The Rise of Café Churches in South Korea
How corruption scandals are driving young Christians away from megachurches—and conservative politics
The electronic keyboard and acoustic guitar kicked in as the junior minister opened this past Sunday’s service with a public prayer. He spoke in a rapid-fire cadence as the 20 members of the evangelical church tried to keep pace, before rising to recite the Apostle’s Creed, a proclamation of their faith.
This house of worship in central Seoul is one of the tens of thousands of small Protestant chapels across the country that are trying to lure believers away from South Korea’s megachurches. Some, like this one, are doing so by satisfying the longing for a close-knit religious community as well as the craving for a cappuccino.
The church’s name is Jesus Coffee.
“Churches and cafés have the hardest time surviving in Korea,” said Ahn Min-ho, a 42-year-old ordained minister and certified barista. “Combining the two is mutually beneficial.”
South Korea is divided between Buddhists (15.5 percent), Protestants (19.7 percent), Catholics (7.9 percent), and non-believers. Among the large population of Christians, the model of the combined “café church” has taken off in recent years. These grassroots affairs provide a counterpoint to the massive, hierarchical, institutionalized megachurches in a country where many are distrustful of major institutions, both religious and political. Megachurches have lately been implicated in high-profile corruption scandals; the founder of Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, which claims a congregation of nearly 800,000 people and is the largest megachurch in the world, was convicted of embezzling $12 million in church money in 2014. In the political realm, former conservative president Park Geun-hye—whose father once served as president as well—was impeached in March for her alleged masterminding of a vast bribery scandal that has landed her in prison.
Customers at Ahn’s café church can peruse a selection of Christian literature while nursing their lattes, which are about a dollar cheaper than at some of the neighborhood’s big-name franchises. A cross-adorned wooden shed in the corner, marked “Prayer Room,” contains a desk with a Bible on top. The sanctuary is located in a windowless room in the back, behind the espresso machine and industrial-strength coffee grinder.
Ahn told me he welcomes newcomers who, like him, feel Christianity in South Korea has become “too institutionalized.” That seems to be a sentiment shared by many worshipers in their 20s and 30s, who are, according to reports, increasingly leaving their churches amid feelings of disillusionment with organized religion.
And many don’t hold the same political views as older generations.
“Christians over the age of 50 are more likely to vote for the conservatives,” said Ms. Lee, a 40-year-old mother of three who was slowly finishing an iced vanilla latte at Jesus Coffee after the service. “We think differently from them.”
This generational divide mirrors a rift among the general population: According to a recent Gallup poll, ahead of Tuesday’s election most South Koreans aged 60 or older preferred the conservative or centrist politicians who take a hardline policy on North Korea, while voters in their 30s overwhelmingly favored the progressive candidate and care more about clamping down on corruption. Indeed, in a survey conducted by local pollster RealMeter, 27.5 percent of respondents said that a candidate’s “intention to resolve deeply-rooted corruption” was the most crucial quality; by contrast, only 18.5 percent said “protection of national security and liberal democracy” was most important.
Unlike American evangelicals, who have long been considered a coherent voting bloc, Korean “evangelical voters are not a unified bloc, and the voting patterns are complex, but politicians pay attention because many voters are evangelical,” David Halloran Lumsdaine wrote in Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Asia. Survey data about the impact of religion on voting in previous elections is scarce, but interview data suggest that “Christians’ voting responds more to regional than religious affiliations,” Lumsdaine wrote.
Still, South Korean Protestants have long been reliable supporters of the country’s right wing due to a shared political ideology. The prosperity gospel and staunch opposition to communism are staples for many of Korea’s evangelical preachers, which align them with the agenda of pro-business and anti-North Korea politicians.
For the generation of Koreans who remember a time of war and poverty, these messages still resonate, but for those who have come of age in an era of relative peace and wealth, the prosperity gospel “doesn’t have the same magic appeal,” according to Brother Anthony, a longtime observer of South Korea’s religious movements and a member of the Taizé ecumenical monastic community, which counts both Protestants and Catholics.
Thus, in this election, the nation’s fractured conservative establishment cannot count on the Christian vote. Some of South Korea’s Christians were shocked by the Park Geun Hye scandal, which shed light on her relationship with Choi Tae Min, a cult leader who in the 1970s allegedly told the young Park that he could commune with her assassinated mother. That mentorship led to Park’s friendship with his daughter, Choi Soon Sil, who was later given unlawful access to government documents and was accused of extorting millions of dollars in donations from the country’s largest companies.
The latest surveys show that Moon Jae In, a former human rights lawyer and candidate from the progressive Minjoo Party, has a strong lead over his nearest contender, Ahn Cheol Soo, a businessman-turned-politician whose centrist party is expected to pick up some of the conservative vote.
Governor Hong Joon Pyo trails in a distant third place. His party—the ruling party that changed its name to Liberty Korea after Park’s impeachment—has been tarnished by its affiliation with the former leader and will most likely relinquish its stewardship of the presidential Blue House, which it’s held since 2008.
None of the leading candidates is an obvious choice for the religiously devout.
Contrary to their American counterparts, South Korean politicians don’t typically profess their faith or affiliation while on the campaign trail; if they did, they would risk alienating a significant segment of the electorate, said Michael Breen, the author of The New Koreans. “It tends to be a non-issue,” he explained, adding that presidential hopefuls “have to be mindful that they’re trying to become president of all Koreans.”
Breen noted that one exception was former president Lee Myung Bak, who was an elder at a conservative megachurch in Seoul’s Gangnam district. Lee’s opponents often claimed his church had too much influence in his administration.
The conservative Christian Council of Korea, an organization that claims to represent 12 million worshipers, recently issued a statement saying that it will not endorse any particular candidate in this race. But the council did encourage voters to keep “national security” in mind when making their choice.
Brother Anthony noted that in light of the presidential corruption scandal, the misgivings that many young people feel are not exclusively directed toward the political and business elite; they’re also part of the reason why the large Christian denominations are losing congregants.
“Most of these megachurches are bogged down with rows over money and power,” he said. “Why should young people be attracted to that?”
Some pastors’ continued support for the ousted leader and her shattered party doesn’t exactly help win back the more progressively minded faithful, either.
In March, a Korean news site reported that Cho Yong Mok, who heads the Grace and Truth megachurch in Anyang city, dispatched a busload of followers to participate in pro-Park Geun Hye rallies in downtown Seoul. According to a source cited in that report, during a sermon the pastor denounced the allegations against the impeached president as “all lies” and called on “patriots” to pray to God for a miracle. This prompted many of the young congregants to walk out on the pastor.
Some pastors may think they wield more influence over their flock than they actually do, according to a survey conducted last month by the Korean Christian Press Forum. Results show that nearly 80 percent of the 1,028 Christian respondents between ages 19 and 60 answered “no” when asked if their ministers’ sermons impact who they vote for, and 65 percent of those polled indicated that churches should not make political endorsements.
But in an election season that many young voters hope will lead to the curbing of official corruption, even the café churches they frequent have drawn suspicion. Some churches in Seoul have been found to not report profits earned via their coffee shops. Ironically, worries of corruption plague not only the establishment symbols that the youth distrust—from megachurches to the Park family—but also the grassroots movements that have sprung up to counter them.
For his part, Ahn Min Ho, Jesus Coffee’s founding pastor, said he’s paid his taxes and has also stayed away from discussing the election at the pulpit. He added that Christians can “find a balance” between being spiritually conservative and politically progressive, and that social justice and improved economic security are two of the issues that voters will strongly consider on Tuesday.