DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Talking with our feet?

Written by: on October 16, 2014

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.” [1]

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.


[1] Albert O. Hirschman: Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 126

About the Author


Liz Linssen

13 responses to “Talking with our feet?”

  1. Liz ..
    Such a rich post! It is so hard to comprehend a church the size of the one you were part of in Korea. The construct itself would make the empowerment of “voice” almost impossible. Or perhaps it is the value of one individual (the story of lost sheep comes to mind) that is not understood. I wonder at the outcome. What drives us? Is it big numbers and many people coming to Christ or is it each individual? Is it the mission or the needed reframing of the mission fostered through voice, exit and loyalty? Wondering if at the end of our discussion you have further thoughts on areas of reaction mechanisms?

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Carol
      You ask some great questions. I think part of the problem was the expectation that there were always going to be new visitors, and so there wasn’t much concern about the not-so-high retention rate.
      Another factor was the amount of work full time ministers have to do at the church. Korean culture demands that people work very long hours, and if one leaves the office early before others, it looked down upon. What I’m saying is, the ministers were already so busy that they didn’t have time to focus on the few in number. It certainly wasn’t an easy issue to rectify. Thank you so much for your feedback.

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    As Carol said, it’s hard to even imagine churches of the size you are describing. The whole city in which I currently live is 72,000 people. And yet there are some similarities, in that there is a definite understanding that over the course of several years, people will leave one church for another; and if you live here long enough, you’ll probably make your way around to a two or three others. In what way will your leadership team try and develop a sense of loyalty among those who will be part of the church?

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hello Deve
      Thank you so much for your feedback and your helpful question at the end. Well, to be honest, I’m still at the place of creating a leadership team! Even so, I think it’s so important to let people know that you love them. Love has to be genuine. Each person is important. And I guess with the small numbers I now find myself working with, it’s easier to ‘keep an eye’ on people. To chase them up if they’ve been away etc. To let them know they are missed and loved and prayed for. I guess it all boils down to relationship. Any further thoughts or wisdom?

  3. Liz, thanks for your post.

    The insights you give into the Korean culture are very interesting. I would imagine that this might be similar in other parts of the Asian world as well, particularly due to the cultural norm of respecting elders. But I think this same thing might be true in any culture that has elder respect as a high core value.

    I find it sad that people are afraid to share with church leaders, but I certainly understand why there is fear. Even in the American church there is fear of voicing concerns; I have had experiences like this before — and it is not easy to share one’s thoughts and then be shot down.

    As I was reading your post, some Scripture came to my mind regarding the Body of Christ. We are all needed in that Body. And there are those who just might be called to be the “voice,” particularly the voice of reason. I think that the OT prophets were such people. So are there still prophets today who are to be heard? If every Christian leader was open to others’ voices, they just might find fewer congregants exiting through the back door. Perhaps I am being idealistic here, but ultimately, this problem is not only a cultural one but a theological one as well. Just my thoughts.

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Bill
      Thank you so much for your feedback. You raise some very good points. Yes, I do think that there are elements of this particular culture to be found in others too. No doubt about that.
      I had never thought that perhaps there were people in the Body of Christ who were called to be the ‘voice’, like with the prophets you mention. But of course, that makes sense. I guess they would be the mouth 🙂 Perhaps they would also have the gift of wisdom and knowledge.
      I also suggest that if a leadership team feel ‘secure’ in their relationship with their boss, then they know their boss will react with love and grace, whatever concerns they raise. I had never thought this could be a theological problem. Thank you for raising that!

  4. Your bring up a good Cultural Intelligence point here Liz. If the culture is one in which voice is not an option to speak against issues that affect the organization and thus only leaving “exit” as the indicator of displeasure, than how can the organization adjust with out the continual influx of new “customers?” I know that Hirschman described the need of new clients as the organization seeks to self correct as they notice the exodus but if there is a constant flow of new clients than there may not be any good pressure to correct.

    This sounds like a great cultural/leadership subject to entertain. Hummmm? Thanks Liz.

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Mitch
      Thanks so much for your feedback. I like your question, “how can the organization adjust with out the continual influx of new “customers?”
      Hmm, perhaps one suggestion could be an anonymous measure of some kind? Since people are afraid to voice what they really think, then giving them a chance to fill out honest feedback with no comeback, might be one solution. What do you think?

  5. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Liz, I loved everything about your post. A church numbering 60000 is unfathomable to me! And here I thought my church of 4000 was huge! I was so glad to see you wrote about competition. As Deve commented on my post, so often we do not want to admit that competition is a problem – whether it is between neighboring churches or even within ministries of our own church. We are all competing for the same souls. And that is where we fall victim of “bells and whistles” and “packaging”. Rarely, do we follow up with those that have visited and never returned to hear the “why”. I wonder, how has working for a 60000 member church shaped your ministry in the 40 member church?

    ….Continuing to uplift you and your family in prayer! Hugs, Liz!

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hello my dear Ashley
      Thanks so much for your feedback. I think working at the church in Korea taught me so much, and has indeed shaped me. While I loved working in the church in Seoul, I also love working at this very small church here in Wales. To me, every soul is important, so size, in that sense, doesn’t really matter to me. I think I’ve learned many good things from the church in Seoul, but I’ve also learned from its weaknesses.
      Perhaps one of the biggest things that shaped me was the work ethic of my boss. He is such a diligent, godly, passionate, and hard-working man, providing me with such a good example to ‘try’ to live up to.
      Thank you Ashley!

  6. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Liz, You share great insights from the Korean church you were part of. It is sad that Korea believers are not allowed to freely express their opinions due their cultural expectations. There is similar notion in my culture as well, due to high respect for leaders and elders. Despite what our cultural expectations, I contend, in Christ we have given freedom to love God and love one another. How do we experience true love where there is no freedom to share our opinions freely. Thank you!

  7. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    Finding the balance that Hirschman notes is needed is totally the tension. I appreciate your focus on this aspect throughout your reflection.
    Early on I did wryly wonder if the reason it’s called “Full Gospel” is because the seats are full? If so, what happens when parishioners exit? Of course, that’s not the reason, but perhaps the “need” to inordinately focus on seats-filled ends up actually lessening the “fullness” of the Gospel? Probably.
    Anyhow, I am not one to necessarily suggest that large gatherings are completely anathema to living into the Gospel. But the problems of scale which you are discussing bring up a further point of wondering the related nature of Hirschman’s principles to say mega-churches in Seoul in comparison with something like Julie’s house church. What do these organizations both have to offer each other in the way of reflection from each of their vantage points?

  8. mm rhbaker275 says:

    Thoughtful and helpful post, Liz…

    I love your comment “It is easy to see this dynamic and tension of exit and voice at work in challenging situations.” This tension is significant. To deny the option of “exit” or to quell “voice” is to take away the tension. To take away exit or voice is to be trapped and possibly squeezed into responses that might have dramatically different outcomes if there had been the tension that allowed the multiple options available when combining exit and voice. Hirschman clarifies the complexity of this tension in terms price and quality, the two factors that determine a customer choosing exit or voice when the options are available (47). One of the outcomes of the tension is the additional time available that allows reflection, conversation and listening which are important components in mediating customer dissatisfaction.

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