Korean churches lose young congregants, who view religion as irrelevant

When asked about their favorite pastime, most students at Hanguk University mentioned spending time with friends. Unlike their parents, a majority of young South Koreans don't have a religious affiliation. (Ashley Vazquez/GroundTruth)

SEOUL — Like many of Korea’s formerly religious youth, Ryoo Eunseo didn’t make a conscious choice to leave the Protestant church; it just became less and less significant.

“God is invisible,” she says. “There are real things that I want to do with my life, and I don’t have time to sit and talk to a man in the sky.”

Ryoo dreams of becoming a makeup artist, but she felt pressured to study English interpretation, a career that her parents deemed more sensible.

“I worship makeup,” she says. Her wavy, caramel-colored hair and bold red overcoat made her stand out in a sea of college students wearing jeans and hoodies. Ryoo rises early in the morning to get started on her beauty routine, which takes two hours and includes over thirty different products. Growing up, she went to church multiple times a week, but now, she has no time for God.

Protestant Christianity once flourished in South Korea, providing hope and stability to people as they recovered from the trauma of the Korean War. Dubbed the religion of modern and affluent Americans, Christianity was seen as a way forward. In 1945, only two percent of Koreans were Christian; today, it’s about a third of Koreans identify as Christians. But the dozens of glowing neon crosses in Seoul’s skyline fail to attract young people, who think Christianity is outdated and unable to keep pace with today’s Korea.

A Gallup Korea poll shows that in 2015, 69 percent of Koreans in their twenties had no religious beliefs. This is up from 55 percent of people in their twenties expressing no religious beliefs in 2005.

Lim doesn’t believe in God, Jesus, or any religion, but he wears his Christian grandfather’s cross as a good luck charm. (Ashley Vazquez/GroundTruth)
Lim doesn’t believe in God, Jesus, or any religion, but he wears his Christian grandfather’s cross as a good luck charm. (Ashley Vazquez/GroundTruth)

There are many reasons for this decline. According to experts and books written on the topic, young people struggle to keep up with a demanding education system, a competitive job market, and a society obsessed with staying ahead of the latest trends. Many have a voracious appetite for the newest thing, and Christianity, with its emphasis on ritual and tradition, is just too old.

“There’s so many other things to do. Going to church is boring,” Ryoo says. She prefers to spend her rare free weekends watching Korean TV dramas and listening to K-Pop bands.

Twentysomethings have lots of options for entertainment, with fifteen-story department stores, shopping districts that remain open all night, and the call of a nightlife with clubs packed even at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday.

But there’s not enough time to do it all. Many university students typically spend six hours per day studying in addition to their classes. Yan Seok, a freshman law student, stopped going to church as soon as school started. “I don’t have a lot of free time and I couldn’t find any personal benefit to doing religious activities,” he says.

Some young people turn away from Protestantism because they find Korean churches problematic. In 2014, Yoido Full Gospel Church, the world’s largest megachurch, came under fire when their pastor, Yong-gi Cho was convicted of embezzling $12 million in church funds.

Since then, Korean megachurches have been scrutinized by the press, particularly regarding church succession. Some retiring pastors have tried to pass the mantle to their sons. This nepotism and lack of transparency makes Koreans uncomfortable, says Sung Gun Kim, a professor of sociology at Seowon University.

“My mom attends a megachurch. When a church is that big, it’s really difficult for me to believe that they’re not just doing it to get rich,” says Steven Jeung, a student at Hanguk University.

Some young people also think that Korean churches are out of step with today’s social issues. In 2013, hundreds of Koreans showed up to support the country’s first public gay wedding.

“We rented the loudspeaker that was used for the presidential inauguration, so everyone could hear our voices, but no one could hear the Christian groups’ voices,” says Kim Seung-hwan, who exchanged vows with his partner at that first public ceremony.

The churches’ views on these issues can make it difficult for young people to feel at home. “My best friend is gay, and the pastor at my parents’ church always says that being gay is a sin,” says Lee Min, a student at Hanguk University.

He was so uncomfortable going to church that he stopped calling himself a Christian. “When I tried to speak to my parents about it, they got mad at me because they said I’m questioning God, and that’s a sin.”

The Rev. Bora Lim is lead pastor at Korea’s first LGBT affirming church, the Presbyterian Hyanglin Seomdol congregation in Seoul. Lim is working with a group of progressive Korean pastors to translate “The Queer Bible Commentary” into Korean. “I want to reverse the damage caused by the persistent myth that you can’t be a Christian and support LGBTQ people,” she says.

Many of Korea’s older churches are also embedded with rigid Confucian rules about how young people should relate to their elders, how women should relate to men, and how lay people should relate to pastors. This doesn’t sit well with young people who want to create a more egalitarian and modern Korea.

“I don’t like hierarchy. There’s hierarchy in companies, there’s hierarchy in the military; I don’t want more hierarchy in my church,” says Min Jo-hun, who is currently completing his mandatory military service.

As more young Koreans leave the country to study abroad, they may realize that churches in other countries do things little bit differently. When Nanah Jeon lived in the United States, she attended American churches, where she felt free to interact with the pastors. After she returned to South Korea, she couldn’t get used to being in a congregation where the pastor was a distant figure.

She now works at Jubilee Church, the first of Korea’s international churches. This church holds worship services in English, brings K-Pop stars to sing at Sunday worship, and operates without the hierarchy of Korean churches.

Jubilee Church tries to distinguish itself from Korean congregations by holding Bible studies that encourage the free exchange of ideas and interpretations of passages. “Here, Bible study is a conversation among equals, not a lecture by the elder,” says the Rev. David Hwang.

Hwang made Jeon’s vision of an American-style church in Korea a reality. “I can talk to the pastors at Jubilee,” she says. “They are my friends. That would never happen in a Korean church.”