It may come as a surprise to many that South Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Olympics, is one of the “biggest exporters” of the gospel around the world.
Experts who study the global missionary movement say the impact South Korean missionaries have had on the spread of Christianity in that last half-century is impressive.
“24 missionaries were officially sent out by the Korean churches in 1974,” writes Jae Kyeong Lee, a leader in the Korea Baptist Convention. “Their number grew exponentially, and 40 years after Korea sent out its first missionaries, 27,436 Korean missionaries from various denominations were serving in 170 countries.”
One reason South Korea’s missionary movement has been so successful is because Christianity has thrived in Korea since the turn of the 20th century.
In 1885, only 1 percent of the country’s population was Christians.
One-hundred and thirty-three years after the gospel first reached the Korean peninsula through the work of foreign missionaries, Christians now make up more than a quarter of the South Korean population. The majority of them belong to Protestant denominations.
“This growth has caused Christians worldwide to marvel at how Korea so quickly went from a country void of the gospel to one of the biggest exporters of it,” said Lee.
Experts say the Pyongyang Revival of 1907 was a significant event in sparking the growth of Christianity in Korea. Some Christians began calling Pyongyang the “Jerusalem of the East.”
The revival meetings of 1907 lasted some 40 years and resulted in an explosion of churches.
In 2012, official government statistics put the number of Protestant churches at 77,000, more than three times the number of convenience stores in the country at that time.
The 1907 revival also gave birth to a powerful prayer and repentance movement that is still being felt to this day in the country.
“There is a Korean church tradition to go to the church at 5 a.m. to worship and pray before going to work,” said Lee.
In 2015, CBN News profiled one church in South Korea’s capital city of Seoul that doesn’t meet just once a week for prayer, but gathers for early morning prayer every day, and has been doing so for nearly 40 years.
“Christians cannot live without faith and prayer, even for a moment,” Seon Gyoo Kim, a church elder at Myungsung Church, told CBN News in 2015. “I believe morning prayer is God’s blessing for us.”
Lee says prayer has played a vital role in encouraging more South Koreans to go on the mission field.
“It’s through those dawn prayers that God has called many Koreans into missionary service,” said Lee. “If God leads, even if it seems irrational, they are willing to go without even knowing exactly where to go, as Abraham did.”
“Korean missionaries believe God will take care of them, for it is He who has called and sent them,” added Lee.
In 2006, South Korea was the No. 2 missionary-sending country in the world, behind the United States. The most recent data available, shows South Korea has slipped a few spots to No.6.
Lee, who earned a doctor of ministry from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says he’s been actively involved in missions since 1987 when he and his family moved to Fiji for missions work.
He says churches in South Korea continue to encourage their members to go on short-term missions trips.
“Korean churches use the summer holiday season to take their congregations out of the country for vision trips, prayer walking and short-term service abroad,” writes Lee. “Young people who come back from these trips often commit to missionary service, and the church members begin to catch a vision for taking the gospel to the world.”
“Our story is still fairly new, and it is likely we have many lessons to learn as we encounter secularization in our country and threats from others,” admits Lee.
Still, he’s “confident that God will continue to accomplish great things through the Korean church as we fix our eyes on Him.”