Five reasons for explosive growth in the Korean Catholic Church

In light of BECs being the core need of the Peninsular Malaysia Church, we are dedicating this page to report on the BECs. These reports will come mainly from the three Arch/Dioceses of Peninsular Malaysia.

Apr 26, 2019

By Marcel LeJeune
The Catholic Church in South Korea has a lot of lessons for us in the United States. Did you know that the growth of the Church in the last 30 years in Korea has been nothing short of explosive? Did you know the Catholic Church is considered the most respected insitution in the entire country (by polling data)? Both are true and if we study this growth, we can learn much.

In The Beginning
For most of Korea's history, Christian missionaries struggled to make a difference, because the leaders isolated the country from outside influence. While the first Korean Catholics were baptized in 1592 (probably by Japanese soldiers, while at war), the growth was stunted, due to severe persecution. In 1777 some Koreans obtained Christian literature from Chinese Catholics (including Bibles). From there, small house churches were established. In 1789, a Chinese priest snuck into Korea and found approximaely 4,000 Catholics. None of them had ever seen a priest before! By 1796, there were over 10,000 Catholics.

Many of these early Korean Christians were martyred. In 1839, the persecution hit a climax with the martydom of several Catholics, inculding Saints Andrew Kim, Paul Chong, and their companions. St. Andrew Kim was the first Korean priest.

The Korean Church Today
The growth in the Korean Church has been absolutely amazing in the last half century or so. Here are some of the numbers:

1985 - 1.8 million Catholics

2017 - 5.8 million Catholics

In 2016 74% of all baptisms were of adults (converts to Christianity). While the birthrate in Korea is low, the conversion rate is out of the roof.

There were 75,000 adult baptisms in 2017. Compare that to the USA at 38,000 (with about 12 times more Catholics in the USA and a more established Church).

More than 10,000 religious sisters. Compare that to the USA at 45,000.

The vast majority of priests (more than 2/3) are under 45.

From 1997 to 2017 the Catholic Church grew from 7.9% of the population to 11%.

More than 5,000 priests (1 priest for every 1,000 Catholics) vs the USA which has 37,000 priests (1 priest for every 2,000 Catholics)

What Caused The Explosion?
There is no one reason which explains the growth, but rather there are several reasons layered together:

Several reasons that can explain the growth

1 - An indigenous lay movement
The Church didn't have foreign missionaries that came to give an outside religion. Rather, Koreans became Catholics and then came back to share their faith. The Church grew from person-to-person, family-to-family, and community. Since Koreans never depended on clergy or religious to spread the faith for them, it was natural for many to share their faith with others, because that is how they became Catholics themselves. Here is how one priest explains it:

"In the parish we are two priests and four sisters, but the real work of mission and religious instruction is done by the laity, both in the eight courses of catechesis, taught at different times and by different people, and in the very active ecclesial movements, especially the Legion of Mary. Each year, we celebrate two or three rites of collective baptism of adults: each time the baptized are 200, 300, or even more, after about a year of catechumenate: that's not much, but we can't allow any more time because of the many requests for religious instruction. Deeper formation in the faith is given after Baptism, and is the task of the ecclesial movements.

2 - Religion is never passive, but always intentional and demanding
To become Catholic in Korea is no easy thing. They understand the Gospel demands much of us, as the same priest above states:

"Becoming Christian means entering into a group that draws you in deeply, gives you norms of behavior and effort, gives you prayers to say every day. When one enters the Church one accepts everything. This is the Korean spirit: either you accept and commit yourself, or you don't accept and go away."

3 - Strong sense of community
Being a Catholic in Korea is more than just jumping through hoops or doing what is obligated of you. It means living life together.

"He also explains that there is a strong sense of community. People come early to Mass to sing hymns and stay for lunch for two or three hours afterwards. His parish is split into small neighbourhood groups that meet regularly and look after each other."

4 - Wide admiration from the culture at-large
The Catholic Church is seen in a very positive light, because of the many ways it serves the country - various corporal works of mercy, helping the poor, fighting for pro-democracy government during the years the military ruled the country, enculturation of anscestral worship into Catholic prayers for those in Purgatory and the Intercession of saints in Heaven, and more. The Catholic Church has become the home of many influential educators, politicians (including the current President), pop stars, military leaders, etc. It is socially acceptable to be Catholic.

Archbishop Kim confirmed that the Church’s history as being the product of a lay movement and its strong, public advocacy for democracy and its stand against authoritarianism have served to make it a much-admired institution.

Many Catholics have been exemplary citizens, such as Korea’s only Nobel Prize winner, former President Kim Dae-jung, who served 1998-2003. The statesman received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2000.

One 2015 poll found Catholicism is the most respected religion in South Korea, followed by Buddhism.

5 - Spiritual Multiplication rather than addition
Spiritual addition is the principle that someone can bring another person to the point of conversion - that is, they choose to follow Jesus and become a disciple of his. This is an intentional act of the will. We should rejoice anytime someone is brought to a living faith, but we should never stop there. In many ways, this is the bar of success in most Catholic circles. We seek converts and disciples (not a bad thing!). Still, this isn't the bar Jesus set for us as his followers. Many of the Catholics in Korea know this. So, they aim for Spiritual Multiplication.

We see at the very beginning of Jesus ministry that he called the fishermen to be fishers of other men. He said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Matt 4:19). The first step is to "follow". This decision to follow makes one a disciple. The next step is to be formed into a "fisher of men". This makes us a disciple-maker. Yet, it doesn't stop there. We are to go onto not just make disciples, but disciple-makers. This is spiritual multiplication.

If you were to become a great evangelist, you might have the opportunity to bring hundreds (or thousands like the great Saints of old - e.g., St. Paul, St. Francis Xavier). You could personally evangelize the crowds of those around you and heaven would rejoice. Yet, there is a better way. To deeply invest in a handful of people at one time. Thus, forming them to be disciple-makers as well. This is the model of Jesus! He didn't spend the bulk of his time ministering to the crowds, though he did do so sometimes. Rather, he took 12 followers and made them into "fishers of men" who made other "fishers of men".

The math bears this out. If you become one of the greatest evangelists of all time and are able to lead 1,000 people to faith every year for 36 years, you would have 36,000 followers of Jesus. Amazing, isn't it?

Yet there is something much better, if you led 3 people to Jesus, personally discipled them, and raised each person to evangelize and disciple 3 others, and then all of those disciple-makers reached 3 others, then at the end of 36 years, we will have 1,048,576 followers of Jesus!!!
That is what spiritual multiplication looks like and what we are called to. This is what happeed in the Korean Church - person-to-person evangelization.

If our goal is to "make disciples of all nations" as we are told to by Jesus, then we need to aim for spiritual multiplication, not just spiritual addition. St. Paul modeled spiritual multiplication, by investing in Timothy, Titus, etc. He spells it out in one of his letters to Timothy:

"What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." -2 Tim 2:2

The Korean Church is a model that this can still happen

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