Professor explains religion’s popularity in South Korea

BORN AGAIN: Timothy Lee discusses the history of religion in Korea during his lecture on the Tempe campus, "Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea." Lee is an associate professor and director of the Asian (Korean) Church Studies Program at Texas Christian University. (Photo by Michael Arellano)

Since the 1980s, Timothy Lee has been trying to discover why Christianity is so popular in South Korea.

Now a professor at Texas Christian University, Lee spoke to students at ASU’s Tempe campus on Wednesday about how the forces of imperialism and poverty turned South Korea into an “evangelical superpower.”

Home to the largest and most dynamic Christian churches in the world, South Korea is second to the U.S. in the number of missionaries sent abroad, Lee said.

“For South Koreans, there has been a very deep yearning for salvation,” Lee said.  “Unlike Japan or China, in South Korea evangelicalism coalesced with the aspirations of the people.”

A history of Japanese imperialism along with poverty and anti-communist views in South Korea helped spread evangelicalism across socio-economic boundaries, he said. A huge demographic shift of people from rural to urban areas caused South Koreans to seek religion based in salvation, he said.

“People were feeling lonely and afraid,” Lee said.  “Their sense of meaning was lost.”

In his research, Lee was particularly interested in the fact that Christianity simply did not have the same success in other Eastern Asian countries like China, Japan or Taiwan.

“One out of every five people in South Korea is Protestant,” he said.

According to the Korean census collected in 2005, 18.3 percent of South Koreans identified themselves as Protestant.

“In South Korea, you’ll see a church on every corner, neon red and white crosses all over the cityscape,” he said.  “Even if you go to a remote village, you will see a church.”

Lee said protestants who are categorized as evangelicals meet certain criteria: literal interpretation of scripture, embracing the concept that the soul is saved because of Christ’s death and having a conversion experience other than baptism.

These principles have stuck firmly with modern South Koreans, leading to gatherings 1 million strong that surpass any in the world, Lee said.

Lee’s knowledge of the subject comes from research he has been performing for more than 20 years, since he was a student studying at the University of Chicago. His 2010 book “Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea” discusses the role of South Korea as a “poster child” of the church growth movement.

Lee was invited to ASU by the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies as well as the Korean studies program. He serves as an associate professor and director of the Asian (Korean) Church Studies Program at Texas Christian University.

Event organizer Pori Park, a religious studies professor, said Lee was invited to help students understand religion on a global scale.

“Students can get more exposure to a different way of thinking,” she said.  “Students get to see how Christianity is practiced in different countries.”

Supply chain management senior Gloria Dahn, who attended Lee’s presentation, said it is important to look at Christianity all over the world to truly understand it.

“We are becoming a more global society,” she said.

Reach the reporter at tafergu1@asu.edu