Having been a churchgoer my entire life, I had heard of online church service as an alternative for people who cannot otherwise make it to church. Today, it is no longer an option. Ever since the spread of COVID-19, the online streaming of church or mass services has become the only option. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service, 20.3% of the Korean population is Christian (Protestant), while 6.4% is Catholic as of 2017. Christianity being the dominant religion of South Korea (approximately 28% of the whole population), it is worthwhile to observe how Korean Christians are feeling about such a drastic change in their Sunday routine.
[Chart that shows how a large number of people are Christians
By principle, the Christian church takes meaning in the congregating of believers. “Brothers and sisters,” as they are called among Christians, come together once a week to attend service, listen to sermons, and sing praises or hymnals. In Catholic churches, people gather to attend mass and take part in the Eucharist. In other words, gathering once a week is more than just a ceremony. “I love to hang out with my church friends on Sundays. It’s the one day of the week when we can all catch up, talk about our stressful week, and blow that stress away,” says Hayley Lim, a 32-year-old Christian who attends Jubilee Church, a small international church in Seoul. Unfortunately, her church has also gone cyber for the time being due to the exhortations of the government to temporarily stop large gatherings.
[Screenshot of me interviewing Hayley Lim, who attends Jubilee Church, on Skype.
Families are now huddled in front of their smart TVs or laptops, listening to sermons online and singing hymnals in their living rooms. There seems to be a sort of ambivalence about attending service online. “It feels cozy since I can be with my parents at home during service, and it’s convenient because I don’t have to wake up so early on Sundays anymore,” Lim says, “but it feels awkward to have to sing praise songs in the living room. We can’t sing loudly because we’re afraid our neighbors would be disturbed. I also miss my church friends.” Lim says that because she feels so isolated on Sundays sometimes, she gathers with her friends online via Skype or Zoom to participate in online church service together.
[A family participating in Sunday service at home via Smart TV.
“At first, our church did not have a decent online platform,” said Lim. Because Lim’s church is small, it had never held any online services before. Her church decided to use Facebook Live to stream its service, but due to the lack of equipment, systems, and expertise, the audio and video quality turned out to be less than satisfactory. Moreover, when the church’s Internet connection was unstable, streaming got cut off, and everyone had to deal with the discomfort of waiting for the connection to restabilize. Even pastors had a difficult time because they would sometimes have to “re-preach” certain portions that got cut off by the unstable network.
Despite the difficulties that Lim’s church had in the beginning, she says that the Covid-19 prompted her church to improve its overall system. “COVID-19 has sort of been a blessing in disguise in some ways. Lots of positive changes are taking place,” Lim said. Her church now uses Youtube Live to increase stability and has updated all its cameras and sound devices for a better worship experience.
Priests and pastors have also voiced their opinions on cyber church-going. “ I think it is only right to close religious facilities to contain further spread of the virus. With so many people now being infected, thorough control and isolation are necessary,” said Padre Andrea of Pungsan Catholic Church. The biggest concern that Andrea has for churches is that without physical congregants, the donations collected during services have dropped considerably, leaving churches without a major source of financial support. “It is a difficult time for everyone,” he stressed.
Some churches are now slowly and carefully going back into their routine offline services. In order to practice social distancing, Nam-Seoul Grace Church has decided to accept a limited number of people for Sunday worship via a sign-up sheet. “They’re taking in only 30 people at a time so that people can all keep their social distance during service,” Eun Young Oh, an attendee said. “Our church is being vigilant so that we do not cause a public disturbance in any way.” Although she mentioned that there were some attendees voicing their concerns even about accepting a few people, she thought gradually easing into their regular routine was important.
When discussing the church incident that caused a lot of criticism and scrutiny of the public--a church that did not follow the government’s orders to temporarily cease large gatherings and ultimately led to more spread of the virus--Oh expressed concern. “I hope that these few churches recognize that their actions may be making all Christians look bad.” She hopes that people do not generalize the few incidents to assume that most churches and Christians are irresponsible.
Many of us look to religion in times of crisis. But when hard times keep us from fully exercising freedom of religion, what is the right thing to do? We live in a world where people genuinely care for the good of all other people. Most Christians seem to have chosen to yield their rights for the time being.
Shepherd International Education
Donghoon Shin firstname.lastname@example.org
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