Twice again today I was asked this socially and grammatically awkward question on my way to work. Preachers are fairly common on the Seoul subway. They roam the carriages, diligently annoying the hell out people (hmm, maybe there actually is method to the madness), even though a third of South Koreans have already converted to Christianity. This is an astonishing number (over 15 million and growing) considering the first protestant missionaries arrived in Korea little more than a century ago, and given that Christianity continues to hover at around two percent in neighbouring China and Japan..
For whatever socio-economic, historical or political reasons however (which are numerous and complex), the Koreans don’t generally tend to muck about, and if there’s a bandwagon upon which to be jumped, they’ll immediately crush its axles by sheer weight of numbers.
The English speaking preachers like to target foreigners in the subway (where there is no escape), so sometimes when one zeros in on me I just pretend I don’t speak English. My Serbian is dreadful, so I just imitate my wife’s accent and string together the first words that pop into my head. This mornings’ 30-second conversations went like this…
“Hello, do you know the Jesus?”
“Engleski ne znam, izvini. Dobro, dobro hvala zdravo. Sljivovica, sedi, srecan rodjendan!” (confused smile, shoulder shrug).
Translation: “I don’t speak English, sorry. Good, good thank you hello. Plum brandy, sit, happy birthday!” (confused smile, shoulder shrug).
Random variations of such nonsense usually works fine, and while I’m aware of the statistical likelihood that one day I’ll pull this on someone who does actually speak Serbian, I assume they may just think I’ve had a minor stroke and leave me alone anyway.
The subway preachers and door-knockers must be doing a reasonable trade though because the world’s biggest megachurch is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. Boasting around one million members, this congregation dwarfs anything in the United States. It seats 26,000 people (plus the thousands who watch the services on giant screens from neighbouring buildings) and the church’s seven Sunday services claim to attract over 250,000 people weekly.
Amazingly, this church held its first service less than 60 years ago (May, 1958) in the loungeroom of one of its two original pastors. The service was attended by four people – three were the daughters of one of the pastors, plus one passing woman who came in seeking shelter from the rain.
Through tireless door-knocking and public service, the church slowly began to grow. Soon a tent was erected to accommodate the congregation. Then bigger tents. Then a building was required. By 1977, almost 20 years after the first service, the church had 50,000 members. Then the congregation exploded. The Yoido Full Gospel Church has since acquired, on average, just over 500 new members each week… for the last 36 years.
There’s an in-depth three-part article detailing the observations of a westerner attending a service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church over at the Three Wise Monkeys.
Oh… one other thing I always thought slightly weird… in South Korea Catholics are not considered Christians (I’m not sure what they are considered exactly, but there’s a few million of them too). If ever you are cornered by a Christian preacher in South Korea, just smile broadly and tell them you’re Catholic. That seems to put them off their game for some reason.