by Kwon JohngHaeng
The church stood on expensive property in the cultural and economic center of Seoul, home to some 10 million people. The challenge? A profound disconnection between the church and its community. Could a simple, everyday need help bridge the gap?
Jongno, Seoul, South Korea
For many years, the Seoul Central Seventh-day Adventist Church was an island amid a sea of office buildings, shops, and historic landmarks. This large, well-built structure seemed to stand apart from its high-energy neighborhood. It exuded a sense of stillness. Most weeks, the church doors opened just three times: on Sabbaths for worship services, on Tuesdays for prayer meeting, and on Friday evenings for vespers. For the rest of the week, the church stood quiet and unused.
Jongno, the area where Central church is located, is one of the oldest and most celebrated areas of Seoul. In fact, the name of this district has become synonymous in the Korean language with “town square,” a result of Jongno’s 600-year history as the cultural, economic, religious, and political epicenter of the city. Jongno is home to some of the country’s most iconic buildings. There’s the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, along with other shrines, and no fewer than five palaces from past dynasties of Korean rulers.
Today, towering corporate headquarters and busy shopping areas add a 21st-century feel to this ancient town center. Traffic noise dominates the senses, and the sidewalks are filled with office workers, shoppers, and tourists.
What seems like an enviable location, however, has significant drawbacks for a church. Few of the almost 600 people who regularly attend Central church actually live in Jongno; most have to travel from nearby residential districts. In fact, there is very little “community” to speak of in the area immediately surrounding the church.
For a mission-minded church, this location presented a formidable challenge. How could members of a “commuter congregation” be engaged in community outreach? And, even more perplexing, how could they be “salt and light” for Jesus within a transient community of office workers that arrived on weekday mornings and departed again in the evening?
This was a situation that had developed gradually, year by year. For more than a century, this church had occupied an important place in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Seoul, tracing its roots back to one of the first companies of believers established in the city. Through the decades, it had always been an active and engaged congregation, and its central location in a well-known district proved an advantage.
Then, as the demographic makeup of the neighborhood around it began to change—as more offices were built, and more residents left—Central church tried to adapt. It ran evangelistic events, it tried literature distribution, it offered health and wellness programs. Still, the disconnect between community and church continued to grow.
By 2002, many church members were discouraged. Sabbath attendance was still high, yet the church building itself seemed underutilized, and its impact in the community was minimal. The congregation embarked on a period of prayer, asking God to use them and their church, with all its apparent drawbacks, to truly make a difference in their community.
The breakthrough finally came with a simple realization: everyone eats lunch.
A fresh idea
Urban mission in Seoul comes with the usual challenges of city outreach anywhere around the world: people with too much to do and too little time to explore spiritual concerns; the distractions of a strong consumer culture; the skepticism that many Gen Xers and Millennials have toward institutional religion. And then for Adventists in Korea, there’s an added layer of difficulty when it comes to city ministry: the deep-seated wariness many feel toward the Adventist faith.
Korea is a tolerant, multi-religious society that embraces traditional religions, including shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. And over the past century, Christianity—especially evangelical Christianity—has also become a significant force. Korea is the most “Christianized” Asian nation, with Christians making up about a quarter of the population. But among the Christian denominations, the Adventist Church is numerically small and tends to be isolated by others’ preconceptions and biases.
So when, in 2002, the then-senior pastor of Central church suggested a lunchtime natural foods restaurant for nearby office workers, not everyone in the congregation was immediately convinced it would work. The church had tried something similar before but found it wasn’t easy to attract people onto the church premises.
But Pastor Kim Daesung persisted. “As I was thinking about how to make contact with the people who work nearby, I thought that it could be very practical if we operated a restaurant because most of the people would want to eat lunch,” he later wrote about his involvement with the project. “I was thinking that if we provide very fresh food, friendly food—like a family—the people will like it.”
He reminded his members about Ellen White’s counsel to start Centers of Influence, such as restaurants, in urban areas. And when he gained the support of his congregation, they set to work.
Central church already had the space—a large fellowship hall with many tables and chairs, and a modern, well-equipped kitchen. But there was one seemingly insurmountable problem: under Korean law, it was difficult for a nonprofit church organization to own and operate a restaurant.
Central church, however, came up with a creative solution. They decided that instead of opening a traditional restaurant, they would set up a “health association.” Essentially, it was a lunch club—members would pay a monthly fee that would entitle them to eat their weekday lunches at the church.
For the next three months, the pastor and church members visited surrounding offices, meeting with hundreds of workers one by one, and presenting this unusual proposal. The membership fee was set at the equivalent of about US$100 per month, and, in exchange, the office worker was promised fresh, tasty, and healthy vegetarian lunches Monday through Friday.
There was immediate interest, and even more so when the church distributed some 600 meal tickets for a free lunch during the restaurant’s opening week.
The hard work paid off. On opening day, a line of almost 500 guests snaked around the corner of the building—some 200 more than had been expected. As the workers enjoyed their free meal, the pastor encouraged them to sign up for a membership so they could eat there every day. The response was overwhelming, and with that, the Seoul Central church Center of Influence was launched.
Isolated no more
From the outset, Central church committed itself to providing only the highest quality food and service, and this insistence on excellence has paid off. Six paid staff members are employed, assisted by a regular rotation of church member volunteers who help in the kitchen or in the dining area. Together, they turn out a daily vegetarian feast. Colorful platters of salads, breads, and warm foods are laid out for guests, and inviting smells waft outside to those lining up for a table.
More than 200 people visit the church every day for lunch. The attractive space is filled with people eating, talking, and laughing together. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. Over the years, the clientele has diversified and now includes artists, Buddhist monks from a nearby temple, business executives, and wealthy middle-aged women, as well as office and government workers.
The quality of the food soon led to catering requests, and the restaurant is often rented out for alumni meetings and even pastors’ meetings of other Christian denominations.
Pastor Park SangKil, senior pastor of Seoul Central church, makes a point of visiting the restaurant each lunch time, greeting people, meeting newcomers, and chatting with regulars. It’s an unparalleled opportunity to mix with people who would otherwise never set foot in an Adventist church, he says.
Regular customers have developed a fierce loyalty to the restaurant. “Some days can get really busy for our volunteers, and so some of our regulars even help out with serving!” says Park SangKil. “The atmosphere of the restaurant is so friendly and welcoming that we hardly ever get any complaints if the food is served late. Some visitors tell us they’d rather skip lunch if they can’t get to the restaurant; they say they’d rather go hungry than eat an unhealthy meal.”
For Park SangKil, the restaurant represents a “golden opportunity” to share the Adventist faith and culture with the community—especially with those of a socio-economic background whom the church has previously found almost impossible to reach. “The church used to be open only a few times a week,” he adds. “Now the church is open all week and is full of people who come to have needs fulfilled.”
Many have been baptized as a direct result of this ministry, and others have expressed interest in Bible studies. Yet the real impact of this Center of Influence can’t be measured solely in terms of baptisms. For Pastor Park and members of the Central church, one of the most significant outcomes of the restaurant has been a sea change in community attitudes toward the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Old prejudices have been swept away and replaced with friendship. Disinterest has been replaced by curiosity. Suspicion has been replaced by acceptance.
Through the years, the church has received a lot of feedback from regular visitors, many of whom once thought of Adventists as “odd people” and now consider them to be “warmhearted, kind people” who are committed to living by biblical principles.
Central church uses its restaurant to display Adventist literature and information about the health food products regularly used in the restaurant. The church’s head deaconess, Mrs. Cho ByungSoon, holds monthly cooking demonstrations, and these have proved very popular. Those who attend the cooking classes are later invited to participate in a health evangelism program, which has led to people requesting Bible studies and later joining the church.
“There are tremendous opportunities to plant the Advent message in the hearts of our visitors,” says Pastor Park. “And, just as importantly, our church members have also learned the joy of serving the community.”
The success of the lunch restaurant has helped create spin-off ministry opportunities. First and foremost, it has provided funding for a special Sabbath ministry to elderly people who live in nearby districts. Each Sabbath morning, some 300 seniors attend a special worship service just for them at Central church and stay afterward for a fully catered free lunch. Over the years, church members have developed strong bonds with many of these elderly men and women, and some 40 of them have joined the church.
The church also gives a significant portion of income from the restaurant to the local government to help care for the district’s orphan children—a gesture that fosters considerable goodwill for the church in the community. Money from the restaurant also helps a yearly youth mission trip to Nepal. The young people raise money for their own travel expenses, but funds from the lunch ministry pays for church construction.
Park SangKil has seen many of his church members grow spiritually as they’ve served in the restaurant ministry and become more confident in sharing their faith. “They’re proud that their ministry contributes to the physical health of the community and serves as a bridge to sharing the gospel,” he says.
Dr. Suh SoonSuk, an elder at the church, serves as a volunteer manager at the restaurant. For the past two years, his smiling presence has been a fixture at the restaurant as he’s served at the tables and interacted with guests. “I’d like to see more churches open cafeterias to the public as Centers of Influence and to share the love of Christ with people,” he says. “These days, it’s very difficult to visit door to door in the big cities. But here they come to us and we meet them in our arena.”
For Park SangKil, who continues to shake hands and chat with guests each day, it’s difficult for him to describe the joy he feels at the sight of his church, which once stood empty and unused during the week, now filled to capacity with people from all walks of life.
And when he baptizes individuals who have come to know their Savior as a result of the church’s restaurant ministry? “Words cannot express how I feel,” he says. “There’s nothing happier or more worthwhile than seeing someone accept Jesus Christ.”
A Niche Ministry With a Huge Impact
Lessons from the front lines of urban mission
- Quality counts. When it comes to providing a service to urbanites, remember they usually have other options, and thus top-notch quality is essential. In the early years of Seoul Central church’s restaurant ministry, the regular chef left and was replaced by a less-skilled cook. As the food quality declined, so did the daily number of guests. Quickly, the church found another cook and reversed the slide in numbers. But it was a reminder that ministries in an urban setting must take marketplace forces into account. For a restaurant ministry, that means meeting expectations in regard to quality and service. For Central church, located in the midst of many other cafes and restaurants, this is especially important to remember.
- Find a niche. Along with quality, another key to success is finding and meeting a niche need. For Central church, this meant identifying the desire of office workers for fresh, inexpensive, and healthy lunches, but every community has unique unmet needs, says Pastor Park SangKil. “I believe we need to accurately assess the needs of the community and provide distinguished, superior solutions. People won’t step into church to eat unless we provide something no one else can.”
- Be creative. Setting up a ministry will be difficult. There will be hurdles, not least of which will be identifying a community need and matching it with the resources you have within your church. Once a ministry is actively meeting a real need, though, its success will be largely self-perpetuating.
- Don’t give up. It may take a long time and a number of failed experiments before you finally hit upon the unique need that your church is equipped to meet. But with prayer and trust in God’s leading, be confident that He will ultimately take your efforts and use them to build His kingdom in your community.