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Appendix 3: Spiritual Shift

Appendix 3: Spiritual Shift1

The following article by Richard N. Osting which appeared in the Time magazine of 12 July 1993 shows what can happen to countries which allow Christian missions to function freely. It also shows how Christianity is trying desperately to find a new home in the Hindu-Buddhist world.

A great success story, Protestantism in South Korea now faces some unexpected problems.

With 700,000 Members, Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church claims to have the world’s biggest congregation - and a Sunday schedule to match. As the 7 a.m. service ends, believers line up like rock fans to fill 13,000 seats for the next of six daily observances. Across the 200-room compound, 30,000 others can worship via closed-circuit TV, and 50,000 more tune in from 20 satellite congregations across the metropolitan area. The services’ content is on a similar scale: hymns sung by one of 11 choirs, accompanied by a pipe organ and 24-piece orchestra, and inspiring sermons by Pastor David Cho, 57.

The Pentecostal megachurch is a fiting symbol for South Korea’s Christian boom. The Yoido church was founded 31 years ago, when South Korea’s Christians numbered only 1.2 million. Since then, the number of Christians, especially Protestants, has grown faster than in any other country, roughly doubling every decade. Today about a third of South Korea’s 45 million people are Christian (11.8 million Protestants and 3 million Roman Catholics) vs. about 40% who are nominally Buddhist. Predicts Pastor Kim Dong Ik of Seoul’s Saemunan Presbyterian Church: “In 10 years we will overtake them.” Christians, says Chung Chin Hong, a professor of religion at Seoul National University, “dominate universities, the bureaucracy and even the army.” Nine of the top 10 generals are professing Christians, as were the three major candidates in last year’s presidential race. The winner, stubborn reformer Kim Young Sam, is an elder in the conservative Chunghyun Presbyterian Church. Many prominent businessmen are Christian. The ambitious Protestant churches have dispatched at least 2,000 missionaries overseas.

Christianity in Korea dates back to 1784, when a Catholic convert returned from China to start a church. Protestantism, introduced a century later, grew much faster because American missionaries brought not only the Gospel but also education, medicine and technology. During Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, Christians were prominent in the underground independence movement. Under military regimes from 1961 through 1987, many championed democracy and human rights, even though fellow Protestants worked for the government.

Protestantism has risen in concert with economic success. As South Koreans emerged from the ruins of the war to rebuild a shattered economy, many Protestant pastors preached god-ordained industriousness and prosperity. At Cho’s church, one wall is emblazoned with the little-known III John 2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Cho is unapologetic about promising this-worldly success. “If we are faithful,” he says, “God will bless us.” (To some Christian critics, however, that message is uncomfortably close to Korea’s folk paganism, which offers magical benefits through propitiation of the gods.)

The growing Christian prominence has provoked a Buddhist backlash. Buddhist denominations complained publicly when President Kim, newly inaugurated, held private Protestant services at his official residence, the Blue House; the President continued the devotions but deleted them from the published list of his activities. Occasional acts of zealotry fuel Buddhist concern: last January a Christian battalion commander caused an uproar in the country when he ordered the dismantling of a Buddhist prayer hall on his base; an image of the Buddha was dumped into a sack and discarded. Buddhists forced the army to remove the officer and restore the prayer hall, and the Defense Minister issued an apology. President Kim made an announcement on Buddha’s birthday that emphasized “respect for the others’ right to worship their own religions.”

Buddhists are imitating the aggressive proselytizing of their competitors. Says Kim Huh Chung, chief of the education department in Buddhism’s dominant Chogyejong sect; “In modern society you cannot bring religion to people if it is not suitable for them. We can only blame ourselves if Buddhism declines.” Buddhist temples, which formerly opened on fixed days of the month, now open on Sundays to accommodate worshippers. Buddhists also sponsor a Seoul radio station and advertise yoga and meditation classes to combat urban stress.

Christianity’s most serious challenge may come from within. During the prosperous past two decades, observes philosophy professor Son Bong Ho of Seoul National University, it looked as if God was keeping his side of the “prosperity-Gospel” promise. Says he: “Those churches that have emphasized material blessings have grown faster than mainstream denominations.” With the country currently caught in a painful economic downturn, the worst since 1980 the question arises whether the go-go Gospel will retain its appeal in times of adversity.

  1. There is nothing spiritual about the shift. It is a shift from the divine to the diabolical.