English and evangelism in the modern Korean christian church
By Robin Ewing
Dec. 3, 2003
Christianity was introduced in East Asia by missionaries at different times over the past millennium and a half. It arrived in Korea relatively late, in 1794, in comparison with China and Japan, but despite its younger beginnings, Christianity in South Korea has evolved into unique and powerful social force exceeding any other East Asian country in terms of growth. Christianity in South Korea is no longer considered a foreign religion but has developed into a native one of tremendous strength. One of the prominent reasons for this receptiveness is the church’s fervent mission of modernizing evangelism combined with devolution of control from foreign to Korean hands. This phenomenon, unique to East Asia, effectively “Koreanized” Christianity and created the perception of the church as modern but not imperialist. The role of the church as a source of modernization has continued into contemporary Korean society drawing on South Korea’s desire to become a world economic power and utilizing new evangelistic methods such as the establishment of English schools, church services, internet sites and television programs, without drawing anti-foreign criticism. The use of English in the contemporary Korean-Christian church is a growing evangelistic technique, successful because the modernizing role of the church is accepted as a national, not imperialist, force that embraces Korea’s mission to become a global power.
Modern but Not Imperialist
The first missionary to arrive in Korea was a Korean. Yi Sung-Hyun returned from a trip to China in 1784 as a converted Catholic and introduced Christianity to Korea. It wasn’t until 1884 that the first foreign, Protestant missionary, Dr. Horace N. Allen, was bestowed by the Korean king the right to begin a Christian missionary program in Korea. The new church immediately attracted converts through the establishment of schools with literacy programs, modern curriculum and modern science. For the first time, commoners were able to receive an education, formerly a privilege reserved only for the upper class.
One example of the church’s early role in modernization was its impact on literacy. Prior to the 15th century, Koreans used Chinese characters to write the Korean language, resulting in a low literacy level for anyone but the educated elite. In 1446, King Sejong intruded the alphabet system, hangul, currently used in Korea. His intention was to provide common people with an easy-to-learn tool with which to express themselves, file grievances and improve literacy, though some argue that it was a way to control them. However, the alphabet, then named onmun (vulgar language), was scorned by Korean aristocrats. Chinese continued on as the language of literature and education keeping the common people in isolated illiteracy.
The first Protestant missionaries changed all that. In order to convey their religious teachings and therefore increase the number of believers, they needed a medium accessible to the common people. They re-introduced the simple onmun alphabet and created a literacy campaign that ended in the widespread recognition and use of the Korean alphabet still used today in both North and South Korea, re-named hangul.
Prior to World War II, the church, although viewed as a source for modernization, was still considered a foreign religion. However, the implementation of the Nevius Plan in 1890 started the church down the road to Korean self-rule. John Nevius, a foreign missionary visiting Korea, infused the principles of self-support, self-propagation and self-government into the mission of the Presbyterian Church. The missionary H. G. Underwood summed up one of the major points of the plan as “to develop church methods and machinery only so far as the native church was able to take care of and manage the same.” This plan laid the foundation for the later devolution of church power from foreign to Korean hands as well as fostering modernization programs for the common people.
The Nevius Plan laid the groundwork for native control of the church, but with the start of the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910 and then World War II, there was an exodus of almost all the foreign Christian missionaries by 1941. This led to a complete transition of church control to local management. Only a few Catholic churches were unable to find a Korean priest and were subsequently closed. As a result of this Korean control, the church aligned itself with the colonized Koreans and became a place of refuge from Japanese rule. This fostered a sense of nationalism in association with Christianity and transformed the church into a modern entity that was no longer foreign but instead supportive of the Korean cause. Christianity became firmly emplanted in Korean culture.
Evangelism and Success
Success in the Korean Christian church hinges on growth. Evangelism has always been a strong component of the church’s mission and it shows. In 1960 there were 623,072 Protestants in Korea; in 2000 there were over nine million, making it the largest religion in South Korea, and Roman Catholicism “has been the fastest growing religion since the late 1980s.” This is especially significant when compared to Korea’s neighbors, China and Japan, both of which have a Christian population of less than 1 percent of the population.
Korea also claims the largest “mega-church” in the world – the Yoido Full Gospel Church with a current membership of 763,000, over 500 pastors, a television service and seven services on Sundays in seven different languages. “It also makes a great effort to evangelize Koreans as well working on its goal of establishing 500 new churches.”
This phenomenal growth rate translates to a success story for the Christian church motivated by what Hong Yong-Gi calls “McDonaldization”. The “bigger is better” approach has manifested itself in a “church growth theology” and sets the mega-church up as a role model, feeding the “consumerism culture and rapid industrialization predominant in modern Korean Society.” Since the early 1960s, “the number of Protestant Christians increased faster than any other country, more than doubling every decade.”
English in the Church
English is prevalent in many aspects of life in Korea, but in recent years has become a medium for evangelism in the church. Churches have established schools for Korean children that teach religion in English. Churches offer English lessons through bible study, have English services delivered by Korean pastors, and maintain English websites providing information on the particular church.
Of the 11 weekly services at the Yoido Full Gospel Church, six have English translations. Of the more than 61,000 churches in South Korea, many provide English services. In 2002, the Seventh Day Adventist Church claimed 32 branch English schools with over 37,000 students and also organizes English camps where the students are baptized. The Sarang Community church has ten different English bible study classes for youths. The Community of Christ has a weekly “Advanced English Discussion Club” and the Myong Dong Cathedral has English confession time.
English and Globalization
Since the end of the Korean War, South Koreans have been dedicated to forging Korea into a world power. As the race for globalization continues, English is becoming a necessity for Koreans entering the world community. As a result, private institutes, hagwon, specializing in the study of English are booming as well as the use of private English tutors, both Korean and foreign. Better jobs depend on better English skills, and many Koreans go abroad to English-speaking countries for education. It’s all very expensive – parents and students can spend hundreds of dollars each month on English lessons.
Churches are offering a cheaper – sometimes even free – alternative to private English education. A Seventh Day Adventist school in Seoul offers religious English classes for about $42 a month , much less than the couple of hundred dollars charged by non-religious English schools or even private tutors that charge about $42 for one hour. Holly Lee, an American English teacher at a Seventh Day Adventist school in Seoul, says that most of the students attend strictly for the English conversation, not the religion. Lisa Lee, a native Korean, says the only reason she attends her church is for the English service, which gives her a free opportunity to practice her English listening skills.
In 1996 Korea joined the elite Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development “know as the club of the world’s richest nations.” Before the Asian economic crisis hit Korea in 1997, Korea’s economy and stock market were booming bringing material wealth to the church as well. But after the economic crash in November of 1997, the church suffered, facing a decline in attendance and in donations. Now the church is embracing materialism and “McDonaldization” to increase attendance and tapping the desire to learn English as an effective proselytizing tool, while Koreans are turning to the church in their search for global modernization just as they turned to the church in its early years as a source for change.
The success of English as an evangelistic method depends on two major factors. The first is that the church is fulfilling its role as a force for modernization without drawing anti-nationalism criticism. The role of church in society as a modernizing entity was established by early Protestant missionaries. The devolution of control to Korean hands occurred because of the missionaries’ implementation of the Nevius Plan and the later exodus of foreign missionaries due to Japan’s involvement in World War II. As a result of a church controlled by Koreans, the alignment of the church with the common people during the Japanese occupation resulted in the Christian church as on the side of nationalism and therefore erasing any foreign connotations. Without this “emplanting” of Christianity into Korean society, the contemporary Christian church would not be a part of the success story it is today.
The second factor is that as Korea enters the global market, the desire of Koreans to learn English is a growing movement in modern society. Materialism, consumerism, industrialization and globalization are all current trends affecting the direction of society, and English is an important component of Korea’s ability to be a part of the world’s economic market. Learners of English are turning to the church as a cheaper alterative to private teachers and English institutes, and the church is capitalizing on this to grow congregational numbers.
These two factors combined have made the Korean Christian church a powerful contemporary modernizing force in South Korean society, accepted by Koreans as national and pushing them down the road to globalization.
 Donald N. Clark, Christianity in Modern Korea (New York: University Press of America, 1986), 6-7.
 Clark, 32.
 David Chung. Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea, ed. Kang-nam Oh (State University of New York Press: 2001), 73.
 Clark, 13.
 Clark, 8-9.
 James Huntley Grayson, “Cultural Encounter: Korean Protestantism and Other religious Tradition,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 25, no. 2 (2001): 66.
 Hong Young-Gi, “Encounter with Modernity: the “McDonaldization” and “Charismatization” of Korean mega-churches,” International Review of Mission 92, no. 365 (2003): 239.
 Andrew Eungi Kim, “Christianity, Shamanism and Modernization in South Korea,” Cross Currents, Spring-Summer 2000, 112.
 Kim, Cross Currents, 112.
 Yoido Full Gospel Church Website. < http://www.fgtv.com/> (1 December 2003).
 Hong, 239.
 Andrew E. Kim, “Korean Religious Culture and its Affinity to Christianity: The Rise of Protestant Christianity in South Korea,” Sociology of Religion 61, no. 2 (2000): 117.
 Seventh day Adventist Church, Tadamoni Shinmyo, “Home English Language Program Launched in Korea”, 23 July 2002. http://www.adventist.org/news/data/2002/06/1027447104/index.html.en> (1 December 2003).
 Holly Lee, interview, 21 November 2003.
 Lisa Lee, interviews, 4 December 2003.
 Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas (USA: Basic Books, 1997).
 Bong Rin Ro, “South Korea: bankrupting the prosperity,” Christianity Today 42, no. 13 (1998): 58.
Bong, Rin Ro, “South Korea: bankrupting the prosperity,” Christianity Today 42, no. 13 (1998): 58
Chung, David. Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea. Edited by Kang-nam Oh. New York: State University of New York, 2001.
Clark, Donald N. Christianity in Modern Korea. New York: University Press of America, 1986.
Grayson, James Huntley. “Cultural Encounter: Korean Protestantism and Other religious Tradition,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 25, no. 2 (2001): 66.
Hong, Young-Gi, “Encounter with Modernity: the “McDonaldization” and “Charismatization” of Korean mega-churches,” International Review of Mission 92, no. 365 (2003): 239.
Kim, Andrew Eungi , “Christianity, Shamanism and Modernization in South Korea,” Cross Currents, Spring-Summer 2000, 112
Kim, Andrew E. =, “Korean Religious Culture and its Affinity to Christianity: The Rise of Protestant Christianity in South Korea,” Sociology of Religion 61, no. 2 (2000): 117
Lee, Holly. Teacher at a Seventh Day Adventist English School in Seoul. Interview 21 November 2003.
Lee, Lisa. Korean Christian. Interview 4 December 2003.
Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas. USA: Basic Books, 1997.
Seventh day Adventist Church, Tadamoni Shinmyo, “Home English Language Program Launched in Korea”, 23 July 2002. http://www.adventist.org/news/data/2002/06/1027447104/index.html.en> (1 December 2003).
Yoido Full Gospel Church Website. < http://www.fgtv.com/> (1 December 2003).