Introducing Kyuboem Lee, a Missio Alliance Leading Voice

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faculty-kyuboem-leeI was born in Seoul, South Korea, where I grew up until the age of 10; then my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, as my parents responded to a missionary calling. I grew up as a teenager there until I was 18, while parents practiced acupuncture to support the family, planted churches, and raised my sister and me. After graduating from high school (or completing secondary education as they say over there), I traveled alone to the States as an international student first as an architecture major in University of Illinois at Chicago, then graduated from Wheaton College, IL, with a degree in Bible and theology.

I moved to the East Coast to attend Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA, from where I graduated with MDiv and DMin—both with an emphasis in urban mission. During that time, I got the urban mission bug. I remember the first class I took with Harvie Conn, who lovingly challenged the students with mostly suburban ministry aspirations to see the city of Philadelphia, only a couple miles away from where we were sitting, as a place and a people that God loves. Until then, I had been headed back to Africa; I saw a new mission field.

So I became a part of the pastoral staff of an urban African American Baptist church for 7 years, then planted an incarnational, urban congregation in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia where I served as pastor for 11 years. I recently began serving as the director of DMin program and assistant professor of missiology at Biblical Theological Seminary. I also serve as general editor for the Journal of Urban Mission.

My wife Christe and I are raising 2 sons (at the moment 9 and 7), and during my free times in between all of their activities I like to run (“Cheaper than therapy,” I tell my friends).

It is my great desire to see the global people of God know God and walk with God more fully in his world, and grow in their calling to “declare his glory among the nations.” I see my part in that work as equipping the church with the tools it needs for its life of mission, especially in the urban centers that are growing exponentially around the world, and in the context of Christianity that has truly become global.

I am encouraged that in our age of post-Christendom in the West, many of the insights gained from missiology and practices of cross-cultural missionaries are now being embraced by the North American Church. Missional is what many congregations and Christians strive to be. As a result, culture is being taken seriously, church leaders are making efforts at contextualization, and different modes of being church are getting tried. It can be an exciting and creative time to be in ministry, when new populations and cultures can be reached with the gospel, when followers of Christ can be discipled in a more holistic way of kingdom life, and when our theology can become more embodied and more meaningful for the sake of the world.

Even the present difficulties that the traditional church in the West has been experiencing can be for its good. If the status quo gets shaken up, we can perhaps be brought back from preoccupations with secondary or tertiary (inward) ecclesiastical, theological, and tribal matters, to primary matters of the Church’s purpose in the world and of identity in Christ. I’ve had many conversations with those undergoing the ennui of ministry as usual—things might be going well in terms of numbers, but where is the mission? Ministers started out by answering the call to mission, but ended up shopkeepers, and are longing for a way back. Adversity could help us find the way of mission again.

Self Portrait, Sheffield

A church in such a situation could better de-contextualize itself from its cultural captivity, and better re-contextualize for the sake of the outsider. One of my favorite quotes from my former teacher, Harvie Conn, is: “The church is the only organization in the world that exists for the sake of its non-members.” Can we dream of congregations that live that out? I am hopeful that more share that dream.

Growing up as a Third Culture Kid, I often found that I was able to cross over to almost everywhere, yet not quite at home anywhere. I used to think I was an oddity, but lately I’ve started to see that there is a lot of the Third Culture Kid in the post-Christendom Church. This can be an anxiety-inducing state of affairs (especially when you’re used to holding the insider status) but on the other hand it can be a good thing, because it means the church is freed up from many “worldly concerns,” and thus in a better place to identify with and welcome strangers and outsiders of this world—Third Culture Kids, all—in a way that a privileged gentry is not, and love this world in a way the comfortable cannot.

Not that there are no challenges. The missional direction has been enormously helpful for the Church, but it also needs continual reforming, upbuilding. For instance, it has sometimes been observed that the missional conversation has often been carried out in the silo of white, middle class suburbia. Missional theology has made wonderful strides for mission towards the postmodern culture of the Western elites. But what about the minorities and marginalized of the West, or the vast diversity that comprise the Two-Thirds World peoples? What of the modern and pre-modern cultures that populate our own cities (and will likely increase in number, given migration patterns) as well as the far-flung, teeming global urban centers or the mushrooming slums and shantytowns? We will need to be more adaptable to these peoples and contexts which will almost always stretch us; we will continually need to grow out of captivity to our own presuppositions and cultural backgrounds for the sake of becoming all things to all peoples and loving our neighbor.

If the missional conversation keeps going on the trajectory it should, towards the margins, we should expect that the North American missional movement becomes more properly situated within the larger context of minority churches, and even more broadly, in the context of World Christianity. The NA church becomes one member among many in the global body of Christ, bringing its own unique gifts to the common table to placed alongside gifts from others around the world, no longer always claiming the status (or the burden) of the teacher and leader.

So my hope is that the Church in North America becomes more vitally a part of the global Church and the global mission of God. I believe that the more this becomes true, the better NA Church will be able to follow Jesus in its own local communities. It will become more rooted among its neighbors and grow in its incarnational witness. It will partner with others in the neighborhood who are different for the sake of common causes in the community, not simply huddle with its own tribe. It will have better capacity to practice justice and love the poor. It will better embrace the plurality of the world and welcome the diversity of nations, languages, and tribes that God has brought by means of globalization into its own communities.

It is my prayer that the Church will grow more fully into its calling as shalom community—a model home of the future society, marked by justice, mercy, faithfulness—sent by Jesus to be his witness embedded within the world. That’s why I say that sometimes it’s good to be pushed to the margins—you could discover that you’re with Jesus after all.

I hope to engage with you and learn from each other in the days to come on these and related issues of vital importance to the body of Christ and its mission in the 21st century. Thank you, Missio Alliance, for the opportunity to be one of the Leading Voices, and thank you all in advance for the conversations, the reflections, and the actions, for the sake of following Jesus in our world.