The State of Christianity in Korea

The quotes below are from a report from a two-day intensive Gospel in the City conference held in Seoul on Feb 20-21, 2012 (written by Stephen Um, a Korean pastor in Boston): The Gospel in a Changing Korea. Do you think his observations and conclusions quoted below are in keeping with what you have observed and read in UBF reports over the last few decades?

Is our UBF Preaching and Bible Teaching Christ-centered or Morals/Mission/Method-centered? During the teaching sessions Um found that “the more challenging to present and grasp were on contextualization and gospel preaching. (Gospel preaching) was particularly challenging because it breaks from the traditional method of preaching taught in many Korean seminaries. This somewhat moralistic preaching…tends to be the norm. The concept of preaching we presented of reading the scriptures canonically and then preaching from a redemptive-historical, christo-telic perspective is new and challenging.” Regarding gospel preaching, it is their hope that “the consideration of this different approach to preaching (redemptive-historical, christo-telic perspective) will lead many pastors to gain a deeper knowledge of the gospel and how to preach it to others.” Have UBF teachings emphasized morality, mission and methods rather than Christ and the gospel (1 Cor 2:2)? Is our teaching Christotelic (John 5:39)? Does our 50th UBF anniversary report book stress the keeping of our UBF methodology for the next 50 years rather than the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24; 1 Cor 1:23)? Does our Bible study and preaching press for man’s response and responsibility rather than trust the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to God?

A Stagnant Church: Regarding the growth of Christianity “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 20-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.” Are the 20 somethings who attend UBF primarily 2nd gens, transfer Christians, or non-Christians?

An Inward Focus rather than an Outward Orientation is Deadly: In regards to the church and a gospel worldview “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.)” Incurvatus in se (curved inward on oneself) is the sinful default of all Christians. Only a robust gospel can reverse this (2 Cor 5:15). Is UBF more interested in church growth or church health? Are we inward focused or outward focused?

Leaders Letting Go of Power and Control: With regards the future direction of the church, Um writes, “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.” Do UBF leaders promote power accumulation or power-sharing? Is our directional flow outside-in, or an inside-out gospel approach? Do we promote authoritarian control over the church (Mark 10:42-44)? Does UBF have a triumphalistic approach to culture?

Has UBF been declining along with the church in Seoul? Do you agree with the observations, conclusions and proposals quoted above? How can gospel renewal and revival happen in UBF?


  1. These are necessary questions and an appropriate analysis, Ben. I won’t answer the questions right now (I think most of our readers know my answers :)

    But I want to stress one big issue: there is a perceived Christianity among the UBF “2nd gens”. In other words, many UBF parents view their children as being Christian because their children conform to certain standards and don’t question their parent’s faith. However, those children, many of whom are now adults, are struggling with understanding the gospel of Jesus. For example, one 2nd gen (who will remain anonymous) confessed to me this year that he is not only not a Christian, but he is an atheist. I think this is not just an isolated situation. 

    • Yes, Brian, I have also heard of UBF kids who go to church to make their parents happy, or not to hurt them, even though they “switch off” in church.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Ben. I will add one point which I’ve heard quite a few times from my professors and fellow students in Seminary. Korean churhers tends toward unconfessional christianity. really large part of Koran churches has Reformed roots but many of them hardly really keeping Reformed theology, confesstional docs etc. So there some amount of mess in theology. Not sure if anyone would agree that this is a problem. B/c this question has different sides, and surely it is just generalization. 

    • Forgive my ignorance, David, but what does “unconfessional Christianity” mean? After all, we do write testimonies. Isn’t that “confessional”?

    • David Bychkov

      Sorry. I meant traditional standarts of faith like Westminster Confession Of Faith, Heidelberg Catechism.

  3. About approach to culture and church health. There are 11 new appointed UBF chapter directors in the USA (2011) and only 2 of them are not koreans. It would be a nice stat data for chapters in Korea I suppose, but not in the USA. UBF is trying hard to keep its position as a “number one missionary sending korean church” with the motto “Korea will send more missionaries than America”. But are such things biblical and Christ-centered and healthy? UBF remains mostly just a korean church with indigenous insertions. Culturally UBF is Korea-centered worldwide. And UBF leaders say that other korean churches learn many thing from UBF, such as 1:1  (as the church growth secret – 0.3%) and sending as missionaries 1/3 of church members. (Are these things biblical and God approved?). UBF is surely declining along with others, not growing nor awaiting a revival. (BTW, Dr Ben I liked your article about Philippines UBF and I believe there is a revival there. I believe that God will bless your chapter and Penn State chapter and the like, though I think that UBF-name is not very helpful for revival and church growth) 

    • Thanks, Vitaly, for you expression of support. I’ve often said that God is always doing His own thing (Ps 115:3; Ps 135:6; Jn 3:8), and all I am doing is trying to jump on God’s bandwagon (Phil 2:12), and often falling off! Pray for me to keep getting back on again.
      Unfortunately, UBF being Korea-centered is to be expected. John Piper says that we are all racist. I agree. But as sinners we easily see other nationalities as racist, not ourselves. I have heard both a missionary and an American both accuse the other of being racist, without themselves seeing how racist they each are. Thus, we all need Jesus!

  4. I think Mr. Um is onto something here. Times definitely are a-changing. I’m glad a lot of the older Christians are beginning to realize this.
    I think for a Christian movement to flourish, telling others about the Bible has to come from a real desire to tell others. If I am not motivated to tell people something cool and exciting, I wouldn’t right? So what makes this any different?
    Right now, the liberty movement fronted by GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul is thriving. His message is so relevant to today’s youth because the youth value independence, freedom to make individual choices, consistency, just to name a few. Even though he’s 76 years old, he is the most popular GOP candidate among the youth. I think this just highlights how important the message is. Ron Paul is an old man who even stumbles when he talks, but it’s his message that really moves people. Personally I have never supported a politician as much as I have Ron Paul even though I’m not even an American. 
    Take a look at the enthusiasm of college students at MSU from this short YouTube clip. They are welcoming Ron Paul:

    I think for a major revival to occur, UBF or any Christian organization or church need to become more relevant to the average person. For example, talking about something in Revelations that is occurring today. Perhaps that Israel will be a country again (already happened), before the second coming, that you will not be able to distinguish men and women in appearance (just look at men’s fashion today), there will be a singular global government (adoption of the euro in EU countries is just a start in more globalization).
    I think there are plenty of other ways Christians can share their faith. But in reality the majority of Christians just go to church on Sunday and don’t even think about their faith during the week. In other words, it’s not relevant to their lives.
    So to sum this up, I think authenticity and relevancy are prerequisites to a major Christian revival. In Seoul, and everywhere.

  5. Thanks, James. I agree that being authentic and relevant are prerequisites to a revival. But the problem with every 2nd generation of Christians, is that the 1st generation often fails to see that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant and obsolete because of outmoded ways of contextualizing and presenting the gospel.
    Yes, it did work for them 20 to 40 years ago. But it will not work today, or will work far less effectively as we are experiencing today. The gospel does not change. But the culture and society changes. Until we humble ourselves and truly listen to the next generation, we will lose them. If we think that the 2nd generation should just submit to the 1st generation, we will also eventually loose them.
    This is true not just for culturally Korean churches like UBF, but for every church in every culture, every nationality, and every generation.

  6. I agree that this is not just a Korean thing. There are many white Americans in foreign countries who do not speak a word of the language and only eat American food and hang around American people. I find it inconsistent that they live abroad when they would be much more at home in their own country. It’s as if they brought America here.
    Even though I disagree with this life style,  they have a particular ministry they are serving. Their ministry is for expats. But I like Paul’s attitude in 1 Cor 9:19-21:
    19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.

  7. Now is the time to also analyze the “state of Christianity in UBF”. Historically, Easter is the time of reform in UBF, and unfortunately, also the time of excommunication and severe division. Analyzing the reform movements led by Koreans in 1976, 1989 and 2000, as well as the ongoing 2011 independence movement, will be the subject of my 2012 Easter reflections. I think we all should have a sober assessment of facing the facts about UBF, without the “us vs them” mentality.

  8. When one address about Gospel or Christian spirituality, it must be addressed in terms of human nature or God’s characters.
    One thing we know is that all human being, no matter how good they have become, as time went on, as long as we live in the world under the power of sin, will degrade to spiritual malaise unless he or she is renewed by by the power of the cross in ongoing bases.
    This is truth in each individual as well as a group or a nation. This has happened in Europe and is happening in US. Korea is no exception. Do we have to bring down our spirit by these?
    I like to rejoice in what God is doing in many other parts of the world. Particularly I am very happy to see what God is doing in China. Jesus said the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit [Matt 22:43]. Once he did, and he will do again any time. We are not exempt from it.