We read so much about the harsh and evil regime in North Korea that it is hard for many to imagine the state of the culture in Korea. South Korea is filled with evangelical Christianity. This once resolutely shamanistic and Confucian country has churches on every corner, and boasts the largest church in the entire world, Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. They have church services every single day, several times a day, and going in to hear the choir lead a large congregation at midday on a weekday was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I also got to go to one of the many prayer mountains to pray, and in the darkness heard the voices of many lifting their hearts to God throughout the night.
Churches dot the rural villages, and the skylines of the big cities like Seoul are ablaze with neon crosses. Christians witness house to house, distribute pamphlets on street corners, and cycle through town blaring sermons and Scriptures through bullhorns, urging the hearers to accept Jesus. Actually, only 29 percent of the population identifies as Christian, but their enthusiasm and zeal is so large that it overshadows the 23 percent Buddhist and the 46 percent who don’t identify with any religion. How did this small, divided country go from being a place where Christianity was barely one percent of the population in 1900 to one that produces more missionaries than any other country in the world except the U.S.?
I believe one main reason is the way God and believing Christians worked together with great hope in a bleak cultural time. In the early 1900s, Korea was trying to resist Japan’s colonial rule. It was a brutal time—many memorials are there about this time. The country was in dire need. They had no protectors, several different countries were eyeing the country to take them over, and hopelessness abounded. They needed the grace of God in great ways. Christian missionaries arrived and they were received very well. “There was no other hope for Koreans at that time,” says Dr. Andrew Park, professor of Theology and Ethics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. “They couldn’t depend on China, Russia, Americans, or any other country. There was no help. Only God alone, they were so desperate.”
So many people found hope in Christ that the entire country was changed. When the Japanese left in 1945, the church was in high standing. The first South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, was a U.S.-educated Protestant. Even Kim II-sung, first ruler of North Korea, had been a Presbyterian as a child. I find the history and the life of the church there fascinating.
What is most challenging to me is this: In many ways, our American culture is bleak, from the terrorists who attack us from outside to the division that deteriorates us from within. What if believers behaved as enthusiastic and loving missionaries to our own culture, steadily presenting Christ as the only hope? What might God do here?
Why don’t we start right now and see?