A review of Le «pentecôtiste coréen» à l’épreuve de la transnationalisation: Le cas de l’église du Plein évangile de Cho Yonggi (“Korean Pentecostalism” Facing Transnationalization: A Case Study of Cho Yonggi’s Full Gospel Church), by Kim Hui-yeon.
This EHESS dissertation, defended on December 13 2011, is a sociological study of the well-known Full Gospel Church (Sunbogeum Gyohoe 순복음 교회) founded by Cho Yonggi 조용기 (1936- ) in 1958. While there is a body of literature on this Church, originally a small congregation affiliated with the Assemblies of God but which then developed into a full-fledged church, the largest in Korea, Kim Hui-yeon’s dissertation brings entirely new light by looking at it from the perspective of branches in Europe and Southeast Asia. It is build upon a multi-site ethnography of the activities and internal dynamics of the Church’s branches in Paris, London and Berlin, as well as data (mostly obtained through interviews) on the branch in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia. Much of the dissertation’s new insights come from contrasting the official discourse of the Church’s central organization in Yoido 여의도, Seoul and the reality on the ground in those peripheral branches, thus offering an interpretation of what the discourse of global mission really means within large international churches such as the one led by Cho Yonggi.
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The first part of the dissertation offers a clear, well-documented survey of the history of the church, well informed by participant observation: it formulates, in the case of the Full Gospel Church, what a number of scholars have identified as a general transition still in process between “classical Pentecostalism” (where cures and miracles, and the prosperity gospel are foregrounded in the church’s activities) to “neo-Pentecostalism” (where social work takes precedence). Pastor Cho’s own retreat from charismatic healing, and his growing focus on bringing his mission throughout the world are two major markers of this evolution. The hyper-mediatized international presence of Pastor Cho is constantly shown on screen to the parishioners in Seoul.
Yet the second part of Kim’s dissertation, which shifts the focus towards European branches, provides a rather different picture. The three branches under study are all different, in ways that are clearly explained, linked to the specificities of Korean migration in each of the three countries (France, United Kingdom and Germany). Yet, they also share commonalities, which Kim encapsulates as their all being ethnic churches, emphasizing “Korean-ness” in all possible manners (languages, clothing, food, etc). For instance, the Paris branch is housed in a church building run by a French Pentecostal pastor very keen on creating links between various ethnic churches (many of them African) — a move that seems to fail repeatedly to elicit much interest among the Korean congregants. Part of this situation can be explained by the organizational features of the church which, much like a multinational company, requires its pastors and leaders to have some sort of international experience and thus they are sent to officiate in foreign countries on three-year assignments, before promoting them to higher-ranking posts in the central organization. Such pastors assigned to Paris, London, Berlin or anywhere else have little incentive, time and training to learn the language and reach out to the local population. As a result, these branches, far from being outposts of Pastor Cho’s gospel to humanity, are self-contained Korean enclaves in foreign worlds.
The stark difference between the church as lived by its members in Europe and in Seoul thus hinges on several aspects ; presented as fully engaged in evangelism in Seoul, it actually eschews proselytizing in Europe (even, to some degree, among Korean migrants), even though believers in Europe are proud of Pastor Cho’s global status and echo his discourse about a global mission — and even his ambitious project to send Europe-based believers to go and convert people in Africa.
Furthermore, the theology and church activities in European branches seem to be closer to those of the Yoido head church a generation ago. The prosperity gospel is still very appealing to middle- and lower-class Korean congregants in Europe, whereas it has already outlived its function in affluent Seoul. In other words, within a well-integrated and centralized global Pentecostal church, one can simultaneously witness “classical Pentecostalism” in the periphery and “neo-Pentecostalism” in the center. Kim Hui-yeon shows excellently through vignettes derived from her very perceptive ethnography how these differences are rhetorically papered over or simply brushed away.
Finally, Part 3 of the dissertation brings one more twist to the story, by introducing one more, and a very different scenario: that of Southeast Asia, viewed from the case study of Cambodia. The involvement and investment of the Full Gospel Church in Cambodia is markedly different from Europe, and so does the potential for a Korean church to expand, thanks to the strong cultural and political appeal of Korea in this area. Volunteers from Korea regularly visit the Cambodian branch and participate in its numerous charitable and social outreach programs, in contrast to the highly isolated situation of the European branches; both long-term residents and short-term visitors from Korea engage far more with local society than do the pastors posted in Europe. This represents yet another actualization of the model for a global mission much vaunted by Pastor Cho. This, argues Kim Hui-yeon in the last chapter shows that behind the talk of a globalization of religion (both within the church and in academia and popular media), heralded by transnational churches such as the Full Gospel Church, the “Pentecostal market” is actually still quite fragmented, forcing churches to redesign differently their mix of theology and ethnicity in each place where they establish branches.
This well-written dissertation is both rich in fascinating ethnographic descriptions and insightful comparative analysis; it will richly reward not only those readers interested in contemporary Korean culture, religion and migration, but also researchers in sociology of religion and even those investigating transnational organizations more broadly.
Daoism and Chinese Religions
École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), Paris
Ethnographic participant observation on mutiple sites (Seoul, Paris, Berlin, London)
Interviews with leaders and believers
brochures and internal literature (paper, internet) of the Full Gospel Chruch
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). 2011. 296 pp. Dissertation originally written in French. Primary Advisor: Nathalie Luca.
Image: The front entry of Yoido Full Gospel Church by Puzzlet Chung, Wikimedia Commons.