Megachurches/Microchurches: Politics of Scale, Space, and Growth in Seoul

I’ve written up a short project description for my bit in the Urban aspirations in Seoul: Religion and megacities in comparative studies project. It’s based on the field research I began last winter, and describes some of the questions I’ll be pursuing over the next couple of years. The Seoul project is supported by a five-year collaborative grant from the Academy of Korean Studies, and led by a team through the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Germany.

Proposed Sarang Church
While Seoul boasts numerous megachurches that are spectacular in size and phenomenal in wealth, the majority of churches in contrast remain small to moderate in size and financially insecure. Such polarization between corporate megachurches and precarious microchurches reflects not only divergent political theologies but also South Korea’s rising inequality. The contrast is both scalar and spatial—intimate congregations of twenty churchgoers worship in the same neighborhood as megachurches that draw tens of thousands and paralyze local traffic on Sundays. Wealthy land-owning churches build megastructures complete with parking lots and restaurants, while small tenant churches rent basements and rooftops and face eviction and displacement when the area is redeveloped. The first set of research questions thus concerns how the scale of church growth reflects the orientation of aspirations at work. Do some churches simply lack ambition to grow? Is growth always equated with success? How do churchgoers choose between anonymous experiences of resource-rich megachurches and intimate fellowship in resource-poor churches? What do we make of this uneven geography of variegated aspirations?

A storefront church
The contrast also suggests a politics of space and location. Certainly, not all megachurches remain indifferent to local needs, and not all small churches are rooted in the local community, but no doubt they occupy different social locations in the city. While megachurches may hire a fleet of shuttle buses on Sundays to round up congregants located throughout the city, small grassroots churches offer daily childcare for local residents and feed the indigent on a regular basis. Further, church construction is both profitable and risky — new megachurch constructions can wipe out dozens of struggling churches nearby, and bankruptcy and foreclosure are a real possibility when church coffers are emptied and recruitment goals are not met. The second set of questions thus concerns how the space of church growth implicates competing and contested aspirations. How do churches extend their reach across time and space? In what ways are churches embedded in the locality, and how do they shape the urban landscape? How does religious infrastructure interact with urban (re)development? What kind of neighbour does a church make?

For both sets of questions—scale and space—I plan to combine geospatial analysis of church growth (and failure) patterns with fine-grained ethnographies of religious ecologies, considering how religious aspirations take place in the historical geography of Seoul’s volatile real estate market. As such, religious beliefs and practices as well as the political economic dynamics of urban (re)development and capital accumulation—including forced displacement and violent dispossession—will be examined as essential parts of the urban ecology of religion in Seoul.