THE PROGRESS OF THE GOSPEL IN SOUTH KOREA: How to Cope with a Changing Religious Geography

The progress of Protestant Christianity in South Korea has been dramatic during the 20th century. While the Protestant Christianity as an imported faith and practice among Korean believers, has become a familiar phenomenon in the life of the South Korean people. However, South Korea is a land that still needs evangelistic and missionary outreaches. Being ushered into a post-colonial mission era when world mission ought to be carried out by global churches, we recognize that the mission in South Korea is primarily the task of the local churches in the country. It is also noted that, strangely enough, religious plurality, though an ancient phenomenon that would have a far-reaching effects on Christian mission, seems one of the most neglected factors in the discourse of Christian mission/evangelism in South Korea. Given the context of changing religious geography in South Korea, Protestant Christianity is pressed to seek ways to negotiate with the multi-religious milieu in South Korea and devise alternative and relevant approaches to bring the Gospel to the people.
This paper will be an attempt to identify the changes in religious environment that pose significant challenges to the missionary outreach of Protestant Christianity in South Korea, to highlight the necessary shift in conceptual framework and perspective Protestant Christianity should acquire, and to suggest viable ways to charter a new direction for Protestant Christianity to restore religious integrity and authority for the progress of the Gospel in South Korea.

Since the introduction of Protestant Christianity in the late 19th century up to the end of the 20th century the religious milieu in South Korea was very favorable for the progress of the gospel. By the turn of the century, however, with the resurgence of traditional religions and the rise of anti-Christian sentiment among the people for various reasons, the religious geography in South Korea has changed so drastically that leaders of Protestant Christianity are even wary of the future of the local churches. This change in religious geography in South Korea should have a significant bearing on the way Protestant Christianity deliver the gospel to her people.

1. Struggling Protestant Christianity
The introduction of Protestant Christianity to South Korea coincided with the collapse of the Yi Dynasty. The disintegration of the traditional society, and the subsequent unfolding of the South Korean history cannot be told without the impact of Protestant Christianity. The 20th century on the Korean peninsula was a time of great upheaval and dramatic changes with every aspect of the South Korean society undergoing reconstruction. At the outset of the history of Protestant Christianity in South Korea, Christians exemplified the ethical and moral life in society, playing the role of awakening people to upgrade their ethical and moral behaviors. Those who attended churches were given the credit for their integrity and honesty. Protestant Christianity has contributed to the nation building with its liberating and positive messages. Moreover, the affinity between traditional Korean religious culture and Protestantism facilitated the remarkable spread of Protestant Christianity in South Korea.

Entering into the 21st century, however, we noticed a significant change in the religious geography of the South Korean society. Protestant Christianity today does not receive the same honor and respect as it once enjoyed in the past. South Korean people began to express their negative and even hostile sentiments against Protestant Christianity through various channels. It is said that the South Korean people are turning their back from Protestant Christianity and its leaders. Informed of the sustained religious elements in their culture, South Korean people have certain expectations regarding the role of a religion in society. The public perception of Protestant Christianity in South Korea today is that it failed to embody the Christian truth, thus not quite religious. Protestant Christianity is becoming less attractive to the public as it fails to represent the basic religious qualities, i.e. the practice of sacrificial love for others, self-denial, moral and ethical life, abandoning the pursuit of worldly success and so forth. At the same time the frequent reports on the malpractices like sexual scandals and embezzlement of church money etc. by some church leaders offset the uphill battles to renew and reform Protestant Christianity.
The existence of many genuine followers of Christ in South Korea cannot be ignored. Not a few conscientious church leaders have paid attention to the rising anti-Christian sentiments widely spreading among South Koreans, feeling that the future of Protestant Christianity in South Korea is seriously at stake. In spite of all the sincere gestures to renovate the churches, however, Protestant Christianity is getting more alienated from the people who might reject it en masse as they had once done in the past towards Buddhism and Confucianism.

2. The Resurgence of Traditional Religions
Before the advent of Protestant Christianity, South Korea has been nurtured by other religious traditions for thousands of years. In the process of modernization and westernization in the 20th century, traditional religious elements seemed relegated to an almost invisible sector in the collective life of the South Korean people, while Protestant Christianity experienced a remarkable expansion. The rapid spread of Protestant Christianity gave the impression that Christianity emerged as one of the major religions in South Korea. Some even expressed the confidence that the evangelization of the entire land is around the corner. However, the influence of the traditional culture with its religious elements did not become extinct but was very much alive in the religious consciousness of South Korean people.
Protestant Christianity is facing a new reality in that traditional religions are more visible in the everyday life of the people. Several traditional religions, Buddhism in particular, study of Asian philosophy, and folk religions are resurging in the wake of the emergence of a new zeitgeist formed by post-modernism, neo-nationalism and globalization. A growing number of people are turning to Buddhism and other religious practices with a sense of pride in their traditional culture and values. The recently rising popularity of traditional religions among South Koreans seems inevitably related to their renewed interests in the Korean traditional culture and things related to Korean ancient religions.
One episode shows this newly emerging religious ethos shared by South Koreans. Some years ago an American Buddhist monk published a book in South Korea titled From Harvard To Hwagye Temple, which was widely read among the Korean intellectuals. The author was born in a Christian family and educated in the best schools in America. The author said he was searching for the fundamental truths about life but could not get answers from his own religion. In the book the author states how he was led into Buddhism while he was studying at Harvard University and how he succeeded in finding answers he was looking for through his encounter with a South Korean Buddhist master in Boston. The book found broad resonances among the Korean readers, significantly contributing to the evangelization of Buddhism in Korea.

3. The Discourse of Religious Pluralism
South Korea is a typical multi-religious country in that traditional religions have co existed for thousands of years and all the religious teachings have formed the fabric of society and culture in the Korean peninsula. It is quite natural that before the introduction of Christianity people in Korea had to live under the influence of various religions such as Shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and other indigenous religions. Given the plural religious context, the relationship between Protestant Christianity as an imported faith and traditional religions of South Korea has been one of the thorny issues all along. The experience of religious plurality on the part of South Korean Christians should be probably the opposite to that of Western missionaries, which is seldom reflected in missiological or theological discourses yet.
The discourse of religious pluralism, initiated by Western scholars in the area of missiology or religious studies, and further developed by some non-Western theologians, was imported to the Korean theological circles. Some scholars proposed that Protestant Christianity adopt a pluralist attitude toward other religions in South Korea. Others even argued that authentic Korean Christian theology will be the theology of/for other religions. Assessing these proposals from within the plural religious milieu in South Korea, however, it sounds anachronistic and seriously irrelevant in that Protestant Christianity has never been in a position to assume such a condescending or tolerant position toward other traditional religions in the religious marketplace of South Korea. The confusion arises from the failure to differentiate two streams of Christianity: One stream of Christianity represented by the rich and powerful Western Christians and the other stream of Christianity in Asia represented by poor and oppressed local Christians. If Christians in South Korea as well as in other parts of Asia assume that they are heirs of Western Christianity it will be a grave misconception. Protestant Christianity has always been on the minority side in South Korea; only those theologians trained in the West and molded as faithful followers of Western theological and conceptual frameworks became blinded to this reality. In a nutshell, the discourse of religious pluralism in theological circles in South Korea does not fully represent South Korean religious ethos, let alone Christian ethos.

Protestant Christianity in South Korea needs a new perspective. Up to recent times the diverse perspectives of Western Christianity on Christian approach to indigenous cultures and religions have been imposed upon local South Korean Christians. It is time, however, to let local Christians express their own experience of religious plurality and acquire their own perspective to interface with their own culture and religions in a relevant way.
It is noted that South Korean Christians, still living in a pre-Christian society, have a different experience of religious plurality and its missiological implications need to be further explored in light of the changing religious geography in South Korea. Protestant Christianity in South Korea is to be awakened to acknowledge the implications and ramifications of the newly emergent reality of religious plurality and acquire a proper perspective to perceive the current status of Protestant Christianity in the democratic religious marketplace in South Korea.

1. Protestant Christianity is a Western Religion
What we observe in the context of South Korea, as in most other Asian countries, is that Christianity, regardless of its status as a worldwide Christianity, is perceived as a Western religion. Before the advent of Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism with other indigenous religious practices like Shamanism took root in the life and culture of South Korean people for thousands of years. Even though Buddhism and Confucianism were imported religions, people in South Korea would not hesitate to recognize that these religions are thoroughly Koreanized, forming the very fabric of their own culture. Protestant Christianity, however, is not accepted as a Korean religion yet, and the public perception of Christianity as a Western religion is still very much alive.

2. Protestant Christianity is a Minority Religion in South Korea
Due to the global expansion of Christianity it is accorded the status of world Christianity. Based on the shift of the center of Christian gravity from the West to the non-Western world it is even argued that Christianity has become a non-Western religion. Reflecting on these observations from within the multi-religious South Korean context, it is hard to be affirmative in that the social status of Christianity in South Korea is still a minority religion. Protestant Christianity as an imported faith has always been a minority religion in South Korea.

3. South Korea is a Pre-Christian Society
It would be fair to say that Korea once was a Buddhist country (918-1392) and a Confucian country (1392-1910); South Korea has never been Christianized. Therefore, if we are to describe South Korea in terms of religious influence, it will be more appropriate to say that Korea is a post Confucian or a post Buddhist society. In a sense, Christianity in Korea is placed in a pre-Constantine situation, for Korea is still a pre-Christian society. The missiological implications of this observation need to be examined and applied in the way we approach local people with the Gospel.

Protestant Christianity is a Newly Imported Religion.
A brief survey of the history of religious presence in Korea would suffice to confirm the relatively short history of Christianity. Shamanism, an indigenous religious practice of the Korean people, existed on the Korean soil long before the introduction of Confucianism and Buddhism from China. Buddhism was introduced and officially accepted by Korean people around 4th century. Confucianism was introduced to Korea before Buddhism, and ever since up to the fall of Yi dynasty (1910) by Japanese colonial power, education in Korea was conducted based on the study of Confucian classics. It was only at the end of 18th century that some Confucian scholars interested in the Western civilisation and science accepted the Catholic faith and the Protestant Christianity was delivered to the Korean people towards the end of the 19th century.

Religious Pluralism Would be Beneficial to Protestant Christianity.
The real issue for Protestant Christianity in religiously plural South Korean society has been how to secure tolerance towards Christian faith from the traditional society at large, on the grass-root level in particular. The status of Protestant Christianity in the South Korean society as in most other Asian countries would not allow to be triumphalistic or paternalistic towards other religions but on the contrary had to plead for religious tolerance towards Protestant Christianity.
Since the late 18th century when the Catholic faith was first introduced to Korea, Confucian scholars and the government vehemently opposed the newly imported faith, thinking that the Catholic faith destroyed the traditional social order and the Confucian moral norms. The Catholic faith had to suffer a series of severe persecutions until the ban on the Catholic faith was officially lifted in 1896. Protestant Christianity came to Korea in the late 19thcentury, a time when the religious climate was much more favorable. However, the suspicion and antagonistic attitude of the local people towards the newly imported Protestant Christian faith have sustained up to the present time. Western Christians with guilty feelings about the intolerant historical legacy of western Christendom towards other religious traditions might propose belatedly to acknowledge the existence of other religions, but South Korean Christians who had to face the hostility of the host society are in a position to ask for a religious toleration towards Christianity. What we have witnessed and experienced on the grass-root level in South Korean society is not the change of Christian attitudes toward other religions but the change of attitude of the traditional society toward Christianity.
As there exists no apparent government-sponsored religion today, all religions including Protestant Christianity have to compete in principle with other religious traditions in a democratic religious market-place. Protestant Christianity will have to appreciate the environment and practice of religious pluralism under which all religions in South Korea could co-exist side by side as religious pluralism would accept the fact that all religions by nature are exclusive in their religious commitment and missionary in their practice. The inter-faith or inter-religious encounter in the multi-religious South Korean society might be primarily on practical issues, not on theological or doctrinal matters. Every follower of a religion would respect one’s religion as possessing a comprehensive truth with mission-oriented teachings. It will sound imperialistic for an outsider of a religion to demand to discard religious boundaries and it is absolutely irrelevant for a follower of a religion to propose to accept other religions as equal companions in the pursuit of truth, seemingly promoting a multiple religious identity, which would not be endorsed by South Koreans.

Protestant Christianity in South Korea is confronting an uphill battle. The questions arising in the South Korean context are as follows: Can Protestant Christianity have its religious authority restored in a manner to influence the collective life of South Korean people again? Is there a future for Protestant Christianity in South Korea? The answer to these questions will be rather simple. Protestant Christianity should become fully Christian. The concerted efforts to renovate Protestant Christianity will be the most imperative task not only for its mission but also for its survival.

Protestant Christianity Should Negotiate With the Religiosity of Korean People
At a time when Protestant Christianity was experiencing an explosive growth, the discourse of religious negotiation was not an issue at all and the traditional religious consciousness of the South Korean people was not given appropriate attention. In the wake of the rising neo-nationalism coupled with post-modernism, however, a new attention is given to the traditional culture and religions in South Korea, and the seemingly dormant traditional religious consciousness of the South Korean people was stirred and awakened. The renewed interests in things Korean made the public appreciate and take pride in those traditional elements. In case Protestant Christianity in South Korea does not take the traditional religious consciousness of the South Korean people into serious consideration, the ever rising anti-Christian public sentiment might not be appeased. Remembering that the traditional religious consciousness the very seed-bed for Protestant Christianity. Protestant Christianity needs to reconfigure the way it interfaces with the public and renovate its image as one of the local religions, casting off the image of a foreign or western religion.

We do not have time just to criticize those who criticize Protestant Christianity. We have to reflect critically on our own, on how we have delivered Protestant Christianity to the South Korean people wrapped and packaged elaborately in western style. Now we have to pause and make a conscious attempt to reformat those elements that make the perception of South Koreans towards Protestant Christianity as foreign and less religious. This might be the most crucial factor that would renew and transform the way Protestant Christianity interacts with the religious environment in South Korea and makes it attractive and appealing again to the South Korean people.

Protestant Christianity Should Remove Secularism
Protestant Christianity in South Korea is seen to be deeply immersed in and operates on the secular values characterized by growth mentality, competitive ethos, pursuit of success, strong trait of commercialism and so forth. Protestant Christianity in South Korea is said to be heavily influenced by mammonism. Church growth has almost become an ideology for this age and minor malpractices or irregularities of the church leaders would be overlooked as long as you achieved a numerical growth of a church. In a sense it may be said that church growth has become the primary virtue for church leaders in South Korea. Protestant Christianity has to detect and remove all the worldly values shown in the way Protestant Christianity is played, and restore the integrity of Protestant Christianity.
Protestant Christianity should abandon the secular trends within the church to be the salt and light for the society. Protestant Christianity should resist secularism, not to remain aloof from the worldly affairs but to reject the logic and values of this world. It is to be remembered that in past history people in South Korea turned their back on Buddhism and Confucianism when they became secularized and lost religious authority as a beacon of light for the society.

Protestant Christianity Should Embody Christianity
Protestant Christianity in the multi-religious milieu in South Korea has to compete with other religious traditions to win the hearts of South Koreans. For this purpose Protestant Christianity should resort only to religious channels, restoring the primitive Christian practice that will eradicate the mistrust and anti-Christian sentiment of the South Korean people. Protestant Christians should demonstrate the teachings of the Bible in the daily context, thus making Christianity visible through their life-style. The basic Christian virtues are to be acted out by Christian practitioners and exemplified by their leaders.

We admit that Protestant Christianity in South Korea has come to a crossroads. Unless Protestant Christianity succeeds in winning the hearts of South Korean people, the Christian mission/evangelism will suffer a severe setback in South Korea. What we hope is that the rising anti-Christian sentiments of the South Korean people coupled with the changing religious geography serve as a good impetus for Protestant Christianity to reflect seriously on the fundamental issues directly related to the future of Christianity in South Korea. The most immediate task for Protestant Christianity in South Korea should probably be the rediscovery of the religious nature of Christianity. In so far as local people in South Korea perceive Protestant Christianity to be less religious than other traditional religions, it will not be easy to attract them to Christianity. In the multi-religious milieu in South Korea where the changing religious geography awakens the public religiosity in a renewed manner, the survival and mission of Protestant Christianity will depend on its success to become fully Christian.


Moonjang Lee
Dr. Moon Jang Lee is the Senior Pastor of Doorae Church in South Korea. He thaught at University of Edinburgh, Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Leave a Reply