“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’(Rev. 3:1-6)
Korean Christianity is often trumpeted as a model for world Evangelical Christianity. Korean Christians typically wake up early in the morning to pray for about 2 hours, and are devout Christians fervent for evangelism and missions, sending many missionaries around the world. Some of them even do missions where they emulate the 72 disciples of Jesus (Lk. 10:1-12), going from town to town witnessing about Christ while bringing no money and no food, relying on the people that they meet to give them shelter and food.
Nevertheless, I am not enamored of Korean Christianity. Korean Christianity in my opinion in general partakes of the same weakness of the Church of Sardis, and serious fault lines lie just beneath its surface. This is not to discount the good that Korean Christianity has done in the world, but to what extent such is beneficial to Christianity in the long term is questionable.
I am sure there will be many who would be horrified by my claim, and I fully understand that. Such comes from hearts that have been leavened by pietism, which had infected all of world Christianity through the Evangelical missions of the 18th-20th centuries. Piety, or outward godliness, has been elevated to a measure of prominence. From Philipp Jakob Spener, the founder of the Pietist movement within Lutheranism, to John Wesley, who brought pietism into Evangelicalism, to Charles Finney all the way to Rick Warren, with his "deeds, not creeds" mantra, pietism has infected much of world Christianity to the extent that to deny Pietism seems to be denying Christianity itself. It is so ingrained into the Christian consciousness that it takes radical surgery of the heart to remove it.
We would look at the practice of Korean Christianity, and then examine its flaws.
The first issue we want to examine is the idea of prayer. The problem with prayer is not that prayer is bad, but that prayer is meant to function as a means of grace. In other words, prayer is the place where we meet God through His Word. In other words, it is a confession of weaknesses not of strength. Thus the whole idea of spending 2 hours in prayer could be confused with godliness, as if spending 2 hours daily in prayer is more godly than another person who spends 15 minutes in prayer! Don't get me wrong. Spending extended time in prayer before God is great. I loved the times when I have more than 1 hour in communion with God. All Christians should be encouraged to pray more often. But that is not the issue. The issue is when we use the time we have in prayer as a yardstick for measuring godliness. Suddenly, prayer becomes a measure of how godly one is. That is the whole point of portraying Korean Christians who spend 2 hours daily in prayer as a godly example. If the amount of time spent in prayer IS definitive of godliness, then the Pharisees ought to be considered very godly indeed. But we know they were whitewashed tombstones, clean only on the outside. So why are we putting people who spend hours in prayer up on a pedestal, as if those who spend the most hours in prayer are necessarily the godliest? The heretic Pelagius, who denied original sin, was probably one of the holiest monk in the early church. His denial of original sin was in the interest of motivating men to be godly, as he was trying to be. But, unless one is a Pelagian, anyone who claims to follow the historic Christian creeds must say that Pelagius is a heretic who is now in hellfire.
In the medieval era, medieval monks and nuns spent almost all the day in prayer and meditation, even confessing their sins to the extent that some of them flogged themselves. Prayer was regarded as a spiritual discipline then, as it is now in Evangelical pietism, and they were considered the epitome of godliness. Yet the most wicked sinners came from the monastic orders, like Johannes Tetzel and the many "holy" priests and cardinals who took part in the Inquisition, persecuting Christians who believed in the Gospel. Closer to the modern times, German Liberals like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Hermann were extremely devout Christians, at least externally. Besides Schleiermacher's questionable relationship with the married Eleonore Grunow, many German liberals were externally very devout. John G. Machen while he was studying for his doctorate was nearly taken in by the devout prayers of Wilhelm Hermann for example. So what do all these say about the idea of correlating godliness with prayer?
Speaking from experience, this promotion of prayer within the context of Evangelical pietism is probably the worst impediment to spiritual growth. Spending more time in prayer ironically creates spiritual pride, not necessarily because I was looking down on others who spent less time in prayer, but because I thought I was being more pleasing to God and knowing Him more. This "high" only lasted until the "crash" which came shortly afterwards. The more I strove in prayer, the worse off I was. While I was the youth Prayer IC in my first church I grew up in, I strove to grow deeper in prayer and tried implementing many programs for the youth to grow in prayer. I always felt that I was missing something, and was thus attracted to the growing "prayer warfare" stuff in the Third Wave Charismatic movement. As I was looking into those, my interest in prayer gradually disappeared, and the second year I was Prayer IC much less was done. Looking back, I saw my entrapment within the Pietism I grew up in, and how deadly it was for my spiritual walk in Christ. Ironically, the more one focuses on prayer, the less one would actually commune with God.
All of these just show how foolish we are to correlate prayer with godliness. Prayer is a sign of weakness, and we are all weak. It is never a sign of strength. Spending 2 hours in prayer is not more godly than spending 15 minutes in prayer. High-sounding words and elaborate phrases are no guarantee of closeness to God. Evangelicals might very well want to read some of the written prayers of the Roman liturgy, or even the Anglican liturgy. They are generally beautiful, regal in tone, mostly orthodox in theology, and would put many an Evangelical to shame for the comparative poverty of their own prayers. That does not imply that the ones penning them were actually godly though, although certainly some of them were.
Missions and evangelism are again good things that Christians ought to be engaged in. And we certainly owe Korean Christianity a debt in the amount of missionaries they send out regularly. Yet, we should realize that evangelism and missions in themselves are no guarantees of godliness. The Pharisees traversed land and sea to make one convert, and in the end made that guy twice a son of hell as he previously was (Mt. 23:15). The Counter-Reformation provoked a spate of Roman Catholic missions spearheaded by the Jesuits, and through their conversion of the natives of places like South America made those "converts" twice children of hell, and plunged the South American continent further into darkness for at least a century of two. Promising life, the Jesuits delivered death and damnation. Could one or two be saved through those missions? Perhaps, but that is in spite of the Jesuits through the scattered truths of the Gospel found in their messages or from the Scriptures themselves. Any true salvation accomplished in the Roman Catholic missions was achieved despite the Jesuits, not because of them.
Thus, we see that fervor in missions and evangelism is not correlative with true godliness. In fact, such fervor could very well be a desire to gain one's salvation, as it was in the person of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Such "missions" are a sign of wickedness not of godliness.
Flaws in Korean Christianity
How Korean Christianity has evolved the way it did might not be purely because of the Gospel. The Korean culture also must be factored in. Thus for example, the "Beggars mission" should not be seen as something truly extraordinary if one understands Korean culture with its roving Buddhist monks. If the culture was very much spiritually-minded, spending 2 hours a day early in the morning praying is less spectacular than if such were to happen in a white congregation in materialistic New York today. Now, I am not denigrating 2 hours being spent in prayer, but I am saying that culture does play a part in how one's spirituality is expressed.
Once we can see that, we can begin to see the flaws underneath the veneer of vibrancy in Korean Christianity, starting with the most obvious: toleration of heresy.
The toleration of heresy comes in the form of Word-faith preacher David Yonggi Cho, the pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, supposedly the largest church in the world. Cho is a rank heretic, promoting the idea that Christians can tap into a spiritual dimension of power to actualize their prayers into existence. That third dimension is accessible to everyone who has faith, including unbelievers, which is Cho's explanation of how other religions could perform healing. That Cho is a heretic beyond the pale of orthodoxy in any sense of the term is beyond doubt. The problem is that Korean Christians will not generally speak out against Cho. In one interaction I have had with a ethnic Korean Christian, he defended Cho, saying that there are true Christians in the Yoido Full Gospel Church. That person is a Reformed Christian, which only goes to show how perversive this toleration of rank heresy is within Korean Christianity. If even supposedly orthodox Reformed Korean Christians can DEFEND an outright heretic on the totally irrelevant claim that there are possibly true believers in his church, then we can see the scale of the problem within Korean Christianity.
This ties in to the main issue with Korean Christianity: a deficient doctrine of the church and its relation to salvation. Of course, this is not the problem with just Korean Christianity, but East Asian Christianity in general and world Evangelical Christianity to a slightly lesser extent. Korean Christianity continues not to have an idea of how a local Church is to operate with respects to those who claim to be believers, and no idea of how one is to manage the church in regards to the church's role as the pillar of the truth (1 Peter 3:15). That is why East Asian churches in general descend into moralism in practice, because discipline becomes limited to moral issues and only the rankest of heresies (i.e. denial of Jesus' deity). It does not take rocket science for someone to wrongly infer that Christianity is about moral living, when the churches will discipline someone for homosexuality, while winking at someone who just taught that faith is a force that can be used to extract power from the "third dimension," as if homosexuality is a worse sin than heresy! Let me just put this plainly: I would deem a person struggling with same-sex attraction (SSA) who attends church and the means of grace regularly to be godlier than an unrepentant pastor who promotes heresy, even though the latter prays 4 hours per day and is a loving husband of one wife!
As I reject the unbiblical practices of the Singapore Church, so for similar reasons I am not enamored of the Korean Church. No church can be considered to be healthy until the infestations of Pietism among others is purged from within, and confessionalism takes root in its place. All external acts of piety are irrelevant to the discussion, and those who think that they are need to repent of their pietism.
[ADD: Yonggi Cho has recently been convicted of fraud, and the silence from Korean Christianity is deafening]