Cable from Korea #1: the world’s largest church

A 150,000 people attend this one church in Seoul. This morning, I was one of them.

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Three years ago, I wrote a post about the Yoido Full Church, which is probably the largest church in the world. I quoted the Economist reporting that:

It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

I wrote about it because I was doing a series on Pentecostalism of which Yoido is a rather spectacular example. It was not somewhere I anticipated ever visiting. But this morning I did.

The author of that Economist piece was not exaggerating as far as the logistics go. The manager at my hostel told me she avoids driving near the church on Sunday mornings because the traffic is so bad. Despite the challenges posed by its size, Yoido makes a compelling argument for economies of scale. It is a very slick operation. I arrived and was immediately greeted by one of their team of ushers specifically tasked with greeting foreigners, I was then passed along a conveyor belt of team members to a special section for worshipers from overseas and invited to a special post-service meeting for non-Koreans. Most impressively, I was given a headset so I could listen to a simultaneous translation of the service.

The church itself is a about the size of a concert hall. Indeed both its scale and design, reminded me of the Barbican Centre. The comparison seemed apt as it has its own orchestra and a choir of professional quality singers that’s larger than most congregations. It’s not the best church music I’ve heard. It lacked the richness and otherworldliness of say an English Cathedral Choir. But that’s delivered to a couple of hundred people at a time. This needed to reach thousands upon thousands of people and be good. And that consistency extended to the other aspects of the service, which were engaging even in translation.

Initially the proceedings appeared more mellow than I was expecting. There were traditional hymns rather than worship songs. And while the preaching was on the more interactive end of the scale – there were a lot of things we were supposed to call out – it was also more dignified than many evangelical services I’d been to before. But I’d misread what was happening. I’m used to churches that are literally and figuratively amateurish: the people running them generally don’t have the skills or the resources to produce an emotional reaction on cue. The team at Yoido do. They could therefore let a state of fervour gradually develop. And by the end, prayers were accompanied by much of the congregation rocking backwards and forwards.

In the world but of Korea

Yoido is unmistakably Korean in ways that go beyond the obvious. The narrative it tells us about faith is very tied up with the country’s recent history. Indeed Yoidi itself, a church that dragged itself from a tent outside a US army camp to a being a feature of one of the world’s great cities,  functions as a good metaphor for that history. And the apocalyptic and Manichean overtones of evangelical theology take on a new resonance when you are twenty miles from the DMZ. My impression based on an admittedly short stay so far is that South Koreans think about their belligerent northern neighbours less than outsiders imagine. But Yoidi really does major on the topic: prayers about or for the country were said no less than four times. When Christians in most countries worry that militant atheists are attempting to destroy their way of life that’s merely paranoia but in Korea it’s indisputably true and that seems to have seeped into the character of at least some of its Christianity.

Despite its emphatic Koreaness, Yoido is probably the most cosmopolitan church I’ve ever attended. As I’ve mentioned already, there are impressive efforts to welcome worshipers from overseas. It also seems to put a lot of emphasis on overseas evangelism: the church apparently has over 700 missions abroad at the current moment. And the congregation was regaled with tales of how its pastors were spreading the gospel around the world. It is presumably with the intention to assist them in that endeavour that the church runs English classes. Most remarkably the sermon at the service I attended was delivered in English by the National Director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. The world’s largest church apparently takes the world as its diocese.

My reservations

As impressed as I was by Yoido, I concluded that even if I lived in Seoul I would be unlikely to attend it regularly. I couldn’t warm to its bombast nor to the didactic nature of its message. I also have a particular aversion to faith healing, which featured prominently in the service. I fear that a) it risks putting people off seeking proper medical help, b) puts a decidedly un-protestant emphasis on the need for someone to act as an intermediary between god and ordinary Christians, and c) insults God by suggesting he lets people suffer illness until somebody casts the right spell. My prejudices about it weren’t helped by a video we were shown this morning of a previously lame woman in the Cote D’Ivoire miraculously walking without crutches after being prayed for by one of the church’s pastors. The problem is that she didn’t walk so much as stagger forward weakly for two or three paces in exactly the way you’d imagine someone would if they believed they’d been cured but hadn’t. And even to someone poorly versed in Korean politics the way the church steers it congregation towards supporting conservative candidates was pretty blatant. President Park Geun-Hye was prayed for by name. It was specifically flagged up that one of her party’s representatives in the National Assembly was in attendance this morning. And the congregations attention was drawn to an apparently troubling piece of legislation before the National Assembly.*

Lessons for the endangered species known as the western protestant

However, what I’ve been mulling the most since I left was something rather different: the age of the congregation. The reason for this is to do with something called the ‘secularisation hypothesis’. Essentially this says that as societies modernise that they will tend to become less religious. This has been given credence by falling church attendance in Europe and North America. But a big growth in church membership in the developing world has more than offset this, suggesting that maybe secularisation is basically a western phenomenon. Booming churches in Korea seemed like an example of this. But I recently read Daniel Tudor’s Korea: the Impossible Country, which briefly notes that young Koreans are actually less likely to attend church than their parents. Yoidi would seem to support this. The people in attendance were not as geriatric as those at a typical western church. Nonetheless, they clearly skewed towards the upper end of middle aged. That might indicate that the secularisation hypothesis needs modifying rather than discarding. Maybe it is that the disruptions and uncertainties of industrialisation and urbanisation drive people into church – the Victorian era was after all a highpoint of church attendance in the UK – and when these abate so does churchgoing. If that’s what is happening in Korea then it may well be that in a few decades time the booming churches in China, Nigeria and the like will start shrinking.

It is tempting as it is for stale churches in the West to look at places like Yoido and see a model they should emulate. But that’s probably not going to work. Christians in Europe and North America probably need to find their own solutions rather than trying to assemble flatpack models from other parts of the world.


*In the interests of transparency, I should note that my headset began glitching at the point this was discussed. I still think I caught the general gist but not what the actual legislation was.

Did the Prosperity Gospel Cause the Subprime Debacle?

I had intended to leave the subject of Pentecostalism but then I was reminded of an article on the Prosperity Gospel I read a few years back. In some of my previous posts I had presented a pretty favourable view of the impact of the doctrine. This piece from the Atlantic by Hanna Rosin is a necessary reminder of why it can be such a problem.

More recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:

Narratives of how “God blessed me with my first house despite my credit” were common … Sermons declaring “It’s your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “what God can do,” little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM.

In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home,’ or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home,’” he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”

Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots. Both spread in two particular kinds of communities—the exurban middle class and the urban poor. Many newer prosperity churches popped up around fringe suburban developments built in the 1990s and 2000s, says Walton. These are precisely the kinds of neighborhoods that have been decimated by foreclosures, according to Eric Halperin, of the Center for Responsible Lending.

Zooming out a bit, Kate Bowler found that most new prosperity-gospel churches were built along the Sun Belt, particularly in California, Florida, and Arizona—all areas that were hard-hit by the mortgage crisis. Bowler, who, like Walton, was researching a book, spent a lot of time attending the “financial empowerment” seminars that are common at prosperity churches. Advisers would pay lip service to “sound financial practices,” she recalls, but overall they would send the opposite message: posters advertising the seminars featured big houses in the background, and the parking spots closest to the church were reserved for luxury cars.

Nationally, the prosperity gospel has spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations. This is also the other distinct pattern of foreclosures. “Hyper-segregated” urban communities were the worst off, says Halperin. Reliable data on foreclosures by race are not publicly available, but mortgages are tracked by both race and loan type, and subprime loans have tended to correspond to foreclosures. During the boom, roughly 40 percent of all loans going to Latinos nationwide were subprime loans; Latinos and African Americans were 28 percent and 37 percent more likely, respectively, to receive a higher-rate subprime loan than whites.

Depressingly a number of churches and pastors seem to have been more directly complicit:

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that state attorneys general had the authority to sue national banks for predatory lending. Even before that ruling, at least 17 lawsuits accusing various banks of treating racial minorities unfairly were already under way. (Bank of America’s Countrywide division—one of the companies Garay worked for—had earlier agreed to pay $8.4 billion in a multistate settlement.) One theme emerging in these suits is how banks teamed up with pastors to win over new customers for subprime loans.

Beth Jacobson is a star witness for the City of Baltimore’s recent suit against Wells Fargo. Jacobson was a top loan officer in the bank’s subprime division for nine years, closing as much as $55 million worth of loans a year. Like many subprime-loan officers, Jacobson had no bank experience before working for Wells Fargo. The subprime officers were drawn from “an utterly different background” than the professional bankers, she told me. She had been running a small paralegal business; her co-workers had been car salespeople, or had worked in telemarketing. They were prized for their ability to hustle on the ground and “look you in the eye when they shook your hand,” she surmised. As a reward for good performance, the bank would sometimes send a Hummer limo to pick up Jacobson for a celebration, she said. She’d arrive at a bar and find all her co-workers drunk and her boss “doing body shots off a waitress.”

The idea of reaching out to churches took off quickly, Jacobson recalls. The branch managers figured pastors had a lot of influence with their parishioners and could give the loan officers credibility and new customers. Jacobson remembers a conference call where sales managers discussed the new strategy. The plan was to send officers to guest-speak at church-sponsored “wealth-building seminars” like the ones Bowler attended, and dazzle the participants with the possibility of a new house. They would tell pastors that for every person who took out a mortgage, $350 would be donated to the church, or to a charity of the parishioner’s choice. “They wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, Mr. Minister. We want to give your people a bunch of subprime loans,” Jacobson told me. “They would say, ‘Your congregants will be homeowners! They will be able to live the American dream!”

P.S. This was a more negative note than I had intended to end my posting on Pentecostalism on. For the record, despite what I have written here I do think it’s a movement that should broadly be welcomed.

5 Pieces of conventional wisdom that Pentecostalism challenges

Dramatic social change will always force us to re-evaluate our ideas. We round off our look at Pentecostalism by seeing what assumptions it may force us to discard.

1. We live in a Post-Christian age

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism has helped to push the number of Christians in the world to a record level. It has also spread Christianity to parts of the world where it has not previously been strong. For example, much of the faith’s expansion into China has been propelled by underground house churches that often have a Charismatic bent.

As well as increasing the number of Christians, Pentecostalism has also had a reinvigorating effect. It has turned many whose Christianity was becoming increasingly nominal back into active church members.

In this way Pentecostalism has given Christianity as a whole renewed relevance.

2. Latin America is Catholic

There have been Protestants in South America since the nineteenth century. However, they’ve always been a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic population.

While Catholicism is still very clearly the largest religion in this part of the world, Pentecostalism is eroding its dominance. If current trends continue then some states particularly in Central America could soon have protestant pluralities. For example, around 40% of Guatemalans are now Protestants.

3. Protestantism is a stolid, cerebral movement of White Europeans and North Americans

Traditional protestant denominations of both liberal and conservative varieties have become rather bookish outfits. Sola scriptura (by scripture alone) often feels like it’s moved from a piece of theology to a worship style and organising principle.

Tens of millions of poor Africans and Latin Americans emphasising the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit and the possibility of a personal relationship with God has – to say the least – given Protestantism quite a jolt.

4. A movement centred around a literal belief in miracles will not be modernising force

Pentecostalism with its Glossolalia, ritual healing and the like can often seem like a weird throwback. In many senses, that’s how it understands itself: as a return to the spirituality of the early church.

However, the eminent religious sociologist Peter Berger has suggested it is a modernising force. He believes that it encourages economic development by teaching that ‘God does not want you to be poor.’ This translates into a mixture of mutual support and self-help that produces something close to the ‘Protestant Work Ethic.’ To quote Berger: “Max Weber is alive and he’s living in Guatemala!”

5. There will be an alignment between Christianity and US foreign policy

In 1956, the US adopted as its official motto “In God We Trust.” At this point, America was locked in confrontation with the avowedly atheistic Soviet Union. The new motto was supposed to symbolise the support that America and Christianity drew from each other. This has a long history before and after. Reinhold Neibuhr observed that Americans have always cast themselves in the role of the “chosen people.” And we can still see something of this fusion in George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

However, for Pentecostals mainly living in the Global South, Americans can look more like Romans than Israelites. In a panel discussion for the Pew Forum, Professor Paul Freston observes that – outside of the US – even Pentecostal churches that can normally be relied on to take politically conservative positions came out against the Iraq war.

llenwi â’r Ysbryd Glân: The Welsh roots of Pentecostalism

The Revival's leader Evan Roberts

The Revival’s leader Evan Roberts

In the early twentieth century southern Wales experienced a religious revival that still shapes Pentecostalism and Wales.

It is probably folly to try and locate a single place where Pentecostalism began. The modern movement represents the convergence of a number of grouping that sprung up independently around the world. Nonetheless, if one were forced to choose such a point then Wales would be a strong contender.

Histories of Pentecostalism traditionally start with the Azuza Street Revival in Los Angles in 1906. However, this was predated, influenced and partially inspired by the Welsh Revival of 1904-5.

According to an Introduction to Pentecostalism by Allan Heaton Anderson:

The Welsh Revival (1904-5) was centred mainly among the Welsh-speaking mining community, where there were at least 32,000 converts throughout Wales, some putting this figure as 100,000. During this revival, the Pentecostal presence and power of the Holy Spirit was emphasised, and meetings were hours long, spontaneous, seemingly chaotic and emotional, with ‘singing in the Spirit’ (using ancient Welsh chants), simultaneous and loud prayer, revelatory visions and prophecy, all emphasising the immediacy of God in the services and in personal experience. Revival leader Evan Roberts (1878-1951) taught a personal experience of Holy Spirit baptism to precede any revival. The revival was declared to be the end-time Pentecost of Acts 2, the ‘latter rain’ promised by biblical prophets which would result in a worldwide revival. Charistmatic Baptist pastor in Los Angles Joseph Smale visited the Welsh Revival, and Frank Bartleman corresponded with Evan Roberts, asking for prayer for a similar revival in Los Angles. These and other contacts encouraged people to expect a revival there. Several early British Pentecostal leaders, including George Jeffreys, an early evangelist in the British Assemblies of God, and Daniel Williams, founder of the Apolistic Church, were converted in the Welsh Revival. The first leader of Pentecostalism in Britain, Anglican vicar Alexander Boddy, visited it. Although Evan Roberts, influenced by his mentor Jesse Penn-Lewis, later discouraged the use of tongues and ecstatic manifestations, and although Pentecostalism’s emphases were found in the radical and less common manifestations of the Welsh Revival, early Pentecostal leaders drew inspiration from the revival and saw their movement as the continuation of it. Interestingly, both movements made use of ancient cultural forms to express their experiences and liturgy, the Welsh Revival encouraging a resurgence of the Welsh language, particularly in the singing of hymns and chants.

In defence of speaking in tongues

Our look at Pentecostalism would not be complete without examining one of its most distinctive features: speaking in tongues


Writing in the New York Times, the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann offers a defence of the practice based on her experiences studying it in Accra, Ghana:

What dawned on me in Accra is that speaking in tongues might actually be a more effective way to pray than speaking in ordinary language — if by prayer one means the mental technique of detaching from the everyday world, and from everyday thought, to experience God.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Christian prayer practice, beyond rote recitation. “Apophatic” prayer, which looks a lot like meditation and mindfulness, asks one to still the mind and disengage from thought. The classic example is the 14th century “Cloud of Unknowing,” a monastic text whose anonymous author advised: “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him who I cannot know.”

In “kataphatic” prayer, one fills one’s imagination with thoughts from Scripture. The classic example is the 16th-century spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who called worshipers to see “with the eye of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, considering how long it is and how wide, and whether it is level or goes through valleys and over hills.” American evangelicals seeking daydreamlike encounters with God are praying in this tradition.

The apophatic method is probably more effective in shifting attention from the everyday, but harder to achieve. That seems to be what the fifth-century monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite meant when he described kataphatic prayer as a steppingstone for those who could not pray in other ways. Many of us know people who have tried to meditate and failed, defeated by thoughts that refused to stay put — what skilled practitioners call “monkey mind.” In an experiment, I assigned participants for one month to meditation, to imagination-rich prayer or to lectures on the gospels. Many who meditated didn’t like it; those who did reported deep spiritual experiences, like the expert meditators studied by the neurologist James H. Austin (“Zen and the Brain”) and other scientists.

As a technique, tongues capture the attention but focus it on something meaningless (but understood by the speaker to be divine). So it is like meditation — but without the monkey mind. And the practice changes people. They report that as their prayer continues, they feel increasingly more involved. They feel lighter, freer and better. The scientific data suggest that tongue speakers enter a different mental state. The neuroscientist Andrew B. Newberg and his colleagues took M.R.I. scans of tongue speakers singing worship songs, and then speaking in tongues. When they did the latter, they experienced less blood flow to the frontal cerebral cortex. That is, their brain behaved as if they were less in a normal decision-making state — consistent with the claim that praying in tongues is not under conscious control..

Speaking in tongues still carries a stigmatizing whiff. In his book “Thinking in Tongues,” the philosopher James K. A. Smith describes the “strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery” that flickered across a colleague’s face when he admitted to being a Pentecostal (and, therefore, praying in tongues). It seems time to move on from such prejudice.

We may not hear much about Pentecostalism but there are tonnes of Pentecostals

There are an estimated 279 million Pentecostal Christians around the globe. That means that if we took the combined flocks of Anglicanism, Sikhism, Judaism, Lutheranism and Methodism, they would still be outnumbered by Pentecostals. Pentecostals now amount to a tenth of all the Christians in the world and four percent of the world’s population.  

Catholics are still by far the largest group of Christians in the world. However, it is likely that Pentecostals have now overtaken Orthodox Christians to become the second largest branch Christianity. They are also by some distance the largest protestant denomination.

Christian denominations by number-page-001

These huge numbers are doubly remarkable. Firstly, because they developed remarkably quickly. Pentecostalism dates from the early twentieth century making it one of the newest branches of Christianity. As recently as 1970, there were just 15 million Pentecostals.

Secondly, the figures I have been quoting only relate to the members of specifically Pentecostal churches or denominations.  It therefore, excludes Charismatic Christians who hold to Pentecostal type beliefs and practice Pentecostal style worship in non-Pentecostal denominations.  If we took them and traditional Pentecostals together their numbers soar above half a billion, or a quarter of all Christians in the world. If as a hypothetical exercise we treated them as a faith in their own right, then they would replace Buddhism as the world’s fourth largest religion.

Looking at the religious news pages of the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph, I can’t see any stories that are obviously about Pentecostalism. However I can see stories about Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Judaism and Shia Islam even though these movements are all significantly smaller than Pentecostalism. So to reiterate a point I’ve been making this week: Pentecostalism is a movement worthy of our attention. If for no other reason than its sheer size.


Coming up on Matter of Facts – Pentecostalism Week


This week I’ll be blogging about the dramatic rise of Pentecostalism. This a phenomenon that has given rise to very little discussion in the UK. That’s a mistake. The millions of people – mostly living in poverty in the Global South – turning to this very different kind of Christianity constitutes one of the biggest social changes in the world at the moment. It also represents one of the most significant evolutions of Christianity since the reformation. In short, if you are interested in politics, religion or society then you cannot afford to ignore the new power of Pentecostalism.