By Yoon Kwon Chae
Korea's national flower is the Rose of Sharon, a flower that usually blooms in isolated places and lingers for long periods of time through rain or storms. Korea, with its long history of more than 4,000 years, is one of the most ransacked countries, but has been standing firm in maintaining its independence.
The Korean church is one of the most persecuted churches in history. It is also the fastest growing church in the world. The first Bible was smuggled into Korea about l50 years ago and the first Protestant church was planted a mere 100 years ago. Yet, there are now ten million Christians (all denominations) in Korea with approximately 30,000 churches.
The largest evangelistic campaign ever was held in Korea with over two million in attendance, and the world's largest congregation is in Korea, along with the largest Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the world. According to a recent mission survey, about l,360 Korean missionaries through 17 sending agencies are working in 37 countries. There are approximately 400 Christian churches/churches of Christ and two Bible Colleges in Korea.
Politically speaking, Korea is divided by two contradictory ideologies. South Korea is about 300 miles long and 180 miles wide, a very mountainous country with 44,500,000 people (1995 census). North Korea has a larger area and a more rigorous climate with a population of 20,082,000 people. In North Korea, all religions have been repressed, but Christians are the most harshly persecuted. Many thousands of Christians were murdered during and after the Korean War. The estimated figures of the religious affiliations of the North Koreans are: non-religion 60%, Korean religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, Animism, etc.) 39%, and Christians 0.1%. To my knowledge, there are two government licensed inter-faith churches in North Korea but also reported are about 1,000 underground churches.
THE ELEMENTS OF CHURCH GROWTH
There are many reasons why the Korean churches have grown. The fact that Korea has only one language is one important reason. The high literacy rate and the Koran people's zeal to learn cannot be ignored, either. However, I feel the following reasons must also be pointed out and studied:
(1)THE MESSAGE CAME FIRST. From its first introduction to Korea, the message came first. Korea was a strong Confucianistic Kingdom despising and forbidding all foreign religions except Buddhism, which has already taken root before Confucianism became a national religion during Ee-dynasty.
About 150 years ago Bibles and Christian books were smuggled into Korea and churches started long before the first Chinese priest entered. The persecution started and thousands were beheaded because of their faith. The history of the Protestant church was similar. Before the first American missionaries, Allen, Underwood (Presbyterians), and Appenzeller (Methodist) landed in Korea in 1885, men like Gutzlaff (Netherlands) and Ross (Scotland), and many other Korean Christians in China and Japan tried to smuggle the Chinese Gospel into Korea. An English minister, Robert Thomas, was murdered the moment he landed in Korea in l865, but he handed the Gospel to the murderer and said, "Read this, It's God's Gift for you."
The message of the Restoration Movement also came by way of Korean preachers who were touched by its message, either in America or in Japan. Bro. Sung Nak So returned from Japan with the message and started a New Testament Christian Church in Seoul. Bro. Dong, Suk Kee returned from America and started a church of Christ in Hamkyung Province.
Bro. John T. Chase came from Japan in 1936 and, with converts like Bro. Chae, Sang Hyun, started a Bible college. Bro. Chase, as well as Bro. John J. Hill, who arrived in 1939, were expelled by the Japanese occupying force during the second World War, and again by the communist invading forces during the Korean War. (They returned again after the war along with Bro. Harold P. Taylor.) The church suffered indescribable persecution. Most church buildings were destroyed and many ministers murdered, including Bro. Chae, but the church steadily grew.
(2)The second element of Korean church growth can be attributed to THE INDIGENOUS ELEMENTS OF THE KOREAN CHURCH. Korean churches grew up mostly self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. This was motivated by a former missionary to China, Dr. John L. Nevius, who visited Korea in 1890 and held a conference for the missionaries. It came to be known as the "Nevius Method." Several of these principals were:
(a)Personal evangelism to be stressed and carried on through extensive itineration.
(b)The church to be self-propagating. Every believer to be a teacher of someone else and a learner from someone better fitted than he.
(c)Self-government to be the rule in the church. Each group to be under its own chosen leaders who would later yield to regular pastors.
(d)Self-support to be expected, with all chapels provided by the believers and each group beginning to pay toward the support of the circuit helper from the start.
(e)Systematic Bible study for even believer under his group leader and circuit helper to be stressed.
The emphasis on Bible study became a distinctive feature of Korean Christianity. Most of the Korean churches have smaller Bible study groups and they meet at least once a week in homes. The great gatherings for Bible study at a time of the year when the farmers could leave their fields are felt by many to be the very heart of the marvelous progress missions have made in Korea.
The three "selfs" were not original in Korean work. Today, they are at least talked about in practically every field as the very embodiment of indigenous church principles. But the implementation of these ideals was more spelled out and more consistently carried out in Korea than in most other places.
The Nevius method has its weak points, of course, such as the failure to produce capable and qualified leaders, lower quality of theological education, etc. It certainly didn't contribute to the unity of the churches. However, there is no doubt that this indigenous principle was a decisive factor in the growth of the Korean church. Actually, the important aspect of the indigenous principle applies not so much to methods as to attitudes; in mutual respect between the missionaries and nationals.
The greatest source of friction is found in a lack respect. The missionaries are to be respected for their wisdom, knowledge, and ability, but the national churches also want similar respect. They realize their short-comings, but they want to stand on their own feet. They want to make their own way, to form their own decisions.
(3)THE KOREAN CHURCH HAS SUFFERED GREATLY. A Korean proverb says, "He that is born in the fire will not faint in the sun." certainly this has been the experience of the church in Korea. Professor Kane, a missions professor at Trinity Evangelical School, wrote, "No church in the 20th Century, not even the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, nor the Christian church in Communist China, has suffered so much oppression, persecution and devastation as the church in Korea." First, under the old Confucian Kingdom and then under the Japanese rulers during World War Ⅱ and again at the hands of the communists, the Korean church has been tortured almost beyond endurance.
When the communists retreated over the 38th parallel, they took with them several hundred Christian pastors. None ever returned; they are presumed dead. I, myself, dedicated my life to Christ while searching for my father's body among hundreds of murdered and burned corpses of Christian ministers.
Even now, not only is South Korea under the constant threat of a North Koran invasion, but also the North Korean government is still openly persecuting Christians, forbidding Christian worship services (except the two churches which were licensed by the government and ministered to by the communist Christians. However, no one under 20 is permitted to enter the church building).
Those who refuse to labor for the government during the Sunday worship hour are liquidated and exiled to an isolated island. It is believed that some l3,000 people are imprisoned on that island because of their faith. Thus, Christian faith became a matter of life and death to these Christians.
The rapid growth of the church also created problems. These are relatively minor problems compared to massive growth and side effects that can be expected in any movement.
(1)One problem may be the materialistic emphasis. Emphasis on the external - size of the church, amount of offering, statistical church growth and theological qualifications - can often lead to a materialistic view of the church.
(2)Also, formality, legalism, and authoritarian leadership have developed, and emphasis on a personal relationship to the Lord and His Word has often been neglected.
(3)Divisions have afflicted every major denomination. Nearly 60% of all Protestants are of one or another Presbyterian group, but there are over 30 such groups. The causes have been ecumenicism, doctrine, power struggle and personality clashes.
Unfortunately, the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in Korea were not without the problem of division. Division and strife between the missionaries, division between the missionaries and the national leaders, division between the national leaders, etc. The causes of division, I feel, were mainly mutual mistrust and misunderstanding - lack of willingness to understand.
The motto of the Restoration Movement is very appropriate in the solution of the problem of division: "Unity in Essentials, Liberty in Non-essentials and Charity in Everything!" On the mission field where a variety of customs, languages, histories, and philosophies exist, this spirit is crucial.
There are some Biblical elements such as expressed by Thomas Campbell, "A 'thus said the Lord,' either in expressed terms, or by approved precedent, for every article of faith and items of practice”are absolute and cannot be changed. If Christianity is to remain true to its own genius, it must be exclusive. However, some elements are relative and may be changed. So, when it comes to non-essentials, there should be liberty to contextualize the Christian faith: modes of worship, methods of evangelism, styles of architecture and so on.
All cultures have both good and bad element. The early (denominational) missionaries tended to reject everything: that was strange to them. Thus, Christianity was equated with civilization. Fortunately, today's missionaries are less authoritative. It is now generally agreed that all that is inherently good should be retained. Only that which is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture is to be rejected. However, everything must be done in the spirit of love.
PRESENT STATUS: There have been many efforts to unite various factions of the movement in Korea and they have been at least partially successful. Korea Christian Seminary and Seoul Bible Seminary were united in 1981. In l984, Christian churches and a majority of non-instrumental churches of Christ decided to have one annual convention. Korean Christian churches have been working in cooperation with many denominational leaders of fundamental theological positions in evangelism through Christian leaders' Conferences, Church and Police Federations, Evangelistic Associations and many nation-wide crusades.
At present there are about 400 Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in Korea. There are two Bible colleges (Korea Christian Seminary in Seoul and Hansung Bible Seminary in Taejon), one Christian college of non-instrumental brethren, one affiliated technical Junior college and University, one high school, three children's homes, and a number of nursery schools. There are also two publishing houses, two correspondence schools and one Braille Bible School. In addition, Christian church ministers and missionaries have been active in military evangelism and radio ministries. Thirteen missionaries have been sent out from Korean christian churches to Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Africa, Turkey, Chile, etc. And the number is growing!
(1)The first and utmost challenge is WORLD EVANGELISM. Korea received and now Korea must give. We received freely and we must now give freely. This spiritual awakening and revival has been sweeping Korea and many hundreds of young people are responding to the call for missionaries. One night, during the World Evangelization Crusade, 900 young people came forward dedicating their lives for full-time mission work. Many missionary training centers have been established where hundreds of missionaries can learn the language faster and adjust to the jungle life better and they do not need much money to go. Korea feels that the evangelization of Asia is their responsibility.
(2)Another challenge comes from North Korea. Korea has been one nation for thousands of years (until 1945 when Korea was divided by the 38th parallel). Korean people never thought of it as a different country. The language is the same, the customs are the same, and the history is the same. Actually, North Korea was the place where the greatest revivals took place in the past. Some of the bigger churches in South Korea were originally formed by the refugees from North Korea.
North Korea, under the longest ruling dictator, Kim, Il Sung, and his son, Kim, Jung Il, has been extremely anti-Christian. But now, as the rest of the communistic world is crumbling down by the people's hunger and yearning for freedom and democracy, North Korea also seems to be changing slowly in its attitude toward the Christian faith.
Under an organization called "Christian League" (or federation), which is a part of the communist party, two church buildings were built recently, and some Christian personnel has been permitted to enter the country. Also North Korea recently printed their version of the Bible and hymn book, and even permitted the opening of a theological school. So far, we have been sending the Gospel message through Gospel broadcasting or by means of Gospel tracts. But now, we are ready to send evangelists, missionaries and martyrs to that part of our land as soon as the gate is open.
(3)Of course, there are challenges from THE OTHER RELIGIONS, TOO. Buddhism, which claims m be the largest religion in Korea, entered Korea in 372 A.D. and has learned much from Christian growth. Buddhists are now sending missionaries to many parts of the world.
Confucianism, which is not, strictly speaking, a religion but a system of political and social ethics, entered Korea from China in the first century B.C. As a state religion of Ee-dynasty for 500 years, it competed with Buddhism for dominance until its final victory in 1392. Though fewer than five percent of the people name Confucianism as their religion, the teaching of Confucius has had enormous influence on Korean culture.
Large numbers of Koreans also practice Shamanism, a form of animism which is indigenous to Korea and dates back to the dawn of Korean history. In addition, there are a number of new religions and cults in Korea, including Chun-do Kyo(Heavenly Way Religion), the Unification Church and the Olive Tree Church.
Most of the denominations that exist in the world also have been brought into Korea by foreign missionaries, adding to the already devastating phenomenon of divisions.
For these reasons, THE RESTORATION MOVEMENT IS NEEDED IN KOREA MORE THAN EVER BEFORE AND PRAYERS AND SUPPORT FOR EVANGELISM AND CHURCH PLANTING ARE URGENTLY NEEDED.
Of course, the most powerful cult we face is that of communism and premier-Kim worship of North Korea, and their continuous challenge and ideological invasion into the young minds of the South Korean students.
This is a serious threat as Seoul (capitol of Korea) is only 20 miles from North Korea about 150 miles from China, and 200 miles from Russia. At this time, the doors are closed to North Korea for missionaries, but we believe and pray that God will open doors for us before long.
In South Korea, the Republic of Korea is a democratic country. There are many Christians in the Cabinet and in the National Council (Congress) and missionaries are welcomed. Korean Christian churches need Christian missionaries, especially in the field of Christian Education: teachers for Bible colleges, preferably with a Master's degree or higher; benevolence work - doctors and nurses who are willing to work with orphans, widows, and the poor; or in the field of mass-media, especially TV and radio ministry to North Korea and China, or publications. In whatever field missionaries may specialize, language study is strongly recommended.
Korea is an interesting place to work and one of the most challenging areas of the world. The light of the Gospel shone into the land not too long ago, bore abundant fruit, and now the light is shining out to the darkness of atheism, communism, and materialism. The prayers of Korean Christians are for boldness, wisdom, and strength to obey the Royal order of our Risen Lord, "Make disciples of all nations."
Korea's goal is the training of 10,000 Asian missionaries by the year 2,000. We believe that the only hope of the world is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have seen and experienced the Power of the Gospel. The enemies of Christ may be able to destroy freedom and democracy, BUT GOD THEY CANNOT DESTROY. So, if persecution is the way Christ comes, let it come! We will be preaching this Gospel to the height of our voices and to the last breath of our lives!