More to Korea than Kia and Hyundai

What city has the third most megachurches, trailing only Dallas and Houston? If you paid attention to the title of this, you might guess correctly Seoul, South Korea. And, as a recent article at The Gospel Coalition, notes, the threshold for megachurches in South Korea is 5,000, two and a half times that in the U.S.

Since the close of the Korean War in the 1950s, Christianity in the south has experienced a meteoric rise to the point now that only the U.S. sends out more Christian missionaries than South Korea. However, as the article notes, all is not perfect south of the 38th parallel. Church growth has slowed and attendance has actually slumped.

I don’t want to rehash the very in-depth reporting of Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, instead suggesting that you follow the link and read until you know as much about the Korean church as you had ever hoped to know. What I would like to suggest is that we can learn a great deal about the way forward for the American church by looking at the triumphs and struggles in the Korean one.

One of the problems in Korea, I would suggest is that various politicians put on their MKGA hats and turned the nation from an exceptionally poor place to an economic juggernaut. South Korea’s GDP per capita is about 77% of that in Japan, but more than three times as great as in China. They’re not too far behind long-time established nations like France and find themselves between Italy and Spain in the rankings. In short, economically, South Korea would fit in quite well with the EU.

What happens when societies grow wealthy? Often, people find themselves ready to lean on their own understanding (and bank account), feeling that they don’t need anything as pointless as God. This tendency makes the religious participation in the U.S. even more remarkable, but also helps explain recent struggles.

That’s an aspect of church health that we can’t really control. But there are others that we can control. We can look at a place like Korea, seeing it from a distance, and perhaps learn lessons about how they did not respond to changes in their culture or how they allowed the lure of megachurch success to corrupt ministers and laypeople alike.

Zylstra quotes a Korean leader who offers a simple but profound answer:

There are signs of younger churches and church leaders who are leaving the megachurch, prosperity-gospel, gift-oriented ministry models and going back to the simple gospel message,

Could it be that the answer is that simple? Could it be that when set we aside “church growth” and “seeker sensitivity” and power struggles and name-it-claim-it and everything else that isn’t the gospel, we can actually attract people? Paul dealt with this challenge nearly 2,000 years ago when he wrote to the Galatians:

 I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.–Galatians 1:6-7

There is no other gospel, but there are a thousand things that can tempt the hearts of believers to veer from the narrow way. We don’t have to be doing a Joel-Osteen-style detour to damage the power of the Word. Our adversary can use any of our weaknesses.

Sabbath Fishing and Other Sins

“Brother Mortimer was seen fishing on the Sabbath. Until he repents of his wayward actions, he will be excluded from the fellowship.”

Not too long ago, I happened upon the church records of a Kentucky church where some of my ancestors worshiped. In the usual list of additions and budgets, we encountered several entries like the one above. This little church, whatever their failings, took church discipline seriously.

This matter is on my mind today because a member of my church has shown herself to be a major problem. Her actions have harmed several people, including her own children, and they have brought dishonor on the name of Christ. So what’s a church body to do?

In Brother Mortimer’s case, the church voted to deny him fellowship within the body until such time as he stood before them and expressed his proper repentance. The matter came up in the next two monthly meetings with no progress. Finally, Brother Mortimer came to the church and showed remorse. He was welcomed back into full fellowship.

How quaint, right? We don’t do such things these days, but are they Biblical? Let’s dip into the New Testament words just a bit.

I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.–1 Corinthians 5:11

If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take note of that person; don’t associate with him, so that he may be ashamed. Yet don’t consider him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.–1 Thessalonians 3:14-15

Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who create divisions and obstacles contrary to the teaching that you learned. Avoid them.–Romans 16:17

There’s more to be found. Some of it is more conciliatory, while some sounds more harsh. The bottom line seems to be that when people are significantly off the path, we shouldn’t simply treat them like nothing is wrong. We should correct them in love and gentleness, but we shouldn’t just smile and pretend that there’s no problem. Sin is always a problem. Why is it that people will go full-bore crazy if somebody did some minor thing to supposedly “ruin” their wedding day–you know, like having flowers that are one shade too lavender–but those same people just smile blithely at the Bride of Christ being sullied in a very significant manner.

  • It’s not okay that you ignored your marriage vows.
  • It’s not okay that you don’t show love to your children.
  • It’s not okay that you spread malicious lies around the church.
  • It’s not okay that you drive while drunk.
  • It’s not okay that you’re spending hours each day looking at pornography.
  • It’s not okay!

My sins could be on this list as well, so don’t think me self righteous. And if I’m ever sinning in a way that hurts people and the church, if I’m ever acting as if my sin is really just okay, then I’d hope you’d confront me over it.

Until we do these things, I think we rob the church of power.


Sunday Stockholders’ Meeting

When you see me in this business, be sure that I’m not a customer. I’m also not an employee. Instead, I’m one of the proprietors, a stockholder. My business is my church, and I am a layperson.

Please know that there’s nothing wrong with employees. My business wants to attract, nurture, and retain the best possible employees. Similarly, we appreciate customers, although we are a bit strange in hoping to transform them quickly into fellow stockholders. Interestingly, when we enlarge the pool of outstanding shares of stock, the value of the existing shares is not reduced. The church, it seems, is a pyramid scheme that actually works–at least in theory.

We could go on looking at employees and customers in the church, but I’d like to spend a bit of time thinking about the ways that the layperson “stockholder” can foul up the whole investment process.

Day Traders: Some people try to make a living by buying a hundred shares here and two hundred there, snagging an uptick of a quarter point or so. A subset of those people actually succeed in earning such a living. But those people are not investors. They are traders. The traders might make a profit, but they make very little difference in the success of the concern. Whether they hop between stocks or congregations, their problem is that they’re just not sufficiently invested .

Panic Sellers: Last weekend, a Boeing jet crashed in Ethiopia. As might be expected, Boeing shares took a beating on Monday. In fact, it has been a rough season for Boeing overall. Shares are down roughly 15% over the last two weeks. But then we step back and see that the stock is up nearly 25% since Christmas and is very close in price to where it was six months back. Over time, good churches, like good companies, tend to come back from bleak days. We shouldn’t bail out in a tough season.

Unelected Board Members: A stockholder or a church member has every right to question the decisions of the leadership, to ask difficult questions, and to argue for a different course of action. Some people, however, don’t understand that they can’t have a say in every decision that comes along. When they don’t get their way, they stir up problems that ultimately hurt the business.

Proxy Givers: At the other extreme are the stockholders who utterly abdicate their responsibilities to others. “Let the board do it!” “Let the employees do it!” they say. These people take no responsibility for their ownership stake, but they still expect positive results. Actually, this sort of approach might not be so terrible for investing, but it is a serious problem within a church.

So if all of these approaches cause problems, what should we do as stockholders of our churches? I’d argue that we take the approach of Warren Buffet. Buffet finds the “value investment,” buys it, and then hangs on to it for a very long time.

What if all Christians did a bit of due diligence and found a solid, “value” local church? What if we all stuck with that church in good times or in bad, unless it ceased to be a fundamentally sound body? What if we all supported the leadership in word and action? What if we all took seriously our ownership stake and did what we could to build up the body?

No, a church is not a corporation, and we are not literal stockholders. But if the layperson were to consider this analogy, perhaps our churches could be a bit more vigorous. The dividends, by the way, are outstanding.