Chapter 1 – A Prophetic Community
What is one thing that makes St. Timothy Presbyterian Church unique and distinct as a community of faith? What would you say?
The answer would undoubtedly be: the emphasis we place on the critical study of Scripture as the foundation of a ‘good’ life.
In our 25-year history, this emphasis has been the hallmark of St. Timothy’s and what we stand for as a community of faith. In our first of four mission statements, we proclaim ourselves as a ‘Prophetic Community’ that seeks to share and live by the truth of the Word of God. This is especially reflected in the countless Bible studies we have throughout each year, catered to different age groups and life stages. We allow God’s life-giving word to constantly shape who we are and how we live as God’s people. Scripture is at the centre of our existence.
But why? Why does St. Tim’s uphold Scripture and the study of God’s word so strongly? Others may see it as important, but not the most important thing. Fun, exciting church programs and fellowship events might be deemed more integral and necessary to cultivating a community of believers.
Beneath what we practice and how we live, there is always a guiding philosophy. Yet most of the time we rarely articulate what it is for ourselves. We simply know by feeling, rarely by word. The same can apply to our approach to Scripture as a church. On this 25th anniversary, we reflect on the theology that informs our relationship to the Word of God, and how it has shaped the life of the multi-generational, Korean-immigrant church as a whole.
Chapter 2 – The Word Became Flesh
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’
That is how the Gospel of John begins—and where we also begin in our reflection.
Contrary to what we may think, the ‘Word’ here does not mean Scripture. The Word is God himself, first and foremost. God is the Word that was there, right from the beginning. Not only was God the Word, but God created by God’s own word: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).
Then later in the same chapter, the writer of the gospel tells us more about the Word:
‘And the Word became flesh… and lived among us.’
These words vividly paint the picture of something invisible and abstract becoming something visible and concrete. God, who is the divine Word, does not remain far off and distant but comes to us concretely in Jesus Christ. Jesus revealed God to us in the flesh by living in our midst, as one of us. Through Jesus’ life and ministry, God revealed the transformative power of the living Word that brings light into darkness, saves and heals, and makes new and abundant life possible. With the gospels that were written to capture this reality in human words, now the written words of Scripture bear witness to the Word incarnate, Jesus himself.
This understanding profoundly shaped Rev. Kim’s relationship and approach to teaching Scripture, right from the early years of his ministry. Rather than the unique and vibrant spirit of Christ being reflected in the teachings of the church, he witnessed very much the opposite of what Jesus had intended: the reality of Scripture not connecting with the reality of people’s lives in a meaningful way; and people’s understanding of God and faith remaining at an individualistic and sentimental level. In response to such institutionalized teachings of Scripture, he sought to return to the beginning—to the “most original document” available on Jesus. For him, it was the gospels (and all of Scripture). He desired to see the Word in a new way, in its essence, as if for the very first time. He believed the spirit of Jesus’ teachings on life had to be reclaimed for our own time and context. This became the guiding principle for all the Bible studies and preaching at St. Tim’s, and shaped people’s perspective and understanding of life for the better.
Chapter 3 – Freedom from Bondage
Over the last two decades, what has the ongoing study and reflection on the Word of God revealed to the St. Tim’s community? What has been the ‘core’ message for us?
The message can be summed up as: the Word—more specifically, our real and genuine encounter with the Word—can truly set us free from our bondage. Only the living Word of God can help us see the things that hold us back from living full and abundant lives, and give us the power to live in a new way, just as God had intended. Without this Word that exposes what is hidden from our naked eye, we can never be rescued from our own darkness. It is impossible to live the good life we desire.
The story of the healing of the man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28) illustrates this message. Jesus’ act of healing is directly connected to his teaching, which the onlookers see as a “new” kind of teaching—with authority. His teaching is shown to have the power to drive out what is dark and oppressive in our lives and beyond our own power to fix. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, the man with an unclean spirit experiences a total liberation from his bondage and the gift of a new life. The power of this encounter, in which the teachings of Scripture go beyond our mere intellectual understanding and transform us from deep within, has also been present in the life of St. Tim’s community. It has not only helped each generation identify their own bondage, but also be freed from it. This slow and gradual process of reflection, sharing, and healing, one that took many years for our members, still continues to this day.
Chapter 4 – Identifying Our Bondage
So then, what has been the ‘bondage’ for the people of St. Tim’s? In our context, what has held back the 1st as well as 2nd generation from living out full and abundant lives?
Each generation has had their own unique source of bondage and struggle. But at the same time, the two generations also share a common bondage that connects them together.
For the 1st generation, most of whom comprise the Korean-speaking ministry (KSM), their bondage has been religiosity:
In a faith-based context, being ‘religious’ is often viewed as a good and positive thing. It is always inspiring to see people’s zeal, passion, and unwavering commitment to their faith. In a faith community, it can help generate a certain energy, positivity, and excitement for others. But there is also a flip side to religiosity to which we are often blind. At the expense of religious piety, we seldom tend to the growth and maturation of our own faith. We overlook the importance of studying and reflecting on God’s word, and confuse emotionalism for authentic spirituality. We live mindlessly without much insight, and consequently the way in which we look and understand life, faith, and ourselves remains formulaic and simplistic in nature. Our blindness to religiosity was what Jesus addressed during his ministry, particularly in his conflicts with the religious leaders and authorities. On the outside, they led pious and admirable lives, but on the inside, they lacked much depth and insight about God and life. Whenever Jesus exposed their ignorance, they refused to be confronted with the uncomfortable truth.
Without the zeal, dedication, and sacrifice of the 1st generation, St. Tim’s would not be the community we are today. As immigrants in a foreign country, it was by faith alone that they toiled and persevered through even the most dehumanizing situations; they literally gave themselves to build up the church in ways that are almost unfathomable to us today. At the cost of such sacrifice and devotion, however, the faith of the 1st generation did not mature as deeply. With no adequate space or time given for study and reflection, their reading and understanding of Scripture were often literal and without much depth. They often relied on the minister to provide them with clear, logical answers to questions.
As a young minister newly tasked with overseeing the 1st generation ministry, Rev. Kim saw Bible studies as the opportunity to put into practice what he had envisioned: to offer a safe space for the members to pause, think, and reflect critically on their lives; and in so doing recognize their own biases and previously-held assumptions about God and faith. This proved to be a challenging process, particularly for those who were so accustomed to receiving ‘answers’ from their minister. Instead of answers, they were asked more questions. Although some found this approach frustrating and difficult, the constant and diligent study of the Word over the years opened up their world in unexpected ways. They learned to look at Scripture not merely through a ‘religious’ lens, but through life; gained confidence to face their own vulnerability and brokenness in a healthy way; and stretched their understanding of faith far beyond that of personal salvation to the pressing issues and concerns of the world at large. This ‘opening up’ of life was, in essence, their freedom from the bondage of religiosity.
In contrast, the bondage of the 2nd generation—or those of the English-speaking ministry (ESM)—has been prejudice:
The prejudice of the 2nd generation was namely their prejudice toward the faith of their parents’ generation. One source of this prejudice was the hypocrisy they witnessed in the church growing up. The life of what was supposed to be a peaceful and harmonious community of faith often consisted of conflict and division amongst the members. Churches split from fights and disagreements. There was an evident lack of willingness to find a way forward together. Witnessing this firsthand, those of the 2nd generation internalized the feelings of hurt and resentment toward those of the older generation. Such experiences shaped their understanding and relationship to faith community in a negative way.
Another source of prejudice was the sense of disconnect the 2nd generation felt between the teachings of the church and the complexity of life they faced out in the world. This proved to be the case even for those who had been regularly involved in the church as youths. Growing up and becoming exposed to the more complex and nuanced issues of life forced them to question the teachings of faith they had taken for granted. Yet in the church, especially in Bible studies, their questions were often put down and looked upon as a sign of having a ‘weak’ faith. Thus no adequate space or opportunity to explore the tension between the faith they grew up with and the influence of the secular society was given to these young adults. This ultimately led to what was later known as the ‘Silent Exodus,’ the departure of 2nd generation Korean-North Americans in the church. The failure of the Korean-immigrant church to meet the needs of the 2nd generation left them without deep, spiritual roots; even though many were well-established in their careers and in the wider society, they remained disillusioned, confused, and lost.
Ironically enough, it was re-engagement with Scripture that ended up bringing some of the 2nd generation back to faith. In 2009, a small cohort of 2nd gen-Koreans, none of whom were attending church, started a weekly Bible study (known as ‘Tuesday Bible Study’) with Rev. Kim. There was still a deep yearning amongst the 2nd gens to explore the Bible in a new way, and TBS served as the space where they could freely—and safely—ask questions, dialogue together, and approach the Word with a fresh perspective. Under Rev. Kim’s guidance, their encounter with Scripture helped them recognize and unpack their prejudice towards the Bible and the Christian faith. It also empowered them to take a greater ownership of their life, their faith, and their community. Because of TBS, some started attending St. Tim’s regularly and later went on to become Elders (Grace Bai, Michelle Kim), and the Associate Minister (Simon Park) of the English-speaking congregation. A similar phenomenon occurred with the Women’s Bible Study (WBS) around the same time as TBS, with a group of women beginning to study the Bible with Rev. Kim. Their understanding of Scripture also deepened over time as they gained insight into their lives. They quietly became the bedrock of our ESM, and a few later became Elders (Kris Jun, Veronica Park). Their renewed understanding of the Word, coupled with their subsequent experience of the harmonious and co-existent community of St. Tim’s, freed them from their own bondage of prejudice toward faith.
Lastly, the bondage which the 1st and 2nd generations share runs much deeper than what we can see on the surface. It continues to shape and direct the lifestyles and the choices of both generations—and if not, the 3rd generation. It is the bondage of fear:
This fear—of survival—has been the most common and recurring theme in sermons and Bible studies at St. Tim’s. It refers to our innate response to life’s uncertainties: a certain attitude, posture, and perspective we adopt as we navigate through life. In fact, it is what the 2nd generation inherited from the 1st generation; we see this in the emphasis placed on carving out a secure and comfortable existence by the means of good, well-paying jobs; and the importance of providing a secure foundation and future for one’s children in return. The notion of a ‘good’ life is thus understood as being synonymous with having financial security, rather than cultivating a good and authentic faith.
While such a notion may come across as logical, sound, and even practical, it has greatly diminished the quality of our life altogether. Rather than expanding our life for the better, the innate fear of survival has shrunk it even more. With our own and our children’s well-being the most pressing sources of concern, it has shaped how we relate to our community of faith. Many are constantly driven by this sense of scarcity—of not having enough—and the effects of the fear which direct our lives are now being reflected in the next generation. Most of our young people today struggle to articulate why they themselves are so fixated on the idea of getting a stable job and earning enough money to live.
For the community of St. Tim’s, the sole antidote to this fear has been none other than the Word of God. We believe that it is only through the word that we can encounter the living God—the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Luke 20:27-40)—and that God’s love ultimately saves us from our fear of death. When we are no longer controlled by fear, anxiety, or greed, we can start living the good life by God’s power, as it gives us our vitality and inner confidence. This message has been a constant reminder for all generations in the St. Tim’s community; it has empowered us to live with confidence and to grow steadily in thankfulness for the wonderful gift of life. It has opened and changed the hearts of those in our midst, and inspired the theme of our 25th year as a church during the pandemic: ‘Open Wide’. As we look ahead to the next 25 years, God’s word will continue to be at the centre of our existence as a prophetic community; we seek to be opened and transformed by the living God who speaks to us through the Word and let our lives be a blessing to those around us—just as God had intended.