My previous church that I served at in Seoul, South Korea, had 60,000 members. Yet this wasn’t the biggest church in the city. Across the river, just a few kilometres away is located the world-famous Yoido Full Gospel Church, with the largest church membership in the world numbering around 800,000. Worlds apart from my current church with a membership of 40, which includes the children!
In a church of such large number, transition is a huge problem. Within this city of manifold millions, it’s easy to see this dynamic and tension of exit and voice at work in challenging situations. Part of my responsibility at my church was taking care of the new visitors and members of the English Ministry. Every Sunday we held a newcomers meeting after services, and every year we saw hundreds of newcomers pass through our doors. After some time, I began to realize that the retention rate of these newcomers compared to the number of those who stayed was in fact very low. Why was it that so many new visitors were choosing not to stay in this church? Why were they exiting and not voicing their reasons for not staying?
There are a number of reasons I believe. Firstly, cultural expectations. Within Korean society, it’s not the done thing to voice what one is really thinking or feeling. For members or visitors to resort to ‘voice’ is almost unheard of. Even in all the years I attended weekly staff meetings at our church, most of the staff wouldn’t venture an opinion in front of senior staff. Why? Because most of them were of Korean ethnicity, and because of that, they were not ‘allowed’ to do so. Or at least that’s what they thought (thankfully being Korean, I could get away with that!).
Secondly, the competition. Look through any window at night in Seoul and you will see numerous red crosses, highlighting the location of church after church. Within a five-kilometre radius alone of my former church, I imagine there must be around 50 others churches that visitors could pick and choose their spiritual home from. People are spoiled for choice. As with every church we had weaknesses, but with the confidence of having so many newcomers continually visiting week after week, the motivation to fix issues was not particularly high. Exit, then, was not a particularly effective recuperation mechanism, and there were no reaction mechanisms in place to protect against it.
This fits well with Hirschman’s table summary on page 121. In this case, with individuals expressing discontent through exit rather than voice, Hirschman concludes this organisation behaves as “Competitive business enterprise in relation to customers.” That might sound strange to some, but in terms of the Korean church, it is true.
Because of the afore-mentioned reasons, exit is the most common response to decline within the Korean church. I imagine it’s not so different in churches of other countries too. Through Hirschman’s insights into how organisations deal with decline or deterioration, I have realised that each organisation or structure is inclined towards one response over another, partly depending on its culture. Not just ethnic culture, but work culture too. However, culture can be changed over time, which is sometimes necessary as with the Korean church. The fact that visitors and members feel inhibited to voice their opinion is preventing issues from being adequately faced and corrected, which in turn indirectly prevents growth. In this case, I believe that strengthening voice as a reaction mechanism would positively affect improvement within the church organisation.
Finding the right balance of reaction mechanisms, is, no doubt, not easy. I like what Hirschman suggests, “In order to retain their ability to fight deterioration those organisations that rely primarily on one of the two reaction mechanisms need an occasional injection of the other.” 
Whichever reaction mechanism(s) we choose to use to safeguard our churches and ministries from deterioration and decline, let us be careful that we do so. Hirschman has given me a lot to think about.
 Albert O. Hirschman: Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 126