The Case for Christian Schools: Lessons from South Korea

When North and South Korea agreed to a “cease fire” back in 1953, they shared one thing in common: they were among the poorest countries in the world.

Fifty-six years later, the International Monetary Fund listed South Korea as the nation with the 12th largest Gross Domestic Product in the world. South Korea, a small country, came out ahead of Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia and 165 other countries.

The burgeoning of South Korea’s economy is one of the most remarkable stories of the 20th Century. But South Korea’s economic turnaround is not the most remarkable change that took place in that country during the past century.

In 1910, only about 1 percent of the Korean population was Christian. By 2005 (95 years later), the number of Christians had risen to 29.2 percent. Christianity replaced Buddhism as the most prominent faith among South Korean citizens, and today this country is second only to the United States in the number of missionaries it sends overseas.

Many people have wondered if there is a connection between the growth of Christianity in South Korea and the growth of the economy, particularly since 1970, when the bulk of its economic transformation occurred. During this time, the number of South Korean Christians rose from about 6 percent to nearly 30 percent of the population.

Dr. Kirsteen Kim, former resident of Korea now teaching at Leeds Trinity University College in England, maintains that the connection between Korean development and Christianity goes back to well over a century of Christian influence in politics, education, human rights and service to the suffering in Korea.

Kim notes that three of today’s top five universities in Korea were founded by Korean Christians, and many hospitals were established by Korean believers. With respect to politics, she notes that Koreans in the 19th century acted on the belief that “Christianity would help revitalize the nation.”

“The main contribution of Christianity,” she asserts, “was to stimulate new visions and inject a new energy that enabled Koreans to transform their existing situation and revitalize–or redeem–their society.” #1

In Kim’s research paper, Christianity and modernization in twentieth-century Korea: perspectives on new religious movements and the revitalization of society, she says Korean Christianity was “a revitalizing force that inspired Korean activity toward development.”

Why did Christianity provide such a strong force for revitalization in Korea, and how did the transformational nature of Christianity take such rapid effect in that country?

One reason may be that early Korean Christians saw Christianity as not just a private, personal affair, concerned only with the salvation of individual souls. They saw it as message of transformation that applied corporately as well as individually. This belief, put into action, invigorated early Korean development.

In addition, Korean Christianity was “planted” into a culture with a long history of Confucian influence. While certain aspects of Confucianism were abandoned by Korean Christians (such as ancestor veneration) and some lingering influences of Confucianism are counterproductive to Christianity, certain other aspects of Confucianism complemented Christianity. These were “revitalized” or “redeemed” by early Korean Christians.

Confucianism, for example, has a high regard for education and scholarship. This may help explain the stellar rise of Christian schools in Korea. While the first missionaries were not allowed to build churches, they were allowed to build schools, and they did so with vigor. “Within 25 years of their inception [in 1885],” writes Dr. Joseph Kim, a highly recognized leader in today’s Korean Christian school movement, “the Christian schools became the engine of social change and transformation.” [Emphasis added.]

By 1910, notes Dr. Joseph Kim, there were 800 Christian schools serving 41,000 Korean students!

“In an environment antagonistic to Christianity [in the nineteenth century],” Dr. Kim continues, “it was the Christian schools that took the gospel to scores of young people and trained them with a biblical worldview. These schools provided the Korean church and the nation with well-trained Christian leaders.” [Emphasis added.] #2

Note Dr. Kim’s words carefully: “These schools provided the Korean church and the nation with well-trained Christian leaders.”

If Christianity is seen as a vital means for social transformation, it only makes sense that Christian schools would become places for educating future national leaders.

While many Korean Christian schools folded up when the Japanese occupied that land for about 35 years during the first half of the 20th century, a new wave of interest in Christian education has risen in South Korea.

All of this begs a critical question: If government and business leaders of a particular nation were to view Christianity as a catalyst for economic development, stability and job creation, do you think it might increase the probability that Christianity would be welcomed by those leaders?

Perhaps the question should be worded this way: If civil and business leaders of a particular nation see Christianity as a personal, private affair, concerned mainly with personal salvation and the after-life, would this increase the probability that Christianity would not be taken seriously by those leaders?

The question can yet be framed in a manner closer to home: If the preponderance of American Christians were to see Christian schools as the primary means of training future national leaders, and American Christians were to view Christianity as a catalyst for economic development, civil stability, justice, and job creation, do you think this might increase the probability that Christian schools would be taken more seriously by followers of Christ throughout our land?

Consider what happened in South Korea.

By Dr. Christian Overman

Endnotes

#1 Quotes from Kirsteen Kim in this article are from her research paper, Christianity and modernization in twentieth-century Korea: perspectives on new religious movements and the revitalization of society, available in full at http://www.bezinningscentrum.nl/Religion_Development/kirsteen.pdf.

#2 See Dr. Joseph Kim’s full article at http://acsi.org/Resources/PublicationsNewsletters/ChristianSchoolEducation/tabid/681/itemId/3221/Default.aspx