South Korea sends more missionaries than any country but the U.S. And it won't be long before it's number one.
March 1, 2006
Samuel Kang was God's improbable choice to be a leader in the world's fastest-growing missionary movement. Kang was born in Japan when the Japanese empire was forcing alien Shinto beliefs down Korean throats.
At the end of World War II, the Kang family returned to Korea and grew deeply fervent in their Christian faith. The Kangs dedicated Samuel to God, and they told him, "You will become a pastor."
Kang rebelled. "I did not want to accept my parents' dedication of me to God without my consent," he says. For years, he resisted God's call. But by the time he was 20, Samuel's heart softened, and he felt compelled to give himself to God. "No one can escape from his sovereign call," Kang says.
It took another 20 years of discipling and discernment before Kang set foot on a mission field. At age 39, Kang and his wife, Sarah (who had discovered her own call to missions work), left South Korea for Nigeria. When they departed in 1980, there were only 93 Korean missionaries worldwide.
During the next 11 years, Samuel and Sarah Kang raised a family, planted Nigerian churches, and started a Bible college for Nigerian pastors. Kang's eyes sparkle as he recalls his days in Africa. "The Lord gave me this wonderful opportunity to serve him," he says. "If God gives me another life, may I give it to him as a missionary."
Kang doesn't look backward very often. Now 64 years old, with silvery hair and a gentle smile, he is leading an ambitious 25-year plan to help South Korea send out more missionaries than any other country.
Kang is chief executive director of the Korean World Mission Association and dean of the Graduate School of World Mission at Seoul's influential Chongshin University. He has helped move South Korean missions into a place never before imagined: South Korea today sends out more missionaries than any other country except the United States. In terms of missionaries per congregation, Korea sends one missionary for every 4.2 congregations, which places it 11th in the world. (The U.S. does not rank in the top 10.)
But more than that, mission scholars agree that Koreans are a potent vanguard for an emerging missionary movement that is about to eclipse centuries of Western-dominated Protestant missions. They call it the "majority-world" mission movement. They say this new term"majority world"is necessary to replace the aging terms "third world" and "developing world." The radical change in Protestant missions is forcing scholars and missionaries to create new ways of talking about the global scene.
The global majority (5.2 billion people) live in less developed nations. Of the world's 6.4 billion people, less than 18 percent live in developed nations. Scholars say the church's future in large measure rests in the hands of the global majority.
"The day of Western missionary dominance is over, not because Western missionaries have died off," says Scott Moreau, chair of intercultural studies at Wheaton College (Illinois), "but because the rest of the world has caught the vision and is engaged and energized."
Moreau says Americans must come to realize that "missions is a two-way street on every continent." Today's missionary is as likely to be a black African in Europe as a northern Indian in south India or a Korean in China. In addition, mission leaders are placing a new focus on Asia, where 60 percent of the global population lives. Samuel Hugh Moffett, the elder American statesman of Asian Christianity, told Christianity Today that Asia represents "the future for missions." Born in Korea to missionary parents and now professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, Moffett has spent his professional life studying Christianity in Asia. Between 1998 and 2005, he produced the two-volume History of Christianity in Asia, the recipient of many scholarly accolades.
Moffett paints no pretty picture of the challenges facing the majority-world mission movement in Asia. "We're starting from way back," he says. After 2,000 years of mission work, the population of Asia is no more than 8 percent Christian. "We're not doing very well. Asia is more religious than any of the other continents," he says, yet Asians perceive Christianity as an "alien" religion, even though "Jesus was born in Asia." This perception can give Koreans a unique advantage in bringing the gospel from one Asian country to another.
Another advantage is the evangelistic zeal typical of the majority-world church, a zeal that has been fundamental to majority-world missionary growth. In 1973, CT reported there were at least 3,411 non-Western, crosscultural missionaries in the world. That number has now exploded to 103,000, according to reliable estimates, though figures are difficult to determine in the majority world.
That total nearly equals the number of U.S. and Canadian Protestant mission personnel, which stands at about 112,000.
As the Western mission movement matures and slows down, majority-world missions are expanding. South Korea sends more than 1,100 new missionaries annually. That means Korea alone sends out as many new missionaries each year as all of the countries of the West combined.
This rocketing rate of growth is historic. When Kang returned to his home in 1991, South Korea had sent more than 1,200 missionaries, up from 80 just 11 years before. Today, almost 13,000 South Koreans are serving as longterm missionaries in countries around the world.
"For many years," Kang says, "God said at night, 'You are like Jonah. You are like Jonah.' " Eventually, Kang relented, and he told his wife about God's call to evangelize Muslims in Africa. But Sarah worried about safety, education, and her own lack of a divine call.
Kang remained patient. Ten years after his initial conversation with his wife, he gave Sarah a biography of a missionary to Muslims. After reading the book, Sarah asked him to pray for her as she went to church every evening.
For nine weeks, Sarah sought God's direction in all-night prayer vigils. At dawn one day, Kang saw his wife coming home with tears streaming down her face. "God finally called me as a missionary," she exclaimed. "I do not follow you. I go with you."
Outreach in the Red Zone
On May 30, 2004, terrorists in Iraq linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi kidnapped Kim Sun Il, a Korean interpreter. The South Korean native had been working for a year with a South Korean firm that supplied goods to the U.S. Army, an opportunity Kim used as a means of gaining entrance into the country.
Like many Korean missionaries, he was highly educated, holding undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, theology, and Arabic. He was also willing to undertake the dangerous task of working in a war zone.
Kim had a passion for mission work among unreached peoples. Mission experts estimate that 1.8 billion individuals in thousands of ethnic groups remain unexposed to the gospel. South Korean missionaries, in particular, are pioneering projects and methods to spread the gospel in these areas. Korea sends 34 percent of its missionaries to unreached peoples; the international average is around 10 percent.
During Kim's captivity, Zarqawi threatened to kill him unless South Korea scrapped its plan to send 3,000 troops to join the U.S.-led coalition that had toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. The kidnapping took the South Korean government by surprise, and it frantically tried to rescue the captured translator. It also took Westerners by surprise, as the little-known Korean missionary movement was given a face on television screens around the world. Terrorists released video footage of Kim pleading for his life. On June 22, his beheaded body was recovered outside of Baghdad.
Christians in South Korea see their missionaries as uniquely positioned to bridge the divide between the wealthy West and majority-world nations. In 1973, during the landmark Seoul Crusade, Billy Graham predicted that South Korea would be the launching pad for missions to Asia. (See "Prophecy and Politics.") South Koreans are doing just that, and Kim's ultimate sacrifice in Iraq is one heroic example of their passion.
According to Henry Lee, a mission leader based in Seoul, this kind of drive is a trait shared by many Koreans, sending them to dangerous regions.
For seven years, Lee worked with Muslims in another red zone, violence-torn Chechnya and Dagestan, located between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea and governed by Russia. He worked to plant churches and raise national church leaders. After being expelled from Russia in 2003, Lee worked as a mission pastor in Southern California. He now trains Korean missionaries for Frontiers, which works in Muslim countries.
Lee teaches his students how to enter and gain trust in a Muslim community. All Asians have a mistrust of outsiders, Lee says. "If I don't know you, I can't trust you." For missionaries in the Muslim world, it is even more true. "Unless you break into that community, you cannot get them for the kingdom of God," Lee says.
Lee also says it's nearly impossible to pull a Muslim out of his or her community. "We do not do extraction evangelism," he says. "We don't want to take them out of their community to build a new fellowship. I want to see God's fellowship built in that Muslim community, and then that community will last and reproduce."
Due to the efforts of Lee and others, the church is growing in Chechnya. One larger congregation is made up of more than 70 percent Muslim-background believers. The situation is similar in other pockets of Asia where Korean missionaries are working. According to the Korea Research Institute for Missions' (KRIM) biennial report, 47 percent of Korean missionaries are working throughout Asia, and roughly one quarter work in Muslim countries.
After ministering in Dagestan, Lee moved further north into Russia for safety reasons. Eventually, Lee was forced to leave the country entirely, but not before he had spent four years training 12 church leaders and pastors. By entering the region from southern Russia for two weeks at a time every two months, Lee was able to train national church leaders in Chechnya, teaching them Old and New Testament theology and other seminary-level courses. Lee remembers, "One leader said to me, 'Even though you didn't plant the church, you laid a foundation.' "
Lee turns somber when he recalls the 12 believers he discipled in Chechnya and Dagestan. "Even though I can't continue to teach them, my disciples are teaching the next generation of church leaders in the North Caucasus. They will remember me, and I will remember them."
One powerful memory sticks in Lee's mind. It was a hot week on the Black Sea, and the facilities were run down. The Chechen leaders were holding their first retreat. Every evening after prayer, they sang traditional Chechen songs and danced traditional Chechen dances. But they were singing and dancing to God the Father, who sent his son Jesus Christ.
"We came to have a sense of unity that we are in the same kingdom," Lee says. "That was a really special moment of Chechen Christianity."
Steve Moon, director of the Korea Research Institute for Missions, says Korean missionaries love the romance and adventure of pioneering mission work. Their role model is Horace G. Underwood, the first Presbyterian missionary to Korea.
"When Korean missionaries go out to the field, they want to be the first missionary, especially as a Korean," says Moon. "We are strong in starting new projects."
But that entrepreneurial spirit has its downsides. "We have many lone rangers," Moon says. "Many Korean missionaries are on their own. They will start their own ministry instead of joining a team."
Koreans often lack crosscultural competency as well, Moon says. Americans not only have missionary experience, but they also have crosscultural opportunities in their own country. Koreans come from a monocultural, monolingual country.
This tension is not unusual in the history of missions. "Wherever there is a renewal or revival anywhere in the world, it results in missions," says C. Douglas McConnell, dean of Fuller Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies. Each emerging church has tried to export its characteristics to other places, says McConnell, who recently co-authored The Changing Face of World Missions.
South Korea's rapid church growth in the '70s and '80s led to a remarkable missionary consciousness, but it will take some maturing before it becomes as effective as it could be. Learning cultural sensitivity takes time, McConnell says. "To be very honest with you, I have [been insensitive] myself. The process of helping local Christians to understand the faith in their own categories is relatively sophisticated. It takes a couple of generations of missionaries."
It took Americans and the British two or three generations to learn to contextualize the gospel, he says, and it's amazing that Koreans are catching on so quickly.
Korean congregations often send missionaries directly, without an outside or denominational agency. While this process makes local churches more mission conscious and helps them identify better with the outreach, it also creates problems. Mission scholars say some churches tend to view missionary church plants as extensions of the home church. In some congregations, serving on the mission field has even become a step on the ladder of pastoral promotions.
Korean competitiveness also has a double edge. Koreans' aspiration to outdo America may result in huge numbers of Korean missionaries, but as one missionary to Japan told CT, competitiveness among missionaries there has made it harder to raise up national church leaders in an already difficult environment. Missionaries, he says, focus on their church rather than working together with other missionaries to build seminaries and schools that can help the church at large.
In addition, Timothy Park, a professor at Fuller and director of its Korean-studies program, says recent Korean missionaries have not always followed the indigenous church principle that made the first missionaries to Korea so successful. In communist countries, for example, many indigenous churches were thriving, says Park, who was a missionary to the Philippines. But as soon as these countries opened up to foreign missionaries, the churches became weak and dependent.
"They enjoy financial support and lose the sense of depending on God and doing their best to help their churches grow. They depend on [Korean missionaries] for support, and they are eventually controlled by the missionaries."
Even though Park helped to create a Philippine church association, the church is not growing. "In terms of the number of congregations, it increases, but not in terms of membership," he says. Sheep stealing is a major problem. Missionaries start new churches by using Korean mission funds to lure members from other congregations. This way the missionaries can report successful church plants to their home churches. "Nationals compare missions' supporting policies, and they try to belong to the one that's the most generous."
"The foreigners create great problems," Park says. "A former general secretary of the Christian Church of the Philippines told me they are agonizing over the situation. He said unless foreign missionaries leave the Philippines, he doesn't think the church will grow."
But Korean mission leaders recognize these problems and are working to address them. To begin with, they are encouraging churches to send missionaries through agencies, which ensures quality training and also eliminates undue influence from the sending churches.
Western Model Less Useful
Majority-world missionaries say one cultural advantage works strongly in their favor. A former mission director put it this way: "There is a team working in northern India. There are a couple Koreans, a Japanese, an Ethiopian, a couple Americans, and a couple Australians. [Thus] it is very difficult for Muslims in northern India to say that Christianity is a Western religion."
In addition, majority-world missionaries know that the Western model of missions has cultural elements that are not well suited to their work in the field. Western-style missions are dramatically more expensive to maintain and require a large, complex organization to raise and disburse funds worldwide.
The majority-world model is more like a network. Due to financial constraints, it has to be more flexible and collaborative. Because majority-world missionaries are often culturally closer to those they serve on the mission field, they are also more attuned to local cultural situations.
These differences are subtle, but significant. One Korean missionary to Afghanistan complained that his Western coworkers were too analytic and too policy-driven.
Sung-Chan Kwon is now executive director of Global Bible Translators, but for six years he worked as a Western agency-sponsored missionary in Afghanistan. He says he could not accomplish his mission while following the overly rigid regulations and policies his agency specified.
Kwon says he was required to ask local Afghans first to itemize their needs before he started a project. But Kwon believed building relationships should take priority over determining the best project. "The West wants to control people with regulations. The heart is more important," he says. It's better to teach someone what it means to be a missionary, Kwon says, than simply to teach them what to do.
Some Koreans are starting to host forums to discuss what Korean missions should look like in the future. "In terms of theology and missiology, in terms of methods, we may not be unique," says David Lee, director of Global Missionary Training Center, which trains about 7 percent of Korean missionaries. "But it's uniquely Koreans doing this with Korean structure, with Korean church support, with Korean zeal and Korean spirituality, which is willing to suffer and willing to shout to God with perseverance."
However, others believe missions are missions. "There is no such thing as Korean missions," says one well-respected Korean pastor.
Steve Moon writes in his 2002 report that while Korea will continue to work with Western mission agencies in the beginning of the 21st century, it may be time for Korea to look back East and learn how to help other majority-world countries develop their mission movements. "China and India will play crucial roles in evangelizing the existing unreached world.
Korean missions are expected to develop both the philosophy and the skills to [build] smooth partnerships both with international mission agencies with a Western background and with indigenous mission agencies with a two-thirds-world background."
Many Korean missionaries work in China, where they help train house-church leaders. David Lee, who has also served as chair of the World Evangelical Alliance mission commission, sees a big role for Korean missionaries in getting Chinese missionaries involved in Korea's Back to Jerusalem project, which aims to send 100,000 missionaries to the Middle East. "If we can somehow assist them in terms of a more modern way of thinking and coping and understanding context and crosscultural communication," he says, "I think they would have a greater survival rate."
As experienced missionaries return from the field, the Korean missions movement matures.
Instead of retiring in 1991, Kang started a new career. He launched a mission agency and became an academic dean at Chongshin University and director of the Korea World Mission Association (KWMA).
Kang and the association plan to send 100,000 full-time Korean missionaries by 2030. They hope to mobilize 50 percent of Korean churches to be involved in missions, recruit 1 of every 300 Korean Christians to become missionaries, adopt 200 unreached people groups every five years, and send 1 million tentmakers into difficult-access countries by 2020.
It's an ambitious plan, and not everyone believes it is practical. Steve Moon says the project is "unrealistic." The mission infrastructure is already overwhelmed, he says. Currently the infrastructure in Korea can only support about 5,000 missionaries. The only way to send 100,000 missionaries would be to include tentmakers in the definition of a missionary. One pastor on the board of KWMA says that although he didn't vote against the project, it is too ambitious. Koreans' ambition can be a problem, he says, and this is a good example.
But others defend the project. Even if KWMA doesn't achieve its goal, they say, it will have accomplished much. Furthermore, many skeptics in 1988 said it was unrealistic for a group of Korean church leaders to send out 10,000 missionaries within 12 years. Yet the church leaders nearly did it.
So beginning in June of this year, at the first Protestant church established in Korea, KWMA and other groups will inaugurate their plan with a month-long, countrywide missions awareness program called World Mission Korea 2006. It will include all major denominations and agencies, says Kang. The whole nation will participate, with meetings in Seoul and 18 other cities throughout the month of June, all focusing on completing the task of world evangelization. By the end of the month, says Kang, "No church may say, 'We never heard about missions.' "
"We Koreans need to have a vision and goal for the future," Kang says. By developing international partnerships, using the resources of Korean diaspora churches, and recruiting retirees or mid-career professionals as tentmakers, Kang says, Korea has the resources to achieve its goals.
At the same time, many church leaders are preparing for the centennial of the Korean Pentecost, the 1907 revival in Pyongyang that many consider the birth of the Korean church. Mirroring that revival, respected pastors and church leaders are publicly confessing sin. Many hope for another revival that could produce an expanded awareness of missions.
So what happens if, despite immense hurdles, South Korea manages to reach the world's estimated 6,000 unreached people groups? What if it leads 21st-century missions into Asia, the final frontier of missions, and shepherds the majority world as it takes up its role in fulfilling the Great Commission? What happens if Korea's missions miracle continues?
"We expect Christ to come back," says Kang.
Rob Moll is associate online editor for CT.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also posted today is:
Prophecy and Politics | How revivals and the Olympics made Korea the wunderkind of missions.
Honoring Pioneers | The early missionaries to Korea serve as examples to modern-day ones.
The Korea Research Institute for Missions' English site has more reports on the status of Korean and Asian missions. Its most recent report is not yet available in English.
The Journal of Asian Mission, archived at Asia Pacific Theological Seminary has published several scholarly articles on Korean missions, some of which influenced the shape of this article, including:
The Missiological Challenge of David Yonggi Cho's Theology, by Hwa Yung, 2004
A Survey of the Korean Missionary Movement, by Timothy Kiho Park, 2002
Mission: Nine Hurdles for Asian Churches, by Wonsuk Ma, 2000
Rethinking of Korean Missions, by Andrew Byung-yoon Kim, 1999
Westminster Theological Seminary's SaRang Korean Missions Center researches the Korean church and has archived its history.
News articles on Korean missions include:
An Act of Subversion, Carried by Balloons | A Korean missionary sends aerial messages of faith over border to North (Washington Post, August 10, 2005)
Korean Missionaries Carrying Word to Hard-to-Sway Places | A South Korean missionary here speaks of introducing Jesus in a "low voice and with wisdom" to Muslims, the most difficult group to convert. (The New York Times, November 1, 2004)
S Korea's zealous Mid-East missionaries | South Korean Christian missionaries have begun targeting the Muslim world in an effort to win converts from Islam. (BBC, May 6, 2004)
North Korea's missionary position | Churches are opening in North Korea, a country long known for its hostility to any religion, and especially Protestantism. (Asia Times, March 16, 2005)
The character of the Korean church was largely set by a revival in 1907. Called the Korean Pentecost, and detailed in a book by that name written by missionary observers, the revival began practices such as early morning and evening prayer and the public reading of Scripture.
Korean Pentecost: The Great Revival Of 1907, by Young-Hoon Lee, is a scholarly history of the revival, published in The Journal of Asian Mission.
The Korean Pentecost: The Revival That Prepared Thousands For Eternity, edited & compiled by David Smithers is a short history compiled from The Korean Pentecost and other sources, available from the Revival Resource Center.
More Christianity Today articles on missions includes:
The Soul Hunters of Central Asia | The most Baptist state in the worldNagalandis vying to become a powerhouse for cross-cultural missions. (Feb. 10, 2006)
Seeking Shelter | Christians scramble to aid earthquake victims before worst of winter hits. (Dec. 8, 2005)
The Missionary King | How a double-M.D. couple ended up getting the royal treatment in Nigeria. (Nov. 21, 2005)
The Gospel for All People | It's not your father's missions movement. (Nov. 10, 2005)
Christian History Corner
Liberating Faith | When Korea threw off Japanese rule in 1945, it was as much a victory for the church as for the nation. (Aug. 12, 2005)
The State of Missions | The director of World Inquiry talks about the challenges and priorities of the evangelical missions community. (June 25, 2003)
The Defender of the Good News: Questioning Lamin Sanneh | The Yale historian and missiologist talks about his conversion, Muslim-Christian relations, Anglican troubles, and the future of Christianity. (Oct. 1, 2003)
Reimagining Missions | Two scholars seek to rescue the Great Commission from narrowly evangelistic readings, but their answers may be dangerously wide (2001)
The Future of Missions? | A global gathering affirms new models while developing countries criticize North American approaches. (Nov. 1, 1999)
Missions' New World Order | The twenty-first century calls for us to give up our nineteenth-century models for worldwide ministry. (1994)
Why We Go | Recapturing our motivation for missions. (1994)
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