Rev. Moses Chung looked out over the people filling the All Nations Church sanctuary in Lakeview Terrace, Calif., and welcomed them to the Christian Reformed Church’s first-ever Prayer Summit.
In the next three days, the Korean CRC’s spacious, California campus would be alive with prayer — prayer at dawn, individual prayer, groups praying in the warm sunshine, nearly 1,000 swaying and singing and joining in prayers together in an evening session, and music and plaintive phrases, petitions to God, bursting out from the platform of the church during worship services.
Participants in the Prayer Summit, held in mid-April and drawing about 600 CRC members from across North America, would also learn in the next 72 hours that they were part of a rich legacy of prayer that defines Korean Christian Reformed churches — and Korean evangelical churches in general.
It is a legacy that dates back to great, nationwide prayer revivals in Korea at the turn of the last century and has been passed down, generation to generation, by members of Korean churches to their children and then in April of 2012, through Korean CRCs, to representatives of the CRC at large.
Participants were about to embark on a compelling and possibly — since only time will tell — significant journey.
Setting Aside the Familiar
“This is not a conference or a symposium on prayer,” said Chung, who played a role in coordinating the Prayer Summit and serves as director of Christian Reformed Home Missions. “We are here for one purpose — to seek God’s face, on our knees, and to listen to him.”
Chung asked them to set aside preconceived notions and to be open to the movement of prayer.
“We are all here today because of God’s power in our lives. We are here and we will hopefully realize that the Holy Spirit is moving every day mightily in our lives and in the lives of people in this country and in the lives of people worldwide,” said Chung.
“I ask you to open your minds, hearts and hands and make yourselves vulnerable,” said Chung. “Expect great things from God. Expect God to stretch you.”
Seeking God’s Face
Participants would be reminded again and again by speakers at the Summit that prayer is not defined or bound by any theology. Rather, a speaker would say, prayer was best defined as including all of the aspects that Christ taught his disciples in the Lord’s Prayer: Honoring God, asking for God’s will to be done, for God to provide for us what we need, to forgive us for our sins and for us to do the same for others and, finally, to seek God’s protection.
“God is at work in us, among us, beside us at all times,” said Bonnie Behina-Mulder, one of the pastors at a CRC congregation in Bellflower, Calif., during one of the opening worship sessions.
Besides helping us to be aware of God’s presence, prayer is public and also deeply personal, said Rev. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., in one of the plenary sessions.
“We need to realize that in prayer we are also talking about a Holy of Holies that only we can enter alone. We then stand naked before God” imploring his Spirit to enter their hearts and connecting them in an intimate way with God. “I am positive we can only know the kingdom if we know the king,” Mouw said.
Mouw also referred to a movement of prayer that people at the Prayer Summit would have the chance to experience. The movement has its roots in small towns and large cities that exploded into revival more than 100 years ago in Korea.
“We are talking about a revival that spread across Korea and across Asia and across the earth” and that was alive among them on that afternoon, Mouw said, in Lakeview Terrace.
‘A Vast Harmony of Souls’
Yong Kyu Park, a professor of church history at the General Assembly Theological Seminary in Seoul, Korea, helped describe this revival — and especially how it has shaped and defined Protestant evangelical Korean churches — more thoroughly in another presentation.
The revival actually began in 1903 during a meeting of Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries and others who had gathered in Wonsan, a city in the northeastern part of Korea, for a week of prayer and Bible study.
A spirit bred at that gathering spread and gathered strength until missionaries and Korean Christians met for an annual Bible training class in January 1907 at the Central Church in Pyengyang, Korea, said Park.
After a short sermon one day, there was a call for prayer and, spontaneously, the whole audience began to pray, in loud voices and yet all together. An eyewitness to the outbreak of prayer, said Park, described it this way: “The effect was indescribable. Not confusion, but a vast harmony of souls and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by the irresistible impulse of prayer. The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne.”
In the process was born what has come to be known as Tong Sung prayer, prayer spoken out loud in unison, a hallmark of Korean Christianity and was in many ways a topic and theme weaving through the Prayer Summit, said Park.
When people left the training class in Pyengyang, they brought Tong Sung prayer with them and introduced it to their fellow Christians, who received it enthusiastically. As a result, Tong Sung prayer quickly took hold in powerful ways and ultimately spread, especially in daybreak prayer sessions, in towns across Korea and then beyond. Meeting as the sun came up, people would start out slow and low and then their voices would rise and then they would merge into one prayer, said Kim.
“I believe prayer life is the most notable feature of Korean Christianity, distinguishing it from Western . . . Protestantism,” said Park.
Concluding his session, Park said he hoped the Prayer Summit helped inspire “Christian leaders and churches of the CRC and other mainline denominations” to be churches of prayer, led by pastors of prayer and made up of Christians of prayer who will experience “the remarkable power of prayer that the Korean church has already experienced. I affirm it as the way to have the American church revived.”
Tong Sung Prayer’s Legacy
Some Prayer Summit participants took a shuttle from their hotels and gathered for dawn prayer every day and had the chance to experience Tong Sung prayer. They joined in, first softly, and then their voices rising, linking.
At one of the workshops, Rev. Dong IL Kim gave a description of Tong Sung prayer. Dong Kim is pastor of Gracious Ark CRC in Los Angeles and a professor of church history at the International Reformed Theological Seminary.
Korean Christians do not solely rely on Tong Sung prayer, but use many types of prayer, including meditation, corporate prayer, reciting formal prayers, individual prayer, and prayer that is soft and spoken in a rhythm as they breathe in and out, said Kim.
But Tong Sung prayer is crucial to their prayer lives. It is not used in Sunday worship and is generally limited to dawn prayer services. Usually it is led by a pastor. Sometimes people are given a topic to pray about and other times they aren’t.
This type of prayer is deeply led by the Holy Spirit, moving people in different directions and then bringing them back together. In many ways, Tong Sung prayer allows a person to speak his or hear emotions fully in prayer, which then helps to open them to being more receptive to God and to using other types of prayer to maintain the link with God throughout a day, said Kim.
Although it is loud and passionate, Tong Sung prayer is not necessarily Pentecostal prayer that can feature speaking in tongues, ecstatic movement, and faith healing.
Rather, this is focused and even disciplined type of communal prayer that arises from the heart and is in constant search for contact with, and offering praises to, the God of all creation. “We cry out to Jesus, because we love him,” said Dong Kim.
Kim said it was his sincere hope that participants of the Prayer Summit left with a better sense of Tong Sung prayer and that they might even try it out in some settings in their churches.
“My hope is that Tong Sung prayer can move into the CRC and lead to a renewal,” said Kim. “As part of the CRC family, the Korean church has been blessed. We want to return that blessing and this is how we know how to do it through prayer.”
Watching and Praying
On Tuesday night, Rev. Pildo Joung, founding pastor of a Sooyoungro Presbyterian Church attended by more than 30,000 people in Busan, Korean, led the energetic service titled “Praying Inside Out.” The service drew some 1,000 people, several coming in from area Korean CR churches.
In conjunction with the prayer service, CRC congregations across North America had been asked to hold a “Watch and Pray” event on the same evening.
They were provided a video clip from the opening day of the Summit and material that they could use in prayer. They were asked to lift up their voice in praise to God and in solidarity with members of their churches that were attending the Prayer Summit. Many churches joined in.
In the sanctuary of All Nations, people first watched and listened, hearing more about how to pray, and then they prayed.
“It is so critical that we are persistent in our prayer and that we pray until God answers, who always comes through and answers our prayers,” said Joung, who built his congregation and with it Sooyoungro Presbyterian Church starting with a few people many years ago.
Joung attributes the tremendous growth in numbers and subsequently in ministries in Sooyoungro to his being in constant prayer, sometimes for days on end, seeking and then getting to know the Holy Spirit “who comes on us is all fullness” and makes clear what steps to take on the continued walk with God, he said in an interview.
“Hear the voice of the Lord in this house of God tonight,” he said. “Let God solve your problems . . . Lord Jesus, we know that when are praying together for a church, God always blesses that church.”
When he finished, the praise band began and men and women choir in robes began singing a lively song. As they sang, the song lyrics were projected on a front wall of the church. Meanwhile, an artist quickly sketched on a canvas, creating amazingly colorful paintings arranged on the stage of the church.
People in the seats stood, swayed, sang and waved their arms in in time of with the music. Near the end, they prayed fervently, some holding onto one another’s hand. Their voices became a an indistinguishable current of words, although phrases of praise occasionally rose out of the mummur.
As they day began, it ended — in prayers, still seeking the face of God.
All Nations Welcomed CRC
On the final morning of the Summit, Pastor Tae Kim sat in the cafeteria after breakfast, a big smile on his face. As a co-pastor of All Nations Church, he had been unsure that his church could prepare for the Summit.
They’d only been asked to do this several weeks before. They had hosted conferences and other events, but nothing of this complexity and magnitude.
They needed to make name tags, provide shuttle transportation to participants, coordinate the music, schedule the sessions, make sure church members helped to control traffic in and out of the campus, and then made food for hundreds of participants.
Although they were a big church, said Tae Kim, it was mostly a church that spoke Korean and worshipped in Korean. Many members, although by no means all, were first-generation immigrants. Holding a Prayer Sumit in English for the entire denomination was a challenge.
But Kim had been named co-pastor with the hopes that he could lead the church slowly away from its immigrant roots. His job, in many ways, was outreach, and the task to help coordinate the Summit fell largely on him. While he was sure he couldn’t do it alone, he did pray diligently for God’s help and was pleased by how many of All Nation’s members came forward to help.
Some of those volunteers were at work in the cafeteria on that early morning, cleaning tables, starting to put away the food.
Kim watched them work with that smile on his face. To have seen so many members step up to help had made him feel deeply grateful and thankful to God.
“God had mercy on us as a plan, and our church has really come out of its shell, and used our strengths to serve and pray together. I think God has blessed us as a church and that he has shown up during the last two-and-a-half days of prayer.”
Someone stopped to remind Tae Kim that he had to rush off to set up the communion table that would hold bread and wine for the final session, which would include a communion service.
Recalling his duty, Kim excused himself, but before he left he spoke about the overall value of the Prayer Summit. “Our church is honored to have been able to host the Summit. I really hope through this conference that our denomination will be touched and encouraged to pray, and to pray with conviction, even more than they are now, to God.”
Tae started to stride off — a tall man with long hair and a kindly demeanor of authority — and then stopped to add: “I am so thrilled that we have been able fill this place for nearly three days with prayers and praises for his glory.”