By Daniel R. Vess
During the past two years we have witnessed more doors opening around the world giving us the opportunity to share the gospel with those in other nations. A wonderful opportunity has also presented itself in South Korea.
Several years ago, while preaching in Florida, I had an opportunity to teach the gospel to Paul Lee, an electronics engineer from Seoul, Korea. Only two months after his baptism he moved to Maryland where he fell away from the Lord. For a couple of years he wandered from one denomination to another. Two years ago he returned to his country and wrote me a letter asking for help. He was fed up with denominationalism and wanted to return to the Lord’s church. We began to correspond on a regular basis. Unable to find a sound church, he began to establish one near Seoul. After several months of reading his letters asking for more help, I was no longer content with sending him sermon tapes, tracts, etc. I felt compelled to make a trip in answer to this “Macedonian call” from Korea.
On May 28th I began a two-week visit with Paul Lee to assist him in establishing a church in the Hwagok district of Seoul. Like Paul and Barnabas we wish to report on what God has wrought and “how he has opened a door of faith” to the Korean people.
Establishing the Hwagok Church of Christ
Paul Lee’s efforts to establish a church centered in Anyong City, thirty miles south of Seoul where he works. He used his office building as a place of worship. Since this was a business district, we realized the church could not be very effective at this location.
In search of an alternative, we set out one afternoon to visit local real estate brokers about renting a store front. However, renting in Korea is based on a totally different concept than in the U.S. Koreans must put up a large deposit of about $40,000 to rent a simple apartment. The owner invests the money and his interest is the rent. Your deposit is returned when you leave the apartment. The best deal we could find was a 20′ by 20′ basement room for a $20,000 deposit. This would of course be unrealistic at this time.
With this in mind we decided to concentrate our efforts out of Paul Lee’s home in the Hwagok district of Seoul. Unfortunately this didn’t solve all of our problems. The Hwagok district is densely populated, the streets are teeming with people. As a result of such close public existence, Koreans are very private when it comes to their homes. Koreans feel that their walled homes are their only refuge.
Therefore, it is considered taboo to have any public gathering in a home.
Keeping these things in mind, but not letting them deter us further, we set out to teach the gospel to Koreans. Before our first Sunday worship service, we sent out 500 flyers advertizing our location, times of services, and times of Bible classes throughout the week. In addition, we posted signs about the church and classes. Even while we were posting signs people would stop to read them. We posted signs in the gate and wall in front of Paul Lee’s home. Hundreds of people walked past daily and almost everyone would either stop or slow down to read the signs.
Each night we stood at the open gate in front of Paul Lee’s home to encourage people to come in and study. Hundreds of people would walk by. Although only one man came into the house to study with us, several people studied with us briefly on the street.
Our first Sunday worship service included Paul Lee, his father, and myself. Paul Lee’s father, who is in his late seventies, was very interested in the points against sprinkling as a form of baptism. On further study we found out that Mr. Lee had been baptized 25 years ago by a gospel preacher from America named Rice. Paul Lee’s father seem to be a very religious man. He has been an elder for over 30 years in the Presbyterian Church. Between 1971 and 1976 he preached weekly on a radio station for Christian Broadcasting. His radio sermons were published in a book titled Echoes of Gratitude. His father currently worships with him, but continues to maintain close ties with the Presbyterian church.
Throughout the next week we continued our “on the street” evangelism. We also composed another flyer. This flyer included Scriptures of early Christians meeting in their homes to help overcome our location stigma. We also tried to make it clear that we were not connected with the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Unification Church which the Christ-believing Koreans had been warned against. We were able to send out 3,000 of these flyers in a local newspaper.
On my second Sunday in Korea the three of us met again for worship. My lesson included four points: frequency of the Lord’s Supper, sin of religious division, original sin, and baptism. The lesson was designed for the denominational Koreans such as Paul Lee’s father who make up a large percentage of the Hwagok district.
In addition to our outward evangelistic efforts, I spent much of my time edifying Paul Lee. Since he is young in the faith, he had several areas of questions and misconceptions. After our evening public Bible studies, we would study privately till the late hours of the night. The area where Paul Lee grew the most was his ability and confidence to carry the gospel to others. At first Paul Lee acted only as a translator for me. Later he could get a discussion started and refer to me only for more difficult questions, Before I left Korea, Paul Lee could discuss the Lord’s church for twenty minutes with individuals without any assistance.
Religions in Korea
Korea has a rich and varied religious history. One of the most ancient religions is Shammanism. This consists of ancestor worship, superstitions, and witch doctors or prophetesses. It is usually practiced only in some rural districts of Korea today.
Confucianism influences every Korean to some degree. About 17 percent of the population adhere to the tenants of Confucianism. Most regard it as merely a social philosophy instead of a religion. They have shrines, but unlike Buddhism, these contain no images. All the same, South Korea is probably the most Confucian nation on earth even today.
Buddhists have the highest number of adherents with 37 percent of the population. Here and there you can see Buddhist monks. They are easily distinguished by their clothing and shaved heads. There are temples and monasteries throughout the country.
Coming in at a close second is Christianity. One third of Koreans have embraced Christianity. This is the largest figure for any East Asian country except the Philippines. In Japan only two percent claim to be Christians. Unlike the Catholic dominated Philippines, 75 percent of Koreans who claim to be Christians are Protestant.
From a moral stand point, the Koreans are more upright than many nations. They dress neatly, appropriately, and modestly. Shorts are confined to the beach. The divorce rate is low. They eat healthy and stay in shape. They are, however, heavy beer drinkers and smokers.
Taking Advantage of an Open Door
Korea offers a golden opportunity for planting the New Testament church. While it is true that there are many churches of Christ to be found in the major cities, most of these are very liberal. All the churches Paul Lee contacted in Seoul use instrumental music. As far as we know, there isn’t a sound Korean speaking congregation in all of Korea. We have been encouraged by the recent establishment of an English speaking sound church 50 miles south of Seoul, on the Camp Humphrey Army base.
Today, South Korea is a nation with over 45 million people. This gives it a population density higher than Japan or even India. There are nearly 11 million people in Seoul alone. Korea has a lot of good things going for it today. God has blessed this industrious people with a modern standard of prosperity. Their nation has advanced in a single generation from one of the world’s poorest countries to the threshold of full industrialization. This is a remarkable transition from the 60’s and 70’s when it was a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid which ended in 1980.
Paul Lee believes that any American could make pretty good money teaching conversational English to Koreans. Most educated Koreans can read English which is taught in all secondary schools. All the signs and most of the menus in restaurants are in English and Korean. Added to this is the fact that Korea’s literacy rate is one of the highest at over 95 percent. With the help of Paul Lee, learning Korean would not be absolutely essential, but any serious effort to teach the lost would require it.
Paul Lee is going to need extra help if he is going to succeed in reaching the people of Seoul. To support an evangelist and his family on a long term basis in Seoul would be very costly. But to support a couple, single man, or a couple of college age men for ninety days might be a feasible alternative. A ninety day touring visa can be prearranged through a Korean Embassy. Paul Lee said his home is available for anyone who wishes to come work with him. He has one good size bedroom and a small one to offer.
Living in Seoul wouldn’t be too difficult for an American. Their lifestyle and standard of living has been westernized. There are an abundance of modern medical facilities. In certain sections of the city, there are riot police on the side walks with their helmets and shields stacked nearby. This was only to deal with the annual student demonstrations that come in May.
Allow me to give you an update on what is happening. The company he works for came down pretty hard on him for working only eight hours a day during my two week visit. A month later they asked him to resign. This was quite a shock since he was making good money as the Director of the Research and Development Department of an electronics manufacturing company. Instead of being deterred from his efforts, he was waxed stronger in his commitment. He wrote in a recent letter, “We know that the trouble we experienced to set-up Hwagok church of Christ and to deliver the true gospel is nothing compared to the trouble which the apostle John or Paul had.” Paul Lee has been in contact with the newly established church at Camp Humphreys. This should provided both groups with some mutual encouragement.
Anyone who is going to be visiting Seoul is encouraged to worship with Paul Lee. His home is only ten minutes from the Kimpo International Airport. (His address is: Paul Lee, Kangsegoo, Hwagok 5-dong, 1027-87, Seoul, Korea). Please feel free to call or write me if you have any information that may prove helpful in this effort. We are especially interested in locating someone who can assist in translating Bible study materials into Korean. Most of all we hope to encourage someone to go help spread the gospel among Korea’s millions.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 2, pp. 46-47
January 16, 1992