Korean Protestant Christianity: A Missiological Reflection

Article excerpt

The first Protestant missionary set foot on the Korea Peninsula in 1884. (1) The growth of Korean Protestantism in the past century and a quarter has been extraordinary by any measure. Korean churches experienced rapid numerical growth, in particular from the 1960s through the 1980s. In 1960 the Protestant population was 623,000, and by 1985 it had grown over tenfold to 6,489,000. From the early 1990s, however, the growth rate of the Korean church began to decline. In 1995, according to the Population and Housing Census Report, 8,760,000, or 19.7 percent of the population, were Protestant Christians. During the following decade the number of Protestants declined slightly, to 8,616,000, a 1.6 percent decrease. During the same period, by contrast, Korean Catholics increased by 74.4 percent (from 2,951,000 to 5,146,000), and Buddhists by 3.9 percent (from 10,321,000 to 10,726,000). (2)

This downward trend has alarmed Korean Protestant churches, forcing them to search for its causes and cures. Their responses thus far, however, have been reactive and shallow; the churches have not yet engaged in the critical theological self-reflection necessary for the renewal of the church at a more fundamental level. Specifically, I believe that Korean Protestant Christianity needs radical transformation at the level of its ecclesiology. In this article I examine the past growth and present decline of the Protestant church in South Korea, identifying major factors in its advancement and their role in the current downturn. I then propose an Anabaptist vision of the church as an ecclesiological tradition to be integrated into a new vision of the Korean church, and hospitality as the context for its mission and evangelism.

Factors in Korean Protestant Growth

It is striking that Korean Christianity began virtually as a self-evangelized church. Even before the arrival of foreign missionaries, Korea had a small number of Protestant communities that arose primarily through the distribution of the New Testament translated into Korean in Manchuria by John Ross and his team of Korean merchant-translators. The first portions were printed and circulated in 1882, and the entire New Testament was available in 1887. (3) The translation of the Bible into the Korean vernacular also significantly contributed to cultural revitalization and the formation of national identity.

A visit to Korea in 1890 by John L. Nevius, long-time missionary to China, turned out to be missiologically critical, for this was a time when the "missionaries were still feeling their way toward an over-all strategy for the evangelization of Korea." (4) The so-called Nevius Plan, which stressed the crucial importance of native leadership for church growth, "became the universally accepted policy of Protestant mission in Korea," spurring the Korean church to be independent and self-supporting. (5)

Besides the significant role of Nevius and his method, several other factors help explain the rapid growth of the Korean Protestant Church.

Historical and geopolitical factors. The historical and geopolitical situations in and around Korea encouraged Koreans to accept Christianity more readily than in other Asian countries. Korea became forcibly annexed by Japan in 1910, and this tragic loss of independence "decisively shaped both the nature of Korean nationalism and the life of the Korean church." (6) By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of Asian nations had become subjugated by Western powers and turned anti-Western; in Korea, however, the nationalism was anti-Japanese. Koreans welcomed Christianity as "a viable channel for expressing its nationalistic sentiment against the Japanese." (7) Furthermore, Christian education became "the nurturing ground of nationalism, political resistance and democracy." (8)

The early growth of Korean Christianity thus became inseparably intertwined with Korean nationalism. The nationwide March First Korean Independence Movement of 1919 serves as a telling illustration of this unique partnership. …