SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — This past Sunday I worshipped at the largest Presbyterian Church in the world, Myungsong Church, and then the largest church in the world, Yoido Full Gospel Church, both in Seoul, South Korea. Their stories stretch one’s ecclesiological imagination.
Started only 36 years ago, Myungsong Church now has 100,000 registered members. When I arrived at 6:30 a.m., the sanctuary was already full of activity. It was Children’s Sunday, and scores of young boys and girls were rehearsing their parts for the service, which was to begin at 7. That would be the first of five services this Sunday.
Separate choirs of more than 500 with distinct orchestras perform at each of the services of Myungsong. Mission outreach extends throughout the world, but a special emphasis is also placed on humanitarian needs within Seoul and Korea. Rev. Kim Samwhan, the founding pastor, carries an ecumenical commitment that is not always easy in among Korean churches. He was chair of the host committee welcoming the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly, held in Busan in late 2013.
The church started 36 years ago in what was then the outskirts of Seoul, and early morning prayer services were a feature of its life and continue to this day, drawing thousands. It’s planted about 25 churches, and its global mission outreach stretches to more than 50 nations. Included is the Myungsong Christian Medical Center, with its 169 hospital beds, founded in 2004 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Over breakfast with Rev. Kim Samwham and church leaders between the 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. services, we discussed the ecumenical challenges both within South Korea and beyond. Rev. Kim lamented how differences shouldn’t lead to division. But in South Korea alone, there are an estimated 180 separate Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. Many are small, breakaway groups seeking their own versions of “purity” and truth.
I was at Myungsong with Larry Miller, secretary of the Global Christian Forum, and Joosep Keum, secretary of Mission and Evangelism for the WCC. We’re here for the “Global Forum on the Future of World Christianity,” on Korea’s Jeju Island, drawing together a widely diverse group of church and organizational leaders from around the world. Rev. Kim chairs the organizing committee for this unique initiative. His son, Rev. Hanna Kim, who pastors another Presbyterian church nearby, did his doctorate at Drew University, and his dissertation was on the social ethic of Sojourners in its early days. Jim Wallis will be one of the featured keynote speakers at the Jeju Forum.
Following breakfast we were driven from the world’s largest Presbyterian Church to the world’s largest church, the Yoido Full Gospel Church. Hillsong’s “What the Lord has Done for Me” in Korean was sung enthusiastically by thousands gathering for this service, one of seven held this day. The sanctuary holds 8,ooo, but overflow rooms include thousands more. Then satellite and Internet links to other sites and congregations bring the total to about 200,000. The church’s registered membership now stands at 820,000. Today’s offering was devoted exclusively to relief for the victims of the earthquake in Nepal.
Like many indigenous Pentecostal congregations around the world, Yoido Full Gospel Church was started with ministry among the poor and marginalized, in this case in 1958 by Rev. Yonggi Cho and others. With just a handful meeting in a tent, Rev. Cho began preaching and practicing a message of hope and healing. Marked with charismatic gifts and blessings, the congregation steadily grew.
Today about 500 pastors and 500 staff carry out its ministry. The church has sent 684 missionaries to 63 countries. Within its own governing structure, Yoido has 1,000 elders. Unlike many other megachurches and Christian organizations, where the founding leader eventually tries to pass control to a son or family, Yoido successfully navigated a change from its founder, Rev. Yonggi Cho, to Rev. Young Hoon Lee, with its elders’ guiding.
Like Rev. Kim Samwham at Myungsong, Rev. Lee also has a remarkable ecumenical spirit. His congregation hosted an Asian gathering of the Global Christian Forum, and also led a worship service for delegates to the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan. Larry Miller and I discussed these matters with him in a warm and hospitable conversation after the service. And Rev. Lee joined Rev. Kim in convening the forthcoming Jeju Forum.
Christianity is growing in Asia, even though it’s less than 10 percent of its population. In the last century, its growth was twice the rate of that of the continent’s population growth. From its present 350 million, Christianity is projected to reach 460 million within Asia in just 10 years, by 2025. Korea has been one of the success stories, now including about one-third of the nation’s population.
Many ask why Christianity has grown on this soil in ways unlike most of its Asian neighbors. While it’s always hard to know the answers to those kinds of questions, one factor seems clear. During the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, Christians were prominent in the leadership of the resistance and independence movement. Many suffered and were martyred. Often, I’ve heard Korean Christians explain that this gave Christianity a legitimacy and respect among the Korean population and prepared the ground for the remarkable Christian growth that followed. Further, in the aftermath of Japanese occupation and then the Korean War, churches were often present bringing relief materially and spiritually to those who were suffering on the margins. This is clear, for instance, in the story of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, and many others.
Like most Asian nations, Korea experienced the influx of Western missionaries in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In Korea they are revered today by Christians. But in asking why the church grew here in ways unique on the Asia continent, it’s fair to say that the witness of faith which stood against oppression, and in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, accounted at least in part for this difference.
Today, however, the churches in Korea face the difficulties of being part of the society’s economic prosperity and success. The stories of congregations like Myungsong and Yoido are utterly remarkable and inspiring. Yet as a whole, Christianity in this society is no longer growing as before. Korean Christian friends tell me that it has “plateaued.” And a major worry, echoing that of the church in the U.S., is the growing disaffiliation of young people.
The pressures in this society for educational achievement and economic success are enormous. Pastor Kim Samwham, in his sermon on Children’s Sunday, referred to a newspaper article citing that one-quarter of Korean young people are at least tempted by suicide. Among the developed countries, Korea’s suicide rate of 28.1 for every 100,000 people has been the highest. Many cite the overwhelming pressures to succeed in the highly competitive nature of society.
Moreover, the normal pressures of careers can easily force a younger generation to forego sacrificing the time and commitment typically expected by Korea churches. Plus, expressions of Christianity, which seem locked in their established traditions by an older generation, can alienate young people here, just as elsewhere in the modern industrial world. Thus, the need for emerging generations is for ways to express the gospel that are marked by authenticity, and by values that will likely shape a counter-cultural witness in a society now being driven by its desire for economic and commercial success.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson latest book is From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. For 17 years he served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and prior to that as Director of Church and Society for the World Council of Churches. He has been part of the ministry of Sojourners since its earliest days.