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November 03, 2004

Korean missionaries in the Middle East

This story in The New York Times about Korean Christian missionaries in the Middle East is not surprising but nonetheless peculiar. I have been a close watcher of the religious situation in Eastern Asia for a while now after my college flirtation with the Korean American Christian Fellowship (some cute Japanese girls were in it). Here is a fact that might surprise some (though not everyone): Korea is #2 after the USA in the absolute numbers of missionaries it sends abroad. With 12,000 vs. 46,000 Americans, Koreans actually beat the USA on a per capita basis (48 million Koreans vs. 290 million Americans). This is even more shocking when you note that only ~25-30% of Koreans identify as Christian vs. 80-85% of Americans. But, it is less shocking when you remember that the majority of Korean Christians would probably be considered theologically conservative and evangelical in a Western context, so proportionally, traditionalist Christians probably form only a slightly smaller fraction in South Korea than here in the states.

I think it is on some level good that Middle Eastern countries get infiltrated by Christian evangalizers, they can destabilize the stagnant mindspace that seems to dominate those cultures and offer alternative avenues of social organization. Nevertheless, a few observations and concerns:

  • It seems strange to go take your mission abroad if you haven't even fully Christianized your own society. In fact, my examination of The Korea Yearbook indicates that the rate of Christianization has dropped greatly in the 1990s, and it might be that evangelical Christianity has hit its saturation point in Korean culture. From a angle of numbers though, it still seems the yield of souls in Korea would be far greater than in the Middle East, so why go there? There are probably some psychological reasons that drive the evangelizers, reasons that would be cogent to the men and women of the 2nd or 3rd century Christian Church, after all, they ventured beyond the bounds of their pagan culture to bring the gospel to some peoples beyond the reach of Rome (though it seems with marginal success at best).
  • It is a bit disconcerting that the Christians of Korea, whose history is at most 2 centuries long (Catholics), and more often measured only in decades, are focusing on the Christians of the Middle East, who have been followers of Christ for over 1,500 years. This is a case of going where the hunting is good, but not only does it extinguish ancient Christian traditions that have some interest to those of us who are historically minded (though for me, I must say the individual matters more, so I will not cry over the dissolution of the old Christian Churches of the Middle East if their members decide to switch to another confession of their free will), it probably puts some of these Christian communities in danger from the surrounding Muslim population because they might be seen as associating with the culturally naive Koreans, and in fact harboring and abetting them. It is quite true that some Christian elites have internalized the dhimmi mentality and tend to be rather meek, but unless the Korean Christians can offer asylum or refuge in Korea for these Middle Eastern Christians if and when they arouse the hostility of the surrounding population, they should be a bit more reflective.
  • Expect more of the same in the years to come. Though I am skeptical that more than 15% of Chinese will become Christian, that would be around 195 million people (probably skewed toward the young and educated), and Han Christianity seems to resemble Korean Christianity more than the staid Japanese denominations. The new East Asian Christians will change the faith greatly, and turn their organizational capacities toward Christian ends. While the Christian peoples of Africa and Latin America tend to look more inward because of the instabilities in their own societies, the Asian Christians reside in relatively self-confident cultures, and quite often affluent ones that might be able to enable them to "idea project" in a way that other non-white Christian peoples can not.
Posted by razib at 12:32 AM