Why Christianity Stopped Growing In Korea (2023)

If South Korea was a Disney princess, it would be Cinderella.

Oppressed and abused for years by its closest relatives Japan and China, the country finally liberated itself in the early 1950s after World War II and the Korean War.

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Why Christianity Stopped Growing In Korea (2)At that time she was "one of the poorestand most aid-dependent countries” in the world, with a per capita income lower than that of Haiti or Ethiopia. But through the charming prince of hard work, American backing, and commercially savvy governments, South Korea traded its rags for a ball gown. Today she has it12th largest economyin the world.

The popularity of Christianity in South Korea followed the same direct path. The first missionaries were allowed access to the peninsula in 1884, but conversions really took off after the wars.

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By 1970, 18 percent of the population were Christians; in 2000 it was 31 percent. (These counts include Protestants and Catholics.) 2006 was South KoreaFrom youmore missionaries than any other country except the much larger United States. Until 2015 it was Seoulonly behindHouston and Dallas in number of megachurches, and Seoul's were much larger. (In the United States, 2,000 people make up a megachurch. In South Korea, there are 5,000.)

It seemed happily ever after. With 50,000 churches serving 50 million people, “there was a belief that the church had sated the population,”wroteJae Kyeong Lee, President of the Foreign Baptist Mission Board of the Korean Baptist Convention. As the number of missionaries from South KoreaSprungFrom 1,200 in 1991 to 13,000 in 2006, the goal of sending out 100,000 full-time missionaries by 2030 seemed excessive but not crazy.

And then things stopped. Growth slowed and church attendance began to decline.

It's not hard to see what's happening: "The younger generation is leaving the church in a surprising way," said Steven Chang, a New Testament professor in Seoul. The reasons are complex, ranging from Western secularization to materialism to high-profile corruption in the church.

But these young people are also a source of hope. "There are signs that younger churches and church leaders are moving away from the megachurch, prosperity gospel and gift-based models of ministry and returning to the simple gospel message," Chang said.

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About 600 pastors and leaders attended City to City's first public conference in 2017; More than 2,000 people came to Tim Keller's second lecture last year. The Korean Gospel Coalition started awebsitefive months ago; more than 1,000 are expected at their first conference in October.

"During my time in Korea, I was very impressed with the Korean church," Keller said. "Arguably the most fruitful evangelical movement in all of Asia in the last hundred years, but he is willing to humble himself, repent, and seek new ways to serve his people and the world in the 21st century."

Presbyterians in Pyongyang

The firstresident evangelical missionaryto Korea came a Presbyterian physician named Horace Allen in 1884, followed the next year by Horace Underwood, an ordained Presbyterian missionaryguided effortstranslate the entire Bible into everyday Korean for the first time.

Korea was unusually fertile ground for Christianity: in just 15 years there were already enough Presbyterians to found a seminary in Pyongyang. (One of the great-grandfathers of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-untook parta mission school as a committed Presbyterian; otherErasa Presbyterian minister.)

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A few things helped Christianity gain a foothold on the peninsula. One was the indigenous belief in a supreme being, which translated easily into a belief in the Christian God. Another reason was that missionaries often followed the advice of the Presbyterian John Nevius, whodefendedthat churches be self-sufficient and led by indigenous leaders as soon as possible. Third, the missionaries brought with them Western medicine and education. It was its hospitals, schools and universities and the American Christian values ​​they representedparticularly attractivefor Korean youth.

Conditions were therefore right when a great revival broke out in 1907, often referred to as the "Korean Pentecost" or "Pyongyang Revival." Through the preaching and public confession of sins by both Korean pastors and American missionaries, the faith of thousands has been renewed. By 1910, more than 200,000 of Korea's 13 million people were Christians. So many of them were in the Pyongyang region (60,000) that the city was called East Jerusalem.

"The Great Revival transformed Protestantism from an alien religion into a new national religion," said Kirsteen Kim, professor of world ChristianitywroteInChristianity today. And it is true that while the Renaissance was primarily religious, it was also steeped in nationalism. Because Korea was slowly losing the battle against Japan, which would annex the country in 1910.


American Christians immediatelypush asidewith Korea in its struggle to regain independence. Korean missionaries and Christians supported the country's declaration of independence (16 of the 33 signers were Protestants),liefits caretaker government from Shanghai andrejectedto worship the Japanese emperor.

Being a Christian in Korea was not easy: all students and government employees were ordered to bow to imperial ancestors at Shinto shrines; all Protestant churches had to unite so that Japan could control their affairs; and some 50 Christians were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

But for many Koreans, Christianity smelled of freedom, of home. It did not appear imperialist or colonialist like China's Buddhism and Japan's Shintoism did. When Japan was defeated in 19453 percentof the Korean population was Protestant.

However, the end of World War II was not a happy ending for Korea. From 1945 to 1953, Russia/China and the United States fought over the country's ideological future, eventually resigning themselves to tearing it in half.

It was perhaps the most complete elimination of Christianity that has occurred in history, certainly in the 20th century.

In the north, Soviet-backed Kim Il Sung brutally attacked all political and religious opposition. Christians have been imprisoned, tortured and killed; Thousands fled south. (Aestimated900,000 or 10 percent of North Korea's population moved below the 38th parallel between 1945 and 1953).

"North Korea's efforts to eradicate Christianity from Pyongyang and other parts of its territory were so ruthless and systematic that few outside Korea today know it was ever there," said historian Robert Kim.wrote. "It was perhaps the most complete elimination of Christianity that has occurred in history, certainly in the 20th century."


Meanwhile, Christianity was booming in South Korea's relative freedom. The 1.6 million Christians in 1950 more than tripled to 5.7 million in 1970, then almost tripled again to 14.7 million in 2000. Bounded by area (South Korea is about the size of Kentucky) and United by a community culture, South Korean Christians began to grow and build mega-churches. You can find them todaylargest in the worldBaptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Assemblies of God congregations in Seoul.

You can find them todaylargest in the worldBaptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Assemblies of God congregations in Seoul.

The Korean Church then went on a mission and sent1200missionaries in 1991, 13,000 in 2006 and27.000in 2017.

"Church growth and economic growth happened simultaneously," said Stephen Ro, catalyst for City to City Asia Pacific. This correlation makes sense: Christians who are hardworking and disciplined, who sacrifice themselves for others, and who have good work ethics and ethics are productive workers. But this connection was also a way to introduce the prosperity gospel.

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"There's a fine line between 'God bless us' and health and prosperity," Ro said. "There were many signs and wonders in the 1960s and 1970s, along with many Western churches investing money in Korean churches. The Koreans interpreted it this way: "If you are a Christian nation like the United States, you can be rich."

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And then, in such a rapid economic transition, it was called "The Miracle of the Han River," South Korea.Erasrich. In the 1990s, the country joined the elite gatherings of the world's strongest economies: the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the G20. Headquarters of companies such as Samsung, LG Electronics and Hyundai, South Korea in 2018 entered the list ofThe 25 richest countriesfor personal incomeset a personal recordwith 45 billionaires on the Forbes South Korea Rich List.

It seemed that the theology of health and wealth had really worked.

What happens when the prosperity gospel works?

In the last decade or two, the rapid rise of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, has slowed to a crawl. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that it will only increase from 31 percent to 33 percent of the population between 2000 and 2020, and then remain at 33 percent by 2050.

"Young people are leaving the Church," said David Park, president of TGC Korea. “Sunday schools are closing. I think we have the same situation as the United States and Europe."

Why Christianity Stopped Growing In Korea (7)Maybe worse. South Korea ranks behind Canada and Denmark on the list of countries with the largest gaps in religious engagement between the older and younger generations.A little less than 40 percentof those under 40 belong to a religion, compared to 63% of those over 40. Fewer young people attend church services weekly (24% vs. 33% of older Koreans), pray daily (19% vs. 40%) and say that religion is very important to them (8% vs. 21%).

Some of the reasons are universal, from increasing secularization to the ineffectiveness of "easy believe" or the often-preached soft legalism. "Many pastors look at Scripture from a thematic and systematic framework rather than a biblical-theological framework conducive to moralism," said Stephen Um, Redeemer City to City coach and TGC Council member. "They're going to say, 'Look, Abraham did that, so you have to do that.'"

Other reasons are specific to Korea. The pervasive public failure of church leadership can be exaggerated by the enormity of the congregations. was a shepherdlockedconvicted of raping eight followers on "God's command", one moreembezzlement$12 million, another is being criticized for tryingto permithis church of 100,000 to his son.

Older generations, influenced by Confucianism's reverence for leadership, can also be almost blindly loyal to a fallen pastor, said Julius Kim, dean of studies at California's Westminster Seminary and a board member of TGC.

Ro agrees. “Some older people are fans of their church. The pastor can get away with that reverence. People say, 'Why are you making so much of this? He's done so many great things. Don't you know how to worship your leader?'”

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For a younger generation that's a step further from traditional ancestor worship and closer to Western individualism, it "makes no sense," Ro said.

The context of these changes also differs from the looming threat of Japanese occupation that has shaped Pyongyang's renaissance. Now South Korea is developed and rich: Seoul, theCosmeticsjplastic surgeryCapital of the world, "It's like New York but five times cleaner," Um said. "Everything is new, modern and well wired."

"Money wins in Korea," Park said. “His goal in life is to get rich, to be successful. . . . Money is now the number one enemy in Korean Christianity."

Ro agrees. “The biggest idol we have in Korea is Mamonism: money. Our mentality, our worldview, our values ​​have not kept pace with the rapid growth of the economy.”


Wealth was not a good savior for Korea. spend childrenup to 16 hoursa day at school and tutoring programs to get into the best universities. Employees work long hours under enormous pressure. Of the 34 OECD members, South Korea has thesecond highestSuicide rates and their youth are theless happy.

Why Christianity Stopped Growing In Korea (9)Pastors, more than anyone else, are aware of both the need and the declining membership in the church. But when Um held the first city-to-city conference there in 2012, things didn't go well.

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"About 150 pastors came," Um said. “We didn't give them much methodological or practical advice, but rather a solid theological vision. The next day only 100 came. The next day 70”.

Um, I didn't know what was going on. "It can't be because our gospel DNA wasn't good," he said, laughing.

Organizers told him that pastors were looking for something new and trendy that would help them increase church attendance. "Our leadership team said, 'This isn't going to work,'" he said.

It was weird because City to City grew out ofRedeemer Presbyterian ChurchIn NYC. And Protestantism in Korea is still predominantly Presbyterian.

"Korean Christianity still has categories for Reformed theology, but it's not necessarily gospel-centric," Um said. "They learn, for example, systematic theological categories, they know about predestination, but they do not emphasize the practical implications of the doctrine of grace through Jesus' finished work."

Pastors can say that "grace precedes faith," but then also "preach to the will rather than the heart, emphasizing what the requirements of God's law and commandments are without first motivating the heart with the gospel," he said .

Over the next few years, Um turned her attention elsewhere.

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"Then five years ago a remnant of 20 herdsmen said, 'Hey, we're ready,'" Um said.

The pastors were in their forties and fifties and were "humbly enough to say, 'We had a ghetto version of the church.' We need to focus more on the gospel.'”

About 10 of them had already founded the “Big Forest” group, where they met weekly for prayer. The name came from his desire to plant churches: a forest of plants instead of several large mega-church trees.

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

The group became the core of City to City Korea. they were happyempty Tim Keller– Your intellectualism and your Presbyterianism appeal to a country that likes both.

More and more pastors “came together and said, 'Look, we're not just here for church growth anymore. It's not working and it's not pleasing to God,'" said Ro. "'We're here to rejuvenate the city, to bring revitalization.'"

Like the revival pastors in Pyongyang, some publicly repented.

"One of our board members is in his 50s, a very capable and capable leader," Um said. “He confessed to his community. He said, "We haven't focused on the centrality of the gospel, and we need to change."

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He is one of 70 pastors who are "really committed to this network," said Um, who has held about a dozen teaching conferences in Korea over the past five years.Sechshundertcame to the first City to City public conference in 2017; A year later, more than 2,000 cellars heard the second headline title.

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"We have a strong network of around 1,000 pastors interested in networking, training and resources and growing," Um said. As Vice President of Asia Pacific Initiatives for TGC, he founded TGC Korea, thethrown outesOrtsix months ago.

The original nine members of the TGC Korea Council havegrown to 14from six different denominations. "We're praying for 40 council members," Park said. "It is possible."

Gathering 40 pastors in Korea is like gathering hundreds in the United States. Each of the 14 pastors leads a church of 3,000 or more. (Sometimes many more, for example Jae-Hoon Lee's Onnuri Community Church75.000present.)

"We're seeing a resurgence from the work we're doing with TGC and City to City," Um said. March,The gospel changes everything- edited by Um, with contributions from Keller and a handful of other Korean pastors - was published. Essentially a Korean contextualized introduction by Kellercentral church, should it work: "Keller's books are selling like crazy."

sober hope

"My optimistic reading of this is: I think TGC Korea can be a useful catalyst for the growth of Christianity in Korea," Kim said. "I'm hopeful, but I'm sober because I know we're grappling with sin and how it affects our hearts."

Korea's clan character, its willingness to sacrifice itself for the good of all, is one of the country's greatest strengths. This allowed the country and its churches to prosper quickly.

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"But now you don't have to worry about where your next meal will come from or about getting killed for your beliefs," Kim said. "Now you worry about yourself. The whole collective starts to shrink.”

But just as 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?" questioning of the next generation.

Since groupism is also Korea's "unique cultural sin," it lures the "demigods" of megachurch pastors to seek power and status rather than gospel truth, and leads the congregations to give it to them, Kim said. “Like the youth of the United States, the youth of Korea are striving for a more authentic Christianity. They are fed up with their parents' Christianity, which is sometimes more of a shell. They ask, 'How can the church benefit me as an individual?'”

The gospel has the answer. And seeing where the churches have gone astray makes the path much clearer.

"It's hard, but easier now than it was 20 years ago when Korean Christianity was at its peak," Ro said. Back then, "every megachurch wanted to be a pastor. Now we're more sober. Once the gospel reaches them, pastors will realize that they don't have to pastor large congregations. Perhaps they are more enthusiastic about the gospel than about personal service.”

The renewal movement in Korea is small but growing.

"A lot of Koreans pray," Park said. At his church, “we meet for prayer every morning, Wednesday night, and Friday night. So yes we pray. And we wait".


1. 16a Christianity in Korea
(Dr. Joseph Holbrook)
2. The Horrors I Saw at Korean Private Schools | Informer
3. Article: Message to the Christian Churches
(Jordan B Peterson)
4. The Animated History of Korea
5. Why North Korea is the Hardest Country to Escape
6. Kim Jong-Un brutally shoots an orchestra conductor 90 times in front of every artist in Pyongyang
(Voice of North Korea by Yeonmi Park)


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