The celebrations were muted after the Taliban freed 19 South Korean Christian missionaries in September from captivity in Afghanistan. The hostages' return was, of course, a happy occasion, but they also were widely criticized for proselytizing in a Muslim country in the face of government warnings not to.
"The Protestant churches need to stop their hitherto egocentric and unilateral missionary style of pushing for their own religion, without respecting the specific, different beliefs and cultural characteristics of those whom they intend to convert," editorialized The Korea Times, an English-language daily in Seoul.
The oldest hostage, Yoo Kyung-shik, spoke of the group's contrition upon its return to Seoul. As part of the release agreement, South Korea promised to block more missionaries from traveling to Afghanistan.
Although the group's ordeal and the tense negotiations that led to its release triggered anger in some precincts, many applauded the group's efforts. South Korea has become the world's second-largest source of missionaries, after the United States, with some 17,000 people spreading the Word in 170 countries.
Asian, Latin American and African countries have long played host to Christian missionaries from the industrialized West. But now developing nations are starting to send their own apostles into the world — not just to poor countries such as Afghanistan but to the United States and Europe as well.
These so-called reverse missionaries are preaching the Gospel where it has fallen out of fashion. In London, a church founded by a Nigerian immigrant is building an auditorium at its new home that seats 8,000 — or 5,500 more than St. Paul's Cathedral. "When we became Christians in the East, we read the Bible and it said, 'Go out into the world and spread the Gospel,' " says Ravi Chandran, a missionary pastor from Singapore who runs a church in Denmark — one of about 150 run by foreigners there. "And guess what? We came back to the West!"
Many of these missionaries hail from megachurches. The freed Koreans all belong to the 5,000-member Saemmul Presbyterian Church, which is far from that country's largest. In part, suggests Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Connecticut's Hartford Institute for Religion Research, huge churches thrive in foreign capitals because of the density of population. "The megachurches there can be 10 times as large because you can move 10,000 people in and 10,000 people out if you don't have to deal with cars and parking ramps," Thumma says.
The new wave of foreign missionaries differs from the traditional way Christianity spreads overseas. Often the Gospel has been spread through smaller "cell groups," which meet in homes and other modest surroundings.
"Pastors in the United States have more of an infatuation with size and who can build the biggest church," says Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "Rather than measure success by size, these global churches measure success by how many daughter churches they can start."
Many of those daughter churches are now in the United States. In New York City alone, more than 100 churches conduct services in African tongues. The most prominent African church in this country, however, seeks to reach not immigrants but English speakers.
The Redeemed Christian Church, which was founded in Nigeria, operates more than a dozen branches in New York City, with more than 200 parishes nationwide. The church is building a new national headquarters and conference center on 500 acres in rural Texas, north of Dallas.
Despite its success, the church has not always received a warm welcome. Its largest U.S. congregation — a 2,000-member church in Bowie, Md. — was vandalized with racist graffiti last year that included swastikas, the letters "KKK" and anti-black epithets.
"It was a real shock because we have been good neighbors," says Bado Adeyokunnu, the church's pastor. "We have been a blessing in the community. We feed people in the community."
"A society that will not embrace the Holy Spirit of God is encouraging Satanic influences," said Ajibike Akinkoye, chief executive of the Redeemed Christian Church's media operations. "We are not introducing Jesus Christ to America, but this society has become a post-Christian society, and that is a dangerous thing."