At Large

Korean Methodists Celebrate Americans

Bishop Hong-Do Kim heads one of the world largest churches and  -- horrors! -- he loves America.

By 12.23.08

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The largest Methodist congregation in the world is the 120,000 member Kumnan Church in Seoul, Korea, whose pastor/bishop is an colorful enthusiast for South Korea's alliance with America.

"Without [the] U.S. presence, Korea would not have grown to be one of the largest concentrations of Christians in the world," explained a senior U.S. Army chaplain to the United Methodist News Service recently. "The Korean people are on fire for the Lord. Bishop Kim credits his success to prayer and preaching the unadulterated Word of God."

Methodist Bishop Hong-Do Kim is the 70-year-old pastor who led a 75 member congregation to become one of the world's largest churches. He has helped organize three pro-American rallies in Seoul, and has visited the Pentagon with other Korean pastors to thank the U.S. for its military presence in South Korea. Bishop Kim vividly contrasts with U.S. Methodist officials, who have repeatedly condemned the U.S. presence in South Korea.

"Your country is always kept in our minds as a country that helped us receive the Christian faith and defend our country half a century ago, when Korea's peace and democracy were at the brink of great danger," Bishop Kim wrote President Bush several years ago. "We are always grateful to your country and your people and are very pleased that we maintain the closest ally relationship between our two countries."

Bishop Kim chairs the Korean-American Protestant Pastors' Association, which helped raise $1.3 million for stained-glass windows in the Pentagon's Memorial Chapel after 9/11, according to a U.S. military news service. "Wherever I may go I like to express my gratitude to America," Kim told a reporter while at the Pentagon in 2006. "We can feel [the] safety," thanks to U.S. troops.

The Kumnan Methodist Church and the Save North Korea Coalition, of which Kim is also an officer, have produced a documentary on the spiritual importance of the U.S. South Korean alliance called Unite Us in Thy Righteousness. The groups made 30,000 copies of the DVD available to Korean and U.S. military forces. The U.S. has 25,000 troops stationed in South Korea. After a U.S. tank accidentally ran over two school girls in South Korea in 2002, candlelight vigils morphed into huge anti-American rallies in Seoul demanding U.S. withdrawal. Kim organized his church and other clergy to counteract the anti-American sentiment. But he had already long been an ardent critic of communist North Korea.

At one prayer rally of recent years, Bishop Kim and other clergy prayed for the "salvation" of North Korea. In his sermon, Kim somberly warned that a peace treaty with North Korea and withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to a communist take-over, ultimately destroying 50,000 South Korean churches and slaughtering 13 million Christians, citing the examples of Maoist China and Cambodia under Pol Pot. He also said that a communized Korea would become a "beggar country" where "hard work gives no reward." The bishop concluded, "When communists mention peace, they mean 'communized unity.'"

Bishop Kim as a child fled with his family from North Korea. He credits Billy Graham's preaching for his conversion, and he credits continuous prayer and refusal to compromise core Christian convictions for the fantastic growth of his church, where 2,000 are baptized every year. The church had been founded by a "socialist" woman who headed a women's college, Kim reports, and after 14 years still had fewer than 100 members. Now there are almost that many associate pastors who help lead the massive Sunday services in the 16 level church in downtown Seoul, plus daily worship at 5 a.m. At least two church members are praying in the church's basement on a 24 hour, 7 day basis, and the church sends missionaries to China, south Asia, and Latin America. Besides pastoring his own church and serving as a bishop in the Korean Methodist Church, Kim leads seminars and revivals around the world.

Unsurprisingly for such a flamboyant character, Kim has had his apparent moral failures and controversies. In 2006 he was fined and given a three-year suspended sentence for misappropriation of church funds. The bishop insists the allegations were false, and the case seems not to have impaired his ministry. After the 2004 tsunami in Asia that killed tens of thousands, Kim credited the disaster to a divine judgment on "hedonism, lechery, [and] drugs." He opined that more observance of the Sabbath might avert such calamities. Yet he added, "We mustn't think that it was good that they were struck by a disaster. We must take pity on them and help them."

A complete stranger to political correctness, Bishop Kim is especially blunt when preaching about friendship with America or opposition to communism. He joined a rally outside the parliament to support South Korea's dispatch of troops to serve with the U.S. in Iraq. And he has insisted that "Korea will always be with the U.S. in uprooting such elements [of terrorism] forever from the earth." Kim often recalls that the U.S. sent its first missionaries to Korea 120 years ago. "Thanks to their missionary devotions to our country," he says, over 25 percent of South Korea is now Christian, and South Korea now dispatches 12,000 missionaries abroad. "If they were not here, we are destined to plunge ourselves into death without the Gospel."

When a recent United Methodist delegation from the U.S. visited Bishop Kim's massive church, even its most liberal members were evidently impressed. Presiding over a declining U.S. denomination, and usually not willing to look at growing U.S. churches, the American church prelates might heed the example of a thriving Korean church, even if it is pro-American.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.