Author: Jungyeon Yi
* This is a brief summary of her Ph.D dissertation titled "Urban Modernization and Religion: Creation of New Downtown in Seoul and the Formation of Megachurch, 1970-80s."
This study examines how the explosive expansion of Protestant churches was related to the process of urbanization within Seoul (which now has one of the highest concentrations of megachurches in the world), South Korea (hereafter Korea), during the 1970s and 1980s. Contrary to classical sociological theory that predicts the decline of religion along with modernization, Protestantism in Korea grew quickly within just one century. This investigation involved studying the formation process of three megachurches (Somang Church, Sungrak Church, and Yoido Full Gospel Church) in new downtown areas, and identifying the factors that influenced the explosive growth of these megachurches. This study focuses on three specific new downtown areas, i.e., Gangnam, Guro, and Yeouido, where the state-led urban development took place and megachurches thrived simultaneously.
In addition, these three megachurches representing these areas rapidly grew and expanded into extra-mega churches, thus, they have acquired a symbolic importance in the field of Korean Christianity.
In the study, the production of physical space in the city and everyday practice of social actors in the space are manifoldly analyzed. In this way, the dynamic aspects of how city spatiality is organized into a social space is presented. Also, the growth of churches in terms of both production and consumption is analyzed. Production refers to the way in which a church provides salvation goods, and consumption refers to the way in which the desire for salvation is created. Through the process of analysis, this study seeks to present how social transformation and everyday life desires become religious action.
Previous research has analyzed internal and external religious factors to explain the rapid expansion of Korean Protestantism. According to this, Korean Protestantism has kept an amicable relationship with the government so that they have been given special favors advantageous to the growth of Protestantism. In particular, pro-America and anticommunist sentiment of Korean Protestantism was easily mixed with political ideology, so that many churches established good foundations for growth, in collusion with the government. However, most previous literature did not analyze the close relationship between urbanization and the growth of the church. In addition, they explained the power of growth as identical from the 1950s to 1980s, which is a jump of logic. From the 1970s, Korean churches have transformed into megachurches through a new power of growth, different from the past. The new change in growth is that churches closely colluded with everyday needs or desires of ordinary people. This tendency highly stands out in the urbanization of Seoul.
The main findings of this study are summarized as follows.
First, regarding the “structural” factor of growth of megachurches, some congregations were able to grow rapidly in these areas by creating a delocalized community to cater to the various needs of individuals who were largely disconnected from each other with an increase in individualized residences such as apartment housing (Gangnam and Yeouido) and honeycomb housing (Guro), despite being mostly homogeneous in terms of socio-economic status and cultural background. The churches in these areas were able to easily bring atomized individuals to the churches, growing into delocalized churches that were not bound to local politics or culture. Delocalized churches satisfied the needs of religious consumers above and beyond certain areas, as if they were a department store for shoppers from various regions.
Second, regarding the “substantive” factor of growth of megachurches, large congregations in these three new downtown areas produced their own salvation goods as different types of religion, responding to class-specific salvation needs: in case of Gangnam (Somang Church), it was a religious type of “romantic path-seeking” that resulted from the interaction between the church’s salvation goods and the salvation needs of the upper-middle class, who desired to maintain their social status without appearing to be patronizing to society. In Guro (Sungrak Church), where the low-income class reside, a religious type of “defensive magic” had developed, reflecting the salvation needs of the poor, who desired to escape from their physical illness and their demands for salvation goods.
Lastly, in Yeouido (Yoido Full Gospel Church), which is composed mostly by the lower-middle class desiring upward mobility, it was “acquisitive prosperity-seeking”.
These religious types represent the daily coping mechanisms of the consequences of modernization. In the process of compressed modernization, Korean Protestant churches grew explosively by successfully providing salvation goods, and by absorbing confusion and disorder, while offering micro impetus in life to those who were feeling anxious of the rapid change in society.
However, megachurches lost their function as a space for local communities, instead becoming delocalized by being increasingly absent from their own local communities. Moreover, delocalized megachurches also intensified individualism and depoliticization as they concentrate only on generating personalized coping mechanisms and expanding their power.
This analysis of the expansion of Protestantism and the process of the formation of the megachurch in Korea's urban modernization shows the characteristics of Korean urbanization and the microscopic aspect of modernization. This study contributes to the existing literature on modernization in Korea, which has been mostly conducted at the macro level, by providing additional aspects of micro-modernization.