I’ve just spent three days at Wheaton College to interview a number of Christian leaders. The reason the leaders were gathered at the college was to minister to a Korean Missions Conference. In addition to the general mission leaders, I interviewed quite a number of Korean church leaders and missionaries. The story of Christianity in Korea is actually a fascinating and instructive tale, so in addition to making a TV story out of the narrative I wanted to spell out on paper my thoughts about the history, the role, the challenges and the destiny of the Korean Church that I have discovered over the past few days. Before I begin however I want to beg the indulgence and indeed forgiveness of my Korean brothers and sisters if my views appear somewhat presumptuous, I am sure this opinion could be more nuanced. However, it is often easier to analyze a situation from the outside rather than when you are so emotionally committed to the story. I do find the story of the Korean church instructive as I look at other nations who are embracing the Gospel and seeing economic blessings as a result. So let me begin.
Traditionally the Korean people were given to a potent cocktail of Shamanism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Roman Catholicism had been a persecuted minority for nearly 200 years when the first Protestant missionaries arrived in 1884. The Body of Christ slowly grew in Korea, and was given a massive injection after the move of God happening across the globe from Asuza Street and Wales landed on Korean shores. The Revival of 1907 is still looked back on with affection by many in the Korean Church. With the spiritual blessings touching the church in Pyongyang first, the Christianity from the North was soon affecting the whole peninsula. The first thing we notice about Korean Christianity is that it is relatively new in the whole context of 2000 years of Christian history.
Blessing preceded persecution, as it often does, and in 1910 with the passing of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty a period of brutal occupation by the Japanese began for the Korean people. Many of the Korean ruling classes turned to Christ during this season of hardship as persecution pushed the people both together for support and mutual encouragement and also started to push people out, away from Korea. From 1910 until 1953 Korea suffered under intense oppression. While everyone may know about the Jewish Diaspora, the suffering of the Korean people in the 20th Century resulted in a profound Korean Diaspora. Today over 7 million Koreans reside in nearly every nation on the planet, and wherever Koreans have resided they typically (at least for the last generation) have retained a strong identity as Koreans.
The history of the Church from this point on begins to split in several ways, firstly between the Christians in the land, and those in the Diaspora. The end of the Second World War and subsequently the Korean War also saw another split between North and South Korea. Many in the North fled south of the border, and the blessings of the Northern believers came South. Forty Three years of intense oppression, which culminated in years of bloodshed and war had taken its toll on the Korean economy which was now almost non existent. Korea had similar economic wealth to many famine ravaged African nations by the end of the Korean war.
This is where the rags to riches story begins, for South Korea began to look to its financial and military patron the USA and embrace much from the land of the free, including the American Dream, the Puritan work ethic and more than the other two (at least initially) – Prayer. When you don’t have anything and you’re at the end of your rope sometimes Prayer is all you can do. So that is what the Koreans did. They gathered and they prayed; heartfelt, deep prayers for God to breakthrough and unsurprisingly God answered. Koreans started to prosper financially, so more people came to church. In 1963 Billy Graham conducted what would be his largest crusade ever in Seoul, with over 1.1 million gathering to hear the great Evangelist. This crusade had a catalysing effect on many Korean Christians and the Churches in Korea began to gather and swell in numbers and passion. In Yoido, where the crusade had taken place, the world’s largest church congregation grew, which would eventually see over 800,000 as part of the church under the Pentecostal preacher Yonggi Cho. But every denominational church saw growth, especially the Presbyterians. With Seoul becoming the home to the largest denominational churches on the globe.
And not only did the churches grow, but financial prosperity began to be enjoyed by many Koreans, as Korea’s economy, once an anemic kitten needing life support, became a vibrant tiger and one of the largest on the planet. What a turnaround of circumstances. The mood both in the church and in the nation was neatly summed up by Yonggi Cho’s book – “Dream Your Way to Success”.
The prayers had been answered. Korea was prospering. Now, just as Korea had been the recipient of the blessings of the Gospel they wanted to give these blessings away to the nations of the earth and thus carry out the Great Commission. Koreans had a unique position as it relates to the carrying out of Missions work. While many who carry out Missions work will look for a “person of peace” (Luke 10:6) in a foreign location. For Koreans, the “person of peace” is often the local Korean, who may not know the Gospel, but will welcome a fellow Korean and subsequently embrace the Gospel and then begin to reach out to the local community
I believe in the sovereignty of God and believe that the Korean Diaspora is actually a divine set up. However the story is not that easy as it would first appear. Significant challenges lie ahead for the Korean Church. While the Korean Church may be in nearly every nation on the planet, the Korean diaspora are often completely isolated, at least in the first generation of immigrants. It is not uncommon to find Koreans in the US who have been here 30, 40 or 50 years who do not speak English and live almost entirely within their Korean sub culture. Second and third generation Koreans on the other hand are well integrated into their adopted culture and provide the biggest hope for the Korean Church in reaching out to the nations with the Gospel. However, here again we face another challenge in the road ahead, because second and third generation Koreans are questioning the very gospel of their parent’s generation. While there are many godly leaders in the first generation, there was also an embracing of man made religion in efforts to improve their situation. Wherever such religion exists, there also resides pride and hypocrisy. Many of the younger generations who have not grown up with the economic deprivation of their parents are dispensing with the values and religion of their parents and thus many have noted a hemorrhaging in the second and third generations as high as 5% decline per year from the church.
The divergent destinies of North and South Korea is startling, while starvation is still a problem in the once more fertile North, the South is today one of the richest nations in the globe. The Church of Korea has passion and commitment and despite some of the challenges, there really are great signs of life amongst the second and third generations, but I do believe we are in a critical season for the destiny of the nation of Korea, the role for the nation of Korea amongst the nations appears clear, God has called His disciples to the Great Commission.The question is whether the next generation will embrace Jesus and the message of the Gospel, or will they turn aside to the Spirit of the Age and reject the call.