Seoul, South Korea- Coffee grounds, an electric bass guitar, and the Gospel? It's an uncommon set up for a church. Sunday service, after all, is traditionally a formal affair for Christians in the country. But Rev. Ahn Min-ho's church seems to embrace the unconventional when it comes to worship. Every Sunday, members of his congregation meet in what is normally a bustling coffee shop- owned and operated by Ahn and his pastoral staff. The mostly young-adult churchgoers order their caffeine of choice from the junior pastor/ barista before making their way to a small multi-purpose area right behind the espresso machine. As the congregation sips their drinks, Ahn begins the service with a blessing and asks the 30 worshipers to stand and recite the Nicene Creed- a declaration of their faith.
"Cafes and small churches have a hard time surviving in Korea," said Ahn. "Combining the two is helpful because they support each other financially."
Ahn's evangelical church, called Jesus Coffee, is one of a few cafe churches that have opened in Seoul. These small congregations with a neighborly feel offer an intimate alternative to the megachurches that have muscled their way to dominant Christian religious worship in the city. The 17 churches in Seoul considered to be "mega" have at least 2,000 people in attendance each week, although some claim to have as many as 200,000. But these megachurches are failing to attract the country's youth. A 2015 Gallup poll found Korean Christians 18 to 30 are abandoning their religions in droves because they feel their religion has become too institutionalized in the large churches.
"Several church leader's public image has taken a hit in recent years due to scandals over money and sexual affairs," said Sung-Deuk Oak, professor of Korean Christianity at UCLA. "It's stifled the growth of many congregations in the country."
Ahn hopes Jesus Coffee can attract these worshipers who are looking for a fresh take on their religion. For many at the cafe, even average sized churches of a couple hundred people can feel too big. Eunice Lee used to be a member of a moderately sized church in Seoul. She turned to Jesus Coffee because the small numbers let her get to know all the congregation members on a personal level.
"I know everyone in this church," said Lee. "Before the service, we drink coffee and are sharing everything about our lives with one another. It's a good feeling in here."
This homey feel is evident. On an average day when worship isn't going on, customers can peruse a selection of Christian literature that lines the walls of the shop as they wait for their dose of caffeine. Pictures of children working on arts and crafts about the Bible sit in frames next to the cash register, at eye level for customers to glance at as they wait in line. Ahn says the cafe format makes it easy to spread his message to anyone passing by his church, even non-believers.
"Most people like coffee, so integrating a coffee shop with a church is a great way to welcome non-Christians into our house of worship," said Ahn. "People come in here looking for coffee and look around the shop and they ask about the church. They're surprised and ask, why make the church like a cafe? I tell them we do it just for you!"
The small number of congregation members is a large part of what makes Ahn's church stand out. He caps the church at 100 members, but there has been so much interest in Jesus Coffee that he had to open two additional cafes close by to make room for more worshippers- keeping the intimate dynamic intact.
"Our church, vision, and ministry are all very interesting," said Ahn. "Interest in our small gatherings grows every day. We are welcoming new people to our community regularly."
But these small numbers come at a price; financial support from congregation members is not enough to pay the bills due to high rent in Seoul. The added revenue from the coffee shop is a necessary business that keeps the church from going under.
"Rent in Seoul is very expensive right now," said Ahn. "We have to pay a lot of money for rent every month but since we have the church and cafe together, it decreases our payment and makes a difference in our bottom line."
Jesus Coffee is only made up of three multi-purpose areas with room for 6-8 tables in each. Ahn tells me he had to put down the equivalent of $50,000 as a security deposit for the modestly sized commercial space. That's on top of a monthly rent of almost $3,000. These high rates are due to Korea's long-standing tradition of expecting tenants to make a large lump-sum deposit when they move in. Landlords invest the funds where they earn interest and return the principle to tenants when their lease is up. This system has proved to be incredibly profitable for building owners, but that changed in the past few months.
"Recently interest rates decreased to all-time lows, and building owners aren't making enough money off security deposits anymore," said Sung Jin Kang, director of the Institute of Sustainable Development at Korea University. "Many housing companies are switching to monthly rent. But the transition is slow and many tenants are caught in a difficult situation where they have to pay high rents on top of high security deposits."
This transitional period makes it difficult to run a small church in the city. But Ahn's dedication to close-knit congregations remains. He sees it as an important way to bring Korea's youth back to their religious roots.
"We're here to bring back those who have lost their way," said Ahn. "Worship is different here. We like that and we invite all who are looking for a change of pace."