Encounter with Modernity: The "McDonaldization" and "Charismatization" of Korean Mega-Churches

Article excerpt

The dynamism of Korean Christianity today has become a significant element in Korean society. Korean Protestant Christianity can be characterized by rapid church growth and the emergence of mega-churches, and these attract the focus of scholarly investigation. (1)

The Protestant population in Korean society has grown significantly since the 1960s. The Protestant population increased enormously from 623,072 in 1960 to 6,489,282 in 1985, and to 8,760,000 in 1995. In 1995, with Korean Protestants (19.7%) and Catholics (6.6%) combined, Korean Christians represented about 26 percent of the total population. (2) Grayson (3) argues that Korean Protestant Christianity has become fully implanted in the cultural soil of Korea. Christianity, in spite of its short history in the country, now ranks alongside Buddhism as a major religion in Korean society.

The phenomenon of Korean mega-churches

The phenomenon that attracts scholarly attention, along with the growth of the Korean Protestant population, is the fact that there are many large and mega-churches in Korea. In 1999, it was estimated that there were nearly 400 large churches and 15 mega-churches. (4) The exceptional characteristic of Korean mega-churches, namely, that it is not easy to build such a huge church organization which thousands of people voluntarily attend, has been the object of academic interest, regardless of any value judgement about the phenomenon. Table 1 shows the profile of 15 Korean Protestant mega-churches in 2002. Most large churches and mega-churches are in the centre of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, or the surrounding metropolitan areas. Most mega-churches have many other sanctuaries where people can attend services by closed-circuit television, and have five to seven services on Sunday. Most members of the congregations attend once each Sunday, although some attend twice. All the mega-churches have many sections , such as departments of mission, education, social work, home-cell meetings, parish systems, etc. All of these churches own their buildings. Most mega-churches operate church buses to provide transportation to services.

Studies of the phenomenon of the Korean mega-churches have so far been at the descriptive level. (6) However, given the coplexity of explaining a religious movement, to understand the development of the Korean mega-churches in the global context will be an intriguing study. A key aspect is to examine the impact the modernity has had on the Korean mega-churches and their responses to that modernity.

Modernity and Korean mega-churches

Modernity is a complex term. It may be defined as a mode of social life and moral understanding characterized by the universal claims of reason and instrumental rationality, the differentiation of spheres of lifer-experience into public and private, and the pluralization and competition of truth claims. (7) Hence , the belief in progress and the faith placed in science can both be seen as characteristic of modern thinking. Capitalism, urbanization, the modern state, and the knowledge sector (e.g. universities and mass communication) are regarded as major carriers of modernity. Modernity has a close relation-sip with modernization, secularization (theory) and instrumental rationality are an inseparable trinity. (8) Sociologists, such as Weber and Durkheim, in thinking about Europe, used to argue that the carriers of modernity, viz, industrialization and urbanization, would bring about the decline and perhaps even the disappearance of religion.

Traditional sociological orthodoxy says that the secularization that often accompanies modernization will triumph over religion and will cause the latter's disappearance. This has now been called into question simply because of the persistence of religion in the face of modern secularism. Of late, many sociologists (9) suggest that secularization theory based on modernity is essentially mistaken. …