SEOUL, South Korea – Seoul is a study in tensions between old and new.
Modern high-rise apartment and office buildings sit alongside ancient palaces and temples. Young Koreans with money to spend pack popular shopping districts. The elderly take their daily exercise amidst young families, cyclists and joggers along the banks of the Han River and in parks throughout the city.
At night the city skyline is dotted with the glow of red crosses atop Christian churches, dotted among trendy restaurants, nightclubs and karaoke bars that attract businessmen and university students until the early hours of the morning.
Photo by Tess Rivers
Although Seoul stands apart from other Asian megacities for its embrace of Christianity, tensions between old and young exist both in Korean society and in the church as the younger generation seeks greater involvement in many spheres of life.
Seoul is South Korea’s bulging center of politics, culture, finance, entertainment and religion. Nearly half the country’s population resides in Seoul, Incheon and Suwon – Seoul’s larger metropolitan area, which many consider the world’s second largest city.
Yet Seoul stands apart from other Asian megacities for the prominence of Christianity and its global influence on evangelical causes. In 2011 government statistics report nearly one in three South Koreans follow Christianity – nudging Buddhism from the lead it has held for centuries. It is one of the few cities in Asia considered “evangelized” by many mission organizations. More than 21,000 South Korean missionaries serve in 169 countries according to 2009 statistics from the Korea World Missions Association.
Meanwhile, Seoul churches are at the forefront in developing Christian programs, materials and leaders – and exporting them around the world, says Joseph Kim, lead pastor of Wonchon Baptist Church and headmaster of Central Christian Academy in Suwon.
“In the 1990s, most of the innovation in Christian ministry flowed from North America to Korea,” the 50-year-old son of Korean evangelist Billy Kim says. “But since 2005, Korean churches are developing songs, programming and innovations in the Korean language. Korean churches in North America are beginning to copy things that are happening in Seoul.”
Tensions between the traditional and modern, however, are evident both within Seoul society and within the church. Young Koreans are looking for active rather than passive participation in government and worship – which Kim describes as a radically different concept from the hierarchical structure so important to traditional Korean culture.
“Young Koreans want to be involved,” Kim says. “They want to make a difference.”
Kim says this explains the social justice efforts increasingly prevalent in many Korean churches, with many congregations providing facilities for the homeless, the elderly and the disabled.
“This is a new movement of this young generation in participation,” Kim says, explaining that the distinction between “liberal” congregations focused on social ministries and “conservative” ones focused on preaching and teaching hardly exists in South Korea.
Photo by Tess Rivers
Older South Koreans are well-known for their passion for prayer, evangelism and missions. Persecution and poverty during the Japanese occupation and Korean War drove Korean Christians to their knees, explains Daniel Lee, emeritus pastor of the 30,000-member Global Mission Church in Suwon. The continued fear that it may happen again keeps them there.
“In Korea, even the conservative evangelical church is still very active in social work,” Kim says.
Abigail Shin, a 31-year-old visiting professor at Seoul National University, also sees evidence of the younger generation’s commitment to social issues, noting that a popular red-light district shut down a few months ago after decades in the city’s center. However, she remains concerned over a number of other issues facing her generation, including the drinking culture, marital unfaithfulness, dads who are never home and children under pressure to excel.
Such issues, Shin says, stem from a hierarchical culture built on unquestioning respect for authority – one that is often abused in the business world by “bosses who demand younger workers do the dirty work or serve them in certain ways.” While many young people “robotically” give respect to the older generation, some are rebelling against it, Shin says.
For young and old, Shin says, “I believe there needs to be education about mutual respect.”
Within the church, Shin believes many young people are turned off by the “in-your-face” evangelism of their elders.
“In Korea, it seems there is an all-or-nothing way of doing Christianity,” says Shin, who attends Jubilee Church in Gangnam, a suburb of Seoul.
Part of this stems from societal demands placed on young businessmen, Shin explains, noting that many men are rarely at home and are required as part of their job to visit bars and strip clubs after hours with co-workers and clients.
As Christians, these young men must make “radical decisions such as giving up their job or joining a seminary,” Shin says. “It is difficult to live in the world and not be part of it with all the pressures and expectations that come from society.”
Korean families are struggling, agrees 34-year-old Isaac Surh, fellowship and youth pastor at Onnuri English Ministry in Seoul. “Parents, especially fathers, are distant from their children, harsh and overly strict, causing children to overreact and rebel.”
Surh believes the answer lies in family ministries and church-sponsored pre-marital and marital counseling to help minimize the potential for family dysfunction. Surh applauds initiatives such as the “Fathers’ School,” an Onnuri ministry that teaches Korean men to be good husbands and fathers.
Kim likewise believes that Christian education is the next phase of Korea’s church growth and the key to nurturing an evangelistic vision among the young.
By planting Wonchon Baptist Church on the campus of Central Christian Academy, Kim as a pastor and educator merges church planting with Christian education. The church consists of 10 congregations with 200 to 300 members each, which meet on the school campus in a building designed much like a multiplex theater. Membership comes primarily from families associated with the school.
Although services at Wonchon aren’t polished, Kim says the structure brings families “closer to community.” Though radically different from the mega-church model dominating South Korea’s evangelical landscape, Kim believes the shift is essential to involve this generation and reach the next.
Mijung Kim, a student at Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology in Seoul, agrees. The 35-year-old former life coach explains that Korean families are built on relationships, while the church structure separates families by age group, gender, ministerial roles and specific ministries.
“The basic infrastructure of the [Korean] church is not oriented for family ministries,” Mijung Kim says. “The time is right to shift toward family ministries. One local church can be the model.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tess Rivers is an International Mission Board writer in Southeast Asia. For more stories specific to Asia, visit www.asiastories.com. Southern Baptists support mission outreach in South Korea and throughout the world by their giving to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.)