Korean missionaries: Protestant churches and their global vision

Saharial reports from the recent talk at the Korean Cultural Centre:
Dr Kirsteen Kim (Theology at Leeds Trinity University College)
Wednesday 31st March 2010

Red neon cross, Korea

In the summer of 2007, a group of missionaries from the Saemmul Presbyterian Church, South Korea, were kidnapped by the Taliban, an incident that left 2 of their members dead and brought the spotlight of the world on the missionaries of South Korea. It is with this incident in mind that the talk began, a good starting point for an explanation into the history and attitude of Korean missionaries in the modern world.

Dr Kim explained clearly and in detail the way Christian culture took root in South Korea since 1884 and the arrival of Horace Underwood, a US citizen and Presbyterian. The US itself was going through a religious revival and the main object of the mission was conversion by setting up of small independent churches, a method known as the Nevius Method. It was 20 years later however that rapid conversion began, the hub of which was Pyongyang, and Christianity spread throughout Korea until it became indigenous.

Japanese occupation of Korea was the next event that had a great influence on the Korean Christian psyche. Suffering under this occupation they saw parallels between themselves and the Israelites, the idea that they suffered the same as Christ had done for their beliefs. They were ready to sacrifice themselves as Christ had done. In post war, post liberation Korea the Christian population expanded once more as missionaries were invited in and proved vital services for social work – orphanages, hospitals, schools etc. all things that helped to rebuild Korea and guide it towards the nation it is now. The association of Christianity with national spirit was made, with the idea of being modern and advanced. Today some 30% of the population are Christian.

Prayers in a Korean church
Photo: AP

In the 1980’s, with the advent of the Olympics, travel restrictions were lifted and missionaries from Korea began to travel the world spreading the gospel. This was something done as much out of a need to repay the debt they felt was upon them, as the need to spread the word of God. This motive has not changed to this day. What has changed is the world itself, and South Korea’s place in this world, no longer a growing nation of 30 years ago, but one that is a major player in the world. Whilst Korean missionaries, usually a family of four, are recognised as being genuinely keen to help, the training given often lacks depth of education to cultural and political issues, something that needs to change to prevent further incidents as those in Afghanistan.

As someone who attends a Korean Presbyterian Church that places much emphasis on Missionary work, I was very keen to hear this talk and it certainly enlightened me to a perspective on this that maybe my friends might not have been able to explain so objectively. The talk and issues go far deeper and are more complex than I was able to cover here, but hopefully it gives you some insight into what has become a controversial aspect of Korean Christianity.

2 thoughts on “Korean missionaries: Protestant churches and their global vision

  1. Quite by chance, as I read your draft I was also reading the entry for 7 April in Martin Uden’s Times Past in Korea. I’ll quote the passage in full, as it’s good contemporary evidence for what Dr Kim described as the “1907 revival” in Korean Christianity:

    9 April 1907
    George Trumbull Ladd – In Korea with Marquis Ito

    The audience next morning was not so large, but was scarcely less interesting. It comprised both sexes, separated, however, by a tight screen which ran from the platform through the middle of the church to the opposite wall. The numbers present were some 1,400 about equally divided between the two sexes. The girls on the one side, and the boys on the other, in their gaily coloured clothing, were massed about the platform and back of them the women and the men – both in white, but the former topped out with white turbans and the latter with their black hats. The entire audience marked out upon the floor an impressive colour-scheme. It was said that there were enough of the population of the city attending Christian services at that same hour to make three congregations of the same size. The afternoon gathering for Bible study and the evening services were even more crowded; so that the aggregate number of church-goers that Sunday in this Korean city of somewhat more than 40,000 could not have been less that 13,000 or 14,000 souls. Considering also the fact that each service was stretched out to the minimum length of two hours, there was probably no place in the United States that could compete with Pyeng-yang for its percentage of churchgoers on that day. Yet ten years ago there was in all the region scarcely the beginning of a Christian congregation.

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