Seoul Searching:

Palm Sunday Service at the World’s Largest Church

Yoido
Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul holds the Guinness World Record title for “World’s Largest Church.”

My husband’s first time writing for this blog is inspired by our recent experience on Palm Sunday. Michal will be writing more often to shed insight on our life in Seoul from his perspective.  

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My wife and I have been churchgoers since before we met. In fact, we first met on a Catholic church retreat in East Lansing, Mich.

SJSP
Left: (2006) Our small group on a church retreat when we first met. Right: (2011) We returned to St. John Student Parish in East Lansing, Mich. for our wedding.

I had heard about Korea being a fervently Christian nation despite only 25 percent of the population being Christian and also heard about its mega churches, one of which, Yoido Full Gospel Church, is the largest church in the world with over 800K attending members. So we decided to go an check it out last Sunday.

We got to Yoido-do, an island on the Han River in Seoul, and found parking in a massive lot nearby the park. The church was very well organized and efficient. We quickly found a table for welcoming foreigners and were ushered to our seats inside. The church is a massive egg-shaped stadium. There is a 100-person choir, full orchestra and, luckily for us, a translator who simultaneously fed us the English version of the song lyrics and sermon through earpieces we were wore. The music was incredibly well sung, and it was really nice to hear many familiar hymns sung in Korean.

Yoido Choir
We sat in the upper balcony in a section designated for foreigners/internationals. This is a view of the choir in the lower section of the church after the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

The sermon was moving as well; I really appreciated how culturally authentic it felt as the pastor prayed for the safety of South Korea, that there may be protection from the nuclear weapons of the North. He also made historical references about the Japanese colonization and persecution of Christians.

The sermon related the story of Passover and sacrificial lamb the pastor drew on a comparison that was original to me, just as the Israelites ate a roasted Lamb to gain the strength to start their journey to Israel so we need to eat for the Lord’s work. The food for the Lord’s work is the word of God the Bible, but in order to digest it, that needs to be roasted as well – roasted in the fire of the Spirit and read prayerfully with the Lord in your heart.

The numbers of this church are just staggering.

In all, we sang and prayed about 20 times during the service; it lasted about an hour and a half, maybe shorter. The church seated around 32K with every seat filled. We went to a foreigners’ reception after the service and learned more about the church’s establishment. There are seven services a day with 32K people each and more services every day of the week.

It was also quite easy to perceive that this church was politically influential. At the end of the service, the pastor introduced four members of the Korean National Assembly who attended in the front rows. The church location itself is directly next to the National Assembly, the most powerful organ of the Korean government. With both of these factors, it is undeniable that Christianity has a strong influence on Korean politics.

For a service led in a language I did not understand in a foreign country, the experience felt very familiar.

I think that is one of the beautiful things about religion and Christianity: While we all come from different backgrounds, many of us profess that in the center of our lives there is one thing that is undeniably more important than anything else – our love for Jesus and therefore a love and care for all his creation.

The hymns, though unintelligible until translated, could be heard sung anywhere in America. The sermon, while full of Korean history and unique metaphors, had the core message of seeking the spirit while reading the word of God.

Attending such a massive church was an awe-inspiring experience that I think is necessary for those living or visiting Seoul. I don’t think I will become a regular member because there are excellent churches closer to my home in Hannam-dong, but from what I can tell, becoming a regular would be a fulfilling experience.

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Read more about Michal here.

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Starting Over in Seoul: Plans vs. Steps

Cheonggyecheon Stream
While walking along the Cheonggyecheon Stream in the center of Seoul,  we stumbled upon a Thai festival at the end of August.

Proverbs 16:9 – The human heart plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.

Home is where the heart is.

These two idioms about the heart illustrate the tug-of-war between what I thought would happen after the B-school experience and what actually ended up happening.

MSU vs UofM
Celebrating a win for our Spartans at a bar in Chicago (2010)

My husband Michal and I are proud Midwesterners: We point to our hand to describe where we’re from, we follow Big 10 college sports religiously, we play cornhole at tailgates (not bags), and we drink pop (not soda). After meeting and graduating from MSU (Go Green!) in 2008, we moved to work in the nearest big city – Chicago – and lived there for five years. After getting married in 2011, we started to seriously contemplate next steps in our relationship and in our lives in general: Career change? Buy a house? Have a child?

In 2013, we eventually opted for career change, which meant I left the world of teaching high school English and journalism – burnt out and not sure what to do next – while Michal knew he wanted to do his MBA. Darden at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (about three hours south of Washington D.C.) became our home for two years. I loved blogging and working with students at the Women’s Center at U.Va., while Michal gained valuable experiences with Darden ranging from studying abroad to consulting for local start-ups.

Foxfield
All decked out for the legendary Foxfield horse race in Charlottesville (2015)

Living in Cville was a bit of a culture shock in a way. We weren’t used to dressing up for football games (“girls in pearls and guys in ties”), nor were we used to spending our leisure time at wineries, polo games and horse races. We enjoyed our time creating a new community of friends, but looked forward to returning to our families and long-time friends in metro Detroit. For years, we defended our hometown area vehemently to all the haters (it’s more than just 8 Mile and a declining car industry). Both of our families urged us to consider moving back. And after four years of marriage, everyone essentially asked, “Wasn’t it about time for us to have the stereotypical American dream of a white picket fenced house in the suburbs with children?” Home is where the heart is, as they say. And our hearts were in the Mitten State.

However, Proverbs 16:9 held true as the plans in our hearts did not quite turn out the way we intended because the Lord knew better: We’ve now started to make a home in Seoul – farther than we had ever originally imagined living post-MBA.

Jjimjilbang
After years of visiting the Korean spa in Chicago, I finally learned how to properly wear a towel in Seoul at the Yongsan Dragonhill Spa/Sauna (aka jjimjilbang) in Seoul.

As we surveyed our options during second year of B-school, Seoul looked better and better. Truthfully, there weren’t very many career opportunities for either of us back in Metro Detroit. And we’ve always enjoyed traveling – before we met, as individuals with friends and family (because of our international backgrounds) and after we met, as a couple (having visited 12 countries together in our marriage alone). So the chance to live abroad for a few years and take advantage of the ease of visiting nearby countries in Asia seemed too good to pass up.

We’ve been in Seoul for about two months now. We started to learn Korean, we moved into a new apartment, we’ve started our jobs. But we’ve still got a ways to go before we can officially call Seoul our home.

Join me in my journey with this blog as I figure out my next steps in Seoul…