me to build your church to all nations from our motherland, that’s what I’ll do.’”
With these convictions, and with a further conviction to plant a church, Hwang and a few others launched Jubilee Church in 2006. What started as a group of 11 people praying together grew into a congregation of 600 people in almost three years. Today, the church has some 650 members.
Over the past 16 years, Hwang said he has seen many changes in the English-speaking community at large, and in the English-speaking Christian community. First, he noticed that more and more foreigners are being drawn to South Korea for various reasons that he would not have expected years ago, such as their interest in K-Pop and Korean dramas.
Moreover, there has been an increase in English-speaking church plants in Seoul, according to Hwang. While many of the larger churches in South Korea have had English or international ministries for many years, many independent, English-speaking churches have been planted over the past several years as well, Hwang said, as he mentioned churches such as Lifespring Church, Crossway Mission Church, and Way Church.
Another interesting development that Hwang has witnessed is an increasing interest in the Korean-speaking population in collaborating with the English-speaking community, or even attending English services on a regular basis.
For Jubilee Church in particular, intercultural couples with both Korean and English speakers were one of the factors that led to an increasing number of Korean speakers who became regular members of the church. Today, the church offers Korean translations for its 10 AM service.
These developments led Hwang to shift the vision for Jubilee Church as well. The church was planted with the vision of being a “hub for missions,” a place from which missionaries would continually arrive and be sent out into various destinations. But today, the church holds the vision of being an “international, missional church in Seoul serving Asia,” said Hwang, a church that is committed to being a steady presence in Seoul.
“We changed the vision because we wanted to sustain a connection here in Korea,” he explained. “Westerners need to commit to live in Asia, but for most, they live here five to eight years and they leave.”
For the developing and growing international community in Asia, Jubilee aims to build a community in Seoul that remains as a faithful source of support and connection.
“God is doing something amazing here,” Hwang said. “It’s something in line with the kingdom of God coming.”