What city has the third most megachurches, trailing only Dallas and Houston? If you paid attention to the title of this, you might guess correctly Seoul, South Korea. And, as a recent article at The Gospel Coalition, notes, the threshold for megachurches in South Korea is 5,000, two and a half times that in the U.S.
Since the close of the Korean War in the 1950s, Christianity in the south has experienced a meteoric rise to the point now that only the U.S. sends out more Christian missionaries than South Korea. However, as the article notes, all is not perfect south of the 38th parallel. Church growth has slowed and attendance has actually slumped.
I don’t want to rehash the very in-depth reporting of Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, instead suggesting that you follow the link and read until you know as much about the Korean church as you had ever hoped to know. What I would like to suggest is that we can learn a great deal about the way forward for the American church by looking at the triumphs and struggles in the Korean one.
One of the problems in Korea, I would suggest is that various politicians put on their MKGA hats and turned the nation from an exceptionally poor place to an economic juggernaut. South Korea’s GDP per capita is about 77% of that in Japan, but more than three times as great as in China. They’re not too far behind long-time established nations like France and find themselves between Italy and Spain in the rankings. In short, economically, South Korea would fit in quite well with the EU.
What happens when societies grow wealthy? Often, people find themselves ready to lean on their own understanding (and bank account), feeling that they don’t need anything as pointless as God. This tendency makes the religious participation in the U.S. even more remarkable, but also helps explain recent struggles.
That’s an aspect of church health that we can’t really control. But there are others that we can control. We can look at a place like Korea, seeing it from a distance, and perhaps learn lessons about how they did not respond to changes in their culture or how they allowed the lure of megachurch success to corrupt ministers and laypeople alike.
Zylstra quotes a Korean leader who offers a simple but profound answer:
There are signs of younger churches and church leaders who are leaving the megachurch, prosperity-gospel, gift-oriented ministry models and going back to the simple gospel message,
Could it be that the answer is that simple? Could it be that when set we aside “church growth” and “seeker sensitivity” and power struggles and name-it-claim-it and everything else that isn’t the gospel, we can actually attract people? Paul dealt with this challenge nearly 2,000 years ago when he wrote to the Galatians:
I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.–Galatians 1:6-7
There is no other gospel, but there are a thousand things that can tempt the hearts of believers to veer from the narrow way. We don’t have to be doing a Joel-Osteen-style detour to damage the power of the Word. Our adversary can use any of our weaknesses.