Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why So Many Korean Missionaries?

Dear Korean,

Christianity in Korea is a complex subject, but I have a simple question: why are there so many Korean missionaries?


Short answer:  it was born that way.

But let's back up a bit first. It is absolutely true that there are a great number of Korean Christian missionaries. Korea sends more missionaries abroad than any other country except for the United States. According to Korea World Missions Association, an umbrella organization for Korea's Protestant missionaries, more than 23,000 Korean missionaries are proselytizing abroad as of January 2012. The top five destinations are China, United States, Japan, the Philippines and India.

So why so many Christian missionaries from Korea? One obvious reason is that Christianity is a significant presence in Korea. According to the official governmental survey in 2005, nearly 30 percent of Koreans were Christians. Among them, approximately 12 percent were Catholics, and 18 percent were Protestants. (For reference: 46.5 percent of Koreans do not have any religion. After Christianity, Buddhism is the biggest religion, as nearly 23 percent of Koreans are Buddhists.)

But more importantly, Christian churches of Korea are enthusiastic about sending missions because missions were the vehicle through which Korea's Christianity began. One must remember that Christianity in Korea has a history of nearly two centuries. Catholicism arrived at Korea in the early 1800s, and the first Korean priest (St. Andrew Kim Taegon, who is also the patron saint of Korea) was ordained in 1845. Protestantism arrived at Korea a bit later, but it was just as successful. The Pyongyang Revival of 1907 was attended by so many people, whose faith was so intense, that Pyongyang came to be known as the "Jerusalem of the East."

Two centuries is a long time, but not quite long enough for people to forget the origin of their faith. Nearly all major congregations in Korea can trace its origin to a missionary who came to Korea in the early 19th century. In addition, for decades after Korean War, Korea saw a constant stream of American missionaries who came to provide humanitarian aid in the war-torn country, and assist the development of Korean churches. 

Thus, missionary work is deeply embedded in Korean churches. It was how they were born, and how they were raised. It is only natural, then, that these congregations would consider serving missions to be one of the most important duties as Christians.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. If it were the case that the genesis of Korean churches necessarily held some sustained impact on the present state of them, Koreans would probably not be approaching white people in the streets and subways with the (in my experience; almost universal) presumption that white people are either irreligious or bad Christians compared to superior Korean Christianity... give, after all, the fact that they got most of their Christianity from white missionaries. But I've had white Christian friends get lectured by Korean missionaries that no, white people might say they're Christian, but they are not really Christian. (This was a white friend fluent in Korean, and he argued back.) So the idea that the genesis is remembered, I have to wonder about.

    I'd propose the reason is actually just business as usual.

    Korean Protestant churches are extremely--to outsiders, shockingly--numerous. This is for several reasons, but one of them is money. A number of churches get passed on from parent to child like any family business, or sometimes get sold off to the highest bidder when a preacher decides to go into some other line of work. (The cases I've heard of involved preachers selling churches off and using the money to start a hakwon in one case, and a PC-bang in another, and I was assured this was not unusual.)

    In that context, missionary work is one excuse for fundraising, and given the tax-free status of churches, and the general lack of people who will step up and say, "Okay, so exactly where do all our donations go?" in most Korean churches, I'd say it's a pretty easy guess why preaches embrace the idea of sending missionaries to places. They only have to give a cut of what they raise, after all. (I even know of one Western pastor in Korea who does this with the donations in his church in Korea... to the degree that he actually complains about having to pay taxes in the US, his income is so high... not that he divulges to his congregation or the people who donate back home in the States about how much of the missionary funding he's skimming for his own truly exorbitant lifestyle.)

    As for why Korean protestants choose to go missionizing in such great numbers, that's less clear, though the above doesn't explain it. (Most foreign religions in a place were brought by missionaries, but you don't see Filipino Catholics clogging the airplanes to random places trying to convert the heathens.) I'd guess that the extremity of it probably has to do with the social privileging of homogenous in-groups, paired with the idea of giving salvation to people which is available only if one joins the correct in-group. (One's own church.) That, plus the fact that a lot of Protestants in Korea are very eager to prove their faithfulness and willing to go to great lengths to do so.

    Context: my wife deconverted from a mainline Korean Protestant faith and she has told me some pretty eye-opening, if unsurprising, things about the social pressures that exist in those churches to conform, and to "demonstrate" one's immense and deep "faith," in some of those churches... especially in the youth-group organizations that exist within these churches. Doubtless a lot of kids who end up going out as missionaries fall prey to that pressure... while others, I'm sure, are motivated by a desire to go abroad. Especially the missionaries to the USA, one of the more loudly Christian nations on Earth, should raise suspicions in that direction.

    1. I too have witnessed and felt the social pressures that exist within both American and Korean churches. Although I have chosen to leave the church culture, when I was a teenager, I believed strongly that mission work was the most worthwhile cause to dedicate one's life to because it was the only cause that had "eternal value," since at the time I believed that those who died without becoming Christians would spend eternity in hell. I also put a lot of emotional energy and time toward becoming a better Christian because I believed it was the most important thing in life. Having experienced firsthand the mindset of one who truly believes Christianity is they only path to peace and eternal salvation, I get very frustrated with people who see that churches and pastors are supported by financial donations and then conclude that money is the primary motivation for Christian proselytization. True, there are these huge "megachurches" that are rolling in milllions, and there are also pastors who are greedy and who are essentially scam artists, and, while they are in the minority, they are the ones who are most visible as many of them are regularly on Christian TV. But for every one of those I would wager that there are at least a hundred small congregations struggling to cover their building's utility bills, with a pastor who takes a modest salary or has to work at a second job in order to support his or her family, but who are sending out and supporting missionaries because they believe that mission work is important. To infer that money is the primary reason, or even A primary motivator for world missions simply demonstrates that you don't really understand, and have probably never personally experienced, Christianity.

    2. As a former Christian and a son of a pastor, I agree with you that a lot of smaller Christian churches are more serious and don't care so much about money. Ok. But the problem with Protestant churches is not only money. Generally, they hate other religions. In South Korea, for example, they attack buddhists all the time! And they do the same thing in a lot of countries. They think they are better than the others.

  2. "Two centuries is a long time, but not quite long enough for people to forget the origin of their faith. "

    This quote reminded me of how Christians here often brag about how long their family has been Christian. Whereas many Christians in the states emphasize the 'born-again' notion, even for those born into christian families, it seems to me (correct me if I'm wrong) that at least some Koreans seem to feel that the longer Christianity has been in your family, the 'more' Christian you are.
    Also interesting that I've known men who have ended long term relationships because of their girlfriend's requirement that not only her future husband be Christian, but the entire family, even grandparents, convert (this would be to avoid being forced into doing a jesa ceremony for ancestors I beleive).

    1. While I've seen that a lot among Protestants, in fact, there are a few books floating around in Korea about the history of the Catholic Church on the peninsula that claim that Catholicism arrived in Korea a good bit earlier than most Korean Catholics acknowledge. (Like, a hundred years or fifty years or something like that.) When the books were written, apparently the Korean clergy (and some laypeople) took some kind of pride in Korea having "embraced Catholicism" independently, on their own (according to them, unlike most societies that embraced it through the work of missionaries). It was because of this pride that even when priests who had evidence of an earlier arrival approached the Korean branch of the church, they were rebuked... the pride of joining the club unprompted was enough for people to cut off a chunk of the religion's history in the country, or so argued these books... which, mind, were polemical. I have no idea how true their claims were.

      But in reality, these books both claimed, the first Korean to be baptized was baptized by some shipwrecked Japanese guy (I half-remember him being a converted samurai, though that sounds like something out of a movie) out on the East coast, sometime in the 1700s but I can't remember when. It's been a while and I only skimmed the book, so it's all fuzzy, but anyway--and this is the part related to your comment Joanna--oral histories (ie. some people bragging about their family having been Catholic for longer than the Korean Catholic establishment was willing officially to acknowledge) was part of, but not all of, the evidence. There were multiple families in the area who made this claim, too, wherever it was. So hey, the bragging was good for something, I guess.

      I no longer have those books, so I can't add more detail than that.

    2. It is widely acknowledged that Koreans, typically from the Silhak Movement, first adopted Catholicism by reading books on Catholicism which they had brought from China, not by foreign missionaries. From my knowledge, when Korean Catholics sent inquiries on Catholic practice to -- I believe -- the Bishop of Peking, they generally followed instructions they received. For instance, Korean Catholics had a "temporary" clergy, who were not consecrated, at one point for awhile, before disbanding them after receiving instructions that the practice was illicit. Not to mention, they were persecuted for following instructions not to partake in ancestral rites, in the so-called "Chinese Rites Controversy."

      As for the other point, while it is true that some of the Nagasaki Martyrs were Koreans, I was under the impressions that these Koreans were baptized after being taken away from Korea. The percentage of Korean Catholics was somewhere around 1% at the beginning of the 20th century and didn't rise too much until much later. I only know one Korean Catholic personally whose family was Catholic during the Chosun dynasty. Other than that, I know that Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan's grandfather was a martyr.

    3. It is widely acknowledged that Koreans, typically from the Silhak Movement, first adopted Catholicism by reading books on Catholicism which they had brought from China, not by foreign missionaries.

      It is more accurate to say that some Koreans traveled to China, where they met foreign missionaries, learned about Catholicism, and brought it back to Korea and spread the faith. So foreign missionaries were still involved, albeit in a more attenuated fashion than Korea's Protestants.

    4. True, and that was the situation for Korean Catholics for the first fifty or so (if dated from the baptism of Yi Seunghun in 1784) or two-hundred years (if dated from when Korean scholars first tried to learn from Catholic books imported from China) years. In that context, I think it is impressive and unique.

    5. Well, what I'm saying is that there were claims by writers - Korean and Western alike -- in books I read that a small number of Koreans converted in Korea prior to the bringing-back of news of Catholicism from China. Whether one of those writers cited the other, I can't recall -- this stuff was pretty dry for me, really -- but anyway, re-asserting the contested history doesn't make it right. (Nor do my half-recollected memories falsify the official story you're telling (and not having the books on hand, I can't offer the details), but still.)

      I have no idea how unique it is, though as for impressive, I think that requires a suspension of critical faculty of a stunning sort. I suppose it depends on whether you like or hare the Church, but I actually laughed aloud when I read the word "impressive"... I am no more impressed by people joining one religion of their own accord than people joining any other; by that measure, we should be just as impressed with Californians styling themselves Buddhist, or, for that matter, the various silly cults that American pop stars join... from Scientology to "Kabbalah." Whatever nice things the Church has effected in the world are inextricably tangled in a web of comparably, and actually much worse, horrible things.

      I would sooner be impressed by someone who managed to see through the hype--and fantasies, and nostalgia, and chicanery--and refused to join any religion, to be frank.

  3. Wow this entire blog is so ignorant about Korean history. While it is true that missionaries came to Korea as early as the 1800's, they did not grasp a firm foothold until the 1950's, when American G.I.'s as well as missionaries took over Korea. Yes, believe it or not, South Korea is an invention by the U.S. and has been firmly built up as a democratic stronghold ever since then. This is also why Koreans, Hispanics, Filipinos, and Taiwanese people are MORE Christian than their respective ethnic neighbors-- because they got owned by foreigners who brought their own religion with them.

    1. The christian population in Taiwan is not so big. You can not compare with the other countries you mentioned.

  4. I had a close relationship with some Korean missionaries outside Korea. I can say it loud. it is mostly a business matter. It is related to how to spend the money to help the unemployed Korean christian people instead of sending the money to poor people in other countries.


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