Churches in Korea: The Gift and Challenge of Success
The greatest blessing of the Korean church is also its greatest challenge: Numerical success.
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Growing up in Chicago, my grandmother would often stay with us for weeks at a time. I would regularly wake before sunrise to her prayers, a common occurrence in Korean homes. When I reflect on this, I realize I’m blessed.
When missionaries entered the unreached lands of Asia, no country responded to the gospel quite like Korea did. It’s only been within the past few decades that the church has grown in other parts of Asia. As Dr. Samuel A. Moffett, a former missionary to Korea and a leading scholar on Christianity in Asia, said, “For years, we have simply held up before these people the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit has done the rest.”
THE GREATER MIRACLE ON THE HAN RIVER
Since Moffett’s time in South Korea (1955–1981), Korea has changed radically. Once among the world’s poorest countries, it has risen to become the twelfth largest economy in the world. This incredible economic turnaround is known as the Miracle on the Han River. It’s the only country that has transformed from receiving aid to giving aid within one generation.
Despite Korea’s amazing economic success, the greater miracle has been the growth of the church. In 1945, 2 percent of the population identified as Protestant. By 1991, the percentage grew to nearly 18 percent, which holds steady today. As of 2012, there are 77,000 Protestant churches in Korea, three times the number of convenience stores. Truly, “God gave the increase.”
UNMATCHED COMMITMENT TO PIETY
The Korean church has so many elements of beauty. I grew up believing the Korean culture was an early-rising one because morning prayers like my grandmother’s were so common in the Korean church. However, after moving to Korea six years ago, I found it to be quite the opposite. When I first arrived, I walked around my neighborhood at 8 a.m. unsuccessfully searching for an open cafe and finding out none open before 9 a.m. In fact, it’s customary for children to go to bed around 9 or 10 p.m. This is Korean culture. They’re not morning people at all—and yet, so many men and women commit to morning prayers as an expression of their devotion to God.
Another commitment to piety is seen through the prioritization of reading God’s Word. A typical spiritual discipline is to read the whole Bible in a short period of time. Korean churches regularly form groups and campaigns to help their members accomplish this goal. Some even challenge their members to write out books of the Bible or even the Bible in its entirety.
DEEP HISTORICAL & CULTURAL OBSTACLES
As much as God has blessed the Korean church, the obstacles to its health are many and deep.
As the church grew alongside our country’s economic success, Korean Christianity became intertwined with Korean nationalism. Koreans believed they were economically blessed because of their devotion to God.
This sentiment is further complicated by a theological obstacle. For centuries, Confucianism, shamanism, and Buddhism deeply shaped the worldview of the Korean people and therefore have influenced Korean Christianity. One example of this shamanistic undercurrent is the blended nature of success and faith. Every November, as I walk past our church sanctuary, it’s packed with mothers pleading to God for their children as they’re taking the college entrance exam. One can’t help but wonder, who is their God: success or Jesus? In many ways, it looks no different than a Buddhist temple.
Last year, our country of only 50 million people sent over 27,000 missionaries. Korea’s blood, sweat, tears, and prayers have powerfully influenced other lives and nations, even as we struggle to shape our own culture. This also is due to a shamanistic dualism, which has caused a significant sacred and secular divide in Korea’s Christianity. Many Christians may be sold out for the “sacred” work of missions or evangelism, but their sense of responsibility to care for the society around them is generally lacking.
KOREA’S GREAT BLESSING & KOREA’S GREAT OBSTACLE
Success is one of the country’s great idols, and unfortunately the church isn’t an innocent bystander. Korea is home to five of the twenty biggest mega-churches in the world, including the world’s biggest church that purports a staggering 830,000 members. Many Korean Christians are very proud of their big churches and their big church buildings, considering them proof of a “successful” church.
But when church growth and “success” becomes the goal for the Korean pastor, compromises are made. I know many pastors who desire to cultivate a healthy church but also feel intense pressure from their elders and congregation to be “successful.” Pray for Korean pastors to have an uncompromising commitment to lead a healthy church, even if their faithfulness doesn’t result in a numerically impressive one.
PREACHING IN KOREAN CHURCHES
Some pastors preach expositionally, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a pastor who preaches difficult truths on taboo subjects. For example, corruption is rampant in Korean society—it’s not uncommon to include prostitution or bribery in a business deal. One of my church members is a well-respected architect with offices throughout the world. When I asked him why he chooses to work outside Korea so often, he responded, “I can’t get a gig in Korea without selling my soul.” Everyone expects a bribe; an honest businessman is a rare commodity. Tragically, this corruption is found not just in business, but also in politics, entertainment, education, and the church.
Pastors must challenge their church members to live with integrity and to work according to God’s ways. The church must pray for pastors to courageously and humbly preach expositional, Christ-centered sermons, even on taboo subjects. Please also pray that the Word of God would break the great divide between sacred and secular so Korean Christians can see all of life as dedicated to the Lord.
A SPIRITUAL WAKE-UP CALL
In recent years, I’ve met many pastors who have expressed similar concerns for the Korean church. The cracks in its spiritual foundations are being revealed, and many pastors are concerned by the young people leaving the church. They’re tired of the productions, the big gatherings, and the fleeting spiritual highs. They have a longing for more.
At our English-speaking church plant, we have many Korean nationals attending our church. When we ask them why they’re attending an English-speaking church, their response is almost always the same: “Gospel City is a gospel-centered church that focuses on community. You always preach the gospel.” It’s hard to imagine ever choosing to attend a church of a different language and culture. That these Korean brothers and sisters have done so reveals a deep longing for the gospel in the Korean church.
But just as God told Elijah, he has his remnant. God has built the Korean church and he will sustain the Korean church.
I believe this is a great wake-up call. Praise God for the great work he has done in Korea. But let’s ask the Lord to raise up the next generation of pastors who are committed to healthy churches. May God purify and renew his church in Korea and around the world.