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Why do Sunday services continue service despite coronavirus spread?

Critics say some smaller churches press on for financial reasons

River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, shut down on March 9. The government has confirmed at least 66 coronavirus cases linked to the church’s Sunday service. (Yonhap)
River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, shut down on March 9. The government has confirmed at least 66 coronavirus cases linked to the church’s Sunday service. (Yonhap)

As cluster infections of the novel coronavirus among those attending church worship services increase in Korea, public concerns about the issue are also on the rise.

This week saw at least 66 coronavirus cases related to River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

In response to rising concerns, the government of Gyeonggi Province on Tuesday issued an administrative order that imposes strict conditions on church worship services. The Gyeonggi Province government started enforcing seven requirements for worship services at 137 churches from Tuesday to March 29. These requirements include churches providing lists of people attending worship services and their phone numbers, in addition to observing usual precautionary measures.

Churches caught violating the guidelines face an outright ban on offline services or a fine.

However, the Health Ministry remains careful about forcing all churches to stop holding worship services due to concerns about the issue of religious freedom.

“When violating the fundamental rights of the people, it should be dealt with carefully while weighing the benefits that can be obtained,” Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip said during a press briefing Wednesday.

Historic, theological background to pressing on with service?

Despite the government’s repeated urging to suspend holding worship services as the country fights the spread of the highly contagious respiratory illness, some experts say it is a decision hard for some churches to make.

“There are some churches that are very conservative about canceling the worship service, mainly due to historic reasons,” Secretary-General of the Communion of Churches in Korea the Rev. Choi Gui-soo told The Korea Herald. “Those people say even at difficult times like when the country was a Japanese colony or during the Korean War which broke out on June 25, 1950, the churches still held worship services, and they see the current situation in a similar view.”

Ahn Kyo-sung, a historical theology professor of Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary, explains such arguments by conservative Christians in an article published by local Christian news outlet the Kidok Kong Bo in Korea.

Arguing that it is not right to apply the same paradigm to the current situation, Ahn said, “The current situation has to be considered based on catastrophe paradigm, not persecution. Holding worship services is not just a religious act as it can lead to the spread of the disaster and may become uncontrollable.”

Those who agree with Ahn also point out that Korean churches and their followers’ religious activities have largely relied on pastors continuing to preach.

“Part of the reason why they became more reliant on the pastors is that for churches, it is much easier to control its members that way and also to grow its size. This has to change,” the Rev. Lee Hun-joo told The Korea Herald. Lee is secretary-general of Protest 2002, a Protestant Church reform group.

Concerning claims that theologically it is important for the faithful to gather and hold worship service, especially in difficult times, as stated in the Bible, Rev. Lee says the Bible also points out not to solely focus on physical gathering.

“I am not saying that the Bible says offline Sunday worship is not important. (Theologically speaking,) churches should adjust to different situations of society. Holding online worship in special circumstances like now is also following the words of the Bible.”

Small church dilemma

River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam said it was difficult to hold its worship service through a YouTube livestream like megachurches because its pastor and congregation are more elderly and do not know how to operate the online system. It added that small churches do not have sufficient infrastructure to hold worship services online.

The Rev. Choi, however, said this is not the main problem.

“These days, there are diverse means like Christian TV channels and radio stations that small churches can use to continue their worship service for a few weeks,” he said. “The more critical problem is the rent that the small churches have to pay. Unlike megachurches, small churches usually do not have their own buildings. If they skip two to three weeks of service and no offerings are collected, many of them cannot pay the rent.”

He also added that the government should consider small churches like small business operators and prepare some sort of assistance instead of just pushing them to stop holding offline worship services.

Nonetheless, the Rev. Lee says “Although I feel pity about small churches’ financial difficulties, I think that the current situation is part of the process and opportunity for Korean churches to move forward and stop focusing too much on physical space for worship.”

What next?

Meanwhile, there are also concerns over conflicts that might arise among different religious groups to which churches belong after the current chaos comes to an end.

“Historically, after the hard time ends, churches’ different religious bodies had serious conflicts,” Choi said. “We expect conservative churches to point fingers at those who gave up the worship service. This can be a bigger problem for the Christian community, so we do worry about such situation unfolding.”

Lee predicted even bigger changes in Korean churches, including the gradual demise of conservative churches.

“This will show which churches have conservative values and cannot adjust to modern society,” Lee said. “Young people will not agree with this and not attend those churches. We expect that through this process churches with old values, mostly with elderly members, will gradually disappear.” 

By Song Seung-hyun(