The Visionary Pastor: Building a Jesus Community for the Modern Era

A photo of pastor Kim Jin-Hong, the founder of Deok Rae Community.
A photo of pastor Kim Jin-Hong, the founder of Deok Rae Community.
By Ruth WangAugust 4th, 2023

On a summer Sunday afternoon in 2023, we found ourselves in the terminal station of a valley in Dongducheon City, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. A white cross sculpture stands on one side, and a green chapel where melodious praise is heard on the other. In suit and tie, an old pastor walked to the podium to deliver the sermon of the day to both the congregation in person and his tens of thousands of online subscribers. Being 82 years old this year, he is hale and hearty. Unless otherwise arranged, he shares his meditation with the congregation on time at 6 a.m. every Monday to Friday.

He is pastor Kim Jin-Hong, the founder of Deok Rae Community. From his thirties to the present, he has been dedicated to uncovering how the gospel can serve as a blessing to his ethnic group, society, and nation. Along his journey, he has encountered detours and valuable lessons, earning both praise for his contributions to civil development and facing criticisms and controversies over certain matters. Today, at over eighty years old, he reflects on how the gospel can adapt its influence to different times - discerning what should remain steadfast and what must evolve.

Over the past half-century, Pastor Kim has remained steadfast in his commitment to the Community model, which he considers the cornerstone of Christianity's growth. To him, its preservation is paramount for a promising future. Throughout the decades, he has amassed a wealth of practical experience.

A Desert Becomes a Garden: Experiences from 1970 to 2000

--How does one dedicate oneself to living for others in modern society?

A Desert Becomes a Garden is a touching autobiography of the pastor, telling his life experiences from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s. “In South Korea, A Desert Becomes a Garden is an excellent book recommended by the Ministry of Culture, and has been reprinted over 100 times since its initial publication in 1982. In 1998, New East Asia, one of the largest circulation magazines in Korea, serialized the revised edition of the book. Internationally, earlier than South Korea, the book was first published in Japan and later in South Korea, the United States, Russia, and other countries.” The book is introduced so in the preface of the Chinese version published in 2009.

The historical backdrop of the book is set in South Korea during the early 1970s, marked by the aftermath of Japanese colonization, World War II, and the Korean War. Amidst the complex challenges of poverty, underdeveloped technology, weak social infrastructure, and economic disparities, young Kim Jin-Hong, born into a Christian family, initially grappled with doubts about his faith. Disheartened by the church's seeming indifference to the struggles of the people, he embarked on a spiritual quest, exploring various philosophies and religions.

However, through a profound encounter with the book of Romans, Pastor Kim experienced a spiritual rebirth, finding solace and grounding in Jesus. Driven by a desire to serve the common people, he explored various professions, including medicine sales, cosmetics exports, and insurance. Subsequently, he pursued studies at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary with the intention of becoming a professional pastor. Yet, witnessing the tragic consequences of dogmatic mistakes within the church, he opted instead to practice fraternity as an ordinary person.

Thus, he ventured into various grassroots occupations, aiming to both sustain himself and uplift the working class. During a summer vacation, he initiated the "Living Poor Church" in poverty-stricken villages, with the purpose of enabling the destitute to overcome their hardships through faith. Reflecting on those transformative years, he willingly relinquished the allure of studying in the United States to wholeheartedly dedicate himself to serving the underprivileged in a challenging environment.

In his quest to alleviate poverty and empower the disadvantaged, Pastor Kim underwent a series of setbacks and learned valuable lessons. His initial efforts to provide financial aid revealed the importance of cultivating self-reliance among the poor. Encouraging them to start small businesses led to challenges with morality and spirituality. Ultimately, he found that emphasizing faith and fostering a community-based model became the turning point in their journey.

In this process, he discovered the paramount importance of fostering a sense of community among the impoverished. Recognizing the significance of solidarity and mutual support after establishing their beliefs, he embarked on implementing a community-based model. He led the villagers to Nanyang Bay, approximately 90 kilometers away from Seoul. Despite the absence of financial assistance from the state, he successfully addressed the villagers' fundamental needs of food, clothing, housing, and transportation, while simultaneously organizing the poor, weak, and humble members to collaboratively build the thriving "Deok Rae Community Village."

The name "Deok Rae" originates from an ancient Korean concept of farmers helping each other during busy seasons, making it an agricultural community founded on gospel beliefs.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the villagers' primary livelihood was farming, and they experienced divine benevolence. Among the most profound experiences was a second failure in planting rice seedlings during a severe drought year. With heartfelt prayers from both adults and children, they witnessed a miraculous bumper harvest, resulting in economic reversal and prosperity.

Over time, the Deok Rae Community Village evolved into a sanctuary for healing, renewal, and harmonious living. Despite South Korea's economic prosperity in the 1980s, many individuals sought refuge in the community, seeking solace from various hardships such as pain, pressure, depression, family abandonment, and desperation. Through collaborative work and communal living, seekers experienced both physical and mental recovery.

In the last few chapters of A Desert Becomes a Garden, Pastor Kim talks about his vision and thinking of running a Deok Rae community, pointing out that “Korean churches are much revived, but unfortunately they are too inclined to individual healing and personal salvation”. Due to their weak social and historical views, they have limited influence on society and times. The Deok Rae Community combines the evangelical movement, the community movement, the church reform movement, and the social renewal movement, hoping to bring renewal to the church and society through the power of the evangelical community.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the headquarters of the Deok Rae Community formed a Group consisting of New Life Healing Hospital, Deok Rae Village for Social Welfare, Korean Deok Rae commercial companies, and several charitable organizations.

New explorations and experiences in the past ten years

--How to uphold the essence of the gospel and continue to develop in a changing era?

It has been about 20 years since the publication of A Desert Becomes a Garden. Now, Deok Rae Village in Guangyandong is a new attempt by Pastor Kim in 2012.

“At the age of 70, I bought land with my pension and started over.” His motivation behind this fresh beginning was his realization that the Korean church lacked spirituality and a recognition of his own past mistakes. “I may be more bad things than good things, so I repented and start over. I come here with such a heart.”

He explained, “When you start a community, if you emphasize spirituality too much, the industry will fall, and vice versa. Because of the emphasis on agriculture and the economy, spirituality is much weaker. Farmers cannot do Bible study as they are too tired and busy for money. Therefore, the purpose of starting here is to establish a balanced Jesus Community that harmonizes faith and daily life, as well as the balance between labor and prayer.”

In 2012, with a pension of 1.2 billion won (about 6.5 million RMB), he acquired a mountainous area covering 240,000 square meters in Guangyandong, where he established a church, a fasting monastery, a school, a food processing factory, and a farm as part of the new endeavor in the Deok Rae Community. Additionally, the seven churches he founded in other places started operating independently while maintaining interactions with this new community.

“There have been significant changes between the era before 2000 and the present. To stay ahead of the times, we must adapt. The 1970s marked a very poor era in South Korea, even poorer than North Korea at that time. However, South Korea has grown to be 50 times richer than North Korea now, so the church must stay ahead of the changes in this era."

“We initiated the project in Guangyandong in 2012.” He recalled that at that time, the people in the Deok Rae Community were still engaged in traditional agriculture. "Although they worked very hard, their annual income was only 150 million won (about 800,000 Yuan). It was evident that the community could not be sustained in this manner. So, I decided to seek a paradigm shift and opted not to rely solely on traditional agriculture. Instead, I ventured into using the Internet and social media to sell our agricultural products online, which eventually increased our income tenfold in just three years."

He established a Youtube channel, conducting live broadcasts of worship at 6 a.m., 11 a.m., and 7 p.m. every day, while also promoting the natural agricultural products they produced. Currently, they have 180,000 stable subscribers. According to him, this approach represents a new way to expand in the current era.

In his opinion, churches in China can also explore the concept of agricultural communities and become a model for agricultural management, considering China's significant reliance on agriculture. This could be instrumental in helping many people.

Regarding the operation of agricultural communities, he offers a valuable suggestion: "Quality holds greater importance than quantity. The key to a stable income lies in producing high-quality featured products."

He continues to embark on various new attempts, believing that the essence of the gospel should remain unchanged while adapting to the external situations that have changed over time. He emphasized that the approach to expansion must be continuously revised and adjusted according to different circumstances, integrating both the internal essence (contents) and the external aspects (hardware).

The importance of the community model for future development

In addition to insisting on the essence of the gospel and changing with the trends of the times, Pastor Kim has always continued and emphasized the model of Jesus Community.

“Being a Christian shouldn't be limited to just attending church; instead, church, life, and society should seamlessly integrate. Faith, life, and work ought to be harmoniously intertwined, creating a balanced community that reflects the Biblical model and represents the future of Christianity.”

He firmly believes that the community plays a crucial role in nurturing positive faith and fostering meaningful interpersonal connections.

"Our village has three core goals: to love our work even as we age, to live a happy life, and to share our lives together."

At 82 years old, Pastor Kim reflects on a life filled with fulfilling work, happiness, and constant sharing with others.

Drawing from his accumulated experience in community building, he emphasizes the importance of "embracing tolerance, acceptance, and recognition of each other's differences, while maintaining a culture of continuous communication among community members."

He perceives the community model not as a rigid framework but as highly flexible and diverse. For example, a ministry or a team can function as small communities and different communities can intersect, blend, and interact.

"It is a way of life: respecting each other, sharing with one another, worshiping together, and engaging in economic activities collectively."

However, Pastor Kim acknowledges that many young people today are not accustomed to this way of thinking due to the prevalent emphasis on self and individualism. He understands that it can be challenging for individualists, those with weak altruism and strong self-centeredness, to integrate into the community model. Therefore “it is necessary to slowly guide them to join the community, like watering them in slowly instead of pulling them in at once so they will be irritated.”

“If everyone walks with individualism, everyone will feel uncomfortable, but if everyone walks in a community way, everyone will get better, which is a common good.”

The goal of the Jesus Community is to walk with God every day.

Pastor Li currently serves as the manager of Deok Rae Community Village in Guangyandong, where his responsibilities extend beyond leading Bible studies to  overseeing the operation of food processing plants and other industries.

Reminiscing about his initial involvement in the community roughly 30 years ago, Pastor Li highlighted that the concept of community extends beyond Christian churches and can be found in various ideologies. However, he emphasized a crucial distinction - in some cases, leaders become revered as guides who dictate truth and law to their followers, assuming god-like status. In contrast, the Jesus Community they are fostering centers its principles on the teachings of the Bible. Together, believers and Pastor Kim engage in open discussions, evaluating suggestions against biblical values and embracing change when needed.

Their vision for the community transcends the confines of a church, extending to a broader focus on societal and environmental concerns, exemplifying social responsibility.

He shared, "Our way of life revolves around walking with God every day. Life within the community serves as a constant training ground for walking with God. This pursuit represents the very expansion of the kingdom of God. As we strive to cleanse our lives of sin through our walk with God, His kingdom continues to grow and flourish."

- Translated by Charlie Li

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