By contrast, my own church has been
looking for a new pastor since last year. Most of our members live no more
than a five-minute drive away, yet we are lucky to get half a dozen to a
morning prayer meeting once a week.
Is it any wonder that one of the
phenomena of 20th-century religion was the explosive growth in Korea of
Christianity, at the same time as it was stagnating in the West? You can
read a little about the impact on Korean society in a
fascinating article (thanks to
Joyful Christian Jeffrey Collins for pointing me to it).
I have a Korean wife, and have many
experiences of the dynamic nature of Korean Christianity. I remember the
last time we were staying with her parents, at their tiny apartment then, in
the Seoul suburb of Banpo, south of the Han River. Their home was part of a
giant apartment complex, housing thousands. While I was there I was probably
the only Westerner.
One day I stepped outside with my wife to
walk to the shops, when two ladies stepped forward. “Please,” said one,
pushing a pamphlet into my hands, then they walked away. It was a Christian
evangelism tract, in English. Almost certainly those women had heard that a
Westerner was staying in one of the apartments and had been waiting outside
our building – perhaps for a couple of hours – just to hand me that leaflet.
In Seoul I attended services of the
Yoido Full Gospel Church, around the corner from the country’s
parliament. This church, established by the dynamic
David Yonggi Cho in 1958, is now the largest in the world, with,
incredibly, 700,000 members.
The church building itself holds 25,000
people in the main auditorium, with a further 15,000 watching on giant
closed-circuit television screens in overflow chapels (“overflow” being the
operative word; each of these chapels was jammed when I was there).
The church organises seven fervent,
packed services each Sunday, two on Saturdays and several more during the
week, as well as all-night prayer meetings every Friday. Members are also
placed in small cell groups, which meet weekly for prayer and Bible study,
with each member of a group asked to pray daily for each other group member.
The church has become something of a
tourist attraction for visiting Christians. A special section of seating
offers headphones with simultaneous translation of the service. On one of my
visits the pastor began praying in tongues. The interpreter got carried
away. She started speaking in tongues too.
The Koreans are deeply spiritual. When
discussing religion there are none of the frustrations you face when
debating matters of faith with cynical, post-Christian Westerners. Rather,
you are back in first-century Athens with Paul, arguing the merits of the
My wife’s brother-in-law is a graduate of
one of Seoul’s top universities. He speaks excellent English. Several years
ago his son – my nephew – was punched to the ground in an argument with a
soldier, and spent several weeks in a coma, before making a slow and only
Christian groups sometimes visited my
wife’s brother-in-law in hospital and offered to pray for the family. He
told me he tried prayer himself. “But I didn’t once have any feeling of God
being there.” He complained that most of the prayer groups seemed to want
He and his wife went several times to
church, but he complained that as soon as they stopped attending the pastor
and elders would be on the phone pestering them to return, offering to send
a bus round each Sunday to pick them up. I suggested he try the Yoido Full
Gospel Church. “They’re all fanatics,” he said.
He has found great consolation through
weekly visits to an elderly Buddhist priest, who has taught him some simple
prayers and passes on traditional Buddhist wisdom for dealing with the pain
he suffers over his son’s condition. “Why is your god better than mine?” he
once asked me. “Why is your heaven better than mine?” (How would you
The Yoido Full Gospel Church runs a
retreat, known as Prayer Mountain, near the North Korean border, and I spent
a night there. Here is how I described the experience, in Chapter 11 of my
Living Water to Light the Journey:
At any time, thousands of people are
gathered for community prayer and worship that lasts for days, or even
weeks. Many are fasting. At night, most sleep - if they are not in prayer -
on mats spread out on the floor of the large central worship sanctuary.
Hundreds of tiny grottoes have been dug
into the mountain, and individuals occupy these, praying for hours at a
time, sitting or kneeling on the hard floor, a flickering candle the only
illumination after dark. I walked around the compound late at night. It was
snowing and bitterly cold, but many people were in the grottoes, crying out
or singing, in piercing voices, in prayer and worship.
Some even forsook the relative comfort of
the spartan grottoes and knelt outside, among trees and bushes on the
mountain. When I walked around once more, early the next morning, many of
the same worshippers were still at prayer.
During the 20th century Christianity in
Korea went from virtually zero to about a third of the population. We now
see Korean-style revival occurring in China. What can we expect if during
the 21st century a third of all Chinese turn to Jesus? Is the world ready?
August 13th, 2002