The advance of the gospel in Asia over the last century has been extraordinary. Christian churches are growing and thriving in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and of course South Korea, which boasts some of the largest churches in the entire world. Yet the gospel is also taking root in countries where we might not expect it to. For example, a movement of Reformed churches is growing in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. Moreover, the exponential growth of the house church movement in China is remarkable considering that the Communist government places strict restrictions on the activities of Christian churches. Clearly, the work of the gospel in Asia is something we rejoice over, continue to pray for, and look for opportunities to support.
PLANTING THE SEEDS
The roots of the modern evangelical movement are often traced back to the First and Second Great Awakenings in North America. These revivals have a mixed legacy, but we can be thankful for their emphasis on conversion and evangelism, which sparked a global missionary movement that ultimately marked the nineteenth century as the great century of Protestant mission work. Protestant missionaries traveled to Africa, South America, and Asia spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. While we cannot ignore or fully disentangle the Protestant mission movement from the often-brutal historical context of Western imperialism, which led to many European countries’ annexing territories around the world and the subjection of indigenous people groups, missionaries did plant the seeds of the gospel throughout the world—including Asia.
A good example of planting seeds was the missionary work of Robert Morrison, who was sent by the London Mission Society to China in 1807. He was one of the first to translate the Bible into Chinese and bring the gospel to southern China. James Hudson Taylor followed Morrison, arriving in China in 1853. Taylor founded the China Inland Mission, with a focus on reaching the interior of China, away from the more popular and lucrative port cities. Unique for his time, Taylor and his colleagues chose to dress and eat like the local Chinese as a way of identifying more closely with those to whom they were trying to minister. The work of Morrison and Taylor introduced the gospel to China, and their legacy lives on today.
Another example of gospel seeds being planted in Asia and bearing amazing fruit occurred in Korea, where the first Protestant missionaries arrived in the nineteenth century. Protestantism grew during the early twentieth century with the famous revival (1907–10) in the northern city of Pyongyang. As a result of the revival, Christianity was firmly established and would play a crucial role during the period of Japanese colonial rule. Christianity served as a point of resistance against Japanese occupation, and especially against the imposition of Shintoism. After Korea gained independence, Protestant Christianity continued to grow, and today South Korea’s population has the highest percentage of Christians in East Asia.
THE GOSPEL IN ASIA TODAY
Asia is a vast region, and each country has a distinct story about the gospel’s spread. No country is the same, but the Holy Spirit is working to bring the same gospel to each country. Here are three examples that will give us a glimpse into the work of the gospel in Asia today.
THE GOSPEL IN KOREA
After the Korean War, South Korea continued to see tremendous growth in churches and ministries. The fervency for evangelism and discipleship gripped Korean Christians, resulting in tremendous growth for the church in Korea. The numbers today are astounding. The largest church in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church, with more than three hundred thousand congregants. Yoido Church is a Pentecostal church, but many Korean Presbyterian churches have membership numbers in the tens of thousands. The Hapdong denomination which is a conservative Reformed Presbyterian denomination similar to the Presbyterian Church in America, has a membership of more than three million. In comparison, in 2015 the PCA reported a total membership of slightly more than 370,000. The largest Presbyterian church in the Hapdong denomination has a membership of more than 75,000.
The astounding growth of the church in South Korea has led to estimations that Christians make up nearly 29 percent of the population. This is one of the highest percentages of Christians in any country besides the United States. But the Korean church is not content to see the gospel impact only their country. Korean missionaries are now going out to the entire world in the same way their nineteenth-century Western predecessors did. Korea is often listed as the nation sending the second-highest number of missionaries, with the United States still sending the most missionaries of any country in the world.
THE GOSPEL IN CHINA
It is notoriously difficult to assess the growth and state of the church in China. In 1949, when the Communists defeated the Nationalists for control of the country, it is estimated that there were five hundred thousand Christians. With the Communist government’s restrictions on religion, many Christians gathered together in unregistered churches, avoiding public activities and gatherings that would draw scrutiny from officials. Yet all accounts point to the fact that the church in China, even under these hostile circumstances, grew and continues to grow. Chinese Christians are not deterred in their desire to spread the gospel even in the face of severe government opposition. Many scholars estimate that there are close to sixty million Christians in China. One scholar projects the growth to reach two hundred million by 2035. In comparison, there are 159 million Christians in the United States, and that number has been declining each year in recent decades. Consequently, China could eclipse the United States in total number of Christians in the next two decades. If the growth in China continues, Communist China will have one of the largest Christian populations in the entire world. The potential for the Chinese church is great. Not only is there an enormous opportunity for evangelism and church planting in China, but also for missionaries to be sent from China, especially to regions such as the Middle East where it may be more difficult for Westerners to gain entry.
THE GOSPEL IN INDONESIA
One last example is found in Indonesia. The country comprises a series of islands and is the largest Muslim country in the world. In the midst of this Islamic stronghold, the evangelist Stephen Tong started a growing Reformed evangelical church movement. Tong’s church in the capital city of Jakarta averages four thousand attendees each week. He has also founded a seminary and a Christian school, and he has planted multiple churches throughout Indonesia. Tong holds gospel rallies throughout Indonesia, where he preaches to thousands in stadiums and other open-air settings.
As his ministry has grown, Tong’s impact has extended beyond Indonesia to other Asian countries. He has established a regular preaching tour every week to Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Hong Kong; and Taipei, Taiwan; in addition to his Sunday preaching in Jakarta. Recordings of many of his sermons and lectures have circulated throughout the Chinese-speaking communities, earning him the reputation as one of the most influential preachers in Asia. Tong is likewise committed to Reformed theology and has introduced many in Asia to this rich biblical tradition.
THE GOSPEL MOVING FORWARD
The gospel is moving forward in Asia in unprecedented ways. Borrowing the words of Jonathan Edwards, who ministered during the First Great Awakening, this too is the “surprising work of God.” The gospel seeds that were planted more than two centuries ago have produced great spiritual fruit. What can we as Christians in the West do to support this movement of the gospel? Let me close by making a few suggestions.
1. Pray for the work of the gospel in Asia.
Many brothers and sisters are serving in countries where there are enormous challenges and significant dangers.
2. Participate by reaching out to and sharing the gospel with foreign students and workers in your community from Asia
In this age of globalization, there are many students and workers from Asia coming to the United States for short periods of time. As they hear and receive the gospel in America, they will return to their home countries with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
3. Finally, if you have the opportunity, go and travel to Asia and see for yourself what the Lord is doing
Contact missionaries and churches and ask what their needs are and how you can go and help. I am certain it will be a life-changing experience.