Korean Baptist Missions in Kazakhstan

Weonjin Choi

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Summer 2010): 6-8.

Weaknesses of the Korean Missionary Effort

Reluctance to Surrender Authority

One of the most critical issues facing Korean Baptist missionaries today is widespread reluctance to transfer leadership to indigenous peoples and churches. The causes, I would argue, relate more to cultural than to biblical principles. Some missionaries have remained for more than ten years at churches they have planted, even though these churches have grown enough to be able to send out their own missionaries. Korean missionaries still remain at the head of the largest Kazakh congregations in Kazakhstan.

The majority of Korean Baptist missionaries place a strong emphasis upon continuity, partly as a reaction to the discontinuity they perceive in Western church planting. According to Min-Ho Chu, the first Kazakh churches that Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries from America started in Kazakhstan struggled with leadership issues caused by missionaries’ frequent departures.1 According to missionary Todd Jamison, Many Kazakhs feel hurt when Americans come and go. Kazakhs invest a lot to welcome foreigners, and often build significant relationships with them. We come and go, but Kazakhs remain. Careful thought as to the effect that short term relationships have on Kazakhs must be made. A concern is that many will discontinue their interest in the gospel to avoid the pain of short-term relationships.2

Authoritarian Leadership Style

The reluctance to “pass the baton” derives partly from the Korean style of leadership. Koreans do not completely trust the ability of Kazakh nationals. They are concerned that churches will not survive if they leave. Hence, they continually try to care for nationals, while safeguarding their authority. This idea can naturally lead to paternalism and dictatorial, egotistical leadership.

Korean missionaries have been heavily influenced by a domineering style of leadership that can be traced from Confucianism to shamanism, to the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), to the two-year military service of almost all Korean males, to the military government from 1961 to 1992. Ironically, Korean churches, which came to reject the domination of Western missionaries, tend to dominate and control their church plants on the mission field. This authoritarian Korean leadership style is one of the greatest unresolved problems in Korean Baptist missions.

The Financial Burden

Unlike IMB missionaries, all Korean Baptist missionaries must support their own financial needs. Korean missionaries have to raise funds by recruiting supporting churches, in addition to their sending church. One reason they do not leave the churches they plant is because their supporting churches might not approve of their departure for a new work and might withdraw support. Korean churches have been known to consider churches on mission fields as their church branches and sometimes use them to boast of the expansion of their ministries.

The Mega Church Syndrome

The most prevalent mistake Korean missionaries make on the field is becoming the pastor of the local church they planted. Most Korean missionaries experience the mega church syndrome: big church building, more people, and more facilities, the pattern they know from home. Korean churches typically are impressed by numbers of new believers and decide to support missionaries who have already won a great number of converts on the mission field. This mega church mania derives from the high expectations of Korean sending and supporting churches and leads to unhealthy competition among missionaries.

For more biblical and effective church planting models, nationals must assume responsibility for their churches. Thus, Korean missionaries need to carefully reconsider their church-planting timetable and should more readily transfer leadership to national leaders under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

A Lack of Contextualization

Some Russian-speaking churches failed to reach out to Kazakhs until the latter part of the 1990s because they were not culturally sensitive.3 The most difficult obstacles for Russian Christians to overcome are the entrenched opinions among most Kazakhs that Russians are usurpers and that Christianity is a Russian religion. Cultural barriers and struggles still remain between Russian Christians and Kazakhs. As a result, as Todd Jamison notes, “If the Kazak church appears too Russian or too Western or too Korean, there will eventually be a rejection by the culture at large—a rejection, not of the gospel, but of the form that the gospel has taken.”4

In an effort to contextualize the gospel, Korean Baptist missionaries use the Kazakh term for the Holy Bible (Kieli Kitap) instead of the Russian word (Biblia). Also, they employ the Arabic form for Jesus Messiah (Isa Maasich) instead of the Russian form (Isus Christos). In addition, missionaries in Kazakhstan have adopted many of the Arabic names for the prophets which are common to the Bible and the Qur’an, such as Isa (Jesus), Ibrahim (Abraham), and Musa (Moses). To avoid ecclesiastical terminology which Muslims do not use, missionaries have translated church as “a congregation of believers,” and baptism as “ritual of immersion into water.”5 To avoid offensive Russian Orthodox terminology, missionaries in Kazakhstan most often use the Persian word for God (Kudai), instead of the Arabic word (Allah) or the Russian word (Bog).

Kazakh Christians have also chosen not to use the cross on church buildings because non-Russians regard Christianity as a Russian religion and the cross as its symbol. For most Central Asians the Russian Orthodox cross has historically been a symbol of oppression. Through the nineteenth century the Russian Orthodox cross was often displayed on cathedrals fashioned on top of the Muslim crescent as a symbol of Orthodoxy’s triumph over Islam.6 The cover of the Kazakh Bible also uses an Islamic ornamental design in dark green, the Islamic holy color. Unfortunately,

Not all aspects of ministry among the Kazaks [are] contextual, such as the loud, expressive manner of prayer with all participants praying out loud at the same time. Korean-led Kazak churches have adopted this form of prayer, although this does not appear to be a trait of other Kazak churches, nor of Muslim Kazaks while praying.7

In Kazakhstan, most churches planted by Korean missionaries have giant offices and sanctuaries, with several cell-group churches affiliated with big mother churches. In contrast, Korean missionaries currently are carefully considering adopting the Ga-Jung Church Model espoused by Young-Gi Chai, senior pastor of Seoul Baptist Church, Houston, Texas.8 Ga-Jung churches differ from the typical cell church because they are autonomous and not dependent upon a mother church. The main purpose of a cell group is fellowship or Bible study, whereas the principal objective of a Ga-Jung church is to fulfill all the ministries of a local church.9

Most church planting movement (CPM) advocates argue against the building-based church, which frequently hinders rapid multiplication and can become a magnet for persecution.10 However, most Korean Baptist missionaries do not agree. They are skeptical regarding CPM advocates’ warnings about persecution, which they currently are not experiencing. Rather, Korean missionaries contend that Central Asian believers need the experience of being part of a large congregation in a large sanctuary, not just house churches. Furthermore, they point out that their church planting method is working and that persecution presently is not a problem. What can be said for certain is that divergent views on church planting are a matter of considerable controversy.

Strengths: In Summary

Korean missionaries have many strengths including endurance in difficult situations, a strong pioneering spirit which facilitates church planting, strong devotion to faith and missions, skill in discipleship training, and a strong vision for evangelism and church planting.11 In addition, Koreans are spared the very heavy and negative historical baggage associated with Europe and America, which are burdened by the legacy of missionary expansion in tandem with colonization. Although they have not been free of their own cultural biases, Korean missionaries have been more effective than Western missionaries in penetrating Kazakh culture.

Weaknesses: In Summary

Korean missionaries suffer from a failure to compile written records, from a lack of cooperation, from a lack of cross-cultural understanding reinforced by their mono-cultural background, from a tendency to clone culturally Korean churches on the mission field, and from competition and conflicts among themselves, among their denominations, and among their mission agencies.12 Traditionally, Korean Baptist missionaries work by means of a self-supporting system. Hence, they must raise funds for their ministry because they must satisfy the expectations of their sending churches and show visible results in a short period of time.

Rethinking Priorities

One of the most critical mistakes made by Korean Baptist missionaries has been their failure to entrust leadership to Kazakh Christians. Regardless of the assertions of Korean missionaries that they gradually relinquish their leadership role, the pace of transition is not quick enough. Andrew Byung-yoon Kim contends, “If Western missions were blamed for their paternalism, Koreans may be accused of authoritarianism in their mission deployment policies. As a result they may not treat local people as co-workers, but rather impose their own ways of doing missions.”13

Korean Baptist missionaries must also realize that their stress upon physical buildings may have the negative consequence of making Kazakh converts dependent upon continued Korean financial support.14

Missionary Todd Jamison knows of “no self-financed evangelical church buildings among Muslim-background believers in former Soviet Central Asia. Foreign sources have either totally or partially financed all current structures.”15

Korean missionaries should think of Central Asians, including Kazakhs, as a bridgehead to reach Muslim Turkic peoples. Turkic Christian converts of Muslim background are more effective than Western or Korean missionaries in evangelizing Muslims.

Lack of experience with cooperation at home and inadequate training for cross-cultural missions help account for inadequate cooperation among Korean missionaries in Central Asia.16 Sending missionaries who lack adequate preparation commonly produces problems that ultimately affect the vitality of Central Asian churches. Paying nationals to conduct ministry, for example, in the tradition of “rice Christians,” only undermines sustainable church growth. Accordingly, Korean churches must concentrate on missionary qualifications, not on the number of missionaries sent. More emphasis must be placed on quality than on quantity.17 In addition, looming concerns that will increasingly challenge Korean Baptist missionaries in Kazakhstan include the rapidly rising cost of consumer goods and real estate, the growth of Islam, growing Kazakh nationalism, increasing legal restrictions on missionary visas and church registrations, and declining church growth.


1 Min-Ho Chu, interview by author, 1 June 2007, MP3 recording, Fort Worth, TX.

2 Todd Jamison, “A Historical Study of Evangelism and Contextualization of the Gospel among the Kazak People of Central Asia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminarry, 1999, 182.

3 Todd Jamison, “Reaching the Muslim Majority: The Responsibility of the Korean Church in Evangelizing the Kazakhs of Central Asia,” [n.d.], unpublished paper presented to the author.

4 Jamison, “A Historical Study,” 145.

5 The director of the Central Asian Russian Scriptures Project, e-mail message to author, 11 December 2007. For reasons of security, the director’s name is not given.

6 Jamison, “Reaching the Muslim Majority.”

7 Jamison, “A Historical Study,” 174.

8 Ga-Jung is interpreted as “home or house church.” The Ga-Jung Church represents a specific type of Korean house-church model with a united corporate body for supporting several house churches. According to Young-Gi Chai, Ga-Jung Church is the gathering, location-based concept, while cell church is size-based. Young-Gi Chai, “The 43rd Ga-Jung Church Seminar,” 29 January-3 February 2008. Seminar guidebook provided by Ga-Jung Church Ministry, International, 2; and “What is ‘the House Church,’ ” accessed 31 January 2008; available from http://housechurchministries.org/about/html/about1_1_e.html.

9 Eric Shin, “House Church Shepherds and Interns Training Manual” (Houston: New Life Fellowship, n.d.), 3. Eric Shin is a pastor of the New Life Fellowship, which is an English-speaking congregation in Seoul Baptist Church of Houston.

10 Jamison, “Reaching the Muslim Majority.”

11 Howard Norrish, “An Evaluation of the Performance of Korean Missionaries,” [n.d.], 4-5, obtained from Andrew Kim; Matthew Jeong, “Hanguk Sayeokja-ui Segyehwa-wa Hyeobryeok [Globalization and Cooperation of Korean Missionaries],” paper presented at the Annual Consultation for Korean Missionaries, Kyrgyzstan, 17 August 2006, 10.

12 Norrish, “An Evaluation of the Performance of Korean Missionaries,” 5-7; and Jeong, “Hanguk Sayeokja-ui Segyehwa-wa Hyeobryeok,” 11-12.

13 Andrew Byung-yoon Kim, “Rethinking of Korean Missions,” Journal of Asian Missions 1 (1999), 113.

14 Wonsuk Ma, “Mission: Nine Hurdles for Asian Churches,” Journal of Asian Missions 2 (2000), 112.

15 Todd Jamison, “House Churches in Central Asia: An Evaluation,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43 (2007), 193-94.

16 Myung Hyuk Kim, “Principles of Two-Thirds World Mission Partnership” in Partners in the Gospel: The Strategic Role of Partnership in World Evangelization, ed. James H. Kraakevik and Dotsey Welliver (Wheaton, IL: Billy Graham Center, 1992), 131.

17J. Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission: A Panoramic View of Missions from Pentecost to the Present, rev. ed (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 176.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Weonjin Choi, “An Appraisal of Korean Baptist Missions in Kazakhstan, Central Asia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2008.

Weonjin Choi is missions pastor of Dreaming Church, Bundang, South Korea, and lecturer in missions at Korea Baptist Theological University, Daejeon, South Korea.