Churches in South Korea are not just big. They’re huge.
In and around the capital city of Seoul, for example, traffic patterns are disrupted and entire districts closed when the faithful make their way to one of that city’s 10,000 churches, usually beginning around six o’clock on a Sunday morning. There are half a million at Yoido Full Gospel Church; 40,000 at Young Nak Presbyterian; 15,000 at Sung Rak Baptist—the sheer numbers boggle the mind, and experiencing them firsthand only heightens the wonder and mystery. Not surprisingly, enterprising American Christians have come to regard the tiny peninsula as a veritable Mecca, where pilgrims can gather the secrets of revival and church growth.
And yet, as intriguing a story as Korea’s church-growth phenomenon is, it is but the opening chapter of a story that today includes an economic boom, a government in transition, and a maturing church agonizing over its proper role in a secular state. Said one Christian university president: “When Christians form 25 percent of a society, then they should bear responsibility for that country’s history. In Korea, it’s time.”
So it was that in May, the Christianity Today Institute spent the better part of three weeks in South Korea, asking church leaders and the nation’s politicians questions relating to four general areas: The reasons behind Korea’s astounding church growth (and their potential application in the Western church); the current spiritual health of Korea’s churches; the related question of church unity; and the role of the church in society—specifically, how the church is coping in the current political situation.
Making up the team investigating these and other related questions were Ro Bong-Rin, executive secretary of the Asia Theological Association in Taiwan, and William W. Menzies, professor of theology at Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri. Completing the team were institute editor Lyn Cryderman, and Harold B. Smith, managing editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine. Also lending invaluable assistance stateside was Samuel H. Moffett, professor emeritus of missions and ecumenics at Princeton Theological Seminary, and one of the foremost Western experts on the church in Korea.
The approach to Seoul’s Kimpo Airport reveals a sight most Koreans over 30 are still hard-pressed to believe: a world-class city on the fast track toward Western opulence. Just a short generation ago the capital city, like nearly all of Korea, was little more than a collection of skeletal buildings, makeshift shanties, and destitute people looking for their next meal. Twice overrun by Communist forces from the North and twice retaken by U.S. troops during the Korean War, Seoul, only a half-hour from the 38th Parallel separating the two Koreas, was caught in a perpetual crossfire. When the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, the task of rebuilding seemed like making bricks with no straw: Backbreaking. Impossible.
But then, Koreans pride themselves in doing the impossible.
“It’s really quite unbelievable,” Ro told us, as he pointed to the street that was “home” during the later war years. “The tallest building then was a movie theatre.” Today, it’s a 62-story, sloping, golden skyscraper-pyramid—the tallest building in all of Asia—built by Choi Soon-Young, a Christian businessman.
“And there was plenty of begging,” Ro continued. Today, many streets—some with eight lanes and featuring an occasional Westin, Hilton, or Sheraton, others with cobblestones and only a subcompact wide—breathe a burgeoning capitalism that would make Adam Smith proud. Street vendors barter everything from Reebok shoes and Gucci bags to Cabbage Patch Dolls and three-piece suits—made to order in a day.
In 1962, South Korea had a per capita gross national product of $87 a year; now that figure is over $2,500 and climbing rapidly. The republic is a major exporter of steel, textiles, ships, consumer electronics, and most recently, automobiles. (The Hyundai is one of the fastest-selling imports in the U.S.) And South Korean exports to the United States have increased 170-fold over the last 20 years.
Perhaps a fitting metaphor of the miracle that is Seoul—and increasingly the rest of Korea—is the Han River, which separates the downtown from Yoido (the city’s “Manhattan Island”). Used throughout much of this century for everything from drinking water to waste disposal, the Han became, for all practical purposes, a dead river—its summer stench fast becoming the city’s aromatic trademark. But in the 1970s, it was announced that the Han would be cleaned. Again, the Korean people undertook the impossible.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” our driver proudly asked, as his taxi wound its way circuitously through traffic on one of the many steel bridges spanning the Han. And, indeed, the river is just that. People swim and boat. And there is no smell. It is another miracle in a land that seems intent upon performing the miraculous—like hosting the 1988 Olympics.
Or like building churches with over 500,000 members.
Christianity In Context
The greening of a 5,000-year-old nation over 30 short years has meant astounding adjustments for the people of Korea—politically, socially, culturally. And the disparity between old and new comes to light immediately upon our arrival in Seoul.
A large group of Koreans—a few women in the traditional hanbok dress, the rest in skirts, dresses, the men in shirts and ties—eagerly await the arrival of Oral Roberts’s faith-healer son, Richard, while outside, the day-long traditional celebration of the Buddha’s birthday draws to a festive close. Bright paper lanterns line the darkened streets commemorating the holy day. But they are no more prominent than the red neon crosses standing sentinel over church after church after church.
Buddhism and Christianity are the two major religions in South Korea: the former is intricately woven through some 2,000 years of Korean history, its statuary and temples dotting the rolling countryside and an occasional mountain peak. All of which in the new Korea is quite symbolic: the religion of the hills now finds itself increasingly set apart from the mind and manner of the people.
Not surprisingly, this concerns the Buddhist devout, who are now trying to use heritage as leverage in proselytizing their world view. A nation on fast-forward can ill afford to forget its past; and so celebrations like the Buddha’s birthday rekindle Korean pride and nationalism, and give the faltering faith a positive—and countrywide—visibility, if only for a day.
But in addition, Buddhist monks are increasingly coming down from the hills and moving to cities, towns, and villages, actively seeking converts. In places like Iri, a small town located in the center of the republic, this evangelistic brand of Buddhism has established “churches” complete with hymnbooks and Sunday school.
Keeping watch: South Korean border patrol.
In Iri, where ancient symbols and insignias were seen everywhere in honor of Buddha’s birthday, this newfound evangelistic fervor has resulted in heightened religious tensions between the two groups—capped off recently by the burning of a church. According to an official at the Christian Broadcasting Network there, witnessing to the Buddhist community has been kept to a minimum in an effort to maintain some semblance of peace. Ironically, however, the Christian population is so large that Buddhists have wound up hiring some for odd jobs at their area school—which is also symbolic. For the hiring, like the borrowed methodology, reveals just how strong an impact Christianity has had on Korea.
Approximately 25 percent of South Koreans claim to be Christian (as opposed to just under 30 percent who claim to be Buddhist). Conservative estimates place the number of adult Protestant church members at between 7 and 8 million, with an additional 2 million Roman Catholics.
Two Gallup surveys done earlier in this decade indicate that these figures are on the upswing. The first survey, in 1982, questioned Koreans of all ages and found 29 percent professing Buddhism and 20 percent Christianity (Protestants 16 percent, Catholics 4 percent). The second, in 1983, surveyed Korean young people between the ages of 18 and 24 and discovered that 30.4 percent “believed in Christianity” (Protestant 24.3 percent, Roman Catholic 6.1 percent). These surveys, corroborated by other studies, strongly suggest a significant decline of about 1 million Buddhists and an accelerating rise in the number of Christians, particularly among Korean young people, in the three years under study.
Samuel Moffett of Princeton Theological Seminary, whose family perspective on Korean faith spans nearly 100 years, expresses the gospel explosion this way: “When my father reached Seoul in 1890, there were between 10,000 and 17,000 Roman Catholics. Records for 1889 show only 74 communicant Protestants. Forty years later, when I was a boy in Korea in 1930, the number was 415,000 Christians, or 2 percent of the population. When I returned in 1955 there were 1,117,000, or about 5 percent. Today there are over 10 million Christians in Korea, or about 23 percent. Very roughly that would mean one Korean in a thousand was Christian in 1890, 1 in 50 in the 1930s, 1 in 20 in 1955, and 1 in 4 today.”
But statistics tell only part of the story. Throughout Seoul and the southern cities of Chonju and Taegu visited by CHRISTIANITY TODAY, stories of individual churches—begun with a handful of people yet today boasting memberships in the thousands—became almost matter-of-fact; and perhaps to the Koreans who told the stories, they were. After all, “we serve a great God, to whom nothing is impossible. Should such growth surprise us?”
With a membership of over 40,000, Young Nak Presbyterian is the largest Presbyterian church in the world. It was started in late 1945 as a fellowship of 27 believers, led by Han Kyung-Chik. Han was born into a Confucian family, accepted Christ through the ministry of American missionaries, and, in service to God, was persecuted first by the Japanese (who occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945) and then the Communist North Koreans from whom he had fled with over 5 million others during the Korean War. He is today, in effect, the spiritual head of the Korean Presbyterian church; a spiritual giant in whose presence one can hear—and feel—firsthand the faithfulness of God during Korea’s rugged twentieth century. Indeed, Han’s 84 years document the specifics of Korea’s church growth.
The missionary presence. Han was born in a small village 30 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Like much of the North before the Communist takeover, it eventually became a Christian stronghold, thanks to a missionary presence that, says Han, modeled the faith “in every way.”
Presbyterian missionaries first came to Korea in 1884. They, along with the early Methodist missionaries, brought with them conservative values generating a high appreciation for historic orthodox elements in Protestant theology (an appreciation that persists in the majority of Korean churches today). And unlike the Roman Catholic missionaries of a century earlier who insisted upon maintaining foreign control of church leadership, Presbyterian missionaries were intent upon “Koreanizing” the church and developing indigenous leadership.
Under an ingenious methodology called the Nevius Plan (see sidebar on p. 34), the Northern Presbyterian Mission (U.S.A.) stressed a quick transition from mission leadership to self-government in the national churches, along with self-support and self-propagation. As a result, Koreans saw the new faith as one that respected them as a people—something they were desperate for in the wake of foreign takeovers, first from China and, in the early twentieth century, from Japan. They were consequently open to the message of Christ and saw its proponents as “liberators” of the Korean people from their foreign taskmasters. This connection, which grew ever more tangible during the Japanese occupation and the Communist takeover as Christians stood up against persecution, remains indelibly imprinted on the Korean conscience—making, among other things, the Buddhists’ exhortations about national culture and the supreme worth of the old religious ways sound hollow.
Persecution. Unique in Asia, Christianity came to a nation that embraced it as a redemptive message, not an alien and imperialistic intrusion. (In Korean history, colonialism has been Asiatic, not Western.) The symbolism was not lost on Korea’s twentieth-century oppressors.
In attempting to impose its own culture over the 30-plus years it ruled Korea as a protectorate, Japan sought to eradicate Christian influence both directly through persecution and indirectly through accommodation. The most notable example of the latter was the so-called Shinto shrine controversy, which persisted through the Second World War. The Japanese asked that the Christian church (all religions, for that matter) incorporate the bowing down to a shrine as part of its regular worship. It was a political matter, the Japanese claimed, not a spiritual one. But not surprisingly, the matter became a test of faith, with the aftershocks still felt today. While the majority of conservative churches refused to go along with the Japanese order, a number of those churches “that did not bend a knee to Baal” eventually pulled out of the Presbyterian church (then only a single, united denomination) to form the Presbyterian Koryo denomination. Separatistic in lifestyle, it is today the third-largest Presbyterian group in Korea.
Han vividly remembers the Shinto controversy, as well as Japan’s use of more forceful tactics. He himself was forbidden to preach for three years, “so I worked quietly with orphans and others in need”—a ministry Young Nak continues to this day. Then, following emancipation in 1945, he again took to the pulpit with the 27 believers that would later become Young Nak Presbyterian Church. But that initial manifestation was short-lived. The Communists who entered the North were less interested in accommodation than eradication, and widespread persecution of the church began.
It would probably be safe to say that nearly every one of the 40,000 who attend Young Nak has been affected by the Communist takeover. Those over 40 years of age are especially likely to have had a brother, sister, mother, or father either killed or, in essence, held hostage north of the 38th Parallel. Communications across the parallel are nearly impossible. Many have not heard from family members since 1953.
Thus, not unlike the Japanese persecution, the specter of totalitarianism has made the words security, hope, freedom, and peace a part of the Korean mindset. It is a passion. And in the course of attaining and maintaining those realities, the Koreans have looked positively toward the “liberating” gospel of Jesus Christ.
When asked about the factors involved in Korea’s church growth, Han (like most of those interviewed) repeatedly talks about the sum being greater than its parts: “We begin and end with the Holy Spirit.” In between this divine dimension are the “supporting players”: the outside influences of Western missions and political persecutions discussed above, and the inner strengths of Korea’s “peculiar people.”
It is the latter factor, of course—the distinctives that individual Koreans bring to the practice of their faith—that Americans can perhaps learn most from. Yet they are distinctives that say as much about who the Korean is culturally as they say about who he or she is spiritually. Quite clearly, the Korean culture readied the Korean people for the record spiritual harvest currently being taken in.
Given to prayer. Even if one allows for a culture where Buddhist and shamanistic influences have perpetuated a respect for prayer, Korean Christianity seems to have built upon that respect, making the believer’s prayer life an intense priority (see sidebar on page 37). Predawn prayer meetings have been a special feature of Korean church life since shortly after the first Protestant missionaries arrived. And more recently, influenced by the example of Paul Yonggi Cho and his “world’s largest” Yoido Full Gospel Church, numerous “prayer mountain” retreats operate daily; and virtually all churches maintain a weekly all-night prayer meeting (usually on Friday).
Respect for leadership. Respect for scholarship, which can be traced to the ethics of Confucianism, is reflected in the high regard given to the trained Christian leader. Pastors are expected to lead spiritually by being present at the daily predawn prayer meetings and the all-night meetings, and by visiting the people on a regular schedule.
In short, the demands on leadership are enormous. And they do take their toll. Family time is usually a few stolen hours on a Sunday afternoon; and further study is practically out of the question. “The pastor who speaks 12 or 13 times a week doesn’t have time to develop strong sermons,” Jun Ho-Jin told us. The president of Pearson Theological College outside of Seoul said there is little time for meditation or preparation. “Generally,” said Jin, “the pastor serves the church with his feet, not his head.”
Lay commitment. Nevertheless, the amazing dedication of the people to “run the race” flat-out matches that demanded from their leaders. Indeed, without great commitment from the people, it is hard to see how the church would grow as it has. They have been trained to tithe, even to the point of great personal sacrifice. And they give of their time liberally, not only attending public church services, but gathering in groups of 10 or 12 for weekly cell meetings.
An essential element in the organization of most of Korea’s churches (Protestant and, increasingly, Catholic), these neighborhood gatherings are an evangelistic cornerstone, and their success is undeniable. Following the “doubling principle” of basic mathematics, these cells are encouraged by pastors like Paul Cho to double every few years. Thus, according to Cho, 500,000 members in 50,000 cell groups will eventually expand to 1 million members in 100,000 cell groups—goals for 1990 that Cho has established for his Yoido church.
Confrontational. One Korean churchman in Chonju facetiously described his countrymen as “the Irish of the Orient.” And Koreans are indeed confrontational, frank—unlike the more diplomatic Japanese. As a result, they are unafraid to talk to strangers and relatives about the Lord Jesus Christ. In the course of idle conversation, the question posed after commenting on the weather may well be, “Are you a Christian?”
Moreover, with rapidly growing resources in personnel and funds, Koreans are committed to taking this evangelistic zeal overseas. Recognizing their responsibility to the unreached world, Korean churches have sent over 600 missionaries to locations throughout Asia as well as points West—most notably the United States.
A darker side of this trait is the role it plays in the Korean church’s penchant for splitting apart. The aggressiveness of Koreans has led to multiple fractures, most based on personality conflicts rather than theological or doctrinal questions (unlike the Koryo split over the Shinto controversy). Presbyterians, by far the largest Protestant community, are also the most divided group, with 32 different denominations—5 large ones and 27 splinter groups. There are four divisions in Methodism, seven among Pentecostals, and four among Baptists.
And yet in much the same way that oppressive regimes historically have both hindered and fostered church growth, schisms have ironically done the same. “In Korea when churches split,” says Samuel Moffett, “in an amazingly short time each side of the schism seems to be as large or larger than the sum total of the united body before division.”
Belief in the supernatural. The animistic background of Korea furnishes the historical and cultural context for belief in demons, spirits, and spiritual powers. In the Korean church, a series of great revivals beginning in the early years of this century had a profound effect on the churches. Prayer for the sick, concert prayer by the people in public services, and an openness to the operation of the gifts of the Spirit mark virtually all the churches, regardless of denomination (see sidebar on p. 37).
Indeed, Korean Christians thrive on the supernatural power of the gospel and, perhaps more specifically, on the dramatic manifestations of that power. At Sung Rak Baptist Church, the largest Baptist church in Korea, “regular” encounters with the supernatural take on the form of physical healings, exorcisms, even resurrections. Church pastor and founder Kim Ki-Dong almost matter-of-factly describes such events as a logical (biblical?) outcome of what has become his own life verse, 1 John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
Not surprisingly, then, Kim sees the work of signs and wonders against the forces of darkness as available to all who profess the name of Christ. “You too can cast out demons,” he confidantly exhorts his listeners. And to date, the over 15,000 who attend his church believe it.
Still, critics charge that obsession with the miraculous—culturally based or not—will make the gospel message sound escapist, rather than the answer to real problems in a real world. The “obsessed” church, say critics, may neither be in or of the world—but out of this world.
The culturally conditioned receptivity of the Korean people to the liberating message of Jesus Christ, and the high cost of discipleship during decades of political repression and persecution, have translated to record numbers attending Sunday services and coming to faith. But, say the faithful, these God-ordained, Holy Spirit-manipulated elements have also ignited an economic transformation nationwide, the extent of which the world has yet to fully see. This blessing, which has attached to it a “prosperity-gospel” concept coming from Korea’s shamanistic thinking (which sees rewards as the primary motivation for serving the deities), looms ever larger in Korean Christian thought and theology. The reason for this is obvious. Korea is on an economic fast track. Its churches are burgeoning. God, therefore, must be blessing.
Few Koreans would deny outright this divine connection. Choi Soon-Young would certainly not deny it. As one of Korea’s—Asia’s—wealthiest businessmen, he has built buildings, bought a professional soccer franchise (the “Hallelujah” team), rescued a Christian university from financial ruin, and started (with one other family of four) and built a church that now claims over 4,000 members.
Nor would Kim Chang-In deny it. As pastor of Seoul’s Chung Hyeon Presbyterian Church (the largest church in the Hapdong denomination), the eighth grade-educated Kim shepherds a flock of 12,000 whose gathering place consists of a multistoried school for missionary training, elaborate offices for the hundreds of workers on its staff, and a new, Gothic-style cathedral that, when completed, will cost over $20 million—all on a piece of land considered worthless ten years ago.
Nor would the average layperson deny the financial impact of the divine hand—especially those living in Korea’s urban centers. The church buildings in Seoul, Chonju, and Taegu are themselves a reflection of a boom prosperity. While not all boast the facilities of a Chung Hyeon, a Young Nak, or a Yoido Full Gospel, urban congregations are uniformly convinced that inevitable growth will lead to inevitable building: perhaps an elementary school or a training center for missionaries, a home for unwed mothers or an elaborate church office center. Unlike the United States, where congregations as a rule anguish (and, at times, split) over building programs, Koreans approach building as an expression of God’s greatness—and his blessing on a church that has kept the faith. But like the United States, in Korea, bigger is better.
Nevertheless, Choi, Kim, and others would admit to the social and theological dangers inherent in the handling of this economic blessing. The lessons of the Western church have not gone unnoticed—and its shortfalls are to be avoided.
A better understanding of stewardship is pivotal, according to Choi, who, from his mahogany-paneled office high above Seoul, told of his own church’s financial commitment to both missions and social services to the poor. Part of that commitment, said Choi, goes to churches in Korea’s countryside, where the nation’s economic prosperity has yet to make much of an impact. Pastoral salaries in these modestly attended churches (a hundred congregants or less) are low, making the lure of the urban dollar almost irresistible. Consequently, getting well-trained pastors to take these outpost positions and survive spiritually, emotionally, and financially is a challenge with which the more affluent urban churches are increasingly wrestling. (At least one denomination, the Korean Evangelical Church, has developed a formal plan not only to send pastors to rural churches, but to provide enough financial assistance to make such assignments desirable.)
With up to 75 percent of the youthful population having no direct awareness of either the Japanese occupation or the Korean War, the persecution mindset that gave Korea its martyrs and a church on fire is fast giving way to a blatant materialism not unlike that which threatens the church in the West. Stewardship is important, and the Korean sense of commitment remains strong even among youth; and yet, having today what was only a dream yesterday (be that a home, a car, or simply the next meal) is increasingly challenging that commitment.
“The church is following the trend of social development rather than transforming it,” a concerned Kim Myung-Hyuk told us. The general secretary of the Korean Evangelical Fellowship recounted the story of one police chief who sarcastically addressed a minister as “president,” for, said Kim, “he was assisted by a number of secretaries, and equipped with a spacious, luxurious office complete with bed and bath.
“As a result,” lamented Kim, “the [evangelical] church is losing reliability as well as respectability in the society.”
The church may also stand to lose its integrity. Partly because of the influence of American Presbyterianism, which brought with it a high appreciation for scholarship and intellectual discipline, and partly because of the traditional respect for the scholar, the Korean churches have outdone themselves in providing educational opportunities for their young. In turn, Christian universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes have contributed to the entire nation. However, the very thirst for learning (and, unfortunately, the status symbols of academia) seems to have opened the door in many institutions to processes that indicate spiritual and theological erosion. The older missionaries bemoan the weakening of the values the institutions were founded upon.
The materialistic ethic has also created obvious tensions between the mainline evangelical bodies (Presbyterian, Methodist, Holiness, Baptist) and the Pentecostal/charismatic components of the church who rely heavily upon the material blessings of a walk with Christ. Paul Cho, because of his enormous numeric success, is the object of special interest on this point. Along with a clear gospel message (he emphasizes the need for a personal commitment to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins), he weekly features what appears to be a heavy dose of “blessing” theology: “Cast your financial crises on Jesus, and they will be resolved.” While this theological debate between Cho and evangelical leaders seems to be clouded with personal elements that include a degree of jealousy (Cho, after all, does have half a million members), it appears that there is a need for encouraging more serious Pentecostal theology (see sidebar on page 41).
“[Korean] theology is very this-worldly,” said Son Bong-Ho, professor of philosophy at Korea’s prestigious Seoul National University. “We look for the blessing of this world. Very few can resist the temptation to teach health and wealth.”
Reflecting on how far Korea has come since the dark days of the war, Son concluded: “At this time Korea is probably more optimistic than any country in the world. Thus our focus—the society’s, the church’s—is below.”
In one sense, the current government under Gen. Chun Doo-Hwan also bemoans the church’s penchant for things below. Certainly the number-one temporal issue on the minds and hearts of all the churches this year has been the political future of the Korean republic. Across Korea, Christians are nearly unanimous in their dissatisfaction with the current regime. At the same time, however, they are perplexed by how best to display that dissatisfaction—beyond simply casting an anti-Chun vote in next month’s presidential election.
The young, particularly the university students and even students in conservative seminaries, demonstrate their protest vocally and vividly. Older Christians, on the other hand, tend to be more restrained, remembering that the entire history of democracy in Korea is but 40 years old—and their national history is 5,000 years old. Yet what impresses and surprises the onlooker is the obvious fact that both old and young are concerned that they not destabilize the government to the point where North Korea takes advantage of the political turmoil. Thus, the almost orchestrated student demonstrations are quite restrained—almost polite, when compared with American campus violence of the 1960s.
“There is no doubt that evangelical church leaders and students are as acutely concerned for the nation as the liberal churchmen,” Lee Jong-Yun told CT. From his office on a prominent Chonju hill, the president of Jeonju University said, however, that the evangelical approach to addressing these concerns was through understanding, communication, and prayer, “rather than violence and demonstrations against the government.”
According to Edward Dong of the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, the basis for antigovernment sentiment among Korean Christians and non-Christians alike has been the perception of Chun’s administration being “both illegitimate and immoral.”
On the first count, the so-called Seoul Spring—that is, Korea’s readiness for full-fledged democracy—turned cold quickly when Chun inflicted press censorship and suppressed his critics (such as jailing opposition leader Kim Dae-Jung) shortly after his ascent to power by a coup in 1980. Exacerbating the illegitimacy question was the killing, also in 1980, of at least 200 (some claim 2,000) protesting students in Kwangju by government troops. While that incident is still shrouded in mystery (the question of why it ever happened has never been answered), the blame is squarely placed on Chun’s shoulders.
Thus, while offering religious freedom, the government has taken certain actions to limit both the number of NCC-related disruptions and the influx of Koreans increasingly making the evangelical churches a political voice to be reckoned with. All Christian radio stations, for example, are forbidden to report or comment on news; and the smell of the eye-searing pepper gas in front of Seoul’s magnificent Myondong Cathedral is a daily reminder that outside church grounds, the outspoken Catholic hierarcy is neither to be seen nor heard.
Two other actions raising evangelical outcries (and prompting evangelicals to take a more critical view of the government) were a proposed change in the Christian day of rest and a nationwide promotion of Dangun worship. The former concerned a 1985 order to the three branches of the armed forces to change the Sunday holiday to Thursday or Friday for the sake of “national security.” The latter objection concerned the mythical ancestor of the Korean people, Dangun, whose worship was promoted by Chun to encourage nationalism—and, according to many church leaders, throw confusion into the church.
Neither move has gone beyond the initial recommendation stage, but both, along with the more recent accusations of human rights violations and the on-again, off-again promises to initiate constitutional reforms, have proven to be the catalysts for the church confronting its own relationship to the political process. Yet unlike the more combative stance of the Religious Right in America, the evangelical church in Korea is not so much interested in taking over the reins of power as they are making Christ relevant to a nation facing its most critical hour.
How Should We Then Influence?
Moon Tong-Hwan is a revered Presbyterian, a respected scholar, and one of the more outspoken activists opposing the Chun regime. His social conscience has meant imprisonment. His theology means never giving up.
Moon is one of the refiners of Minjung “people” theology—a liberation theology of the poor. Emphasizing freedom from political, social, and economic bondage, it is not unlike the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez. The theological starting point for both systems is the belief in the structural nature of evil, as evidenced in oppression and exploitation. Moreover, both systems believe the mission of the church is to liberate the oppressed.
In Moon is the emotional yet rationally intense passion that Minjung’s followers apply to an agenda that calls for the ouster of Chun, free elections, and full democracy—now. Use of violence to meet that agenda is condemned. Passive resistance, condoned. “It’s the dictator who uses violence,” says Moon, “not us.”
Either methodology is anathema to the majority of Korea’s Protestants, who question any talk of “resistance,” decry Minjung’s overemphasis on the social over against the spiritual, and wince at the theology’s socialist overtones. Korea’s strong inoculation against Marxism makes talk of the poor rising up in revolt less than popular rhetoric.
“The students and pastors influenced by Minjung theology interpret society from the perspective of rich-poor and oppressor-oppressed relationships,” said Jeonju University’s Lee. “However, Jesus’ chief concern was the kingdom of God and his righteousness on earth as it is in heaven.
“The church’s priority is evangelism, and the churches should encourage Christians to pray for the establishment of a responsible society and provide advice and counseling to government officials, particularly in moral and spiritual issues.”
Lee’s position is clearly the starting point from which the majority of Korea’s evangelical Christians are attempting to build their church-state understanding. Speaking truth and changing hearts is their twofold emphasis, an emphasis the Korean Evangelical Fellowship articulated in a landmark paper entitled “Human Rights in Korea.” In it, KEF general secretary Kim Myung-Hyuk set apart the evangelical methodology from that of Minjung by stating:
• “Our first priority and prayer [is] to initiate a widespread Bible-based evangelical movement and a holy lifestyle in the Korean Church where the secularized world view and lifestyle are epidemic.”
• “The church’s involvement in politics and becoming a political body is wrong because it is an arrogation of the church’s proper role.”
• “Even though the church should not be directly involved in politics, we Christians should help actualize the Christian ideal of life in our given situation by actively engaging ourselves in political, social, and economic activities. We are to renew our vision of Christianity as having both a historical and culture-transforming dimension as well as a supernatural and eschatological dimension.”
• “We agree that it is advocating an extreme theocracy to insist upon only the implementation of Christian beliefs in a modern pluralistic society and political system. Nevertheless, it is wrong to politicize Christianity by reducing it to civil religion or nationalism in order to use it as a driving force in politics or social movements.”
• “Change by violence or revolution should never be repeated again. A just and equal society can only be established by peaceful means and moral persuasion.”
“If you believe in Christ and live for him—imitate him—society will change.”
To Lee Won-Sul, as to a growing number of concerned Christians, this statement of faith is by no means an excuse to withdraw from political entanglements. It is, instead, the effectual means by which political structures can—and will—change. But even with 25 percent of the nation Christian, that change has come slowly—and not fast enough for the growing student population that wants democracy now.
On the campus of Han Nam University in Taejon, where Lee serves as president, and on university, college, and seminary campuses across Korea, student restlessness has meant months of political rhetoric, antigovernment singing (a traditional form for voicing displeasure), and, of course, daily demonstrations.
Unlike the student marches characterizing the Vietnam War years, Korea’s antigovernment demonstrations appear more formal, less spontaneous. An afternoon at Yonsei University in Seoul offers a case in point.
About 500 armed troops have been assigned residence at the main campus gate. No one looks particularly concerned or perturbed—only bored, with most content to walk in circles until their services are needed. Inside the gates, all appears normal: book-laden students going to classes, boyfriends and girlfriends holding hands.
Then, around 3 P.M., it happens. Almost on cue, troops and students take their places. The “stage” where the action will take place includes the gate and the adjoining city street, which is closed to traffic. Government troops, now in riot gear and looking like 50 or more Darth Vader clones, raise high a protective netting, a wall separating and protecting them from student abuse.
As for the students, they are less regimented, of course, but approach their opposition as one, armed with rocks, bottles, and more than a few Molotov cocktails.
Within ten minutes, the actors are in place and the political drama begins. Missiles fly. The netting is hit. The troops stand their ground. There is a perceptible reserve on both sides. The students seem content not to rush the fencing; the troops seem content to wait.
After another ten minutes, however, a second line of Darth Vaders emerges, carrying rifles loaded with foreboding canisters: pepper gas. After six or seven fusillades, the crowd disperses. The road is cleaned of debris. And everything returns to “normal”—save for the fact that the students now walk away from the gate holding handkerchiefs over their noses to avoid breathing in the irritating fumes.
“Demonstrations are the growing pains of our nation,” philosophized Lee Jong-Yun in Chonju, who sees marching for reforms as but another step toward Korea becoming a full democracy, complete with the freedoms of press and expression. But the demonstrations are also the spiritual growing pains of a population still clearly interested in religion, yet wondering how faith—any faith—plays into the political scheme of things.
At Korea’s “Harvard,” Seoul National University, for example, Christian students are caught between the biblical mandate to be “peacemakers” and the political initiative to actively take a stand against a government perceived to be immoral: What, in effect, does Christlikeness mean in the face of a less than ideal government?
“The passive majority of students sympathizes with the active minority,” observed Seoul National’s Son Bong-Ho. But, says Son, most evangelical students do not have the courage to stand against them. “Radical students,” he continued, “are both antigovernment and anticapitalist. The majority of students, however, are the former, not the latter.”
Students from an InterVarsity chapter at Seoul National agree.
“We want democracy,” said one senior, “we don’t want to lose what freedoms we already have. Nor is violence a means to that freedom.”
Korean students appear, then, at least on the surface, to be less radical than media accounts would imply. There is a clear sense that while the current government must be reformed, there is little false idealism promoting communism as a “solid alternative.” Results of a survey to determine the political attitudes of students on Yonsei’s campus showed that students have a generally negative attitude toward the social situation in the Communist North. Moreover, while sentiment toward the United States is mildly negative, that toward the USSR is clearly negative, as that country is perceived to be the primary reason for the North-South split.
“We have more freedom than in North Korea,” an observer of the student rioting said in Taegu. “The students must remember that.”
From all indications, they do. And that is good news for the socio-political health of the nation, of course, but only if the government does not test student patience to its limits: Some are concerned that Chun—or his successor—will cry “communism” one time too many.
It is also good news for the church. For while the younger generation’s head knowledge of the Communist takeover can never surpass the heart knowledge of those who suffered firsthand, it should, nevertheless, serve to remind the Christian young of what faithfulness to the Cross cost the saints only a short time ago. It is a testimony of triumph that continues to bridge the growing generation gap.
This is not to imply that the next generation is solidly in the church. Granted, the passion to find some meaning to life is still very much on the minds of today’s students. And at Yonsei, the majority of students surveyed in a poll on religion expressed the opinion that religion is necessary because of the fear of Korea’s unknown future. But the church’s inability (or apathy) to clearly bring its message to bear on those visceral political questions filling youthful minds may alienate the next generation and, in turn, jeopardize the future effectiveness of the church.
“When religious leaders speak out,” said one Catholic student, “we will listen.”
Reaching out to these students—as Korea’s stability and the church’s hope—remains the inbred desire of Horace Underwood, an assistant to the president at Yonsei University. The third Underwood to call Korea home in service to Jesus Christ (his grandfather was the first ordained Presbyterian missionary to Korea, and founder of Yonsei), the gray-haired iconoclast speaks with the precision of a Christian educator and a passion sparked by his enormous missionary heart.
Education was a part of the missionary master plan for moving Korea into the twentieth century and giving it—and its Christian church—solid leadership. As early as 1908, missionaries could write that “We are in the midst of an educational revolution. So strong has been the leadership of the church that … the course of study used in Christian schools has been the pattern for unbelievers’ schools as well.”
Moreover, it was an education open to everyone—men and women. Christianity, in effect, shattered class barriers and liberated women from the restraints of a male-dominated culture. Thus, says Samuel Moffett, “It is no accident that the world’s largest women’s college [Ehwa University] is in Korea, and that it is a Christian institution.”
However, since coming to Yonsei, Underwood has seen the complexion of that Christian commitment to, and influence on, education subtly change. At his university (as at other church-affiliated schools), reduction of compulsory chapels, erosion of a commitment to Christian faculty, and an increasingly permissive spirit on campus have softened, to some extent, the school’s spiritual commitment. “Perhaps it’s inevitable,” Underwood surmises, thinking of the fate of Harvard, Yale, and the other pillars of higher education set into motion by men of faith. But on deeper reflection, he sees a weakening commitment to missions on the part of certain Western denominations as, in turn, contributing to the potential weakening of both church-related schools and the church generally.
Increasingly, the Presbyterian Church in America (along with the United Methodist Church) seems intent on ending its 100-year “mission relationship” with the Korean church as quickly as possible. The primary reason given for this radical decision—which includes cutting back the number of missionaries as well as the amount of financial support given—is simply that the need no longer exists: The church, after all, has exploded. However, there are two other factors recognized by seasoned missionaries as operating in this decisive cutback: first, the tendency among the liberal groups in the States toward universalism theologically, in which other cultural religions are accepted or incorporated into Christian doctrine, thereby blurring the uniqueness of the Christian message; and second, the rapid erosion of financial support in the United States among these groups for foreign missions. Underwood and others (like Howard Moffett in Taegu and David Seel in Chonju) fear that the exodus from mission-started schools and medical centers, for example, may prove premature, jeopardizing the original purposes—even the ongoing existence—of these institutions.
“The national churches here have not materially supported institutions such as schools and hospitals,” explained Underwood. “They tend to look at the university, for example, as a hotbed of power and prestige, rather than a ‘ministry’ needing their support.”
As to the shortfall of missionaries working side by side with nationals, Underwood agrees with the missionary vision set forth in the Nevius Plan—that is, replace a missionary with a Korean. But, said Underwood, Koreans themselves are looking for “support staff” from the West, something the mainline groups are not willing to supply.
“The ironic thing,” explained Underwood, “is that half the presbyteries here have asked for missionaries, but their requests have been denied. Clearly, the church back in the States is intent on carrying out its own program rather than meeting the needs here.”
By sharp contrast, the Southern Baptists—relative newcomers to the peninsula—already have 135 missionaries on the field and plan to increase that number indefinitely at the fastest-possible absorption rate. They are working on the assumption of a “partnership” principle, in which the missionary can continue to play a supportive role to the emerging church. And Overseas Missions Society (OMS) has already achieved such a partnership with the Korean Evangelical Church, the third-largest denomination in Korea and a group birthed by OMS.
According to Underwood, such a partnership is absolutely essential, whether the context is a local church or a major university. “All churches have blind spots,” philosophizes Underwood. “They can help us, we can help them.” It is an arrangement, seemingly, that would work to improve both churches: giving them trained leaders; insuring a future based on sound scholarship and spiritual commitment. It is little wonder, then, that Horace Underwood and his contemporaries are so reticent to see it slip away.
When the Presbyterian Church in Korea celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary in 1984, one million Koreans gathered along an enormous cement strip known as Yoido Plaza to worship and give thanks to God, and to witness the passage of this “miracle” out of adolescence.
Entering adulthood—strong and idealistic—the Korean church today eagerly awaits its destiny. Already it has established fast-growing congregations here in the United States; and it has taken upon itself the task to evangelize Asia—even daring (in the case of Paul Cho) to claim a goal of reaching 10 million Japanese for Christ by the year 2000.
But the church, as strong and vibrant as it is, is only a young adult, and as such it faces head-on the distractions that threaten to take it away from its first love. Over 60 church leaders articulated those distractions to us (many of the more problematic are recounted here), and together they admitted that youthful idealism has meant the church is only now beginning to take those challenges seriously.
Regrettably, the pullout of the mainline church missionaries—those whose legacy is the dynamic Korean church of today—means that new support persons will be needed to model spiritual fidelity for the young-adult church in the wake of the surrounding secularism, materialism, and growing political influence. Fortunately, those workers are coming—but they are perhaps not arriving as fast as the Koreans themselves would want: along with the numeric success has come the false assumption that all is well.
Still, the Korean church is an astounding, heaven-sent mystery. The crush of the crowds on Sunday morning, the one-on-one evangelism, those red neon crosses—all denote a movement of God’s Holy Spirit that we in the West would do well to heed. Says Samuel Moffett: “Even the most secular of historians must admit at times to the mystery in history, and the church historian, mindful that the more decisive areas of Christian growth are beyond the reach of statistics, finds himself [when discussing Korea] quoting Scripture: ‘I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’ ” (1 Cor. 3:6).
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