Korean megachurches in the Greater Los Angeles area

Sung Cun Kim

The phenomenon of Korean Protestantism and American influence

Protestantism, a dynamic force in Korean life (Grayson 2002, 109) was first embraced by reform-minded Korean elites who met Western missionaries in China in the nineteenth century. These Koreans were remarkable in that they began searching for the Christian gospel even before Western missionaries visited Korea. Since 1945, Protestantism has been widely seen by Koreans as the religion of the middle class, youth, intellectuals, urbanites, and modernizers. It has been a powerfi.il force supporting South Korea’s pursuit of modernity in emulation of the United States, and opposition to the old Japanese colonialism and communism of North Korea (Jang 2004). Wherever Koreans go, they open up Korean churches: “Perhaps what is most striking about Protestantism in Korea is its fervor ... Korea is now the world’s second-largest exporter of missionaries after the United States” (Tudor 2012, 62—63). In summary, Korean evangelical Protestantism, influenced by a distinctive form of American Protestantism, is inherently “right wing” and exhibits the characteristics of both “economic conservatism” and “moral conservatism” (Kim 2017a, 163).

This chapter focuses on the Greater Los Angeles area as a site for the largest population of Korean Protestants in the United States. Korean Protestants do not just stay in Los Angeles proper, but continue to move around Southern California for cheaper housing, better education for their children, safer neighborhoods, and better business opportunities. The chapter uses five large congregations to show what impact particular geographic and social locations have on the Korean ethnic churches in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Seoul is currently the megachurch capital of the world (Kim 2017b). The Economist (2007), in a special report on Korean Protestantism, noted that

“South Korea illustrates three elements of modern religion: competition, heat and choice.” According to this report, the people who have flocked to Korea’s megachurches that emphasize the “gospel of success,” under the legacy of the Church Growth Movement, in which the gospel gets “Americanized,” are the upwardly mobile.

Korean Protestants have been known to be industrious, progressive, and wealthy. Historically, upon its arrival in Korea, Protestantism was closely associated with the United States, for its affirmation of individuality and modernity in general (Martin 1990). In fact, every country in East Asia has been exposed to some form of religious and cultural radiation from the United States. Yet in the case of Korea, Protestantism also came to be associated with the early struggles of Korean nationalists against the Japanese colonists, alongside the efforts to preserve the Korean language (Hangul). It was clear that the traditions of the Korean dynasties had been vanquished, and the cultural alternative offered by the Japanese imperialists was nothing but cruel and taxing. Therefore, it made sense for the so-called “lower-upper” groups to seek out an American option, which was perceived to be the gateway to both modernity and success. Christianity, which was a faith brought in by the Americans, was seen as a part of this Western cultural alternative. Like the Philippines, South Korea can be seen as somewhat of a meeting point between North America and Asia (Martin 1990, 138).

Protestant Christianity spread in the Korean peninsula about a century ago, initially around Pyongyang (now the capital of North Korea), which was then often called “Korea’s Jerusalem,” and then to the less Confucian northwestern provinces. The people in the north of the Korean peninsula were more easily attracted to the church than those in the south, the former being more literate, prosperous, and less conservative in maintaining cultural connection to Confucianism (Shearer 1966, 143). In line with this, during the process of modernization, the whole US package of economic dynamism, progress, egalitarianism - and the Protestant religion - could be welcomed by many forward-looking Koreans as beneficial for themselves and for Korea (Martin 1990, 153). In fact, as of 2015, the share of Protestant Christians living in South Korea (about 20%) is much smaller compared to the share of Protestants among Koreans living in the United States (nearly 70%). “Religion is one of the primary institutions through which people experience community” (Miller 2002, 272), and the main factor for this is the social role the church plays - that of the community center for people of Korean origin living in the midst of a non-Korean culture (Min and Kim 2001). Korean society traditionally emphasizes the group over the individual, and the church provides for the spiritual needs of its followers, while providing a source of affiliation and a network that caters to the need to belong (Tudor 2012, 64).

Also, to understand the overrepresentation of Korean Protestant Christians in the United States, we must consider the close historical ties between Korea and the United States since Korea’s liberation (1945). With the advent of communism in 1945, hundreds of thousands of Korean Christians who lived in the North (mostly bourgeoisie) fled to the South in pursuit of religious freedom. The unusual growth of Korean churches after the Korean War (1950-1953) can largely be ascribed to these Christian refugees. Famous among these was Pastor Emeritus and the Templeton Prize winner Kyung-Chik Han, of the famous Young Nak Presbyterian Church (YNPC) in Seoul, once the largest Presbyterian church in the world.

Since the 1960s, Protestant Christians have increased so rapidly that the number of Protestants surpassed that of the followers of traditional religions. When Billy Graham visited Seoul in 1973, more than half million people gathered at Yoido Plaza. During the “Conversion Boom” period, which ended in the 1980s, the number of Protestants increased faster in South Korea than in any other country. With the dramatic growth of evangelical and especially Pentecostal forms of the religion, Korean Christians, specifically those in the middle-class mega-churches in the affluent Seoul metropolitan area, view their conservative and/or charismatic religion as a factor in Korea’s dynamic economic growth of “compressed modernization” during the 1970s and 1980s; they believe that the country’s prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing.

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