South Korea sends more missionaries
than any country but the U.S. And it won't be long before it's number
posted 02/24/2006 09:30 a.m.
Kang was God's improbable choice to be a leader in the world's
fastest-growing missionary movement. Kang was born in Japan when the
Japanese empire was forcing alien Shinto beliefs down Korean throats.
At the end of World
War II, the Kang family returned to Korea and grew deeply fervent in
their Christian faith. The Kangs dedicated Samuel to God, and they
told him, "You will become a pastor."
Kang rebelled. "I
did not want to accept my parents' dedication of me to God without my
consent," he says. For years, he resisted God's call. But by the time
he was 20, Samuel's heart softened, and he felt compelled to give
himself to God. "No one can escape from his sovereign call," Kang
It took another 20
years of discipling and discernment before Kang set foot on a mission
field. At age 39, Kang and his wife, Sarah (who had discovered her own
call to missions work), left South Korea for Nigeria. When they
departed in 1980, there were only 93 Korean missionaries worldwide.
During the next 11
years, Samuel and Sarah Kang raised a family, planted Nigerian
churches, and started a Bible college for Nigerian pastors. Kang's
eyes sparkle as he recalls his days in Africa. "The Lord gave me this
wonderful opportunity to serve him," he says. "If God gives me another
life, may I give it to him as a missionary."
Kang doesn't look
backward very often. Now 64 years old, with silvery hair and a gentle
smile, he is leading an ambitious 25-year plan to help South Korea
send out more missionaries than any other country.
Kang is chief
executive director of the Korean World Mission Association and dean of
the Graduate School of World Mission at Seoul's influential Chongshin
University. He has helped move South Korean missions into a place
never before imagined: South Korea today sends out more missionaries
than any other country except the United States. In terms of
missionaries per congregation, Korea sends one missionary for every
4.2 congregations, which places it 11th in the world. (The U.S. does
not rank in the top 10.)
But more than that, mission scholars agree that Koreans are a potent
vanguard for an emerging missionary movement that is about to eclipse
centuries of Western-dominated Protestant missions. They call it the
"majority-world" mission movement. They say this new term—"majority
world"—is necessary to replace the aging terms "third world" and
"developing world." The radical change in Protestant missions is
forcing scholars and missionaries to create new ways of talking about
the global scene.
The global majority
(5.2 billion people) live in less developed nations. Of the world's
6.4 billion people, less than 18 percent live in developed nations.
Scholars say the church's future in large measure rests in the hands
of the global majority.
"The day of Western
missionary dominance is over, not because Western missionaries have
died off," says Scott Moreau, chair of intercultural studies at
Wheaton College (Illinois), "but because the rest of the world has
caught the vision and is engaged and energized."
Americans must come to realize that "missions is a two-way street on
every continent." Today's missionary is as likely to be a black
African in Europe as a northern Indian in south India or a Korean in
China. In addition, mission leaders are placing a new focus on Asia,
where 60 percent of the global population lives. Samuel Hugh Moffett,
the elder American statesman of Asian Christianity, told
Christianity Today that
Asia represents "the future for missions." Born in Korea to missionary
parents and now professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary,
Moffett has spent his professional life studying Christianity in Asia.
Between 1998 and 2005, he produced the two-volume
History of Christianity in Asia,
the recipient of many scholarly accolades.
Moffett paints no
pretty picture of the challenges facing the majority-world mission
movement in Asia. "We're starting from way back," he says. After 2,000
years of mission work, the population of Asia is no more than 8
percent Christian. "We're not doing very well. Asia is more religious
than any of the other continents," he says, yet Asians perceive
Christianity as an "alien" religion, even though "Jesus was born in
Asia." This perception can give Koreans a unique advantage in bringing
the gospel from one Asian country to another.
Another advantage is
the evangelistic zeal typical of the majority-world church, a zeal
that has been fundamental to majority-world missionary growth. In
1973, CT reported there were at least 3,411 non-Western, crosscultural
missionaries in the world. That number has now exploded to 103,000,
according to reliable estimates, though figures are difficult to
determine in the majority world.
That total nearly
equals the number of U.S. and Canadian Protestant mission personnel,
which stands at about 112,000.
As the Western
mission movement matures and slows down, majority-world missions are
expanding. South Korea sends more than 1,100 new missionaries
annually. That means Korea alone sends out as many new missionaries
each year as all of the countries of the West combined.
This rocketing rate
of growth is historic. When Kang returned to his home in 1991, South
Korea had sent more than 1,200 missionaries, up from 80 just 11 years
before. Today, almost 13,000 South Koreans are serving as longterm
missionaries in countries around the world.
"For many years,"
Kang says, "God said at night, 'You are like Jonah. You are like
Jonah.' " Eventually, Kang relented, and he told his wife about God's
call to evangelize Muslims in Africa. But Sarah worried about safety,
education, and her own lack of a divine call.
patient. Ten years after his initial conversation with his wife, he
gave Sarah a biography of a missionary to Muslims. After reading the
book, Sarah asked him to pray for her as she went to church every
For nine weeks,
Sarah sought God's direction in all-night prayer vigils. At dawn one
day, Kang saw his wife coming home with tears streaming down her face.
"God finally called me as a missionary," she exclaimed. "I do not
follow you. I go with you."
Outreach in the Red
On May 30, 2004, terrorists in Iraq linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
kidnapped Kim Sun Il, a Korean interpreter. The South Korean native
had been working for a year with a South Korean firm that supplied
goods to the U.S. Army, an opportunity Kim used as a means of gaining
entrance into the country.
Like many Korean
missionaries, he was highly educated, holding undergraduate and
graduate degrees in English, theology, and Arabic. He was also willing
to undertake the dangerous task of working in a war zone.
Kim had a passion
for mission work among unreached peoples. Mission experts estimate
that 1.8 billion individuals in thousands of ethnic groups remain
unexposed to the gospel. South Korean missionaries, in particular, are
pioneering projects and methods to spread the gospel in these areas.
Korea sends 34 percent of its missionaries to unreached peoples; the
international average is around 10 percent.
captivity, Zarqawi threatened to kill him unless South Korea scrapped
its plan to send 3,000 troops to join the U.S.-led coalition that had
toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. The kidnapping took the South Korean
government by surprise, and it frantically tried to rescue the
captured translator. It also took Westerners by surprise, as the
little-known Korean missionary movement was given a face on television
screens around the world. Terrorists released video footage of Kim
pleading for his life. On June 22, his beheaded body was recovered out
side of Baghdad.
Christians in South
Korea see their missionaries as uniquely positioned to bridge the
divide between the wealthy West and majority-world nations. In 1973,
during the landmark Seoul Crusade, Billy Graham predicted that South
Korea would be the launching pad for missions to Asia. (See "Prophecy
and Politics.") South Koreans are doing just that,
and Kim's ultimate sacrifice in Iraq is one heroic example of their
According to Henry
Lee, a mission leader based in Seoul, this kind of drive is a trait
shared by many Koreans, sending them to dangerous regions.
For seven years, Lee
worked with Muslims in another red zone, violence-torn Chechnya and
Dagestan, located between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea and
governed by Russia. He worked to plant churches and raise national
church leaders. After being expelled from Russia in 2003, Lee worked
as a mission pastor in Southern California. He now trains Korean
missionaries for Frontiers, which works in Muslim countries.
Lee teaches his
students how to enter and gain trust in a Muslim community. All Asians
have a mistrust of outsiders, Lee says. "If I don't know you, I can't
trust you." For missionaries in the Muslim world, it is even more
true. "Unless you break into that community, you cannot get them for
the kingdom of God," Lee says.
Lee also says it's
nearly impossible to pull a Muslim out of his or her community. "We do
not do extraction evangelism," he says. "We don't want to take them
out of their community to build a new fellowship. I want to see God's
fellowship built in that Muslim community, and then that community
will last and reproduce."
Due to the efforts
of Lee and others, the church is growing in Chechnya. One larger
congregation is made up of more than 70 percent Muslim-background
believers. The situation is similar in other pockets of Asia where
Korean missionaries are working. According to the Korea Research
Institute for Missions' (KRIM) biennial report, 47 percent of Korean
missionaries are working throughout Asia, and roughly one quarter work
in Muslim countries.
After ministering in
Dagestan, Lee moved further north into Russia for safety reasons.
Eventually, Lee was forced to lea ve the country entirely, but not
before he had spent four years training 12 church leaders and pastors.
By entering the region from southern Russia for two weeks at a time
every two months, Lee was able to train national church leaders in
Chechnya, teaching them Old and New Testament theology and other
seminary-level courses. Lee remembers, "One leader said to me, 'Even
though you didn't plant the church, you laid a foundation.' "
Lee turns somber
when he recalls the 12 believers he discipled in Chechnya and
Dagestan. "Even though I can't continue to teach them, my disciples
are teaching the next generation of church leaders in the North
Caucasus. They will remember me, and I will remember them."
One powerful memory
sticks in Lee's mind. It was a hot week on the Black Sea, and the
facilities were run down. The Chechen leaders were holding their first
retreat. Every evening after prayer, they sang traditional Chechen
songs and danced traditional Chechen dances. But they were singing and
dancing to God the Father, who sent his son Jesus Christ.
"We came to have a
sense of unity that we are in the same kingdom," Lee says. "That was a
really special moment of Chechen Christianity."
Steve Moon, director of the Korea Research Institute for Missions,
says Korean missionaries love the romance and adventure of pioneering
mission work. Their role model is Horace G. Underwood, the first
Presbyterian missionary to Korea.
missionaries go out to the field, they want to be the first
missionary, especially as a Korean," says Moon. "We are strong in
starting new projects."
entrepreneurial spirit has its downsides. "We have many lone rangers,"
Moon says. "Many Korean missionaries are on their own. They will start
their own ministry instead of joining a team."
Koreans often lack
crosscultural competency as well, Moon says. Americans not only have
missionary experience, but they also have crosscultural opportunities
in their own country. Koreans come from a monocultural, monolingual
This tension is not
unusual in the history of missions. "Wherever there is a renewal or
revival anywhere in the world, it results in missions," says C.
Douglas McConnell, dean of Fuller Seminary's School of Intercultural
Studies. Each emerging church has tried to export its characteristics
to other places, says McConnell, who recently co-authored
The Changing Face of World Missions.
rapid church growth in the '70s and '80s led to a remarkable
missionary consciousness, but it will take some maturing before it
becomes as effective as it could be. Learning cultural sensitivity
takes time, McConnell says. "To be very honest with you, I have [been
insensitive] myself. The process of helping local Christians to
understand the faith in their own categories is relatively
sophisticated. It takes a couple of generations of missionaries."
It took Americans
and the British two or three generations to learn to contextualize the
gospel, he says, and it's amazing that Koreans are catching on so
often send missionaries directly, without an outside or denominational
agency. While this process makes local churches more mission conscious
and helps them identify better with the outreach, it also creates
problems. Mission scholars say some churches tend to view missionary
church plants as extensions of the home church. In some congregations,
serving on the mission field has even become a step on the ladder of
competitiveness also has a double edge. Koreans' aspiration to outdo
America may result in huge numbers of Korean missionaries, but as one
missionary to Japan told CT, competitiveness among missionaries there
has made it harder to raise up national church leaders in an already
difficult environment. Missionaries, he says, focus on their church
rather than working together with other missionaries to build
seminaries and schools that can help the church at large.
In addition, Timothy
Park, a professor at Fuller and director of its Korean-studies
program, says recent Korean missionaries have not always followed the
indigenous church principle that made the first missionaries to Korea
so successful. In communist countries, for example, many indigenous
churches were thriving, says Park, who was a missionary to the
Philippines. But as soon as these countries opened up to foreign
missionaries, the churches became weak and dependent.
financial support and lose the sense of depending on God and doing
their best to help their churches grow. They depend on [Korean
missionaries] for support, and they are eventually controlled by the
Even though Park
helped to create a Philippine church association, the church is not
growing. "In terms of the number of congregations, it increases, but
not in terms of membership," he says. Sheep stealing is a major
problem. Missionaries start new churches by using Korean mission funds
to lure members from other congregations. This way the missionaries
can report successful church plants to their home churches. "Nationals
compare missions' supporting policies, and they try to belong to the
one that's the most generous."
create great problems," Park says. "A former general secretary of the
Christian Church of the Philippines told me they are agonizing over
the situation. He said unless foreign missionaries leave the
Philippines, he doesn't think the church will grow."
But Korean mission
leaders recognize these problems and are working to address them. To
begin with, they are encouraging churches to send missionaries through
agencies, which ensures quality training and also eliminates undue
influence from the sending churches.
Western Model Less
Majority-world missionaries say one cultural advantage works strongly
in their favor. A former mission director put it this way: "There is a
team working in northern India. There are a couple Koreans, a
Japanese, an Ethiopian, a couple Americans, and a couple Australians.
[Thus] it is very difficult for Muslims in northern India to say that
Christianity is a Western religion."
majority-world missionaries know that the Western model of missions
has cultural elements that are not well suited to their work in the
field. Western-style missions are dramatically more expensive to
maintain and require a large, complex organization to raise and
disburse funds worldwide.
model is more like a network. Due to financial constraints, it has to
be more flexible and collaborative. Because majority-world
missionaries are often culturally closer to those they serve on the
mission field, they are also more attuned to local cultural
are subtle, but significant. One Korean missionary to Afghanistan
complained that his Western coworkers were too analytic and too
Sung-Chan Kwon is
now executive director of Global Bible Translators, but for six years
he worked as a Western agency-sponsored missionary in Afghanistan. He
says he could not accomplish his mission while following the overly
rigid regulations and policies his agency specified.
Kwon says he was
required to ask local Afghans first to itemize their needs before he
started a project. But Kwon believed building relationships should
take priority over determining the best project. "The West wants to
control people with regulations. The heart is more important," he
says. It's better to teach someone what it means to be a missionary,
Kwon says, than simply to teach them what to do.
Some Koreans are
starting to host forums to discuss what Korean missions should look
like in the future. "In terms of theology and missiology, in terms of
methods, we may not be unique," says David Lee, director of Global
Missionary Training Center, which trains about 7 percent of Korean
missionaries. "But it's uniquely Koreans doing this with Korean
structure, with Korean church support, with Korean zeal and Korean
spirituality, which is willing to suffer and willing to shout to God
believe missions are missions. "There is no such thing as Korean
missions," says one well-respected Korean pastor.
Steve Moon writes in
his 2002 report that while Korea will continue to work with Western
mission agencies in the beginning of the 21st century, it may be time
for Korea to look back East and learn how to help other majority-world
countries develop their mission movements. "China and India will play
crucial roles in evangelizing the existing unreached world. … Korean
missions are expected to develop both the philosophy and the skills to
[build] smooth partnerships both with international mission agencies
with a Western background and with indigenous mission agencies with a
missionaries work in China, where they help train house-church
leaders. David Lee, who has also served as chair of the World
Evangelical Alliance mission commission, sees a big role for Korean
missionaries in getting Chinese missionaries involved in Korea's Back
to Jerusalem project, which aims to send 100,000 missionaries to the
Middle East. "If we can somehow assist them in terms of a more modern
way of thinking and coping and understanding context and crosscultural
communication," he says, "I think they would have a greater survival
As experienced missionaries return from the field, the Korean missions
Instead of retiring
in 1991, Kang started a new career. He launched a mission agency and
became an academic dean at Chongshin University and director of the
Korea World Mission Association (KWMA).
Kang and the
association plan to send 100,000 full-time Korean missionaries by
2030. They hope to mobilize 50 percent of Korean churches to be
involved in missions, recruit 1 of every 300 Korean Christians to
become missionaries, adopt 200 unreached people groups every five
years, and send 1 million tentmakers into difficult-access countries
It's an ambitious
plan, and not everyone believes it is practical. Steve Moon says the
project is "unrealistic." The mission infrastructure is already
overwhelmed, he says. Currently the infrastructure in Korea can only
support about 5,000 missionaries. The only way to send 100,000
missionaries would be to include tentmakers in the definition of a
missionary. One pastor on the board of KWMA says that although he
didn't vote against the project, it is too ambitious. Koreans'
ambition can be a problem, he says, and this is a good example.
But others defend
the project. Even if KWMA doesn't achieve its goal, they say, it will
have accomplished much. Furthermore, many skeptics in 1988 said it was
unrealistic for a group of Korean church leaders to send out 10,000
missionaries within 12 years. Yet the church leaders nearly did it.
So beginning in June
of this year, at the first Protestant church established in Korea,
KWMA and other groups will inaugurate their plan with a month-long,
countrywide missions awareness program called World Mission Korea
2006. It will include all major denominations and agencies, says Kang.
The whole nation will participate, with meetings in Seoul and 18 other
cities throughout the month of June, all focusing on completing the
task of world evangelization. By the end of the month, says Kang, "No
church may say, 'We never heard about missions.' "
"We Koreans need to
have a vision and goal for the future," Kang says. By developing
international partnerships, using the resources of Korean diaspora
churches, and recruiting retirees or mid-career professionals as
tentmakers, Kang says, Korea has the resources to achieve its goals.
At the same time,
many church leaders are preparing for the centennial of the Korean
Pentecost, the 1907 revival in Pyongyang that many consider the birth
of the Korean church. Mirroring that revival, respected pastors and
church leaders are publicly confessing sin. Many hope for another
revival that could produce an expanded awareness of missions.
So what happens if,
despite immense hurdles, South Korea manages to reach the world's
estimated 6,000 unreached people groups? What if it leads 21st-century
missions into Asia, the final frontier of missions, and shepherds the
majority world as it takes up its role in fulfilling the Great
Commission? What happens if Korea's missions miracle continues?
"We expect Christ to
come back," says Kang.
Rob Moll is
associate online editor for CT.