During the past few years, my impression of the state of the church in Korea was one that typically put us here in the United States to shame. Huge mega-churches attracting tens of thousands, 5:00 A.M. prayer meetings every day of the week attended by all members, incredibly dedicated “saints” of the faith spending weeks and even months fasting on prayer mountain retreats—all were reasons why I have held Korean Evangelical Christians in the highest esteem.
|One of the impressive church structures in Seoul, Korea|
However, I was quite surprised during my visit there last week to learn that all is not quite as positive as I thought. More than one Korean church leader affirmed that the church growth trend in their country has not only slowed but is in serious decline. Ten years ago, the Operation World Handbook estimated the Protestant population of the country to be mostly Evangelical, near 30%. Today, the Handbook claims Evangelicals are more like 16%. I was also surprised to learn of some mega-church not keeping up with mortgages paying the price for impressive yet complex architectural designs of their massive buildings. On top of that, church leaders admit they are losing the battle of attracting the younger teen and twenty-something generation of Koreans.
Why the changes? Here are some of the conclusions I heard expressed:
- A preoccupation with a “bigger is better” mentality has begun to back-fire as a people become disenchanted with big buildings and big programs that are not always impacting them personally.
- A national increase in materialism, fueled by the successes of corporate giants like Samsung and Kia, have wooed interest away from spiritual things to what you can do instead on the latest cellphone or automobile GPS system.
- Authoritarian leadership, buoyed up by a deep cultural respect for elders, has prevented appropriate mentoring of younger leaders or healthy succession planning.
- A shallow personal holiness has been the result of folks maintaining appearances of piety (prayer vigils, meeting attendance, etc.) instead of maintaining a commitment to a true, inner spiritual transformation.
However, there is still plenty to praise our Korean brothers and sisters for. Despite a slowing growth trend, South Korea is still the country with the second largest expat missionary force deployed around the world—over 20,000. People maybe skipping out on prayer meetings, but by in large, most Korean Christians still exhibit an incredible, dedicated prayer life. Regardless of political maneuvering, South Korean Christians are poised and ready to reach out to their brethren across the border in North Korea, just as soon as the doors are open for them to minister there.
There is certainly much we can learn from our Korean friends both from emulating what is exemplary in churches that are dynamic as well as how to avoid what maybe causing others to experience a downward trend in vitality.