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
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 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... Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 19:10
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    @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) Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 19:34
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    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. Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 20:20

3 Answers 3


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 seventy years old or so, these events are still present in the memories of the older 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 the Japanese military force. They locked him up with others in the church and started lighting it on fire from the outside. Yet, he managed to escape. Even though my own relatives were 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... Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 21:55
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    @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 Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 22:16
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    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. Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 22:20
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    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? Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 23:50
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    After discussing this question with my mother, I've edited the answer and added a fifth point.
    – user1121
    Commented Dec 31, 2011 at 10:13

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.


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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    Yet Japan is not very spiritual despite experiencing all the factors you've mentioned.
    – Beestocks
    Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 23:22

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