Onnuri, a church living mission in South Korea and beyond
More than 700 migrants found faith in Jesus through this church's Migrants Centers in recent years. Thirty of them were trained as missionaries here and sent back to 13 countries.
SEOUL · 20 JUNE 2023 · 17:15 CET
In June 2023, I visited the Onnuri Community Church (OCC) in South Korea at the invitation of its Russian-speaking congregations.
Admittedly, I have rarely experienced a church that breathes mission like this Presbyterian-Evangelical congregation, which has spread from Seoul across the country into 11 campus congregations and 5 daughter congregations and beyond to many countries in Asia: the Arab Emirates, Vietnam, China, Japan, also Oceania and North America.
Led by its senior pastor Dr. Jae-hoon Lee, the church sees itself as an “Acts 29 Church”, i.e. a church that wants to perpetuate the Acts of the Apostles . Thereby “3 anchors and 5 sails” determine their spirituality, theology and mission.
The anchors describe a missional spirituality that is rooted in Acts and guided by the Holy Spirit, is open to change in freedom and creativity, and seeks unity in humility and respect.
The sails describe the missional strategy that (1) works in a convergence and team-based way, (2) builds organic multi-site community, (3) provides horizontal ministries oriented to the next generation, (4) builds a church that leads to reconciliation, and (5) seeks to realise God’s kingdom in people’s daily lives.
A well-implemented missional strategy
Onnuri’s programs are correspondingly diverse. Organised into fourteen ministries, they provide focused guidance for Families, Small Groups, Foreign Mission, Students and Young People, Media Ministry, Social Justice, Discipleship, Women’s Ministry, Worship, People with Special Challenges, Evangelism, Next Generation, Pastoral Care and Restoration, and World Mission.
Impressive are the numbers of full-time staff the church maintains in and outside the country: 2,536 people served in Korea in 158 teams, 427 people overseas in 50 teams, and 16 people were active online.
A missional spirituality that is open to change in freedom and creativity, and seeks unity in humility and respect
Through the Onnuri Church, many para-church organisations have emerged to help the church’s missionary teams do their ministries more effectively. These ministries include: Duranno Publishing House, founded in 1980; Tyrannus International Mission, which has sent missionaries all over the world and provides intensive care; 8 Onnuri M-Centers, which care for migrants in South Korea; Duranno Father School, which cares for families and especially fathers; Onnuri Welfare Foundation, a social foundation that ministers to those in need; Acts29 Vision Village & Jeju Acts29 Training Center, a mission school that trains missionaries for service all over the world; Biblical Education by Extension (BEE) Korea, a branch of Global University from Texas, USA, which provides basic theological education; CGNTV, a television station that broadcasts Christian programs in North America, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand; Love Sonata, a musical evangelistic ministry aimed primarily at people in Japan; the Christian Medical Network, an association of Christian doctors through which the Onnuri Church provides medical assistance around the world; Handong Global University, which has combined Christian faith and holistic higher education since 1995; A Better World, an NGO that has been active since 2019 to address world poverty; and Society for World Internet Mission, which is dedicated to spreading the Gospel through the Internet.
In addition to these organizations, the Onnuri Church collaborates with many other international mission movements and ministries.
What can and what should the worldwide church of Jesus learn from the Onnuri Church? Well, much more than this short report provides in terms of insight. Personally, I was moved by the following moments.
First, the Onnuri Church vividly demonstrates the importance of a biblical vision for building/uplifting the church.
Second, the Onnuri Church emphasises a holistic mission aimed at all people, reaching great masses of people with the gospel. Third, the Onnuri Church remains flexible in its implementation of missional vision, maintaining that youthful freshness that many other congregations trade in after decades for a fixed tradition and thus stagnate.
The vision of the founders: biblically based and constantly renewed
Onnuri Community Church is one of 25 megachurches in South Korea. It was founded in 1985 by Pastor Yong-Jo Ha (1946-2011) together with 12 families as a Presbyterian church.
The founder had a vision of church driven by the conviction to live as the first Christians did in the book of Acts . He wrote down his vision under the significant title “Envisioning An Apostolic Church”. It was to be a Bible-centered church, a “very Church”, that is, a church as Jesus intended , a church that has the Gospel at its heart and dares to live with the Word of God in its heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “Dancing with the Word and the Spirit” is what such an attitude is called at Onnuri . Only in this way, founded in the Word of God and guided by the Holy Spirit, could the church for “All Nations” (= on-nuri) become in the imagination of the founder, a church in which the mission is the cornerstone .
Founded in 1985, it is one of the 25 megachurches in South Korea
In contrast to many other drafts of church doctrine, Ha consistently relied on Jesus as the “standard for his church theory”, which allows for a principled missionary orientation of the church, since it must align itself accordingly with Jesus’ Great Commission in John 20:21 . Here Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Consequently, such an ecclesiological fixation led Ha to orient himself to the practice of the apostles as described in the Acts of the Apostles . And this practice became for Ha the “standard for the pastoral philosophy” of the church .
Pastor Ha dreamed of thousands of missionaries that his church would one day send all over the world. His vision of sending 2,000 missionaries into the wide world  has become reality today. At the same time, the founder always understood mission holistically. The church he built should overflow with grace and compassion to all who need a helping hand.
Mission is committed to “creating a better world by actively helping others”, according to the founder . But that could only be done by closely tying church programs to the community at hand. And so Onnuri became the Community Church, a socially relevant congregation consciously committed to ensuring that the gospel-transformed lives of its parishioners transform the society around them. And the church’s many programs reflect this vision very clearly.
Holistic and all people in view
I was able to observe how the many programs of the church work, especially in two M-Centers (M stands for migrant) of the Onnuri Church, namely in the city of Ansan and at the church headquarters in Seoul.
the M-Center of Onnuri Church in the city of Ansan.
The church expanded the Ansan M-Center in the industrial city of Ansan, located southwest of the capital Seoul on the Yellow Sea, in 2006. More than 70% of Ansan’s 700,000 residents are migrants, who make up the bulk of the working masses in the city’s industrial plants. Many of these immigrants come from China and also from the former Soviet Union. In any case, I encountered people speaking Russian at every turn in the city.
The M-Center provides social and economic support to immigrants, organises various language and vocational courses, and leads those among them who are interested to faith in Jesus and then into appropriate ethnic house groups and ultimately churches. Currently, the Ansan Center provides a home for 16 different ethnic migrant groups. They come from Russia, the countries of Central Asia, Nepal, Mongolia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, the Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and China.
People are addressed at their specific needs, led to Jesus, made disciples and then sent out as missionaries into the world
The Russian-speaking Koreans, who came to Ansan primarily from Central Asia, are one of the first such groups the Ansan M-Center approached, with two hundred members now forming one of the largest Onnuri migrant sub-churches. Pastor Sergei Yu leads this church and supports the development of Russian-speaking churches in other M-centers. It was a great honor for me to visit these churches.
The Onnuri Church has established such M-centers in eight other places in Korea. More than 700 migrants found faith in Jesus through the M-centers in recent years. Thirty of them were trained as missionaries here and sent back to 13 countries. This completes the missionary cycle of the church’s vision: people are addressed at their specific needs, led to Jesus, made disciples and then sent out as missionaries into the world - in some cases back to their country of origin. At Onnuri, church work is always done from the perspective of world mission. J. Nelson Jennings, who has taken a closer look at this practice of the Onnuri Church, speaks of “Reverse Migration Ministries from Korea” at this point .
Free to dare new things
Even a cursory overview of the many programs of the Onnuri Church makes it clear: new ideas are always emerging here and are being realised here. The principle of a spirituality of freedom and creativity, formulated as a church anchor, is indeed omnipresently visible. In the M centers, care is taken to contextualize the programs to a large extent in the culture of the migrants.
At no point, the Russian-speaking Koreans told me, does the mother church try to impose its own style of worship on the respective sub-congregation. And the leader of the Ansan M-Center, Dr. Kim, even called it a basic principle of church planting. “Broad agreement in theology and conceivable flexibility in form – that’s what makes the Onnuri mosaic”, he told me in conversation.
“We want the Mongolians among us to become Christians, not necessarily Koreans. After all, again, they are the best missionaries to the Mongols. Therefore, it would be simply wrong to impose our culture on them. Instead, we ‘infiltrate' the Mongolian culture with the gospel and clothe it in Mongolian culture. And we try to do the same with all other ethnic groups that our Lord trusts us with”.
This enthusiasm for contextualization is characteristic of Onnuri. It runs through not only in their dealings with migrants but also in their dealings with the different social and age groups of their own Korean society. Here, the founder’s vision of building a church for the next generation seems to be coming true. For it is not the past that counts, but the future; it is not what has been achieved that sets the standard, but the mission that has not yet been fulfilled.
This makes the congregation light on its feet, conceivably flexible, and at the same time always relevant to a society in transition. Onnuri has a future because it is oriented towards the future, in Korea and to the ends of the earth.
Learning from Onnouri
The leadership of the Onnuri Church is aware of its special role as a megachurch blessed by God. Again and again, programs of the church are looked at anew and also put up for discussion internationally.
An outstanding example of this is the scientific symposium designed by Onnuri in 2016 on the topic, “Megachurch Accountability in Missions” . At that event, Onnuri leaders made a critical comparison with other megachurches in Korea and worldwide in order to draw conclusions for their own mission.
And next year, the Lausanne Movement is coming to Onnuri, as the church will join others in Asia as they organise the Fourth Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. No question, this is a great opportunity for the evangelical world to learn essential things from this congregation that breathes mission in a very conscious manner.
1. See the overview of the church's vision, goals and programs in its Introduction brochure.
2. William A. Dyrness; Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, eds: Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2009), 461.
3. Yong-Jo Ha: Envisioning An Apostolic Church: Onnuri's Church Theory and Pastoral Philosophy. 2nd Edition. (Seoul: Duranno Press 2008).
4. Jae-hoon Lee, Publisher: Onnuri Community Church. (Seoul: Onnuri Community Church 2017), 115.
5. Ibid, 147.
6. Ibid, 225.
7. Yong-Jo Ha: Envisioning An Apostolic Church, 99.
8. Ibid, 107f.
9. Ibid, 131f.
10. Lee: Onnuri Community Church, 228.
11. Ibid, 321.
12. J. Nelson Jennings: Reverse Migration Ministries from Korea: A Case Study of Onnuri Community Church's M Mission. In Jimbong Kim; Dwight P. Baker, Jonathan J. Bonk; J. Nelson Jenning, Jae Hoon Lee, eds: People Disrupted: Doing Mission Responsibly among Refugees and Migrants. (Pasadena: WCL 2018), 185-196.
13. See the symposium papers in: Jinbong Kim, Dwight P. Baker, J. Nelson Jennings, Jae-hoon Lee, Steve Sang-Cheol Moon, eds: Megachurch Accountability: Critical Assessment through Global Case Studies. Pasadena: William Carey Library 2016).