Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea

If South Korea had been a Disney princess, she can be Cinderella.

Oppressed and abused for years by her closest family members, Japan and China, the nation lastly broke free within the early 1950s after World Battle II and the Korean Battle.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in KoreaOn the time, she was “one of many poorest and most aid-dependent nations” on this planet, with per capita earnings lower than these of Haiti or Ethiopia. However by means of the Prince Charming of onerous work, American assist, and economically savvy governments, South Korea exchanged her rags for a ball robe. Right this moment, she has the 12th-largest financial system on this planet.

The recognition of Christianity in South Korea adopted a lot the identical straight-up trajectory. The primary missionaries had been allowed entry to the peninsula in 1884, however conversions didn’t actually take off till after the wars.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Courtesy of the Heart for the Research of International Christianity

By 1970, 18 p.c of the inhabitants was Christian; by 2000, it was 31 p.c. (These counts embody Protestants and Catholics.) By 2006, South Korea was sending out extra missionaries than some other nation besides the much-larger United States. By 2015, Seoul was behind solely Houston and Dallas in variety of megachurches—and Seoul’s had been a lot bigger. (In the US, 2,000 folks represent a megachurch. In South Korea, it’s 5,000.)

It appeared like fortunately ever after. With 50,000 church buildings for 50 million folks, “there was a belief that the church had saturated the population,” wrote Jae Kyeong Lee, president of the International Baptist Mission Board of the Korea Baptist Conference. Because the variety of South Korean missionaries jumped from 1,200 in 1991 to 13,000 in 2006, the purpose of sending 100,000 full-time missionaries by 2030 appeared like a stretch, however not loopy.

After which, issues stalled. Progress slowed method down, and church attendance started to shrink.

It’s not onerous to see what’s occurring—“the younger generation is leaving the church in startling fashion,” stated Steven Chang, a New Testomony professor in Seoul. The explanations are complicated, starting from Western secularization to materialism to high-profile corruption within the church.

However these younger individuals are additionally a supply of hope. “There are signs of younger churches and church leaders who are leaving the megachurch, prosperity-gospel, gift-oriented ministry models and going back to the simple gospel message,” Chang stated.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Tim Keller headlined the 2018 Metropolis to Metropolis convention in South Korea. / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

About 600 pastors and leaders got here to Metropolis to Metropolis’s first public convention in 2017; final yr, greater than 2,000 turned out to listen to Tim Keller at its second convention. The Gospel Coalition Korea launched a web site 5 months in the past; greater than 1,000 are anticipated at its first convention in October.

“During my time in Korea I was so impressed with the Korean church,” Keller stated. “It’s arguably the most fruitful gospel movement in all of Asia over the last one hundred years, but it’s willing to humble itself, repent, and seek new ways to minister to their people and the world in the 21st century.”

Presbyterian in Pyongyang

The primary resident Protestant missionary into Korea was a Presbyterian physician named Horace Allen in 1884, adopted the following yr by Horace Underwood, an ordained Presbyterian missionary who led efforts to translate the entire Bible into on a regular basis Korean for the primary time.

Korea was unusually fertile floor for Christianity—in simply 15 years, there have been already sufficient Presbyterians to begin a seminary in Pyongyang. (One in all North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s great-grandfathers attended a missionary faculty as a dedicated Presbyterian; one other was a Presbyterian minister.)

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Frontispiece {photograph} in The Missionary, vol. 29, no. 10 (October 1896) / Courtesy of PCA Historic Heart, St. Louis, MO.

A couple of issues helped Christianity take maintain on the peninsula. One was the indigenous perception in a supreme being, which simply translated over to perception within the Christian God. One other was that missionaries typically adopted the recommendation of Presbyterian John Nevius, who advocated for church buildings to turn into self-supporting and led by indigenous management as quickly as attainable. Third, missionaries introduced with them Western medication and schooling. Their hospitals and colleges and universities—and the American Christian values they represented—had been particularly engaging to younger Koreans.

So the situations had been proper when, in 1907, an infinite revival—typically known as the “Korean Pentecost” or the “Pyongyang Revival”—broke out. By means of preaching and public confession of sin—each by Korean pastors and American missionaries—the religion of hundreds was renewed. By 1910, greater than 200,000 of Korea’s 13 million folks had been Christians. So lots of them had been within the Pyongyang area (60,000) that the town was known as “Jerusalem of the East.”

“The Great Revival transformed Protestantism from a foreign religion to a new national religion,” world Christianity professor Kirsteen Kim wrote in Christianity Right this moment. And it’s true that whereas the revival was primarily non secular, it was additionally soaked in nationalism. As a result of Korea was slowly dropping the battle to Japan, which might annex the nation in 1910.


American Christians instantly sided with Korea in its wrestle to regain independence. Missionaries and Korean Christians supported the nation’s Declaration of Independence (16 of the 33 signers had been Protestants), ran its provisional authorities from Shanghai, and refused to worship the Japanese emperor.

Being a Christian in Korea wasn’t straightforward—all college students and authorities workers had been ordered to bow all the way down to imperial ancestors at Shinto shrines; all Protestant church buildings had been compelled to merge so Japan might management their affairs; and round 50 Christians had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

However to many Koreans, Christianity smelled like freedom, like dwelling. It didn’t appear imperialistic or colonialistic, the way in which the Buddhism of China and the Shintoism of Japan did. By the point Japan was defeated in 1945, three p.c of the Korean inhabitants was Protestant.

The top of WWII didn’t imply a contented ending for Korea, nonetheless. From 1945 to 1953, Russia/China and the US battled over the ideological way forward for the nation, ultimately resigned to tearing it in half.

It has been maybe probably the most thorough elimination of Christianity that has occurred in historical past, actually within the 20th century.

Within the north, the Soviet-backed Kim Il Sung fiercely attacked all political and non secular opposition. Christians had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed; hundreds fled south. (An estimated 900,000—or 10 p.c of North Korea’s inhabitants—moved beneath the 38th parallel between 1945 and 1953.)

“North Korea’s efforts to eradicate Christianity in Pyongyang and elsewhere in its territory have been so ruthless and systematic that today few outside of Korea know that it was ever there,” historian Robert Kim wrote. “It has been perhaps the most thorough elimination of Christianity that has occurred in history, certainly in the 20th century.”


In the meantime, within the relative freedom of South Korea, Christianity was booming. The 1.6 million Christians in 1950 greater than tripled to five.7 million in 1970, then almost tripled once more to 14.7 million in 2000. Restricted by house (South Korea is in regards to the dimension of Kentucky) and drawn collectively by a communal tradition, South Korean Christians started to construct megachurches. Right this moment, yow will discover the world’s largest Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Assemblies of God congregations in Seoul.

Right this moment, yow will discover the world’s largest Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Assemblies of God congregations in Seoul.

Subsequent the Korean church took to missions, sending 1,200 missionaries in 1991, 13,000 in 2006, and 27,000 in 2017.

“The church growth and economic growth happened at the same time,” Metropolis to Metropolis Asia Pacific catalyst Stephen Ro stated. That correlation is smart—Christians who’re diligent and disciplined, who sacrifice for others, and who’ve a great work ethic and good ethics, make productive workers. However that connection was additionally a method for the prosperity gospel to slip in.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Stephen Ro on the Metropolis to Metropolis Korea convention / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

“There’s a fine line between ‘God blesses us’ and health-and-wealth,” Ro stated. “In the ’60s and ’70s, there were lots of signs and wonders, along with a lot of Western churches pouring money into Korean churches. Korean people interpreted that as, ‘If you’re a Christian nation like America, you can be rich.’”

After which, in an financial turnaround so fast it was dubbed “The Miracle on the Han River,” South Korea was wealthy. Within the 1990s, the nation joined elite gatherings of the world’s strongest economies—the Group for Financial Cooperation and Improvement and the G20. House to firms like Samsung, LG Electronics, and Hyundai, South Korea in 2018 made the checklist of the prime 25 richest nations by private earnings and set a private report with 45 billionaires on Forbes South Korea Wealthy Record.

It appeared just like the health-and-wealth theology had really labored.

What Occurs When the Prosperity Gospel Works?

For the previous decade or two, the fast rise of Christianity—each Protestants and Catholics—has slowed to a crawl. The Heart for the Research of International Christianity estimates it would solely develop from 31 p.c to 33 p.c of the inhabitants between 2000 and 2020, then keep at 33 p.c by means of 2050.

“The young people are leaving the church,” TGC Korea president David Park stated. “Sunday schools are closing. I think we have the same situation as America and Europe.”

Why Christianity Give up Rising in KoreaPerhaps worse. South Korea trails simply Canada and Denmark within the checklist of nations which have the most important gaps in non secular dedication between the older and youthful generations. Rather less than 40 p.c of these youthful than 40 are affiliated with a faith, in comparison with 63 p.c older than 40. Fewer youth attend non secular providers weekly (24 p.c in comparison with 33 p.c of older Koreans), pray day by day (19 p.c vs. 40 p.c), and say faith is essential to them (eight p.c vs. 21 p.c).

A number of the causes are common—from rising secularization to the ineffectiveness of the often-preached “easy believism” or smooth legalism. “Many pastors look at Scripture more from a topical, systematic framework—as opposed to a biblical-theological framework—which lends itself to moralism,” stated Redeemer Metropolis to Metropolis coach and TGC Council member Stephen Um. “They’ll say, ‘Look, Abraham did this, so you need to do this.’”

Different causes are particular to Korea. The general public failure of church management, which occurs in every single place, could be exaggerated by the enormity of the congregations. One pastor was jailed for raping eight feminine followers on “orders from God,” one other convicted of embezzling $12 million, one other blasted for making an attempt to move his church of 100,000 on to his son.

Older generations, influenced by Confucianism’s veneration of management, may also be nearly blindly loyal to a fallen pastor, Westminster Seminary California dean of scholars and TGC Council member Julius Kim stated.

Ro sees the identical factor. “Some older people are fanatical about their church. The pastor can get away with murder because of this reverence. People say, ‘Why are you making a big deal of this? He’s done so many great things. Don’t you know how to revere your leader?’”

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Stephen Um teaches at a Metropolis to Metropolis Korea gathering / Courtesy of Stephen Um

To a youthful era, who’re one step farther away from conventional ancestor worship and nearer to Western individualism, that “totally doesn’t make sense,” Ro stated.

The context for these modifications can also be totally different from the looming risk of Japanese occupation that knowledgeable the Pyongyang Revival. Now South Korea is developed and rich—Seoul, the beauty and cosmetic surgery capital of the world, “is like New York but five-times cleaner,” Um stated. “Everything is new and modern and well-wired.”

“In Korea, money is winning,” Park stated. “Their aim in life is to be rich, to succeed. . . . Money is the No. 1 enemy in Korean Christianity now.”

Ro agrees. “The biggest idol we have in Korea is mammonism—money. Our mentality, our worldview, our values didn’t catch up to the rapid growth of the economy.”


Wealth has not been a great savior for Korea. Kids spend as much as 16 hours a day at school and tutoring applications, working to get into the most effective universities. Workers put in lengthy hours beneath immense stress. Of the 34 OECD members, South Korea has the second-highest suicide price, and its youth are the least joyful.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in KoreaPastors, greater than anybody else, are conscious of each the necessity and in addition the declining membership within the church buildings. However when Um held the primary Metropolis to Metropolis convention there in 2012, it didn’t go effectively.

“About 150 pastors came,” Um stated. “We didn’t give them a lot of methodology or practical tips, but instead a robust theological vision. The next day only 100 came back. The next day, 70.”

Um didn’t know what was occurring. “It couldn’t be because our gospel DNA content wasn’t good,” he stated with fun.

Organizers advised him pastors had been on the lookout for one thing new and classy that might assist them develop their church attendance. “Our executive team said, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” he stated.

It was bizarre, as a result of Metropolis to Metropolis was birthed out of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York Metropolis. And Protestantism in Korea continues to be principally Presbyterian.

“Korean Christianity still has categories for Reformed theology, but it’s not necessarily gospel-centered,” Um stated. “They learn systematic theological categories—for example, they know about predestination—but they aren’t emphasizing the practical implications of the doctrines of grace through the finished work of Jesus.”

Pastors could say “grace precedes faith,” however then additionally “preach to the will as opposed to the heart by highlighting what the requirements are of the law and the commandments of God without first motivating the heart with the gospel,” he stated.

For the following few years, Um centered his attentions elsewhere.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Preliminary TGC Korea explorative assembly in Seoul / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

“Then, five years ago, a remnant of 20 pastors said, ‘Hey, we’re ready now,’” Um stated.

The pastors had been of their late-40s and 50s, and “humble enough to say, ‘We had a ghettoized version of the church. We need to be more gospel-centered.’”

Round 10 of them had already shaped what they known as the “big forest” group, the place they gathered weekly to hope. The identify got here from their need to plant church buildings—a forest of crops as a substitute of a number of giant megachurch bushes.

“I told them about Tim Keller and Redeemer, and they were pleasantly shocked and surprised,” Ro stated. “They were what we were looking for; we were what they were looking for.”

The group grew to become the core of Metropolis to Metropolis Korea. They had been joyful to learn Tim Keller—his intellectualism and Presbyterianism enchantment to a rustic that likes each.

Increasingly more pastors “gathered together, saying, ‘Look, we are not just here for church growth anymore. It does not work and is not pleasing to God,’” Ro stated. “‘We are here for city renewal—to bring revival.’”

Just like the pastors of the Pyongyang Revival, some repented publicly.

“One of our board members is in his mid-50s—a very capable, high-capacity leader,” Um stated. “He confessed to his congregation. He said, ‘We weren’t focused on the centrality of gospel, and we have to change.’”

He’s one in every of 70 pastors who’re “really committed to this network,” stated Um, who has held a couple of dozen instructing conferences in Korea prior to now 5 years. 600 got here to the primary public Metropolis to Metropolis convention in 2017; a yr later, greater than 2,000 confirmed as much as hear Keller headline the second.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Metropolis to Metropolis Korea church planting incubator coaching / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

“We have a robust network of about 1,000 pastors—and growing—interested in networking, training, and resources,” Um stated. Because the vp of Asia-Pacific initiatives for TGC, he began TGC Korea, which launched its web site six months in the past.

The 9 unique TGC Korea Council members have grown to 14 from six totally different denominations. “We are praying for 40 Council members,” Park stated. “It is possible.”

Gathering 40 pastors in Korea is like having a whole lot in the US. Every of the 14 pastors leads a congregation of three,000 or extra. (Typically many extra—for instance, Jae-Hoon Lee’s Onnuri Group Church attracts 75,000 in attendance.)

“We’re seeing a resurgence through the work we’re doing with TGC and City to City,” Um stated. In March, The Gospel Modifications Every thing—edited by Um, with contributions by Keller and a handful of different Korean pastors—was launched. Primarily a Korean-contextualized primer of Keller’s Heart Church, it ought to do effectively: “Keller’s books are selling like crazy.”

Sober Hope

“My optimistic read on this is: I do believe TGC Korea can be a helpful catalyst for the growth of Christianity in Korea,” Kim stated. “However, while I’m hopeful, I’m also sober, because I know we deal with sin and its effects on our hearts.”

Korea’s clannishness, its willingness to sacrifice for the great of the entire, is among the nation’s biggest strengths. That enabled the nation—and its church buildings—to prosper quickly.

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea
Metropolis to Metropolis Korea gathering / Courtesy of Stephen Um

“But now you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or if you’ll be killed for your faith,” Kim stated. “Now you worry about yourself. The whole collective starts to diminish.”

Nonetheless, simply because the “we’re in this together,” “we can’t do this alone” spirit drew Korea to God, so can the “what’s in it for me” questions of the following era.

As a result of groupishness can also be Korea’s “unique cultural sin,” main megachurch pastor “demigods” to pursue energy and standing as a substitute of gospel reality, and main congregations to offer it to them, Kim stated. “Like young people in America, young people in Korea are looking for more authentic Christianity. They’re tired of the Christianity of their parents that is sometimes more of a shell. They’re asking, ‘How can the church benefit me as an individual?’”

The gospel has the reply. And seeing the place church buildings veered off monitor makes the way in which that a lot clearer.

“It’s hard, but it’s easier now than 20 years ago when Korean Christianity was at its peak,” Ro stated. Again then “everyone wanted to be a megachurch pastor. Now we’re more sober. Once the gospel gets a hold of them, pastors will realize they don’t have to be big-church pastors. They can get excited about the gospel more than their personal ministries.”

The renewal motion is small in Korea, however it’s rising.

“Many Koreans are praying,” Park stated. At his church, “we gather every morning to pray, and every Wednesday night, and every Friday night. So yes, we pray. And we hope.”

Why Christianity Give up Rising in Korea

Get involved!

Get Connected!

Come and join our community. Expand your network and get to know new people!


No comments yet