Seoul, South Korea is wired, even in the subways. The Internet is the force fueling the Hallyu revolution. Hallyu is slang for Korean Wave and refers to the explosion of Korean pop culture and entertainment that has flowed to the United States and the world via the Web since the 1990s. Today, KPOP is a $4.7 billion business and growing.
Tim Hwang is one of the thousands of Korean-American kids who discovered KPOP on the Web in the ‘90s, watching with his grandmother after school in the Philadelphia suburb where he grew up. He had no idea that in two short years he would find himself the most popular KPOP balladeer in Korea, and that his irreverent older brother, David, would join him there and become the founder of the most popular independent church in Seoul.
There are five Hwang brothers in all, born to first-generation Korean parents who are both Christian pastors. Tim is the fourth youngest and David is number one. Tim grew up reluctantly singing in his father’s Baptist church near Philly. “Being from a Korean background, the idea of obedience to the parents is pretty heavy. My father said, “Hey, you are singing at church this Sunday,” Hwang recalls. And so, he sang.
A few years earlier, David, having seen a recruitment postcard promoting the University of Southern California, and its proximity to the beach and Las Vegas, headed west to college. There he joined a popular fraternity and lived a fast social life. “Every chance I got it was about drinking beer, chasing girls, playing sports,” he says.
Their mother, an avid fan of karaoke, recognized that music was a great way to reach people and to sow seeds for Christ. In 2000, when a parishioner’s son visited their church and said he was a manager of rising KPOP stars, his mother organized an audition for Tim. He was 18 and just starting college at Temple University. He nailed the audition and was flown to Korea to meet a team of business investors and stylists. He was a rising star even though he couldn’t speak the language.
He battled loneliness as an outsider in Seoul and dealt with brutal preparation for the highly competitive KPOP spotlight.
Around the same time, David graduated from USC after five years. His social scene grew stagnant. “I realized I was jumping from one fix to another. I had an existential crisis,” he says. As he began to ask questions about the meaning of life, he rediscovered Christianity.
He was about to enter graduate seminary to prepare for starting his own church. At his parent’s insistence, David went to seminary in Seoul where he could support young Tim and his KPOP career. By 2003 Tim topped the charts with the ballad, “I Love You.”
Both brothers’ reputations grew. David recognized that ex-pats like his brother and himself needed an English-speaking ministry where they could build community in Seoul. While many English-speaking churches already existed, their members were transient. Hwang’s vision was to create a stable church to serve the city’s growing international community.
Today, Jubilee Church is 11 years old and has over 500 full-time members, making it the largest independent nondenominational English-speaking church in Seoul. Tim recalls that his brother’s early strategy used his fame as bait. “Four years ago, I could not walk down the street. I was loved by everyone and their momma,” he said.
Nowadays, the youngest Hwang spends hours preparing music for Jubilee’s two Sunday services. He plays there every week with his band, aka the worship team. To have one of the nation’s top singers on stage each week is a must see for many millennials and Korean youth who appreciate KPOP as entertainment and for national pride.
KPOP is not only a sensation; it has become a national brand, unceasingly promoted by the Korean government. “The goal of Hallyu was to break Korean culture in the US and the world,” says Patty Ahn, a professor at UC San Diego and a pioneering producer of KPOP content for the broadcaster MNET. But around 2013, just as the Korean Wave was peaking, Tim Hwang burned out and chose to step away from his career.
He had been serving in the church, leading ministries and struggling to maintain his values as a Christian while working in the fast-paced music business. “I was going from the church to the green room. There was a lot of shame and guilt.” He spent time focusing on healing and found solace in working with David and their third brother, Danny, who later came to Seoul as a music producer. The brothers made Jubilee the family focus.
David Hwang sees Jubilee as a place of acceptance for the individual. “We grew up with a cultural gap with our parents and I don’t want that with my kids,” he says. Jubilee is disrupting the traditional Korean values that include a hierarchical structure based on age and status. “Most churches in Korea are old and the culture dominates over faith. The young generation, you don’t typically find them around church,” says Hwang.
But Jubilee is an exception. The average age of Jubilee Church members is 29. About 65 percent of church members are Korean ex-pats from all over the world. There are small groups to meet the needs of families, singles, women’s groups and men’s groups. One church member, 34-year-old Melvin from Guatemala is in Korea getting his PhD. He grew up in the Presbyterian Church back home and was part of another ministry in Seoul before he found out about Jubilee from a friend. “Here, it’s more international, I like the style of sermon. It’s easier to connect, something I was longing for,” says Melvin.
There are ministries that serve the homeless and others that conduct outreach. There is a pre-school (ages 3 to 6), an English-speaking school that is cheaper than other schools, according to Hwang. This makes it possible for ex-pats to stay in Korea longer by avoiding sky high prices for education when their children become school age.
The church is located in the fashionable Gangnam area of Seoul, lined with boutiques and restaurants. It’s an upscale hipster spot, a cross between Silver Lake and Rodeo Drive. Every inch of the location is put to use, including a playground on the roof for youngsters. There is exposed brick and a loft style open floor plan, a café, modern furniture and spaces for art and music. It feels more like an urban startup than a worship space.
While many churches are failing or struggling, the Hwangs are optimistic about what they provide and feel confident that the church community will continue to thrive. “My philosophy is that the church should be for everyone. I try to teach the Bible as accurately as I can and live to love people and see where the chips fall,” Rev. Hwang said.
Sherry Simpson Dean is an award-winning documentary producer, a lecturer at Occidental College and former executive director of the Pasadena/Foothills chapter of the United Nations Association (UNA). She is currently part of a group of USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism students traveling through South Korea.