For decades, South Korea has been the poster child for Christian growth and success in East Asia. Widely lauded and celebrated for the faith’s strength in the country, Korea has been the go-to example for academics and journalists alike to point to when the growth of Christianity outside the West is being discussed.
From the BBC’s documentary A History of Christianity to geopolitical analysis pieces in the Diplomat, Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church has been often cited, with its half a million worshippers crammed into dozens of services in one giant megachurch used, almost ad nauseam, as the shining example of Christian vibrancy in Eastern Asia.
And rightly so. Yoido grew out of a tent and ended up becoming the world’s single largest church by attendance. Korean Christianity exploded in the second half of the 20th century, coinciding with the precipitous decline the same faith faced in much of the entire West (except America).
Korea, once a land where Catholic laity had to grow its own church without any priest and produced hundreds of martyrs in an extremely short period of time, now sends out tens of thousands of missionaries a year to the rest of the world. As a nation of 50 million people, it now ranks second in the world in sending missionaries, behind only the United States. Koreans are known to be zealous in their faith, in and outside Korea.
Christian ‘growth’ without births
You might have read this tale many times in every Christian publication. But it is only half of the story; Korean Christianity is in an unprecedented crisis. And it has failed spectacularly, both its Protestants and Catholics, to create a culture of life and procreation, not just in general Korean society, but within the church itself. That, in this writer’s opinion, is what every Korean theologian, pastor and priest should worry about and it should keep all of them awake at night. The Korean model of Christian growth needs a radical rethink.
This is not an attempt to smear Korean Christianity or to belittle its successes. But this is an attempt to open a desperately needed debate that Korean Christians should have long since started, a debate about whether the previously successful way of growing their faith is valid, or sustainable.
Today, Korea is the site of the fastest demographic implosion in history. As has been mentioned many times, including in articles by this writer, Korea’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world, not just the developed world. Its population has decreased naturally since the end of last year, with preliminary 2019 TFR figures at 0.92 for 2019. None of that is news to any demographer, but the question is, why is Seoul, known for its tens of thousands of neon crosses lighting up its nightly skyline and full of churches dotting the city landscape, the world’s lowest point for fertility? How can East Asia’s most Christian country be the area’s least child and marriage friendly state?
Noticeably, after the initial years of explosive growth in the faithful, Catholic baptisms for children are now plummeting and marriages have been falling in double digit percentages year-on-year, echoing the national trend. Protestant pastors complain that their churches have become “sanctuaries for the old”, as figures show nearly 20 percent of churchgoers are over the age of 65 and young people belonging to any religion or even expressing any interest in religion in Korea are dropping significantly. Religious affiliation is up consistently for people over the age of 60, but the youth is the future, and Korean Christianity is undergoing rapid ageing.
Youth desert to liberal causes
Radical feminism and LGBT movements instead attract Korean youth activism in droves. Seoul’s Gay Pride/ LGBT Culture Festival, once a censored and ignored event, now attract hundreds of thousands of youths, exuberant and flamboyant, parading through central Seoul as K-Pop and American hip-hop anthems blast for all to hear. Feminist marches easily attract 100,000 young women and generate huge debates online, with “gender wars” hitting the country every other month pitting Korean men against women to the point of misanthropy and misogyny. Meanwhile, churches are increasingly filled by old people. Protesters that showed up to oppose the Seoul LGBT festival probably had a median age of 55, and they were ridiculed and mocked by their youthful opponents standing across from them, a telling sign of the paradigm shift in the culture war battle.
Meanwhile, uber materialism and consumer capitalism dictates the agenda in Korea, with an obsession towards appearances and material success on a level unparalleled even in the Western world. Youths have an unprecedented amount of lifestyle choices that they can access, but they also face unprecedented pressure in a society obsessed with success and efficiency.
The fabled “Christian fertility advantage” applicable elsewhere is not working in Korea. In fact, Korean Protestant churches probably led the decline in fertility in the 1960s and 1970s and celebrated family planning and contraception as symbols of success from the West, something to be discussed in detail later in the article.
A study by researchers quoted in this article showed that the fertility rates varied little between secular, Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic Koreans. According to the figures given in the study, in 2005 secular Koreans had a TFR of 1.3, whilst Catholics and Protestants had TFRs of 1.36 and 1.39 per woman. Fifteen years later, the Korean national TFR has dipped below 1. It is reasonable to assume the same fertility applies for Korean Christians.
In the rest of this article, some further explanations and theories are offered on why this phenomenon has occurred. They may be right or may be wrong, but hopefully this attempt will bring out far more insightful studies into this greatest of ironies.
Pyongyang: from ‘Jerusalem of the East’ to militant anti-communism
One of the greatest fallacies in the Korean Protestant success story is exactly how these megachurches grew and came into being. Prior to the Korean War, South Korea was not the hotbed of Christian faith it has become. And “The Jerusalem of the East”, Pyongyang, is today the capital of the world’s most militantly anti-Christian regime, centered around the worshipping of the Kim family.
Pyongyang during the first half of the 20th century was the heart of a religious awakening and revival, with American Protestant missionaries playing an instrumental part. Christianity became a powerful force to reckon with in Japanese-ruled Korea, and many if not most leaders of the Korean independence movement were Christians. In one of history’s cruelest jokes, Comrade Kim Il-Sung, founder of North Korea, himself had devout Christian parents and probably grew up in the Presbyterian church.
Christianity brought Korea, then a backward nation without any hope, exactly the hope they needed. So when northern Christians fled the march of the Communists north of the 38th parallel, they brought their message of hope and staunch anti-Communism to the South, which brought forward a great revival of its own in the traditionally more shamanistic and Confucian South.
Shamanism and prosperity
But somewhere along that great Christian growth in South Korea, shamanism crept in. Perhaps it also has something, if not everything, to do with what happened in America at the time. In Korea as in America, Protestant Christianity saw astronomical growth in one particular version, Pentecostalism, and with it, the “prosperity gospel”. Now, not every Pentecostal is a believer in the prosperity gospel, but it is fair to say a large section of the community does endorse it and televangelists preach it worldwide on Christian television networks (TBN and Daystar for example).
Nowhere did this prosperity gospel appeal more than in South Korea. Having just emerged from a gruelling war, Korea was in a militant phase of economic rebuilding and development. Impoverished Koreans looked on America as the symbol of hope, of prosperity and of success, and rightly so. But together with it, came the American export of Christianity in its many forms.
The one which clicked with Koreans the most was the belief that if you attend church, it is a symbol of upward social mobility. If you join a church and regularly offer tithes to the church, it will repay you many times with financial success and health blessings(the American “seed faith” concept of many televangelists come to mind).
These beliefs in fact correlate perfectly with East Asian folk religion/ shamanistic beliefs of praying for wealth and prosperity. Churches, and joining them, became a social status symbol, an opportunity to network and grow personal wealth, and thus many Korean churches became powerful, famous and fabulous in its worship style as well as structure.
Megachurches appeared just like in America, with famous pastors preaching to a stadium of worshippers and along with it scandals of minister committing fraud, family power struggles for the control of the megachurch congregation and squabbling over massive church slush funds. Yoido Full Gospel Church as well as Somang Presbyterian, the spiritual home of Korea’s former president Lee Myung-bak (now convicted of corruption) and one of the nation’s most powerful megachurches, all belong in this category. They are huge, influential and full of corruption scandals, including the embezzlement conviction of Yoido’s founder, David Cho.
The arrival of population control
Korean Protestants looked up to America so much that when American obsession with smaller families and population control in the 1960s reached Korean shores, Protestant pastors actively encouraged their women to embrace smaller families and use contraceptives. This coincided with the government’s nationwide family planning campaign at the time, and for many pastors, reducing family size was a cause of national duty and patriotism.
Moreover, smaller families that were wealthier had better standards of living, which corresponds perfectly with the prosperity gospel. Abortion, although banned in theory, was tolerated as part of the government family planning campaign, and Korea’s abortions soon far exceeded its number of births every year.
Furthermore, Korean Protestants are famous for their missionary zeal and many Korean Buddhists have converted as a result of their work. But in recent years, this trend has slowed as young Koreans have started to reject the association between prosperity and Christianity that older Koreans have believed and taught. They also have begun to question the moral fibre of many Korean Christian leaders, pointing to the corruption scandals and, in the age of #MeToo, sexual abuse allegations and rape convictions of pastors.
Lastly, Korean youths live in a high-tech, extremely materialistic and hedonistic society, with liberal Western influence and thought becoming omnipresent. Hence society has managed to transform the church instead of the church transforming society, and diverted youth away from church pews.
Catholic social justice warriors
By contrast, the youth have a more favourable impression of the Catholic Church in Korea. Surveys show that Catholicism is the most respected religion in Korea and associated with integrity because it has less scandals than the Protestants and Buddhists. However, one main reason for Catholicism’s appeal to the youth is the Church in Korea’s passionate support for many of their liberal causes, such as the fight against conglomerates’ monopoly over the Korean economy and the promotion of environmental issues such as green energy.
While it may sound surprising to those in the West, Korean Catholicism is known for a liberalism with a distinct flavour of social justice. Many Korean Catholics have been activists, and the influential Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (with a membership of at least 500 priests out of Korea’s total 5000) was instrumental in bringing forward democratic reforms back in the 1980s. The CPAJ has since taken on a number of social justice causes with great zeal, including anti-nuclear energy environmentalism, a campaign to ban beef imports to protect local peasants’ interests, and calling for the stepping down of Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye. Catholics rejoiced when one of their own, the liberal Moon Jae-in, was elected following Park’s fall from grace in 2016-2017.
Liberals have along associated with Catholicism in Korea, and unlike Protestants who militantly oppose Pyongyang, Catholics have long had a far more cordial opinion of the North, with the CPAJ even invited to visit the North in 2015. President Moon is also considerably friendlier to Supreme Leader Kim in a bid to get the latter to denuclearize, whilst Protestant presidents like Lee Myung-bak had always been antagonistic towards Pyongyang.
Korean Catholicism is well-known for its version of liberation theology, called Minjung (the people), which appeared in the 1950s and 60s following the War. Minjung theology is one that focuses on the struggles of the poor, such as peasants and workers, and calls for their liberation. It was in solidarity with many liberation theology movements in the world, especially the Latin American version.
That is why many Korean priests today who are followers of Minjung theology are still more focused on leftist causes such as restricting beef imports from America and peaceful dialogue with North Korea rather than, say, pro-life activities. One CPAJ priest from the Jeonju diocese, Fr. Park Chang-shin, even caused controversy back in 2013 when North Korea shelled an island belonging to South Korea during President Park’s tenure by rationalizing the shelling and suggesting that it had been used by the South’s government to portray the North as the enemy and smear opponents.
Catholic priests of the CPAJ also call for the repeal of the National Security Act, which anti-Communist Protestants rightfully defend and support, because apparently it makes South Korea a dictatorship. So, what is the Act’s biggest offense? It specifically states that the Republic of Korea is officially against Communism and bans pro-North Communist activities. Reasonable, given the widely known fact that the North frequently threatens to nuke Seoul.
Pro-life efforts fail to win support
That is not to say that the Church in Korea is all dominated by the CPAJ and its liberal agenda and that it has not done a lot for pro-life causes. Cardinal Yeom of Korea opposed the legalization of abortion when the Korean Supreme Court, stacked with liberal judges picked by his fellow Catholic President Moon Jae-in, ruled in favour of repeal of Korea’s never enforced ban on abortion, a law that has been in place since 1953. Dioceses and the Korean Catholic Bishops’ Conference (CBCK) have a pro-life division and have promoted marriage and family values to Catholic youths in Korea in educational campaigns and created policies supporting single mothers to give birth.
But here’s the best comparison of how effective they have been in their campaign: a open air Mass organized by the CPAJ for the political objective of opposing President Park attracted 30,000 Catholics back in 2016. The Korean version of March for Life only attracted a few hundred, with many participants from the Protestant community (including members of the wonderful Jusarang Community Church, known worldwide for its “Babybox” initiative to save abandoned babies), though the March itself had been officially supported by the CBCK.
Despite having tens of thousands of flourishing churches in Korea, there is only a handful of Crisis Pregnancy Centers and other pro-life facilities for women in the country, and quite a few of them are set up by foreign missionaries too, another sign of the lack of local enthusiasm.
This article is not intended to say that Korean Christians are not faithful or that they are not Christian. It is also not an attempt to undermine the efforts of many faithful Koreans in practicing their faith. Rather, it is an effort to reveal the problematic tendencies modern Korean Christianity has: an obsession with earthly material success, churches taking in big money, promoting the prosperity gospel in the Protestant community and losing the youth in the process; and Catholics who take social justice issues of liberalism seriously but do not practice or actively promote their own Church’s most important doctrines and teachings.
May Korean Christianity rid itself of all the ills and renew itself, addressing real issues that need to be focused on and take up the cause to transform Korean society away from its obsession with material wealth and hedonism. It may be the only way to rescue Korea from its demographic winter and self-extinction.