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 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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.
But while praising God for the winds of the Spirit, early missionaries were quick to give much of the credit for the amazing growth to a firm foundation of Bible-centered Christian instruction. The preaching and teaching of the pioneers was biblical. They spoke with utter assurance that the Bible was God’s Word and that in it was to be found the ultimate meaning of human life and destiny. Therefore the Scriptures were quickly translated into the vernacular and widely distributed. Church leaders were given regular, intensive training in the Word. Perhaps most important of all, not just the leaders but all members of the church were systematically organized for Bible study in what was called the Bible Class system.
To ensure that all believers could read the Bible, literacy was widely made a requirement for church membership. In each congregation regular Bible study became as important a part of the church week as the prayer meetings or the Sunday service. Finally, once or twice a year, in the slack seasons, huge Bible Classes or conferences were held in the main mission centers; thousands of laymen and laywomen streamed in from rural villages to spend two weeks, at their own expense, in systematic study of the Word of God.
Out of these Bible classes came the primary agents of the advance of the faith in Korea. Not the foreign missionaries, though they did the first planting. Not even the national church leaders, though they were faithful in the cultivating. But the laymen and laywomen of the Korean church. The most effective evangelism is lay witness.
In many an early Korean church, particularly in the north, personal evangelistic witness was almost as much a requirement of church membership as public profession of faith. “You say you love the Lord Jesus Christ,” the pastor would gently say to the candidate, “but how do we know you love him if you do not show it by bringing someone else to him?”
New Christians in Korea, touched with the joy of a personal spiritual experience, and taught by their training in Bible study to speak with an authority and a breadth beyond any individual experience, soon proved to be the best possible channels for spreading the Good News. As laymen, they used natural, local, social patterns of communication, speaking to relatives and friends and fellow workers in their villages. It was a good example of what modern missiologists call a “people’s movement.”
The three factors described above—Bible training for the whole church, the cleansing exhilaration of the Spirit, and an emphasis on a personal sharing of the faith with others—combined to set off a spiritual chain explosion in Korea. Dr. Roy Shearer in his book on the growth of Korean Christianity compares it to a spreading fire (Wildfire: Church Growth in Korea, Eerdmans, 1966). In fifteen years from 1895, when suddenly the church in the north began to grow, to 1910, just after the great revival, the Protestant community in Korea increased from only 800 to more than 167,000.
Not all the factors contributing to church growth in Korea were spiritual and theological or the consequence of sound mission practice. In the providence of God secular and non-theological elements have often furthered the progress of the Gospel. Protestant Christianity came to Korea at a time of total breakdown in the nation’s social, political, and religious life. The five-hundred-year-old Yi dynasty was tottering to its fall, and Korea was slowly but inexorably losing its independence to the rising empire of Japan.
In the process Confucianism, as the official faith of the doomed dynasty, was becoming thoroughly discredited. Buddhism had been in decline even longer; it had lost its hold on the nation in the fall of an earlier Buddhist dynasty. The traditions of centuries were falling in clusters. Set adrift from the old landmarks and numbed by despair, many Koreans not surprisingly turned with hope to the new, strong, self-confident faith of the Christians. In such circumstances the church’s association with the West was not the liability it has been in other parts of the Third World. It was more of an asset. For the colonialism afflicting the Koreans was not Western but Asiatic. To them the West meant freedom, and democracy, and progress.
Into this vacuum of faith and meaning with its loss of national pride came the Good News. It was the right news at the right time, and it was communicated in the right way, with conviction and without compromise but also without narrowness. It was offered in love and demonstrated with Christian compassion for the physical needs of the people. The first Protestant missionary, Dr. Horace Allen, was a physician. The Christian message was preached with intellectual integrity, triggering a revolution in Korean education that transformed the nation. It was offered to the poor and the neglected with the same sincerity as to the king and queen, and the effect was to tear down class barriers and lift Korea’s suppressed women into new freedom. It is no accident that the largest women’s college in the world is in Korea, and is Christian.
But one basic fiber of the ancient Korean religious fabric had endured the nation’s collapse. Confucianism and Buddhism for a time almost disappeared, though Buddhism has had something of a revival recently. But Shamanism was stronger and more deeply ingrained. Shamanism is a primitive East Asian animistic faith of nature spirits and dancing sorceresses and spells and superstitions. Unorganized but omnipresent, it survived the shaking of more structured religious foundations. It was no match, however, for Christianity. Unlike the higher, organized religions of the world that have been major obstacles to the spread of the Gospel, animism has been more often than not an indication of opportunity rather than resistance. It has been in the religious soil of animism that church planters have reaped their most spectacular harvests. Korea has been no exception.
Government opposition is another factor that might seem to hinder the growth of the church but that sometimes has the opposite result. When it is intense and prolonged it can for a time wipe out the organized ecclesiastical structure as it has in North Korea since 1945. Two-thirds of the Christians of Korea were once in the north, but there are now no regularly meeting congregations left there. But in some circumstances opposition only strengthens the fiber of the church and lays the groundwork for future growth. The Russian Communist Lunacharsky warned, “Religion is like a nail. The harder you hit it, the deeper you drive it into the wood.”
When the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910 and began to harass the church as a center of continuing Korean patriotism, church growth slowed perceptibly. But the authorities found that the church was the one free Korean organization they could not quite control. Christians were the backbone of the great, non-violent, Korean independence demonstrations of 1919. Again in the years before World War II Christians fought bitterly against compromise with Japanese-imposed Shinto worship and were persecuted for their resistance. Ultimately, however, this only served to identify the church more closely in the popular mind with anti-colonialism and with Korean nationalism, and it helps to explain the enormous popularity of Christianity after the war. A second explosion of church growth occurred. Christianity could no longer be stigmatized as foreign. It had become Korean, sharing the hopes and aspirations of the nation.
Contributing to the process of indigenization was a wise missionary policy that made the church an independent, self-governing Korean entity as rapidly as possible. As soon as there were enough ordained Korean elders to outvote the missionaries, Presbyterians, for example, cut the Korean church loose from its mission apron-strings. They established the self-supporting, autonomous Presbyterian Church of Korea, which has now become in its various divisions one of the five largest bodies in the Protestant third world of younger churches. Methodist, Holiness, Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, and Salvation Army churches have likewise flourished. Visitors to Korea are rarely out of sight of the cross on the spire of a Christian church. In Seoul alone there are more than 1,500 Protestant churches, and when Billy Graham held the final meeting of his crusade in June more Koreans flocked to hear him than had ever before gathered in one place at one time to hear the Good News preached.
It happened in Korea. And if one still asks “Why?” I can only point again to the foundations: the good news according to the Scriptures, the power of the Spirit, the enthusiasm of the witness, faithfulness in adversity, rootage in the national soil, and the providence of God in history. Above all, the providence of God. Paul said it best long ago: “God gives the increase.”
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