A comparison of Korean megachurches in Seoul and Los Angeles

The epicenter of global Christianity is shifting: North America and Europe lost their position as the nexus of world Christianity in the late 1980s, and the church in the Southern Hemisphere (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) is positioned to take that place (James 2014, 1). One phenomenon about the Southern Hemisphere churches that has not been sufficiently studied is the rapid rise of “megachurches” in Africa, Asia and Latin America flames 2014, 3).

South Korea offers an obvious example of megachurch growth in Asia. Under the legacy of Americanized gospels after the Korean War, since 1980, South Korea has been producing numerous megachurches in cities like Seoul, Incheon, and Anyang with the rural-urban migration that occurred during its phase of industrialization. As of 2014, the world’s top five megachurches were in South Korea (especially in the Seoul metropolitan area).

Megachurches in South Korea may be categorized into three groups (Young-gi 2000). The “traditional type,” such as the Young Nak (Presbyterian) Church (established in 1945) and the Chung Hyun (Presbyterian) Church (established in 1953), which focus primarily on the socioeconomic issues of rural-urban migrants. Historically speaking, the unusual growth of South Korean churches after the Korean War is exemplified by the Young Nak Church with 60,000 members in 1990, which is largely due to hundreds of thousands of North Korean Christian refugees. The “middle-class” type, such as So-mang (Presbyterian) Church (established in 1977), Gwanglim (Methodist) Church (established in 1953), and SaRang (Presbyterian) Church (established in 1978), appeared in the 1970s in the middle-class affluent Gangnam areas in Seoul. Meanwhile, the “charismatic type,” such as YFGC and the Juan Presbyterian Church in Incheon (established in 1948) - which includes Pentecostals - emphasizes religious experience, prayer, and evangelism. The majority of the founders or senior pastors of “charismatic” megachurches are charismatic energy stars or spiritual entrepreneurs (e.g. David

Yonggi Cho of YFGC and Kyum-il Na of the Juan Church) who are often capable of empowering people who, in turn, idolize their pastors under the ethos of a personality cult, which springs from indigenous spiritism (Kim 2017b).

It is interesting to note that Terence Chong, a renowned sociologist in Singapore, has discovered the similar relationship between Pentecostalism and middle-class sensibilities in the growth of megachurches - where bigger is always better (Flory 2017) - in Singapore and South Korea (Chong 2015, 223). One of the most popular explanations for the growth of Christianity in Korea is the religious vacuum created by modernization and urbanization. Koreans see big as beautiful, even prefixing dae (big or large) to anything they are partial to - a preference that has been encouraged by materialism and the influence of American culture, and one that echoes in Singaporean megachurches.

If we apply Hong Young-gi’s (2000) categories of megachurches in Korea to the above-examined five Korean ethnic megachurches in Los Angeles, they can also be categorized into three groups: the traditional type (Young Nak Church of Los Angeles established in 1973), the middle-class type (SaKang Community Church established in 1988), and the charismatic type (OMC established in 1970, BSBC established in 1957, and Grace Korean Church established in 1982). While the traditional type such as Young Nak in Seoul focuses on the socioeconomic issues of both rural-urban migrants and North Korean Christian refugees, Young Nak Church of Los Angeles focuses more on the sociocultural issues of Korean immigrants, who are mostly from Seoul.

Likewise, as SaKang Church in Seoul is located in the affluent middle-class Gangnam area of Seoul, its namesake church in Southern California is also located in an area that is often called the “new affluent Koreatown” of Orange County. And three of the five megachurches in region are examples of the type of charismatic leadership as found in similar churches in Seoul: Dong Sun Lim of OMC, Don Kim of BSBC, and David Kwangshin Kim of Grace Korean Church. This phenomenon attests to Terence Chong’s thesis that there is an “elective affinity” between Pentecostalism and middle-class sensibilities in the growth of megachurches, particularly among Koreans.

On the other hand, other factors, such as large congregations ability to offer a broader range of religious experiences through different styles of preaching, effective worship, and various programs than smaller congregations are able to offer may expose internal differences between churches in Seoul, Los Angeles, and between the two cities. Within evangelical churches, preaching is highly valued, and is often a proxy for whether a church is considered a “good church” or not. Thus, different styles of preaching, in particular, “expositor}'' preaching,” that is, “expositing” the literal meaning of the biblical text, as opposed to “topical preaching” which seeks to identify biblical truths as applied to different life situations, can serve as an indicator of different religious experiences available in churches, and may help explain why people are drawn to one church over another.

Thus, how do megachurches in Seoul and Los Angeles compare in their types of preaching? I examined the weekly bulletins (December 2019-January 2020) of the abovementioned seven megachurches in Seoul and five megachurches in Los Angeles show that there is a difference. On the one hand, in the seven cases of megachurches in Seoul, “expository preaching” is preponderant (six out of seven). Among the five Korean megachurches in Los Angles, “expository preaching” is only slightly more utilized than “topical preaching” (3:2). The three megachurches that give expository preaching are BSBC, OMC, and SaRang Community Church. The two megachurches that give topical preaching are Young Nak Church of Los Angeles and Grace Korean Church. This relative preference (40%) for “topical preaching” in Korean megachurches in Los Angeles over the megachurches in Seoul shows that “topical preaching” is currently more popular than “expository preaching” in numerous megachurches in Los Angeles, suggesting a move away from the more traditional expository preaching style that has long characterized evangelical churches to a more topical, “life lessons” approach to the sermon.

Finally, the current crises may explain this shift and also provide at least a partial explanation of this difference. In some Korean megachurches in Seoul, such as YFGC, MyungSung (Presbyterian) Church (60,000, established by Rev. Samwhan Kim in 1980), and SaRang Church, they are facing an integrity crisis caused by scandals involving money laundering, hereditary transmission of pastors, and general dishonesty of the senior pastors. This has led to a loss of social legitimacy of these churches. While not suffering from the same source of the loss of legitimacy, some Korean megachurches in Los Angeles, especially those in old Koreatown, such as Young Nak Church, OMC, and BSBC, are commonly facing a problem of aging congregations, a decline in Korean immigrants since 2010, and of a “silent exodus” as younger parishioners increasingly seek experimental church communities elsewhere. Multiethnic churches such as Newsong Church in Irvine, Oasis Church in Hollywood, and Seed Church in the new Orange County Koreatown are attracting younger Korean believers away from the more traditional Korean megachurches. Certainly a part of this is the newness factor, but also, as suggested by the emphasis on topical preaching among many Korean churches, these churches tend to focus on issues more applicable to the everyday lives of younger Koreans.

One example is Seed Church (seedch.org) in Buena Park, which draws from the Korean population in and around the Orange County Korea Town. The church was established in 2019 by Rev. Hyukbin Kwon, who has a Cambridge PhD, and is the former pastor of Onnuri Community Church in Irvine. The church meets at a local elementary school, and within less than a year of its founding, had grown to more than 1,000 members, most of whom are highly educated young adults. In addition to Sunday services, Seed Church holds Saturday dawn prayer meetings at a local cineplex. The prayer meetings are led by pastor Kwon, who, wearing casual clothing, often utilizes examples and themes from various movies for his sermons. For example, on Christmas Sunday worship (December 22, 2019), he showed some parts of a famous Korean movie released in 2013, “Miracle in Cell. No. 7,” during his sermon. Seed Church is different in many ways from the typical Korean ethnic churches in Los Angeles: movie sermons, weekly holy communions (self-service style), all contemporary Christian music instead of the church choir and traditional hymns, and includes no opening prayer by elders. This new Korean church shows the influence of postmodern Los Angeles with its “creative class” influences (Florida 2011). This also suggests a savvy approach to engaging the changing cultural environment and demography in which its members live, how operates its worship, programs, and its outreach efforts.

Concluding remarks

Throughout the United States, including California, “conservative” Protestantism tends to gain in the switching game, which shows that religious affiliation in postmodern urbanism is something that people choose, rather than adopt to as a matter of obligation (Miller 2002). Another contemporary' trend of Protestant Christianity in the United States is the so-called religious concentration, which refers to the phenomenon of believers flocking to very large congregations, which is one of the most significant trends in congregational life in the United States (Chaves 2011, 13).

How does religion operate within particular geographic and social locations? In this chapter I have tried to show how the relaxing of the immigration laws in 1965 and the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest amid the city’s changing social environment has caused many Korean megachurches to spring up in the Greater Los Angeles area. The process of spiritual seeking, discovering, and creating is constantly shaping the rich religious landscape of Los Angeles (Loskota 2017, 103).

As we have examined the five cases of Korean megachurches in the Greater Los Angeles area, these large congregations have been shaped by the same cultural, social, and economic pressures. In other words, as Wade Clark Roof has observed, “Geography, an advanced modernity, and physical setting” (Roof 2007, 612) plus “demography” are all factors that help explain the distinctive characteristics of Korean megachurches in the Greater Los Angeles area. In addition, the Korean ethnic Christian communities in the Los Angeles area show three common elements that are typically found in modern South Korea: competition, heat, and choice. The ecology of large and competitive Korean congregations reveals that location, theology', and leadership play a much bigger role than previously thought. Specifically, Korean megachurches reaffirm the idea that physical location of the church play's a rather significant role.

Notes

  • 1 Wikipedia, “History of Korean Americans in Los Angeles.” Retrieved January 27, 2018.
  • 2 Wikipedia, “History of Korean Americans in Los Angeles.”
  • 3 Wikipedia, “Sarang Community Church of Southern California.” Retrieved November 27, 2018.
 
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