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The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America
The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America
Rebecca Y. Kim
Oxford University Press, 2015
256 pp., 34.99

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Henry Kim


A Case Study of Reverse Missions

Korean outreach in the US.

Confession: I tortured some of the Korean students in my classes by asking repeatedly if they had ever heard of University Bible Fellowship (UBF) as I began to read Rebecca Y. Kim's The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America. My students responded "no" regardless of how I framed the question. One of my current research projects, utilizing primary sources and social network analysis software, concerns the burgeoning of Protestantism in Korea at the turn of the 20th century. My first doctoral dissertation (in sociology) was a case study on second-generation Korean American ethno-religiosity. Confession: Before reading Kim's book, I had never heard of UBF, which turns out to be "the largest nondenominational missionary-sending organization in South Korea." Accordingly, I was intensely curious to see how Kim would connect UBF with one of her central questions: "How did a small country where only 1 percent of the population was Protestant a century ago, become a Protestant powerhouse sending missionaries across the globe, including the United States?"

The Spirit Moves West provides an interesting perspective on reverse missions within the context of the de-Christianization of the West or the de-Europeanization of Christianity. These themes are familiar to those who have read Philip Jenkins, Mark Noll, Scott Sunquist, Andrew Walls, Stephen Warner, or the 2013 report from Gordon Conwell's Center for the Study of Global Christianity, "Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020."[1] Kim claims that whereas during the 20th century almost all missionaries were from Western nations, today more than half are from the global South.

Kim is correct to note that "American missionaries were instrumental in the modernization of Korea" at the end of the 19th century. The impact of the first Protestant American "missionaries" such as H. N. Allen cannot be overstated. Although the particulars of the Shufeldt Treaty and opening of the Hermit Kingdom were not the focus of Kim's research, a familiarity with these contexts, as well as with the subsequent impact of international expansionism and the unintended consequences of the 1965 Immigration Act, will help readers to grasp the continuities, paradoxes, and juxtapositions of the UBF inflows into America. As Kim suggests, Korea was perhaps close to 0 percent Protestant about 125 years ago and is about 24 percent Protestant (and Buddhist) today. Further, roughly 50 percent of Korean emigrants to America are Protestant, and their post-immigration rates hover around 75 percent.

Kim contends that Korea has become "the number two missionary-sending country in the world" behind only the US. In 2008, there were about 600 UBF missionaries in the US; in 2012, the top four receiving countries of the 26,669 Korean missionaries were China (3,775), the US (2,697), Japan (1,347), and the Philippines (1,290). Perhaps this is why Kim focuses on one Korean missionary agency, UBF, as a case study to address her thesis: "South Korean missionaries who came to the United States from the 1970s to proselytize and 'bring the gospel back' to Americans, particularly white Americans, evangelized Americans as hyper-Korean evangelicals." According to UBF's website, these mission inflows began as a student movement in 1961 which focused on converting American college students and teens.[2] The first UBF missionaries to the US were medical doctors and nurses in the 1970s.

Kim's insider access is the book's greatest strength. She reveals that the early UBF missionaries had a "white complex." White college students were privileged for the sake of "cross-racial" ministry. It seems that these ideologies and practices stemmed from the UBF founder, Samuel Lee, who "commonly referred to Koreans as 'ugly' and Americans as 'handsome.' " Lee forbade Koreans to speak in their ethnic language at UBF worship meetings, and they were not allowed to attend if they did not bring white students. There were also dietary restrictions, replacing Korean with American foods since the former could be offensive (regarding "odors") to white Americans. Lee supposedly ate at least one hamburger per day. In sociological terms, Lee was a Weberian charismatic leader who exacted high costs and fostered pressure-cooking assimilation to launch UBF as a sect.

Unfortunately, Kim's intriguing questions and insider access did not entail a systematic investigation. I was a bit disappointed by the book in general and with chapter 6 and the "Research Methods" in Appendix A in particular because there was no respective data analysis. Kim's central point is that UBF missionaries from Korea during the 1970s and 1980s were "hyper-Korean evangelicals." What does "hyper" mean? Compared to whom and in which contexts? Kim connects "hyper-Korean" speciously with ethnicity by precluding a nexus with immigrant self-selection. First-generation immigrants in general and the Korean American postwar generation in particular are more likely to be "hyper" regarding their ethnic retention. Therefore, what Kim notes as UBF's "soldier spirit" unsurprisingly atrophies over the generations. Given the nuances of "strictness" within religion theories, it is also to be expected that ethno-religious inter-generational transmission wanes over time. I was not convinced that there is something sui generis about her "hyper-Korean" subjects.

Though Kim does mention the sect-church thesis, a clearer connection with this concept and more attention to the nuances of immigrant selection-bias would have provided a more accurate depiction of UBF than "hyper-Korean evangelicals." Even Kim notes that in 2011, UBF officially became a "church." A recent book by Lee and Min (2015), The Asian American Achievement Paradox, does an excellent job operationalizing "hyper-" and "hypo-selectivity" (particularly for Chinese and Vietnamese inflows). I wonder if this use of "hyper-selectivity" better depicts the early UBF inflows (especially of medical doctors and nurses).

Based on linear thinking, some have speculated that Korea will pass the US as the #1 missionary-sending nation.[3] Kim fuels such speculations, claiming that "on a per capita basis, South Korea sends out the most missionaries in the world." If Kim is correct that Korea has become the #2 missionary-sending country in the world, this would be a remarkable feat, since Korea failed to be one of the top ten Christian-populated countries from 1970 to 2010. But we should be wary of simplistic demographic projections. Just as predictions of a massive "silent exodus" from the church among Korean Americans proved to be greatly exaggerated, so too have projections of the mission outflow from Korea. Not only did Korean immigration to the US peak in the 1980s (when viewing the decennial inflows from 1940 to 2010), but the fertility rate in Korea also plummeted from 4.5 during the 1970s to about 1.1 today.

The 2013 report from Gordon Conwell's Center for the Study of Global Christianity includes a listing of "Missionaries sent and received, 2010," in which Korea is tied with Italy as the fifth largest missionary-sending country and is the fifth in missionaries sent per capita. The discrepancy with Kim's reckoning may be related in part to matters of definition. In any case, the results suggest caution about predictions. Further, as Kim noted concerning the two UBF churches she visited in Chicago and Los Angeles, the services averaged around 380 and 142 persons, respectively. Given my bi-cultural self-identity and those modest numbers, my unfamiliarity with UBF made sense. Confession: now I can torture my students with different questions.

Henry Kim is associate professor of sociology at Wheaton College.

1. www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/research/documents/ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf

2. http://ubf.org/about

3. I urge these forecasters to move away from "y = mx + b" thinking to non-linear iterations, such as "f(x) = rx(1-x), 0 < x < 1, 0 < r < 4" where the r value may evince a fixed point, bifurcation(s), or chaotic region(s).

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