Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

Revs. Yoon Chul-jong of Want-to-Revisit Church, from left, An Nam-ki of Springing Fountain Church and Kim Hak-beom of Gimpo Myungsung Church pose at the entrance of the Co+Worship Station, Wednesday, where up to nine churches from seven different denominations hold services sharing one hall in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Park Ji-won

At the end of the 19 century, Christianity was something to be eradicated by the Confucian Joseon Kingdom and therefore many believers, priests and pastors were persecuted for their commitment to the teachings of Christ following the establishment of the peninsula’s first Protestant church in 1883.

Compared to then, things are now much different. As of 2015, the number of Protestants topped other religious believers with 9.6 million adherents, followed by 7.6 million Buddhists and 3.8 million Catholics, according to Statistics Korea. The data show that the Protestant congregation has grown the fastest.

Some of the churches had contributed to shaping modern Korean history by saving lives of Korean War-hit citizens and fighting against various authoritarian regimes. Over the years, the Protestant church has ceased to be a minority one to become the No. 1 religious force in the country. Pastors have been expanding the size of the church with the “belief” that having a large chapel and many believers is a symbol of a capable pastor, who is thus better at spreading the word of the gospels.

In the process, some churches became megachurches; in 1993, the Yoido Full Gospel Church had 700,000 worshipers and was recorded by Guinness World Records as the largest congregation in the world. But as their size expanded, some of them became embroiled in corruption and nepotism with in-family corporate-like succession and embezzlement tarnishing their image.

Recently, due to the series of financial and succession scandals alongside COVID-19 infection clusters that occurred within churches early in the pandemic, Koreans have begun to lose faith in Protestantism with a January survey showing just 21 percent of people here saying they trusted the church.

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

Rev. Kim Hak-beom, pastor of Gimpo Myungsung Church, poses during an interview with The Korea Times at the Co+Worship Station in Gimpo, Wednesday, where up to nine churches from seven different denominations hold services sharing one hall in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Rev. Kim Hak-beom, pastor of Gimpo Myungsung Church, which split from the mega-Myungsung Church and has a congregation of over 100,000, feels regret about the situation within the church community which now appears to prioritize ownership of real estate or bolstering cash reserves rather than promoting the values of Christianity. He thinks the core value of the religion lies in sharing what we have with others.

Facing a spiritual deadlock in spreading the gospel, and hoping that he could give a wakeup call to the church community, he decided to sell off all of his church’s property, which he had been managing since 1999, to found the “+assist Mission,” a religious organization in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, which began running the “Co+Worship Station” in November 2019.

The “Co+Worship Station” is a membership-based shared worshiping hall and gathering space ― similar to a co-working space ― that registered churches can use for services. He founded the facility aiming to incubate new and financially struggling churches so that they could settle and grow.

“The worship hall should function as a place to hold church or worship services. But in the flow of capitalism in Korea, the church has also been polarized and “capitalized,” prioritizing the ownership of chapels rather than sharing them, and Confucianism played a certain role in shaping this concept,” Kim said during an interview with The Korea Times at the Co+Worship Station in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday.

“I hope this space can halt the negative trend so that the Christian community can be reset and focus on the essence and nature of Christianity which is to share. I wanted to create a modern worship place with all the bells and whistles inspired by Japan’s hostel system so that everyone can appreciate the efficiency and the beauty of the space.”

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

The worship hall of the Co+Worship Station where up to nine churches from seven different denominations hold services, sharing one hall in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, is seen Wednesday. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

A prayer room for a single person at the Co+Worship Station where up to nine churches from seven different denominations hold church services, sharing one hall in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, is seen Wednesday. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

As of Sept. 15, nine churches from seven denominations share the space. The hall located on the 7th floor can house up to 80 people and has a podium, seats, offices for believers and pastors, computers, and a prayer room for a single person. Member churches can use it for a one-and-a-half hour service on Sundays and another of the same duration on weekdays. On the sixth floor is an exhibition space and a gathering area for congregants.

There are no specific restrictions in joining the church membership, according to Kim. The organization only considers whether an applicant church can coexist with the other churches.

At the beginning of the membership operation, a member church was asked to pay 100,000 won ($85) per month and was able to use the hall for two hours. But after selling the Gimpo Myungsung Church building, and as member churches grew, it was decided to raise the fee to 300,000 won and cut the time each could use the facility so as to accept more churches and reduce the burden on the organization filling the shortfall in the rent.

As previous churches were known for settling in a specific region, this was a first in the “church community” and considered a trendsetter in creating co-worshipping spaces in the COVID-19 hit country. The shared space soon became popular. When the organization first opened, there were six churches led by acquaintances of Kim; but after it made headlines in various religious news publications, it expanded to nine.

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

A sign for the Co+Worship Station where nine churches from seven different denominations hold services in a shared hall in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

A wood carving of Jesus on the Cross at the Co+Worship Station where nine churches from seven different denominations hold services in a shared hall in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Thanks to the growing number of members, the organization was able to open a second hall in Gimpo in December 2020 which houses five churches, and a third in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province in July that houses six.

Churches are not necessarily from the region. Among the nine using the first hall, two are from the Gimpo area, while the others are from other regions. At the second hall in Gimpo, one of the five churches ― the Gimpo Myungsung Church ― is a pre-existing local church while the other four are new churches opened since the co-worship premises were established. At the third, four out of six are existing churches in Suwon and two are newly established.

Many of the churches have only around 20 believers on average, and participate in the combined worship place for various reasons, among which is its convenience for starting a new church.

“This place motivated me to start anew,” Rev. An Nam-ki of the Springing Fountain Church said. He had served as an Army pastor for two decades and started a church in Gimpo right before joining the group.

“I am a shy person. Before I decided to join this membership, I was in the middle of a church fight in my previous church. I was on the verge of making a decision whether to fight or compromise there to make money or to leave because I was not confident about being independent and lacked abilities as well. But I read about this space in the newspaper and found the courage to make contact. As soon as I visited here, it didn’t take long to decide to become a member, and I was able to leave the former church without a struggle.”

Not only did the space lift the financial burden from churches, but also the cohabitation created unexpected synergy. In general the various congregants don’t attend each other’s services ― they belong to different churches and denominations ― but they celebrate major religious events such as Easter together.

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

Pastors and congregants from different churches gather to celebrate a new church joining the Co+Worship Station at the hall in Gimpo in this undated photo. Courtesy of Rev. Yoon Chul-jong of the Want-to-Revisit Church

Nine pastors also hold a joint Wednesday preaching session, led by each on a weekly rotation, which is open to members of all the churches operating under the same roof. Whenever a new church joins, members from all the different churches gather and celebrate the membership together.

“Some believers, who are members of a church outside of this organization, also participate in services here on a different schedule than that of their primary church,” Kim said.

For pastors, having co-workers who can share the burden of managing the worship hall and pastoral duties, is unexpectedly helpful, adding diversity, they said.

“The cost-efficiency of church facilities is basically very bad. We have to pay a lot of money for renting the space which is not used during most weekdays,” said Rev. Yoon Chul-jong of the Want-to-Revisit Church.

“But sharing the space reduces fixed costs and creates more time for pastors who used to spend time managing money and space. It helps me to focus more on my pastoral duties, the essence of my job. I am also inspired by other pastors while talking to them and listening to their sermons, which is very rare for a pastor. We also join with each other in singing hymns. I often feel healed by the diversity of the pastors.”

“It is less tiring to take on a rotating roster with other pastors rather than doing 10 sermons a week. I feel I am spiritually more prepared than before,” An said.

Co-worshiping: Churches share worship hall amid pandemic

From left, Rev. Kim Hak-beom of the Gimpo Myungsung Church, Yoon Chul-jong of the Want-to-Revisit Church and An Nam-ki of the Springing Fountain Church pose at the Co+Worship Station where nine churches from seven different denominations hold church services, sharing one hall in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Backlash from churches

However, Rev. Kim faced criticism as his actions were considered a breach of established “church rules” in Korea. Depending on the denomination, church byelaws ban the establishment of halls of worship within 200 to 500 meters of an existing one. As some of the member churches using the halls are of the “same” denomination, critics say the co-worship space violates these.

“Many conservative Christians criticize me for running this space. Almost half of the congregants of my original church, 60 people, also opposed the idea and left the church when I founded this facility. But, verses in the Bible come to mind such as, ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.’ I just followed the Bible,” Kim said.

Even though Rev. Kim didn’t mean to help churches through the pandemic ― as he started the program earlier than the outbreak ― ironically, the COVID-19 situation helped the plan to come to fruition.

“Although they said it was against church law, I was ready to fight against the backlash from the church community. But after the pandemic, many small churches were about to disappear due to financial difficulties. So it was better for them to embrace our facility than letting them shut down. Also, many newspapers supported the idea after the pandemic and it became harder for high-ranking officials of various opposing church denominations to criticize the co-sharing concept.”

Kim added that when joining, many churches were worried about not taking the prime time for church services, which is 11:00 a.m., but as the government has imposed regulations banning churches from gatherings, allowing only 19 believers to gather in the chapel, this sentiment disappeared.

The pastors say the co-worship space has created a new form of church and a new reality which can help churches to focus more on the gospel and pastoral duties as well as exercise one of the gospel’s key messages, sharing.

“It is a group of small churches, but functions like a big church with many assistant pastors … Pastors are good at welcoming new people but bad at leaving someone or a place because they are used to owning something. But in this space, I continue to learn how to leave and share and therefore to be liberated,” Yoon said.

“To some extent, it is inconvenient to use a co-working space. But it is convenient and efficient when a certain consensus is reached. As Korea’s economy grew the church community also matured. It is time to change church rules based on the new reality where people share everything,” Kim said.

“I give sermons in front of 10 people in the real world, but as it is streamed online at the same time, I consider myself as if speaking in front of 10,000 people and the whole Korean church. It is the contactless age. I think the paradigm for ministry has changed,” An said.

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