by Keith Carey
Did you know there is a country that has one seventh of the population of the United States, yet sends out almost as many evangelical missionaries each year as the U.S.? That country is South Korea! There may soon be more missionaries from South Korea than from America. In this article we will explore how South Korea became such a powerhouse in the world of Christian missions, and what is happening today. Finally, we will pray for their efforts.
The story begins with how Korea learned about the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. In the 1500s Catholic missionaries like Mateo Ricci were working in neighboring China. Ricci was noted for his missionary approach which allowed for Chinese cultural forms of worship. In 1777 news about Ricci’s writings reached a group of seekers in Korea. In 1783 this group sent one of its members, Yi Seng Hun, to Beijing to learn more about the Christ Ricci had written about. Soon after arriving in Beijing, Hun made contact with Chinese Catholic believers. Hun then had a conversion experience and returned to Korea with a Catholic priest. Shortly thereafter, a revival broke out in Korea. By 1794 there were 4000 followers of Jesus Christ in Korea. At first all of the priests in Korea were Chinese. Only later did European Catholic priests arrive in Korea. From the start there was an emphasis on training Korean leaders for their fast growing church.
During this time period the rulers of Korea feared foreigners. They thought Christianity was a foreign religion, so they persecuted those who became Christians. Three European Catholic priests were driven out of the country between 1836-37. A more general persecution began in 1864, but the church in Korea continued to grow. By 1866 the number of Christ followers in Korea had risen to 25,000. Then all foreign missionaries were hounded out of Korea, forcing Korean leaders to take total control of the now underground congregations.
In 1882 American gunboats forced Korea to open her ports to foreign trade. That reopened the door for missionaries to operate in Korea. Many of these early Protestant missionaries were Presbyterians. In 1885 Horace Underwood and H.G. Appenzeller began a work in Korea. They won converts and established contact with the underground church in Korea.
In 1890 Presbyterian missionary John Nevius began a work in Korea. He’d previously been a missionary in Chefoo, China. Nevius set the tone for the church in Korea. He saw to it that Korean leaders could sustain all of the ministries. This prevented an unhealthy sense of dependency on foreigners from developing.
In 1905 Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Russian power had been the only thing that had kept Korea independent. The removal of that influence allowed Japan to take over Korea in 1910. Many Korean Christian leaders became involved in the secret independence movement that soon developed. The Japanese arrested such people, and a few were executed. Foreign missionaries who sympathized with the Korean independence movement were expelled from the country. To the Korean population, Christians were actively seeking to liberate them from an oppressive power.
The Japanese began to tolerate some Christian missionary activity in Korea during the early years of the occupation. That changed in 1940 when it was becoming clear that Japan would soon go to war with western Christian nations. That year Japan expelled all Christian missionaries from Korea that came from potentially hostile countries. The vast majority of foreign missionaries operating in Korea at that time were American or British.
The church in Korea was well prepared for a period of isolation because they had been isolated before. Missionaries such as John Nevius had taught them how to take care of their own spiritual needs without outside help. In 1945 Japan lost to the Allied Powers, and World War II ended. The United States occupied South Korea, while the Soviet Union occupied North Korea. Christian missionaries quickly reconnected with the Christians in the American occupation zone. The Soviet Communists prevented such efforts in the north. This created the first stirrings of mission consciousness in the Korean church. It was created by a desire to reach out to the lost in what became North Korea.
It takes faith to reach out to the lost, and trials have a way of increasing faith. For the Korean church that trial was the Korean War of 1950-53. In 1950 North Korea launched a surprise invasion of South Korea aided by Chinese Communist troops. The poorly trained South Korean Army fled in panic, but managed to form a defensive perimeter around the southern port city of Pusan. Later, American troops, led by General Douglas MacArthur, pushed the invaders back north. During the first year of the war the battle lines moved up and down the Korean peninsula. In 1951 the battle line stabilized near the current border between North and South Korea.
As armies moved north and south many Korean Christians wound up in Communist occupied territory and were forced to go underground. North Korean and Communist Chinese armies made it a policy to kill any Christians they captured. Pyongang which had once been called the “Jerusalem of the East” because of its large number of believers had Christians fleeing south for good. During this ordeal the Korean church learned how to pray. They saw God perform many acts of deliverance. After the war ended in 1953, they shared many exciting testimonies. God performed more miracles during the post war reconstruction period.
After the war, Christian missionaries from around the world arrived to provide aid to South Korea. Such people strengthened the revival that began in 1953. By 1973 10 percent of the people were followers of Christ. By 1988, 30 percent of the population worshipped Jesus.
During the 1970s the Korean church began taking the Great Commission seriously. By 1979 there were 93 Korean foreign Christian missionaries, most of them serving in the Far East. Around 1984 there was a surge of interest in missions. By 2004, according to a New York Times article, there were 12,000 Korean Christian missionaries worldwide. By 2008 there were 19,000 Korean missionaries in over 168 countries.
Since 1984 Korean missionaries have expanded their vision. Many now target Central Asia and the Middle East. In 1990 Korean missionaries arrived in Mongolia shortly after the fall of Communism in that country. They won some of the first Mongol converts to Christ in the modern era. Today Korean missionaries play a major role in sustaining the booming revival that is taking place in Mongolia. Korean missionaries have also made their presence felt in Muslim countries such as Kazakhstan and Iraq. Korean speakers have an easy time learning Central Asian languages such as Kazakh because they are part of the same language family.
Korean missionaries are also fearless. They served in Iraq despite grave dangers. Today the Korean church has expanded its vision even further. A few Korean missionaries have now targeted Europe and Africa for outreach. In recent years they also have planted churches in places like Nigeria.
—Pray for the continued safety of Korean missionaries around the world. Many serve in places where persecution is common. In recent years some have been kidnapped and even killed.
—Pray for wisdom, understanding, and guidance for the Koreans who are evangelizing people in different cultures. Pray that God would give them spiritual insight into the needs of the people so that the native converts will be able to incorporate aspects of their own culture into their new-found faith in Jesus Christ.
—Pray for strength and unity on the mission field so that they do not get discouraged.
by Keith Carey
There has never been a GPD issue like this one. We started out trying to focus our prayers on people groups that Korean missionaries are reaching. However, we found out very quickly that this would cause security problems. So instead, various Korean missionaries recommended that we concentrate our prayers on people groups that they would like to see reached in the future. This issue is now almost exclusively about groups that the Korean Christians feel need a gospel witness.
You will want to first read Wesley Kawato’s background article on Korea. Then on days 1 and 2 you will enjoy the biography of an important Korean missionary. You will find that the Koreans emerged as a major missionary force in the world only in the last few decades.
Korean Christians are noted not only for their willingness to go as missionaries, but also for their fervent prayer groups. Korean congregations often have early morning prayer meetings. As it stands now, there are about 10 times more Koreans using our prayer material than English speakers!
Pray that the Koreans will not grow weary in well doing. They are a strong missionary force today. They need our fervent prayers to uplift them, as they play a major role in fulfilling the great commission of reaching the world for Christ.
Keith Carey, managing editor, GPD