Home Up Richie Ackley and McCabe Ma Hong



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


by Dr. Young-Gi Hong


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.


Table 1 The profile of 15 Korean Protestant mega-churches in 2002



Established Year

Founder or

Current Pastor

(installation year)



Estimated Adult worshippers[5]



Han, Kyong-jik (Yi, Chul-sin, 1997)

Presbyterian, Tong-Hap





Kim, Sam-hwan

Presbyterian, Tong-Hap





Na, Kyum-il (1978)

Presbyterian Tong-Hap





Kwak, Sun-hee

Presbyterian, Tong-Hap





Ha, Yong-jo

Presbyterian Tong-hap





Kim, Chang-in, (Kim Sung-kwan, 1997)

Presbyterian, Hap-Tong





Ok, Han-heum

Presbyterian, Hap-Dong





Kim, Sun-do, (1971)






Yi, Ho-moon (1973)






Kim, Hong-do (1971)




Yoido Full Gospel


Cho, Yong-gi

Assemblies of God



Full Gospel Inchon


Choi, Sung-kyu

Assemblies of God



Eunhye (Ûnhye) wa Chilli



Assemblies of God





Kim, Ki-dong

Southern Baptist



Man Min Choon-ang


Yi, Jae-rok

Unification Holiness




Studies of the phenomenon of the Korean mega-churches have so far been at the descriptive level.[6] However, given the complexity 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 that 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 life-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 relationship with modernization, secularization (theory), and instrumental rationality. Social science literature has long assumed that modernization, secularization 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. There has been a great resurgence of traditional religion, especially of Protestant Christianity, in non-western countries such as Brazil and Korea. Modernization has also provoked powerful movements of counter-secularization. James D. Hunter[10] has described the rise of new religions, including evangelical Christianity such as Pentecostalism, as an “anthropological protest against modernity”.

A scholar interested in the relationship between the development of evangelical Christianity and modernization will have his attention focused on Korea, because Christianity has developed on good terms with modernization. The religious resurgence of Korean Protestantism, especially Korean mega-churches, should be understood in the unique historical and cultural context of Korea, with which the impact of modernity (with the process of modernization) has interacted. Above all, the socio-political instability of the period of Japanese domination, (1910-1945), especially in the early years, accelerated the acceptance of modernization values in Korea. During the Japanese colonial period, many Koreans expressed their hostility to the Japanese by becoming Christians. Protestantism could be accepted as a value that is compatible with modernization; it did not clash with nationalism because the colonial power was not a western country but Japan.[11]

Protestantism had the opportunity to modernise Korea in a way that would counteract Japanese influence, and promote democratic reforms. Many Korean intellectuals earnestly grasped Christianity, while the same kind of people in China, where western nations were the colonial powers, rejected Christianity. Based on both modernization and Christian values, the Protestant church in Korea took the initiative in responding to the social situation in the country. The church also offered spiritual power to console and soothe the minds of people who suffered from oppression.

The timing and introduction of Protestantism, as well as the social dislocation of the age (due to the wars, and rapid urbanization and industrialization) have both influenced the emergence of Korean mega-churches. Within this unique historical context, Korean mega-churches have positively accepted the process of modernization with its cultural values and theology. As a consequence, the churches have taken new institutional forms, and there have been great explosions of religious fervour. The churches seem to have encouraged some values and behaviour patterns that have contributed to the process of modernization, e.g. the use of technology, education, training in administrative skills, social mobility, and the use of women in lay leadership.

It is my thesis that the vitality and development of Korean mega-churches may be explained by their balanced position of ambivalence toward modernity: With the creation of meaningful religious experiences among their members on the one hand, Korean mega-churches have protested against a modern rational approach,. On the other hand, the mega-churches have developed effective modern institutions by embracing modern values and structures. This paper hopes to elaborate this through two symbolic words: "McDonaldization" and "charismatization".


The "McDonaldization" of the Korean mega-churches

One strong characteristic of modernity’s effect on the Korean mega-churches is the "McDonaldization" of the churches. The term "McDonaldization" is of course derived from the American hamburger chain that began with humble origins in the mid-twentieth century and is now claimed to be the world’s largest restaurant franchise. According to George Ritzer[12], "McDonaldization" is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant business are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society, as well as the rest of the world.

"McDonaldization" is a symbolic word for the modern rationalizing social process in our contemporary world. It is not difficult to see how this kind of rationality now controls many people’s lives at almost every point; the Korean mega-churches are no exception. Rationalized systems are not only tolerated but growing, and are not just seen as a means to an end but an end in themselves.[13] Here I would like to apply to the Korean mega-churches the characteristics of the "McDonaldization" process that Ritzer[14] outlines(i.e. calculability, predictability, efficiency and control). Although "McDonaldization" does not represent the whole impact of modernity, it seems to be a key determinant. Without having accepted a rationalized mind-set, the emergence of mega-churches as institutional forms would have been impossible.


Market enterprise culture

Modernity is a normative order whose overarching moral rationale and imperative is summarized by the word "progress".[15] It cannot be denied that the acceptance of the value of progress has had a great impact on the quantitative growth of the Korean mega-churches. Progress, in this context, is related to a calculability that is about size and quantity, which are two of the characteristics of the "McDonaldization" process.[16] They imply that “bigger is best” in modern Korean society.[17] This approach demands visible results.

Korean mega-churches have been greatly influenced by the trend of the North American enterprise culture, both in socio-economic development and church theology. Rapid modernization, along with the priority of the government for economic development, have influenced the preference for what is big,[18] and encouraged local "churchism" in Korea, by which churches had to compete against one another to achieve a larger slice of the religious market share in an uncertain society.

Korean mega-churches have been influenced by American rational calculability so that they have adapted “church growth theology” into their modern cultural and social context.[19] The same theological influence has encouraged the use of high technology and strategies for church growth. This has led many church leaders and Koreans to believe that it is the big church that is beautiful. Many Korean pastors, stimulated by the mega-church model, sought to work for the exponential growth of the church.

Mega-churches have attracted more people because many people find a big organization or large congregations appealing. This is a result of the churches' identification with market success, signs of religious prosperity and spiritual power in Korean modern culture. David Martin has identified the Korean Protestant scene as “a spiritual enterprise culture” that requires “in the top echelon, a kind of international manager of the spirit”.[20]. This enterprise culture has also brought about the negative effect that the effectiveness of evangelical strategy has often been judged by the quantity of the "result". This culture is also related to commodity and consumerism. Consumerism culture and rapid industrialization have been predominant in modern Korean society. Consumerism is concerned with the predictability of visible benefits. People predict what they will get by what they choose. Ritzer defines predictability in the following terms: “In a rational society people prefer to know what to expect in all settings and at all times”.[21] Order, systematization and ritual are important for this kind of predictability.

In order to grow, mega-churches had to be "seeker-sensitive" and to offer predictable and magnetic spiritual programs. Peter Berger[22] noted that the pluralistic situation is above all a market situation, and in it religious institutions become consumer commodities. In the secular modern era, individuals are free to choose non-participation in religious activity; churches are therefore forced to "sell themselves" in order to bring people into the church.

Systematized programmes in the mega-churches, such as prayer or evangelism, contribute to attracting people. For instance, the Myung Sung Church is renowned for its special dawn prayer services. These have special themes, are held four times a year and last for one or two weeks. Most members attend these prayer meetings (e.g., 19,000 out of 22,000 adult members in 1995) and many people experience the spiritual answer to their prayers, as well as answers to their problems. People expect to gain benefits from joining mega-churches and participating in such programmes. For example, rituals, such as a time of healing prayer, enhance the expectation of the people attending the services of charismatic mega-churches.

The predictability of what goes on in the Korean mega-churches is both a strength and weakness. Predictability is related to people's perception and expectation of benefits, whether these benefits be spiritual or emotional, and mega-churches' programmes and rituals function as attractive commodified forms for those who join. Predictable spiritual commodity provides people with a sense of security and expected benefits. However, the downside is that once the results of spirituality can be predicted, it becomes routine and may lose its vitality.

The ripple effect that Korean mega-churches are having on Korean Christianity is profound. Their programs and ministry styles influence a number of Korean churches. The desire for predictability leads to the adoption of church programs that attempt to imitate other churches that are perceived as being particularly successful.[23] For example, in the Sarangui Church a seminar about a lay leadership training program has been held over 100 times and hundreds of Korean pastors have attended in order to learn how to build up lay leaders. The practices and programs of the Korean mega-churches are believed to have been transplanted and replicated in many Korean churches.


Bureaucratic systems

Bureaucracy is an inevitable fact of modern life. It is undoubtedly no less a necessity for a successful religious organization than for prosperous secular ones.[24] Behind the bureaucratic mind-set is the seeking of efficiency. George Ritzer[25] saw that efficiency is one of the characteristics of the "McDonaldization" process in modern life. Efficiency identifies an optimum means to a given end. Max Weber saw that the supreme example of efficient rationality was bureaucracy, that is, a collection of rules, regulations and procedures, and the growth of systems necessary to ensure the smooth operation of practices.

An elaboration and standardization of procedures and the emergence of status and roles within a complex of offices exist in the present Korean mega-churches. Often functions within the congregation are increasingly differentiated. A congregation might have different persons, teams or committees responsible for the separate functions of worship and ministry, mission, finance and so on.[26] Korean mega-churches can afford professional staff, who are trained to perform specific tasks: youth-workers, caretakers, musicians, etc. Where tasks are differentiated within a congregation, communication between the various substrata of the church is normally through formal predetermined means.

Thus, committees produce minutes and decisions are determined on the basis of formal established procedures. Church offices are equipped with computers and photocopiers, have professionally printed church magazines, bulletins and information leaflets, and use multimedia (projectors, slides, and electronic instruments) in worship and teaching. These all contribute towards an efficient and professional bureaucratic mind-set. My observations suggest that the general mode of action in the Korean mega-churches is actually similar to any large-scale organization. There is, of course, a possibility that when routinized forms and procedures are substituted for the primal spiritual experiences and motivations, and are solely emphasized, the mega-churches may cease to maintain their vital power.

What keeps the mega-churches dynamic in spite of bureaucratic systems lies in the effective use of small groups. Some scholars[27] believe that an increase in group size is associated with a decrease in satisfaction and group cohesiveness. However, Indik[28] found that it is not group size per se but rather factors usually contingent on increasing size (e.g. poor communication, hierarchical command structures) that diminish group cohesiveness. During the growth of the size of the mega-churches, the organization and the effective development of the small-group system contributed to the formation of cohesiveness and group identity within the congregation.

Rev. Cho Yong-Gi, the senior pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church (YFGC), which has the largest local congregation in the world, was the first person who systematically developed an effective use of small group strategies. His idea was to divide up his church groups into homogeneous cells of five to ten members with common orientations or occupations within bounded geographical areas. Korean mega-churches feature the clear-cut pyramidal structure of neighbourhood leaders, pastors and subpastors, who are all under the authority of the senior pastor. However, there is also sufficient lateral openness through the system of cells so that their growth in number does not necessarily threaten bureaucratic stagnation In fact, expansion in the religious market seems to promise an almost formidable growth of adherents.

In the design of the Korean mega-churches, it is stressed that the fundamental building block of the church should be a small, lay-led, home-based, homogeneous group. Organized along the lines of a corporation, firm or social category, members can progress through the sub-groups of the church, and this represents a step in their social journey. The rationalization behind the Korean mega-churches is the differentiation of different social and intellectual spheres by giving them autonomy. However, it remains to be seen whether the bureaucratic apparatus will stifle the life that it is supposed to assist and preserve.[29]


Control of spirituality by multi-media

Modern people are constantly controlled at various points of their daily life. Control is Ritzer’s[30] final category of the "McDonaldization" process in modern society. The impact of a modern mind-set on the church suggests that churches seek to control the spirituality of people. Control by humans is increasingly replaced with control by technology. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is to use "image technology". Information technology is the pinnacle of the modern worldview. People who control and create media construct social reality, which in turn defines and controls how people perceive the world. A particular area that both expresses modernity and demonstrates the impact of modernity on the presentation of the Christian gospel is that of the media.[31] Television media are geared to marketing products and influencing the consumption pattern of people.

Korean mega-churches have effectively used modern technology for preaching the Christian gospel. Mass media possess much more flexible and powerful means of having an effect on the congregations in those churches. They have focused on preaching through radio and the use of television in church services. The first mega-church in Korea, Youngnak Church, began to preach through radio broadcasts on Kidogyo Pangsong (Christian Broadcasting) in 1959, and this influenced many people. Cho Yong-gi also used media effectively for the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The World Broadcasting Mission Committee in the YFGC broadcasts Cho's sermons through radio and television to other areas of Korea, as well as many countries such as the USA, Kenya, Indonesia and Argentina. In 1991, YFGC introduced simultaneous closed-circuit television services in nine local sanctuaries, and in 1996 the church began its own satellite service. Thus, the members of YFGC did not have to come to the main sanctuary of Yoido to worship. In turn, this solved the problems of traffic, parking and travel time.

Many Korean mega-churches use a projector to display the main points of the sermons and church news. In the case of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, broadcasts of spiritual drama (produced by the church’s own television and radio department) portraying Cho and the church’s ministry activities are shown before Cho’s sermon. Furthermore, visual material relevant to the sermon's content is shown on the screen. For example, if Cho preaches about the crucifixion of Jesus, the crucifixion scene is projected on the screen for the congregation.

Many mega-churches have also established an Internet broadcasting station (e.g., YFGC: www.fgtv.org; Onnuri Church: www.onnuritv.com/web) where people can attend the services of the churches on line. The Internet broadcasting of mega-churches can be accessed in various foreign languages (English, Japanese, Chinese, French, and, in the case of YFGC, Spanish).

Congregations of "mega" proportions allow greater economies of scale so that it is possible to use more up to date (and expensive) technology, and worship in more lavish facilities built for the purpose.[32] The use of mass media and closed circuit television, plus effective educational systems using modern technology and the like, have all contributed to the development of large congregations. However, we need to be cautioned that the use of multi-media may also connote a danger of putting one's faith in technology and of promoting personality cults. Furthermore, as Vinay Samuel has suggested[33], a consumption-oriented media gospel may fail to enable growth in costly discipleship in the Korean mega-churches.

It seems that technology is married to the sacred in the Korean mega-churches. Large Korean congregations have sought “the Garden of Eden equipped with a satellite dish”[34] The new universals in modern Korean society are markets, bureaucracy and communication, and we can see the impact that these have had on the Korean mega-churches.

Ritzer[35]argues that "McDonaldization" has brought about unreasonable consequences while it engendered affirmative changes: ruin of natural environment, dehumanized surroundings, minimization of contact with people, homogeneity. The rational mind-set has aimed at maximum results in terms of quantitative growth. This kind of approach is also being challenged within the Korean church and mega-churches today. The "McDonaldized" mind-set might have led the mega-churches to what may be called the domestication of God, with the full embracing of appropriate techniques and methods. However, the "charismatization" process in the mega-churches has tempered some of the negative aspects of the churches' "McDonaldization" process.


The "charismatization" of the Korean mega-churches

In this paper, "charismatization" is defined as motivating people to yearn for transcendence by charismatic religious figures.

It would be a major mistake to equate either modernization or post-modernization with the decline of religion.[36] Korean mega-churches embraced not only the modern characteristics of rationality but also rejected the modern values of a reason-centred mind-set. Institution building is central to modern society; in the case of the Korean mega-churches, this came about through "charismatization".

Although Korean society has gone through rapid modernization and industrialization, the culturally dominant mind-set of Koreans is religious, not social. Clarke[37] pointed this out in his discussion of dynamic new religious movements in the European context. Clarke says that some writers mistakenly take the view that new religious movements are a response to the process of rationalisation and the phenomenon of secularization.[38] He argues that this assumption would seem to equate prevalence and frequency with effect. Rationalization and secularization may well be socially prevalent, Clarke writes, but it has yet to be proved convincingly that they are culturally dominant.

Although modern systems are socially prevalent, Korean mega-churches met the spiritual and practical needs of the people in a turbulent period through powerful charismatic leaders who could sense the religious and social needs of the people. The dynamism of the Korean mega-churches is due to the ability of charismatic pastors to enchant the world, to make it magical, and to make their members feel the sense of transcendence. The charisma of the founders or senior pastors takes on an understandable significance. The charismatic authority of the senior pastors has been unconstrained by rational-legal considerations.[39]


Charisma in the context of modernity

Although charisma is seen as anti-modern, many scholars[40] take the view that it has survived and persisted even in a modern society that is controlled by a rationalistic mind-set. Weber's view of charisma from a supernatural basis has been refuted by other scholars who have insisted on the invalidity of the concept of charisma in modern society.[41] Loewenstein[42] saw that the world of religion remains the fundamental locus of charisma. He argued that the concept of charisma is not applicable to our age of technological mass democracy. He saw that genuine charisma in modern times would be rare. However, unlike Friedrich[43] and Loewenstein,[44] Tucker[45] insisted on the usefulness of the concept of charisma in modern society, thus placing himself squarely on Weber's side. Tucker[46] saw great merit in taking the category of charisma out of the historical world of religion and applying it to political life as well. He contended that since the religious and political domains could permeate each other in a number of ways, the concept of charisma has much relevance to our age.

The belief in and experience of divine guidance that pastors and their congregations have may well be an important factor tempering what is the sociologically inevitable “institutionalization of charisma”.[47] It is perhaps this belief that accounts for the maintenance of reticulate organizations such as the mega-churches. The key characteristic of Korean mega-churches is the expectation of divine guidance for both personal and institutional concerns; this, of course, stands in direct contrast to rational and bureaucratic methods. The religious "charismatization" of Korean mega-churches can be characterized by the following terms in the context of modernity: a sense of certainty, religious experience, the ensuring of lay commitment.


A sense of certainty

The emergence and attraction of Korean mega-churches can be explained in terms of the modern conditions of uncertainty. Anthony Giddens[48] argues that modernity brings to the collective psyche a disconcerting sense of ambivalence and anxiety because it introduces radical discontinuities and fragmentations to society. Under the process of rapid modernization in an historical situation of turmoil, personal meaninglessness, i.e. the feeling that life has nothing worthwhile to offer, became a fundamental psychic problem in the circumstances of modern Korean society. Because modern conditions increased anxiety and doubts, “Religious forces not only refused to disappear but underwent a resurgence”.[49] Modernity undermines all the old certainties. Uncertainty is a condition that many people find very hard to bear. Therefore, any religious movement (including Christian churches) that promises to provide or to renew certainty has a ready market.[50]

Korean mega-churches seem to offer a sense of certainty in place of doubt, confusion and intellectualism. They are seen to address in a direct and immediate manner the individual’s personal and subjective concerns, and to provide an escape from what is seen as the relativism and moral ambiguity of the rational, scientific and objective approach.[51] The responses of the Protestant churches, especially the Korean mega-churches, can best be understood in the light of this feature of modernity. Under the competitive market system of modernity, people undergo anxieties and fears. The senior pastors of the mega-churches were perceived by many people to speak with certainty of their religious vision.[52] This charisma is an important factor in giving the sense of security and conviction to modern people in the Korean mega-churches.


Dynamic transcendent experience

Modernity progressively undermines the experience of a sacred universe. Korean mega-churches resisted the attack of this pattern of modernity. As William James[53] argued, a religious organization has its roots in religious experience, and the vitality of Korean mega-churches seems to be accounted for by lively spiritual experience. Fervent prayer life characterizes Korean mega-churches and many members have testified to their healing miracles. In the case of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, healing miracles are sometimes broadcast on the screen in Sunday services. Religious experiences in the mega-churches enhance members’ sacred consciousness and make their theology alive.

Miller[54] also argued that congregational and denominational growth or decline is linked to the vitality of members' meaningful religious experiences that provide access to the sacred. In a path analysis of Poloma and Pendleton[55], using a sample of 1,275 members of the Assemblies of God, it was shown that charismatic experiences led to evangelism. In my survey, based on 1,260 samples of Protestants in 1998, religious experience was significantly correlated with the frequency of evangelism (r=0.51, p<0.01). Members’ religious experience invigorates the church culture. Pastors are key in encouraging these meaningful religious experiences within their congregation. If church leaders did not provide ways for Christians to have an access to the sacred (divine power), Korean churches would likely not grow in a modern social context.

One aspect of the construction of the spiritual reality of Korean mega-churches is manifested in the Kidowon (prayer retreat centre). The most notable is the establishment of Kidowons of mega-churches which are situated mostly outside Seoul. Through the experience of Kidowon life, the instrumental rational reasoning processes so characteristic of science and bureaucracy are absorbed into a more dominant sacred worldview within the charismatic perspective.[56] Poloma’s[57] understanding of American Pentecostal churches applies to the Korean mega-churches because they have not discarded the virtues of instrumental rationality but rather have attempted to integrate the strengths of both rational action and affective-intuitive action. In the mega-churches, God is viewed as a miracle worker whose power permeates the mundane.


Ensuring lay commitment

One strong impact of modernity on religion is its privatization and the weakening of the commitment to organized religious institutions. Privatization means the marginalization of religion to the individual, private and personal spheres of life. Privatized religious experience may lead to subjectivism and a possibility of no institutional loyalty.

However, charisma has the power to induce the religious commitment of church members. Kelly[58] suggested that strictness (or making demands) is a necessary condition for organizational strength: a demanding church with highly committed members is a "strong church". Strictness ensures that members will be committed, and communicates to others the sign of being a serious church. As a consequence, strictness will result in church growth.[59] Kelly argued that mainline denominations in America had become insufficiently strict, and had therefore lost their capacity to create meaning and to generate commitment. However, Kelly's focus has been on theological orientation and members' religious characteristics rather than on pastoral leadership.

The study of Tamney and Johnson[60], however, suggested that it was the element of authority rather than strictness that may be important in explaining church growth: many people favour pastors who speak with certainty. It is my view that strong churches are likely to be created by strong leaders who are seen by their members to possess charisma or religious confidence. Strictness surely generates commitment and increases cohesion[61], but more important is the perceived charisma of a pastor. Rational models of religious belief and sacrifice[62] suggest that unless church members are mobilized to a high level of participation, the same congregational structure threatens to undermine the level of commitment and contributions needed to make a religion viable. Charismatic motivation sustains members’ commitment.

Korean mega-churches encourage lay commitment in various mission activities. Women's commitment and leadership are also valued. The prominent characteristics of Korean mega-churches, however, are a strong pastoral leadership that mediates the presence of God and commands religious commitment from the congregation, and modern technological pragmatism.


Ambivalence towards modernity

Hunter[63] suggested that there are three possibilities for a community of faith in response to modernity. The first is withdrawal: faith withdraws from any conscious interaction with the modern world. A second strategy is accommodation:, faith consciously embraces the cognitive and normative assumptions of the modern world, and baptizes the ideas and values of modern times with the waters of religious tradition. The last strategy is resistance: faith chooses to engage the modern world but resist its secularizing effect in an effort to preserve faith's orthodoxy. The response of Korean evangelical mega-churches toward modernity seems to be twofold: (1) accommodation to modernity, and (2) resistance to modernity. This integrative ambivalence explains the dynamics of Korean mega-churches. About this, Brouwer et al. said succinctly:

Protestant behaviour in the late twentieth century seems to turn Weber on his head: rather than religious asceticism allowing for the development of capitalist behaviours (presumably inculcated in a society over a century or two), we now have capitalist behaviours adopted in order to accelerate the efficacy of religious faith. There is no better place to see this phenomenon at work than in South Korea.[64]

The balancing act between "McDonalization" and "charismatization" is a key characteristic for the Korean mega-church phenomenon. They intentionally embrace modern values (e.g. technology), while simultaneously recognizing that life-changing experiences of the sacred is what defines a healthy religion. The Korean mega-church phenomenon is simultaneously modern and anti-modern.

In the following section, I would like to make some suggestions with regard to the future of Korean mega-churches.


The pitfalls and possibilities of Korean mega-churches

There is a constant tension between "McDonalidization" and "charismatization" in the Korean mega-churches. There, "McDonaldization" symbolizes an institutional system centred on the idea of instrumental rationalization for the effectiveness of mission, and "charismatization" is symbolic of the sense of the presence of God within the rationalized systems. The development of an organization requires both effective system and vital spirit. A balance must be achieved between structure and substance. Although the pragmatism of modernity has resulted in remarkable progress in the Korean mega-churches, it must also deal with paradoxes in spiritual identity which attend to modernity. The dynamism of mega-churches may pose dilemmas with which they should deal. Here are some of the pitfalls into which Korean mega-churches may fall, and some suggestions to overcome these pitfalls from a Christian perspective of mission.

First, Korean mega-churches should avoid a quantity-oriented culture. They need to reflect on their growth pattern. It cannot be denied that modernization in Korean society, which brought about rapid urbanization and industrialization, has led the Korean mega-churches to quantity-oriented growth. However, the important issue confronting the mega-churches today is how to maintain or enhance the quality of that growth[65]. Unlimited quantitative growth is not possible, and it is time for Korean mega-churches to reflect on the orientation of their growth. Qualitative growth in the Korean mega-churches is related to community-building and discipleship-building. In a huge institution, modern men and women are likely to lose their (spiritual) identity if they lose the sense of belonging to a community.

Second, Korean mega-churches need to be careful of hyper-institutionalization. The vitality of Korean mega-churches has so far been a result of the balance between institutionalization and charisma, and modernity and transcendence. However, in the near future Korean mega-churches have to confront unavoidable internal institutional dilemmas in the form of the generation gap between the founding members and the younger generation, hyper-bureaucracy, and the problem of succession[66]. Once modern rationalization and institutionalization subvert the original dynamic charismatic experience, mega-churches will have difficulty in keeping their vitality. Charisma may diminish quickly once it has completed the task of institution-building[67], and then it may be devoured by routine hyper-institutionalization.

Third, Korean mega-churches must pay regard to the effect of modernity by which a cleavage is introduced between the private and public sectors of life. The churches should develop a transformative spirituality. The very heartbeat of the mega-churches' development is their members' transcendent religious experience. However, the important thing in this matter is the character of that religious experience. Does it have institutional limitation or social implication? Yamane[68] proposed the neo-secularization theory that as religion in modern society is privatized the social significance of religion declines. If the growth of the mega-churches comes about within an iron clad certainty and insularity, ecclesiastical narcissism, "colossalism", or triumphalism may follow. If the members of Korean mega-churches do not bring about a transformative impact on the local community or society in which they live, their religious experience will fall victim to modernity, and eventually become marginalized and secularized.[69]

It has been suggested that, since 1990, while the social influence of Korean Protestant Christianity has increased together with quantitative growth, its social credibility has become weak.[70] Unless the social credibility of Korean mega-churches goes together with social influence, this may be a danger signal for their future. Charismatic experience induced and motivated by the committed charismatic spiritual leader is not ongoing. Religious experience needs to be given meaning in the wider context through rigorous theological reflection on it. I believe that whether the dynamic present growth pattern of Korean mega-churches will turn into pitfalls or possibilities for the future depends on how they reflect on suggestions like those presented here.


A prognosis for the future

It has been shown that the dynamism of Korean mega-churches lies in their ability to incorporate a charismatic spirit into rationalized systems. Korean mega-churches will have to wage battle against the forces of modernity, although they have benefited from it. The battle will be tough. If and when the mega-churches lose control over modernity, they will be controlled by it. The challenge is how to maintain both the churches' spiritual vitality (i.e. the sense of transcendence) and healthy modern institutions.

Modern human beings want their religion to be sufficiently potent, vivid and compelling to offer them rewards of great magnitude.[71] People seek a religion that is capable of miracles, and that imparts order and sanity to the human condition. Churches that do not constantly "re-symbolize" their message will eventually die. Churches that do not offer meaningful religious experience will eventually pass away. Churches where transcendence is pushed to the periphery will eventually disappear. However, churches that encounter the sacred in profound ways and that constantly update their sacred message will continue to grow. There may come a point when Korean mega-churches may lose their vitality through having rationalized systems with no spiritual life in them. The future lies open for the mega-churches.[72] What is crucial is to hold a balance between "McDonaldization" and "charismatization".





[1]           Hong, Young-gi, Dynamism and Dilemma: The Nature of Charismatic Pastoral Leadership in the Korean Mega-churches. Ph.D. thesis, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (validation by the University of Wales), 2000.

[2]           The total population in 1995 was about 44,553,000. The Protestant population was 8,760,000. The Catholic population was 2,950,000. The population of Buddhism in 1995 was 10,321,000, which represents 23.1 per cent of the whole population.

[3]           Grayson, James H., "Cultural Encounter: Korean Protestantism and Other Religious Traditions", International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 25(2), 2001, p. 71.

[4]           Hong, Young-gi, "The Backgrounds and Characteristics of Charismatic Mega-churches in Korea", Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies, 3(1), 2000, pp. 99-118. "Church" is used here in the sense of local congregation. We need to clarify the size of a church to investigate the phenomenon of Korean mega-churches. Although there has been no agreed criterion about the types of church size, in this paper the mega-church designation includes churches with more than 10,000 adult attending members each Sunday.

[5]           The statistics of adult worshippers show the total number of worshippers at all the Sunday services.

[6]           E.g. Kang, Jong-kyu, Hangukui Childae Kyohoe (Korea's seven largest churches), Seoul, Chongno Press, 1983. ; Vaughan, John N., The World’s Twenty Largest Churches, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1984; Vaughan, John N., "Korea’s mega-churches", Global Church Growth, 31(2), pp. 14-16, 1994.

[7]           Hunter, James. D., "What is modernity? Historical roots and contemporary features", in Sampson, P., Samuel, V., and Sugden, C., eds, Faith and Modernity. Oxford: Regnum, 1994, pp. 16-18.

[8]           Poloma, Margaret M., The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads, Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 1989, p. 3.

[9]           E.g., Berger, Peter L., "The desecularization of the world: a global overview", in Berger, Peter L., ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, Washington, Ethics and Public Policy Center and Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 1-18.

[10]          Hunter, James D., “The new religions: demodernization and the protest against modernity”, in Bryan Wilson, ed., Impact of New Religious Movements, New York, Rose of Sharon Press, 1981, pp. 1-20.

[11]          Min, Kyong-bae, Hanguk Kidokkyohoisa (Korean Church History), Seoul, The Institute for Korean Church History, 1992.

[12]          Ritzer, George, The McDonaldization of Society (rev. edn.), Thousand Oaks CA, Pine Forge Press, 1996.

[13]          Drane, John, The McDonaldization of the Church, London, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2000, p. 29.

[14]          Ritzer, George, op. cit.

[15]          Hunter, James, D., op. cit., p. 20.

[16]          Ritzer, George, op. cit.

[17]          Calculability may be the product of the consumerism of capitalism. We may discuss modern cultural character briefly in the promotion of mega-churches. Eddie Gibbs, Winning Them Back: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity, Kent, Monarch, 1993, pp. 173-75, argued for a profound difference between North America and Europe in regard to the promotion of religion (especially Christianity). He suggests that American churches had to be "seeker sensitive" in order to compete with other churches under the circumstances of pluralism and consumerism. However, in the churches of Europe, in which people are born and raised, clan religion has been the predominant basis of church allegiance. Europeans regard religious entrepreneurs with suspicion and prove to be much more sales-resistant.

[18]          Many people today still evaluate success by the size of the apartment or car people own. This kind of mentality affected the mind of Korean pastors. They ministered hard with the idea that great growth means a successful ministry. Kim Byông-sô points out that many Korean pastors saw the growth of the church as the gift of the Holy Spirit; Han’guk Sahoe-wa Kaesingyo, The Korean Society and Christianity, Seoul, Hannul Academy, 1995, p. 80.

[19]          Yi, Wôn-gyu, Han’guk Kyohoe-ui Hyônsil-kwa Chônman, The Reality and Prospect of the Korean Church, Seoul, Sôngsô Yôngu (Bible Study) Press, 1994, pp. 180-201.

[20]          Martin, David, Tongues of Fire. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1990, p. 143.

[21]          Ritzer, George, op. cit. p. 83.

[22]          Berger, Peter L., The Sacred Canopy, New York, Doubleday, 1967, p. 138.

[23]          Drane, John, op. cit. p. 44.

[24]          Poloma, Margaret M., op. cit., p. 122.

[25]          Ritzer, George, op. cit., 1996.

[26]          Marshall, Peter G., The Modernisation and Post-modernisation of Ecclesiology, The Doctrine of the Church in the Contexts of Modernity and Post-modernity With Regard to the Classical Modernizing Theories, and Their Post-modernizing Extensions of Differentiation, Rationalisation and Commodification. M.Phil thesis. Belfast, Queen’s University, 1998, p. 107.

[27]          E.g., Porter, L.W. and Lawler, E.E., "Properties of organization structure in relation to job attitudes and job behaviour", Psychological Bulletin, 1965, 64, pp. 23-51.

[28]          Indik, B.P., "Organizational size and member participation, some empirical tests of alternative explanations", Human Relations, 1965, 18, pp. 339-350.

[29]          Stark, Werner, "The routinization of charisma, a consideration of Catholicism", Sociological Analysis, 1965, 26(4), (Winter), pp 203-11.

[30]          Ritzer, George, op. cit., 1996.

[31]          Sugden, Chris, Seeking the Asian Face of Jesus, Oxford, Regnum, 1997, p. 385.

[32]          Marshall, Peter G., op. cit., p. 106.

[33]          Samuel, Vinay, "Reflections on Dr. Robert Schuller's response to Q. Schultze", Transformation, 9(4), 1992, p. 7.

[34]          Wacker, Grant, "Searching for Eden with a Satellite Dish, Primitivism, Pragmatism, and the Pentecostal Character", The Primitive Church in the Modern World, Hughes, Richard, ed., Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1995, pp. 139-66.

[35]          Ritzer, George, op. cit.

[36]          Inglehart, Ronald, Modernisation and Postmodernization, Cultural Economic and Political Change in 43 Societies, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 80.

[37]          Clarke, Peter B., New Religious Movements, Canterbury, the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Kent, 1984.

[38]          Ibid., p. 17.

[39]          Cf. Wallis, R., "Charisma, Commitment, and Control in a New Religious Movement", in R. Wallis, ed., Millennialism and Charisma, Belfast, The Queen’s University, 1982.

[40]          Bryman, Alan, Charisma & Leadership in Organisations, London, Sage, 1992.

[41]          Cf. Friedrich, C.J., "Political leadership and the problem of charismatic power", Journal of Politics, 1961, 23, pp. 3-24.

[42]          Loewenstein, K., Max Weber's Political Ideas in the Perspective of Our Time, Amherst, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1966.

[43]          Friedrich, C.J., op. cit., pp.3-24.

[44]          Loewenstein, K, op. cit.

[45]          Tucker, R.C., "The theory of charismatic leadership", Daedalus, 1968, 96, pp. 731-756.

[46]          Ibid.

[47]          Poloma, Margaret M., op. cit., 1989, p. 9.

[48]          Giddens, Anthony, The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1990.

[49]          Giddens, Anthony, Modernity and Self-identity, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1991, p.195.

[50]          cf. Berger, Peter L. "The desecularization of the world: a global overview", op. cit., pp. 7-11.; Clarke, Peter B., op. cit., pp. 18-19.

[51]          Clarke, Peter B., op. cit., p. 19.

[52]          Hong, Young-gi, Dynamism and Dilemma: op. cit., p. 59.

[53]          James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York, Collier Books, 1902.

[54]          Miller, David E., Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1997.

[55]          Poloma, M.M., and Pendleton, B.F., Religiosity and Well-Being, Exploring Neglected Dimensions of Quality of Life Research, Lewiston, NY, Edwin Mellen, 1989.

[56]          Here, charismatic means a Pentecostal style that is open to religious experience and the work of the Holy Spirit.

[57]          Poloma, Margaret M., op. cit., p 8.

[58]          Kelly, Dean M., Why Conservative Churches are Growing, New York, Harper & Row, 1977, p. 119.

[59]          Kelly, Dean M., "Why conservative churches are still growing", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 17, 1978, pp. 165-72.

[60]          Tamney, J.B. and Johnson, S.D., "The popularity of strict churches", Review of Religious Research, 39(3), 1998, pp. 209-23.

[61]          Kanter, Rosabeth, Commitment and Community, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1976.

[62]          Finke, Roger and Stark, Rodney, The Churching of America 1776-1990 (4th printing), New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2000, pp. 252-255.

[63]          Hunter, James D., “What is modernity? Historical roots and contemporary features”, op. cit., pp. 22-23.

[64]          Brouwer, Steve, Gilford, Paul, and Rose, Susan, Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundementalism. New York and London, Routledge, 1996, p.116.

[65]          Hong, Young-gi, “Nominalism in Korean Protestantism”, Transformation: An International Dialogue on Mission and Ethics, 16(4), 1999, pp. 136-141; Hong, Young-gi, “Revisiting church growth in Korean Protestantism: a theological reflection”, International Review of Mission, April 2000, pp. 190-202.

[66]          E.g. Hong, Young-gi, “The Charisma of Cho Yong-gi and Its Routinization in the Yoido Full Gospel Church of Korea”, Asian Journal of Mission, 2(1), 2000, pp.85-90.

[67]          Poloma, Margaret M., op cit., 1989, p.232.

[68]          Yamane, David, "Secularization on Trial: In Defense of a Neosecularization Paradigm", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(1), 1997, pp. 109-122.

[69]          The technological surroundings in modern culture encourage a religiosity that has little or no interest in organized religion. An electronic church of the modern age may promote self-centred religiosity, and Korean mega-churches are no exception. Where technology gains a religious character in the worship of mega-churches, it becomes a great threat to the spirituality of the church. Services broadcast via the Internet may easily undermine some key purposes of worship: commitment to God and the spirit of the worshipping community. Technological progress may erode religious social controls in the Korean mega-churches. For instance, the Internet service allows members to "attend" worship on their own. Many anonymous or uncommitted attenders may therefore be tempted to attend the service through this method and thus never go to the sanctuary.

[70]          Hong, Young-gi, “Nominalism in Korean Protestantism”, op. cit., pp. 136-141.

[71]          Finke, Roger and Stark, Rodney, op. cit., p. 275.

[72]          It is likely that the number of Korean mega-churches will decrease in the future, while the number of large churches may continue to increase. The change of social structure and growing disintegration of Korean business conglomerates in Korean society are very likely to influence the future of the Korean mega-church model.


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