What Makes the Korean Church Grow?
This article first appeared in the November 23, 1973, issue of Christianity Today.
Korea's stunning response to Billy Graham's crusade in Seoul this summer has called attention once again to the surprising vitality of Christianity in this small land on the edge of a continent that, for the most part has proved to be the most resistant of all continents to the gospel message.
Only about 3 percent of Asia is Christian. In Japan, for example, after four centuries of Christian witness, only one in a hundred is Christian. In China, which Christian missionaries reached more than thirteen hundred years ago, the percentage of Christians has never risen higher than a possible 1.5, and today after a quarter of a century of Communist repression that tiny proportion has eroded to a brave remnant.
But Korea has one of the fastest-growing churches in the world. Though it is situated squarely between China and Japan and far more recently opened to the Gospel (Protestants are ninety years old, Catholics a century older), Koreans have turned to Christ in unprecedented numbers. It is true that in North Korea Communists have wiped out the organized church, but in South Korea where there is freedom of worship some 10 to 13 percent of the population is now Christian. This makes Christianity the strongest and probably the largest organized religion in the country, outdrawing in fact, if not in dubious religious statistics, both Confucianism with its dwindling social influence and Buddhism with its more religious appeal.
Why has the church grown so spectacularly in Korea? The Christian community there just about doubles every ten years. There are now some three million Korean Christians, and if marginal semi-Christian sects were included, the total would be four million. The growth rate is approximately 9 percent a year, which is four times the rate of population growth in South Korea as a whole.
Korean Christianity has its problems and weaknesses, but lack of growth is not one of them. The contrast between this enthusiastic, expanding church and the more static churches of most parts of Asia and the West raises the question, What makes the church in Korea grow?
More than one answer has been given, but few have improved upon an answer given by my father, Dr. Samuel A. Moffett, more than half a century ago. Korea was already then one of the miracles of the modern missionary movement, and a commission of inquiry was sent to study the methods that had produced such great results. Since the first dramatic leap in church growth had occurred in my father's area of work in north Korea, they came to ask him the secret. I think his answer disappointed them. It was too simplistic. Too pietistic. But I think he was right.
"For years," he said, "we have simply held up before these people the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit has done the rest."
Any analysis of Christian strength in Korea that does not begin, as he did, with the power of the Spirit to cleanse and vitalize and the priority of Scripture in Christian faith and education will miss the mark. The mark of the Spirit was startlingly and indelibly imprinted on the Korean church in the very first generation. Within twenty years of the arrival of the first resident Protestant missionary, early stirrings of a great revival began to sweep through the staid Presbyterian and Methodist beginnings of missionary effort. The climax came in 1907 with "extraordinary manifestations of power," that reminded observers of the revivals of John Wesley. Church membership spurted upward, quadrupling in the five years between 1903 and 1908.