One of the most accomplished mission leaders of our lifetime died in June 2020 – Dr. David J. Cho. His life is a story of deep commitment to the Lord and profound engagement to the spread of the Gospel. Few in the West noticed his passing.
I have recorded at least two interviews with Dr. Cho. The last one when he attended a small meeting of younger, very innovative mission thinkers and practitioners from Asia. His attendance and encouragement at that meeting reflected a characteristic rare in Korean leaders: Cho was willing to buck the system when it wasn’t working – or when it just needed some prodding!
His life and accomplishments include vision, multiplication, and impact. In Korea, he is known as “Mr. Mission.” Almost every Korean middle-aged mission or church leader was impacted by his life. At a minimum, they were influenced by his legacy. Many top mission leaders I’ve met in the last 25 years, learned from him or worked with him at some point. They either: (1) trained at one of the missions study programs he started, (2) sat under his teaching and mentorship, (3) worked with him within a sending organization he founded or led, (4) engaged in key mission issues through missiological societies he helped found, or led, and, (5) networked within an association which he started. I can name specific examples of Korean leaders I know in each of those categories.
International University in 1993 and headed their Korean studies program from 1980 – 1999. He was instrumental in making connections with North Korea on what he called his “peace mission” work. He first traveled there in 1989, and in 1992, had his initial meeting with Kim Il Sung – the founder and Supreme Leader of North Korea, and the grandfather of the current leader. He met with him on each subsequent visit to the country and spoke in two churches on each visit. Later, he brokered a partnership between Kim Il Sung University in North Korea, where Cho would lecture when he visited, and WCIU donated 2,700 books. Cho was also responsible for Billy Graham going to North Korea to speak in 1992.
When Cho hosted the Ambassador of North Korea on a visit to the U.S in 1991, they came to the WCIU campus in Pasadena. He had learned that the Ambassador wanted to visit former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. So, on a Sunday, from his office at WCIU, Ralph Winter looked in his Presbyterian minister’s directory and called a pastor listed in Plains Georgia. The pastor answered and said, “call this number…leave a message, and if he is there and able, he will call back.” Jimmy Carter called back in about 30 minutes! The North Korean delegation visited Jimmy Carter at his home later in the week. Subsequently, Cho helped arranged for Carter’s visit to North Korea in 1994.
But long before that, in 1973, Cho became well known in Korean Christian circles, in part, because of his role as the Planning General Secretary and Arrangement Chairman for the Billy Graham Crusade in Seoul. That August 1973, crusade was Graham’s largest. The last time I saw Dr. Cho in Manila at the Asian Missions Association Convention (which he had founded about 45 years earlier), I told him my favorite photo of him is from that event. You can see in front of Billy Graham are about one million people. Cho (circled in yellow) is sitting on the stage step, facing the camera with his back to Graham, trying not to be a distraction! It is as if his job is done, and it is up to Billy and the Lord now! He looks a bit weary! I’m guessing that someone took his seat when he was speaking?
Before Ralph D. Winter and David J. Cho met, in about 1969, Winter began to present some ideas about the roles of mission sending structures and churches – Sodalities and Modalities, as he called them. That culminated in his seminal paper on the subject “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” which was presented in Korea in 1973 at the All-Asia Mission Consultaion in Seoul, Korea. (Winter 1974)
This is the meeting where Cho and Ralph Winter began their relationship. Before the meeting, in the late 1960s, Cho was longing for deeper connections with Western mission agencies. He wanted to partner with organizations that had experience. He visited several western sending mission agencies based in Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S., and at least five different mission agencies turned him down. (Cho 2009, 196)
In 1970, the Korea International Mission (founded by Cho) had their First Strategy Conference. They discussed “the urgent necessity of a consultation among Asian mission leaders … and [made] a proposition to promote and start the framework of an All-Asia Mission Consultation…”. (Chun 1975, 38) After building consensus with Asian mission and church leaders from Korea, Japan, Indonesia, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, the date for the All-Asia Mission Consultation was set for August of 1973. In 1971, Cho was in the U.S. at the mission leaders meetings (IFMA/EFMA), and he invited any/all of the leaders to come.
In all, not counting the westerners, twenty-five mission leaders from thirteen countries around Asia came together. Only five of those twenty-five delegates were Korean. There were nine non-Asian participants (including Clyde Taylor, Ralph Winter, Arthur Glasser, C. Peter Wagner, and George Peters) and another 14 observers – who were mostly missionaries who worked in Korea. The official materials of the Consultation said that these mission leaders were gathered to: (1) promote cooperation for Asian mission activities among Asian countries, (2) seek cooperation between the East and West, and, (3) form an organization to coordinate efforts among Asian countries. One of the primary outcomes of this event was to bring awareness of non-Western missionaries into sharper focus, especially in Asia. (Chun, 8) In his brief autobiography for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research in 2009, Cho noted the creation of a continuation committee, that would,
(1) Send out at least two hundred new Asian missionaries by the end of 1974; (2) encouraging the formation of national missions associations in every country of Asia; and (3) working for the establishment of the East-West Center for Missions Research and Development in Seoul. (Cho 2009, 196)
Those goals were all reached before the end of 1974! A detailed report on the event noted that 100 agencies had been established in Asia over the previous twenty years, but “there had been no conference during the previous two decades which was specifically geared to Asian missions and missionaries at home and on the field.” (Chun, 6) The event was followed by weeks of intensive training for sixty-four Asian mission candidates. Winter and the others were invited to help train those leaders.
With their relationship solidified at that small but significant gathering, they each had an increased appreciation for each other – both realizing the valuable connections in the missions movement that each offered.
Cho wrote about Winter noting that,
For thirty-six years, from 1973 until his death in May 2009, he was associated with my activities of missionary leadership development and networking of Third World missions. I often requested him to join me in mission work – in Seoul, Manila, Thailand, Moscow, Ephesus, and elsewhere – and he never said no. He also never hesitated to write North Korean leaders, inviting them to William Carey International University for my peace mission movement with North Korea” (Cho 2009, 195)
In 1974, both David Cho and Ralph Winter presented at the first Lausanne Congress. Cho gave one of three responses to Winter’s plenary presentation, “The Highest Priority: Cross-Cultural Evangelism.” (Winter 1975, 213-225) He agreed with Winter, strongly disagreed with one of the other responders, and came to Winter’s defense. He saw:
…honest criticism on the failures of Western missions is praiseworthy. Yet, it should aim at correcting the past mistakes for constructing a right mission strategy for today. It should not aim merely to deny the effectiveness of cross-cultural evangelism. (Cho 1975, 253)
Cho also suggested that the order of the points E-Scale should be reversed. Instead of E-3 pointing to Unreached People Groups. He believed that if “E-1” represented the Unreached, (instead of representing “near-neighbor” evangelism) it would emphasize the priority more effectively. He agreed with Winter that the geographical distinction in evangelism was not the primary issue. The use of terms like “home” mission or “foreign” mission were misleading and unhelpful. To Cho, the failure of Euro-Americans missions was because they did not effectively learn the culture and language of the people groups they were reaching. He had seen examples of that in Korea itself. (Cho, 253-254)
At the same time, Cho believed the idea “the days of world mission are gone is mistaken.” (Cho, 253) Western missions were entering a mature stage, and the “divine imperative and mandate” of the Great Commission must continue, or the church would end up like the now-dead ancient Tunisian Church in North Africa and the New Testament churches of Asia-Minor. Which, he noted, was due in part to “the loss of missionary vision?” He urged the body of Christ to invest in research and development for missions, but to do so with cross-cultural sensitivities, or “there will come a crisis for mission and evangelism.” (Cho, 254)
Finally, he added two other ideas that bear remembering, that mission, and evangelism…
1) “…should not be used as an instrument for the denominational expansion or territorial expansion of colonialism.” It should be Gospel-centered and multi-nationally structured;
2) Must engage in the global scene in ways that effectively leverage cross-cultural elements. Cho was afraid if we did not, the results would not honor God and His mission. (Cho, 254)
In addition to his response to Ralph Winter’s presentation, Dr. Cho also presented a paper during the Lausanne Congress. It was one of the Evangelistic Strategy Papers. His presentation titled “Mission Structures” and included that subject and the nature of the remaining task. In it, Cho reiterated some points raised at the All-Asia Missions Consultation. He noted the purpose of his paper was, “To call for decisive action to shift from a hemispheric mission structure to a global one, from a one-way to a two-way traffic system.” He articulated the need for organization structure that will allow agencies to grow and mature in their work and the “constant process of innovation according to the degree of church growth and spiritual maturity on mission fields.” In other words, missions need the ability to adapt on the fly. (Cho, 501)
Cho also added the visionary reflection that newly established national churches are to “be not only self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating, but also out-reaching across national barriers as soon as it received the Gospel…” He urged existing missions to help national churches develop sending structures to reach those outside the church. (Cho, 501-502) He realized that Westerners, which had established organizations, might view these newer entities with unease, as fragile, or even dangerous. But that, Cho noted, was the way many live day-to-day in much of the world. And if “the monolithic aspirations of the Western brethren were to interfere inadvertently in Third World mission affairs, the growth of the later will doubtless be withered.” (Cho, 502)
You can see Cho’s longing for East and West to understand each other, partner together, and see cross-fertilization – even within mission structures. He also spent considerable time talking about the sensitive subject of how these joint East/West efforts might be funded. Perhaps to the surprise of many, he suggested that the East needed to invest on an equal level, and he outlined several different aspects for how that might be accomplished.
Later, in 2006, during a meeting of the Asian Society of Missiology in Bangkok, Cho gave a major presentation with the history of mission outreach in Asia. (Park 2008) Now Winter was responding to Cho. Winter wrote:
It occurs to me that if Dr. Cho were no longer available to be with us someone else would have had to try to bring us all these historical details. We are privileged to have Dr. Cho here to tell that story himself.
Responding to Cho’s experiences when Western agencies declined his offer for deeper connections, Ralph wrote,
David Cho has rightly pointed out that the Western agencies should not have rejected volunteers from Korea. It is in a sense marvelous that the absorption of Koreans into Western agencies is now a major phenomenon. But even this is not a long term solution, I don’t believe, any more than it would be for a growing Korean mission to absorb lots of American citizens into its ranks. There are only a few examples of mission structures that are truly international and they have both advantages and disadvantages.
We honor David Cho, whose life was marked by vision, the multiplication of disciples, and organizational structures to serve God’s Kingdom advance. It is hard to imagine what the leadership in Korean missions would look like if God had not used David J. Cho in these ways. You could easily argue that it is not likely that any one person today could have the same depth and breadth of impact. Still, we must all examine ourselves and reflect on how we are multiplying whatever God has given us. Who will carry the torch when we are gone? Cho may not have ever asked that question of himself, but it is clear that many are carrying on in his footsteps.
Thanks be to the Lord!
Cho, David Dong-Jin (2009). “My Pilgrimage in Mission.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 33(4): 195-198.
Cho, David J. (1975). Response to Ralph Winter and Jacob Loewen. Let the Earth Hear His Voice. J. D. Douglas. Minneapolis, World Wide Publications: 253-254.
Chun, Chaeok (1975). The All-Asia Mission Consultation. School of World Mission. Pasadena, Fuller Theological Seminary. MTh: 399.
Park, Timothy Kiho, Ed. (2008). Asian Mission : Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Pasadena, Institute for Asian Mission.
Parsons, Greg (2012). Ralph D. Winter : Early Life and Core Missiology. Pasadena, WCIU Press.
Winter, Ralph D. (1974). “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.” Missiology 2(1): 122-139.
Winter, Ralph D. (1975). The Highest Priority: Cross-Cultural Evangelism. Let the earth hear His voice. J. D. Douglas. Minneapolis, World Wide Publications: 213-241.
Winter, Ralph D. and Hawthorne, Steven C. (2009). Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader. Pasadena, William Carey Library.
Greg H Parsons is the Global Director of the USCWM and the Associate Professor of Ralph D. Winter Intercultural Studies at
William Carey International University. Greg worked with Ralph Winter for almost 28 years, and led the USCWM for 20 of those years. He has a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Wales: Trinity Saint David. He serves on several boards including: WCIU, Christar, and Missio Nexus and the Center for Mission Mobilization. Greg and Kathleen both serve on the board
of Frontier Ventures.