I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church in Canada since the mid-1980s. While the congregation I joined was healthy and sound, many that I visited as a student minister and guest speaker were already in sharp decline. Our national program of “doubling in the ‘80s” was devolving into staunching the losses. In short, I have not experienced the age when the PCC was in a position of fiscal or numerical strength.
My recent visit to the 101st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea was, as a result, quite an eye-opener. One of the students in my entourage was a member of a congregation of more than 100,000 members—larger numerically than the entire PCC. There are several Presbyterian churches with membership over 20,000, many over 10,000. Still, the majority of Korean Presbyterians worship not in these mega-churches, but in medium-size 500 to 800 member congregations, and many more in small storefront or second-story aid-receiving churches of 60 to 100 people. These numbers add up; there are about three million members in more than 8,000 congregations within the PCK, which is only one of three major Presbyterian denominations in Korea. The total number of Protestant Christians in Korea is over 15 million, plus upwards of six million Roman Catholic Christians. On any Sunday, about a third of all Koreans are in church.
What is truly astonishing is that in 1880, there wasn’t a single Protestant church in Korea. The Roman Catholic Church had established a foothold, but murderous persecution from the traditionalist ruling families kept numbers low and believers underground, despite incredible courage and fortitude. Then, in 1884, Protestant missionaries Horace Allen, Henry Appenzeller and Horace Underwood arrived. They were soon joined by Canadian missionaries R.A. Hardie, O.R. Avison and J.S. Gale. Thanks to the sacrificial efforts of these and other faithful men and women, the gospel would not only take hold, but in the course of a single century would utterly transform Korean society and establish a bright future for the church.
Despite persecution from the established order, the privations of the Japanese Occupation, the brutality of the Korean War, and the division into North and South Korea, the church, in the short span of a single century, grew to the astonishing size it is today. The church’s dedication to God and commitment to service bore tremendous fruit. Korean Christians were, in the modern phrase, “all in.”
This fills me with hope. We have a mission, a purpose, a job to do. We don’t have to settle for decline. We Canadian Presbyterians possess an infrastructure unknown to the early Korean church. We have wonderful buildings, theological schools, freedom of worship, rapid communication, unlimited access to scripture. We live in a society that needs to be brought into relationship with God through Jesus Christ no less than the Korea of 1880.
What we need is a renewal of commitment. What we need is renewed dedication. We can and must decide, as individuals, as congregations, as a denomination, to go “all in” for Jesus Christ. If we do—when we do—we will join our Korean brothers and sisters in bringing our nation to God.