The story of the Korean church is simply amazing. At the turn of the 20th Century the church in Korea barely registered. Today, in South Korea the Christian population stands at about 30%, which is simply amazing. So, what is the explanation for such amazing growth?
The answer to this question may prove surprising. According to a piece in the Christian Century written by Philip Jenkins, one of the most balanced observers of global Christianity, part of the answer can be found in the fact that Christians were at the forefront of social justice during turbulent times -- this goes for both Catholic and Protestant expressions. Despite its missteps and scandals, the church has proven itself to be a community of faith committed to the welfare of the people of the nation. Jenkins writes:
But Christians had some advantages. Above all, they could begin with a blank slate in a nation with minimal exposure to the faith before the 18th century. Christians therefore had no burden of history or prejudice to overcome and were able to establish their credentials among the Korean people. From the earliest days, Christians associated themselves wholeheartedly with the cause of the nation and people, in an age when thuggish Japanese imperialists were seeking to destroy that identity. Europeans might draw comparisons to the role of Catholicism as the symbol of national resistance in Ireland and Poland. When activists signed a Korean Declaration of Independence in 1919, almost half were Christian, though at that time Christians were just 1 percent of the population.
Korea is a nation cursed by having too much history and too many conflicts and disasters—yet each crisis served to strengthen the force of Christianity on the peninsula. Prior to the 1940s, the city of Pyongyang was a great Christian center. In the face of communist persecution, hundreds of thousands fled to the south, where over time they greatly flourished. The Korean War itself contributed to the Christian cause, as the churches were principal channels of relief efforts. Christians, it seemed, were not only loyal patriots but generous supporters of the poor and oppressed. Being Christian in no way compromised a hard-won national identity.
As I write this, I'm also reading the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, which tells the story of a man who understood that Jesus had more to do with life than simply save our souls. Christian faith, for Bonhoeffer, as it appears to be true of the Korean Church, requires a commitment to the welfare one's neighbors. Therefore, it would appear that a commitment to social justice is no barrier to the growth of the church