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So, in my world travels with missionaries, it seems like a missionary, if he/she doesn't come from North America, is next most likely to come from Korea*. In seminary, the proportion of Anglos & Koreans way beat out any other group. And, in my neck of the woods (Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC), it seems like there are Korean churches all over the place.

This all stems from the fact that South Korea has a huge Christian population.

My question is, why?

What is it about the history, culture, economy, whatever of (presumably South) Korea that has made it so receptive to the Gospel? I know that Catholic missionaries were there in the 1600s, but they've been a lot of places. What (other than "the Holy Spirit") accounts for the tremendous receptivity and growth?

Along these lines, I'm curious

a. If there is any particular denominational emphasis (it seems like a fair number Presbyterians, but I don't know that)

b. If it is confined to South Korea or if the communist North has experienced similiar things and

c. What the underlying causes are for this growth...

*Note: Totally unscientific claim. Just my experiences in Europe & Central Asia.

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If I recall from my 'Perspectives on World Mission' class about 3 years ago, most missionaries come from Brazil or other parts of Latin America, and Asia. The U.S. is near the end of the list, only ahead of certain parts of western Europe. –  Flimzy Dec 30 '11 at 18:35
@Flimzy Agreed that the West no longer has a monopoly on missions. I was heartend by the Southern Baptist decision to rename the "foreign" mission board to the "international" mission board. It never ceases to amaze me how many people from the US think that only the West sends missionaries... –  Affable Geek Dec 30 '11 at 19:10
@Flimzy Wikipedia still says US is highest number (Korea second); maybe the list you are thinking of is per capita? (it goes without saying the the likelihood of bumping into nationality X is base on the absolute numbers) –  Marc Gravell Dec 30 '11 at 19:34
Suggest you change title and question to specify South Korea. –  Wikis Dec 30 '11 at 20:04
I don't have any data, but in all seriousness, I wonder whether their troubled history and stress of their deeply alarming neighbour is a factor - it would certainly make "fence sitters" more likely to hedge their bets, and could (by extension) make firm believers more "firebrand". Certainly, Christianity has the factor of being diametrically opposite to the (of late) overtly God-complex and megalomanic NK leader (with a grudge to settle and a trigger finger) - and I could see (given history) that alignment on national lines (for mutual support) could be "less than". All speculation. –  Marc Gravell Dec 30 '11 at 20:20

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Please excuse my short answer, I'm not very good with words :-)

  1. The threat of North Korea is very real. Both countries are officially at war. Lethal incidents occur from time to time. All South Korean males have to fulfill a 21 month long military service which is a hard political decision due to the missing workforce for the economy. Where harm to body and life is a real threat, people do think about the life and death. They start to care about spiritual matters. South Koreans Christians are spiritually quite alive. (This is no argument trying to support growth of Christianity in SK, it solely tries to explain the vigorous spirit of SK Christians.)
  2. Unlike in other Western Nations, Christianity is in a competitive state in South Korea. It is a major religion but has to compete with Buddhism. Buddhism is a very tolerant, non-radical religion and therefore widely accepted.
  3. South Korea has a very hierarchal culture. Your boss is not just your boss. He is THE BOSS. How can I explain this? You simply do not speak bad of your boss. Also you do not stand up to him. Your respect to the boss is 'unlimited'. Thus, workers are very loyal and obedient. The hierarchal culture starts in the family where each member has a title. While my grandparents may greet me by my first name, I have to name them by their title. Due to the 'western' influence in our family this not that big of a deal. I think that it is the culturally induced obedience towards your superior that is reflected in the strong missionary work of South Koreans.
  4. Christianity in South Korea is still young. It does not have the old relics and structures that the mainstream church has created in Western Europe. It's young and vibrant.
  5. In the second world war, South Korea was occupied by Japan. There was an active persecution and deportation of Christians. Many were martyred. Since these events are only a half decade old, these events are still present with the old generation and have supported growth of Christians among the younger generations.

About point 5: This is what Korean relatives have told me. They themselves see this as the most important point to mention. In fact, my grandfather was close to getting killed by Japanese military force. They locked him up with others in the church and started lightening it on fire from the outside. Yet, he managed to escape. Even though my relatives they are telling me this, I surprisingly could not find much evidence online to confirm such persecution of Christians in SK during WW2. Most information you find, will relate to persecution of Catholic Christians in the early 19th century.

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I like 2 & 4 definitely - Jury's still out on 1 & 3, but I see where you're going... –  Affable Geek Dec 30 '11 at 21:55
@Affable re 3, you can see similar in much of some elements of Indian culture, where by and large (not totally), there is a lot of deference. I can conceptualise how that may make people less sceptical or less willing to challenge that which is presented by a trusted figure –  Marc Gravell Dec 30 '11 at 22:16
Re 1, it is often claimed "there are no atheists in foxholes" - however, there is a lot of counter-evidence to this. For sure, it does make people more aware of mortality, but that is not quite the same as religiosity. –  Marc Gravell Dec 30 '11 at 22:20
What I don't like about #1 is this - if there is a perceived threat to the society, I would find it odd that one would seek solace in a non-indigineous religion. I mean, after the 9/11 attacks, I didn't see a huge swell of conversions to Buddhism or Zoroastrianism. Why would that lead to an increase in a non-dominant religion? Likewise with #3, in a filial society where you respect your elders and do what they say, why would you abandon their native religion? –  Affable Geek Dec 30 '11 at 23:50
After discussing this question with my mother, I've edited the answer and added a fifth point. –  user1121 Dec 31 '11 at 10:13

I think the rise in Christianity is to the the economic development. Post war, Korea was broke and aid starting coming in from the West. Along with the aid came the missionaries. Think about it. All they are doing now is emulating what they saw. Korea's Christian population is mostly Protestants. Ironically the largest group of Western missionaries that came over there. Korea now sends out the highest number of missionaries in the world. See, they are just replicating exactly what they are seeing.

Your neighbor starts to get ahead in life, he's a Christian. You become Christian, you get ahead in life...etc. It's not a complex notion. Pre-war Korea was probably like 10% Christian. Post-war korea is now like 75% Christian.

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I suspect a very influential factor is how Christianity was linked to Korean nationalism in opposition of the Japan occupation and the effort to eradicate Korean culture. I've read other analysis of this, but wikipedia puts it fairly succinctly as:

"One of the most important factors leading to widespread acceptance of Christianity in Korea was the identification that many Christians forged with the cause of Korean nationalism during the Japanese occupation (1910–1945). During this period, Japan undertook a systematic campaign of cultural assimilation. There was an emphasis on Showa, so the Koreans would revered the Japanese emperor. In 1938, even use of the Korean language was prohibited.[16] However, the distinctly Korean nature of the church was reinforced during those years by the allegiance to the nation that was demonstrated by many Christians. While the subsequent constitution of South Korea guarantees freedom of religion as well as separation of church and state, the South Korean government has been favorable to Christianity, regarding the religion as an ideological protection against Communism. On 1 March 1919, an assembly of 33 religious and professional leaders known as the "March 1 Movement" passed a Declaration of independence. Although organized by leaders of the Chondogyo religion, 15 of the 33 signatories were Protestants[17], and many of them were imprisoned. Also in 1919, the predominantly Catholic pro-independence movement called "Ulmindan" [18] was founded, and a China-based government-in-exile was at one time led by Syngman Rhee, a Methodist.[19] Christianity was linked even more with the patriotic cause when some Christians refused to participate in worship of the Japanese Emperor, which was required by law in the 1930s.[20][21] Although this refusal was motivated by theological rather than political convictions, the consequent imprisonment of many Christians strongly identified their faith, in the eyes of many Koreans, with the cause of Korean nationalism and resistance to the Japanese occupation. Catholics and Methodists complied with demands to attend Shinto ceremonies.[24]"

I think a validation of this is to see how Christianity is actually practiced in S. Korea, is it as the Bible teaches to have concern for others or is it more ethno-centric and/or concern only for your family? Is being Christian more a country club membership than changing the way you live? Of course there will be genuine Christians, but the question is about the majority? Would be good to hear some firsthand accounts of what Christianity means to a cross-section of Christians there.

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i Think the way in which South Koreans see first hand how atheism can effect a society may enamor them to the Christan message.

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In all seriousness, do you honestly believe their neighbour-state's atheism is the cause of their actions? The state is totalitarian, run by a scary egomaniac leader. This has nothing at all to do with the state-endorced atheist nature (if you can even call it that when they declare themselves a God and demand worship). Seriously, this answer is both ill-informed and offensive. It can be legitimately argued that without the burden of dogma, atheists can indeed be much more ethical (no God-ordered prejudice against belief W, race X, sexuality Y, gender Z, etc) –  Marc Gravell Dec 31 '11 at 18:26
For examples, see large parts of Europe; perhaps Sweden - not exactly a hotbed of evil. The troubles in NK are not because of atheism. I think we can all agree that despite the 1939 census showing 94% of the German population as Christian, we should not conclude that what happened next was because of Christianity? –  Marc Gravell Dec 31 '11 at 18:35
You sound like there's two options: atheism or Christianity. This is surely a false dichotomy. –  TRiG Apr 27 '12 at 0:28

RE: Atheism, Xianity & development You'll find the safest, most prosperous countries are not Evangelical Christian, but specifically non-religious, i.e., Western Europe, the "post-Christian" countries. Communism is in fact nearly a religion in itself, with Marx, Engels & other founders having copied Biblical communitarianism from the Acts of the Apostles & the Early Church. Now, if you Google U.S. poverty maps, then U.S. religion maps, you'll find the poorest, most violent places are the ones with more Evangelical Christians. Of course, Evangelicalism doesn't necessarily direct you to poverty (US South) or riches (South Korea). I would argue, though, that the more Evangelical you are, the less you will care for the "Common Good" of your community and society, for a number of reasons: (1) the world is divided into "believers" and "unbelievers"; you trust the former & distrust the latter; (2) Evangelicals generally endorse capitalism & "small" government, & thus think it's not the government's (i.e. taxpayers') role to help society's poor; (3) Evangelicals think it's the End Times, so why waste time building your community or protecting the environment when God will wipe it all out anyways; (4) I believe Christianity eventually leads to a LOOSENING of morals, as you witness now in South Korea. This is because people's ethics does not result from a community effort to use rationality to find out what's right. Instead, the Bible is viewed as a book sent from heaven to do all the moral thinking for you. I.e., it makes people mentally and thus morally lazy. Plus, church folk end up simply following their pastors and other members rather than thinking through ethical issues, as they do more in Western Europe and other places where freethinkers are more predominant.

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Perhaps if the South Koreans in the 1960s & 70s had researched how high US poverty and crime rates correlated with the rate of US evangelicals, they would have hesitated to embrace the American-style religion! However, from the outside, from an Asian point of view, to become Westernised is to follow the West not only in its economic and political system, but also its predominant religion. –  Brandr Rasmussen Jul 29 '13 at 21:19
Welcome to C.SE. This answer is, um, interesting, but I'm not sure whether this is a serious answer or not. It starts off with a premise, but then sort of runs off the tracks... –  Affable Geek Jul 29 '13 at 23:10

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