The Gospel in a Changing Korea

Korean-American Pastor Stephen Um of Citylife Boston on the state of the church in Korea:

Having said this, many now believe that the Korean church, on the whole, is in a season of decline. While Korea is often cited as being 30-35% Christian, the most recent census numbers indicate that that number has decreased to about 18%. While this is still a staggering number for Asia, the drastic decline is hard to ignore. Furthermore, it is now the case that less than 2% of twenty-somethings regularly attend church, leading us to believe that Korea’s religious future may look quite a bit like that of other developed nations. Yes, there was a cultural moment 20 or 30 years ago when an attractional, come-and-see model produced results and numbers, but this is simply no longer the case.

While there has been phenomenal development of theological education and ministerial structures over the last few decades, there has been little work done on how the church in Korea can integrate a gospel worldview into the culture, which has led to a lack of shaping influence and cultural renewal. The prevailing approach tends to have an unbalanced emphasis on evangelism and church growth without as much emphasis on church health, how the gospel changes us, social justice and mercy, and the integration of faith and work in an achievement-oriented culture. The prevailing expectation is that the world will continue to come into the church, effectively creating an ingrown church that lacks the means to reach out. (This is not according to my outsider perspective, but according to my conversations with Korean leaders and pastors who acknowledge that the church’s influence in reaching the younger generation is slipping.)

For these reasons, after visiting Seoul this time around, I am compelled to communicate the need for a gospel-movement such as the one we are praying and working for through City to City. The church is in need of a thick gospel theological vision that shapes every dimension of its life and ministry. Churches need to be planted with sensibilities that will shift the directional flow from an outside-in to an inside-out gospel approach, that will turn the cultural idol of power accumulation upside-down, leading to radical power-sharing, which will avoid an overly triumphalistic approach to culture yet maintain a big vision for seeing the culture renewed with the gospel. Though all signs point to the church in Seoul experiencing a drastic and continual decline, it may be an opportunity for many new gospel churches to be planted—churches that will bring about gospel renewal and revival in new ways. Efforts like the recent Gospel in the City conference will go a long way toward equipping pastors and church planters with a robust gospel theology, winsome approach to skeptics, and an understanding of culture that can prepare the way for a gospel movement.


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