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Face and the Loss of Reputation in the Korean Protestant Church

Author: Shin-Ho Choi and Michael A. Rynkiewich
Published: 2020

MD 11

Article Type: Text Article

For decades, the rapid growth of the Protestant churches in South Korea has been touted as a success story in mission studies. And it is true, up to a point. How shall we now explain that the growth curve has plateaued and the Korean Protestant church is even showing signs of decline in membership? The standard answers include the impact of changing times, degraded theologies, and twisted ecclesiologies. Globalization, secularization, and unsound biblical interpretation seem to be forces chipping away at church growth. However, studies show that, contrary to secularization, there is, so far, an increasing religiosity in South Korea. Even Christianity as a whole is growing when Catholicism is included. These outside forces cannot account for the decline in Protestantism while at the same time providing a positive explanation for the growth of Catholicism and Buddhism. So, the question remains: Why is there a decline in Protestant church membership in South Korea? Since Korea is an Asian country, and Asian countries are often cited as being heavily involved in honor/shame dynamics, perhaps there is another angle that we can take by extending the “face” discussion into new territory: corporate reputation theory. How might the discipline of business management help us understand the decline in Protestant church membership in South Korea?

Pew Research, among others, has documented the plateauing of growth in the Korean Protestant church: “Since the 1980s . . . the share of South Korea’s population belonging to Protestant denominations and churches has remained relatively unchanged at slightly less than 1-in-5.”1 Joon-Sik Park lays out the argument for a decline: “From the early 1990s, however, the growth rate of the Korean church began to decline. In 1995, according to the Population and Housing Census Report, 8,760,000, or 19.7 percent of the population, were Protestant Christians. During the following decade the number of Protestants declined slightly, to 8,616,000, a 1.6 percent decrease. During the same period, by contrast, Korean Catholics increased by 74.4 percent (from 2,951,000 to 5,146,000), and Buddhists by 3.9 percent (from 10,321,000 to 10,726,000).”2 What is behind this decline? Some have argued that it is just the times, that globalization spreads secularism and this accounts for the decline in religiosity worldwide.3 However, the resurgence of a conservative, even militant Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity in the twenty-first century has cast doubt on the idea of increasing secularization. Some blame the adoption of a defective theology, while others, including Park, place the blame on a hierarchical and self-centered ecclesiology. Finally, some suggest that there are too many alternatives available to people: sports, mass media, and psychological counseling, for example. There may be some truth in each of these explanations, but is there more to the story?

As we develop the story and look at some new research, let us establish up front that the whole Western social project is based on the assumption of the ontological priority4 of the individual. This assumption has put us in the position of not being able to see the forest for the trees. The majority of social science research involves studies of how ontologically prior individuals form an identity, develop relationships, join groups, make economic decisions, vote, or worship. These actions seem to be based on the unspoken assumption that the agent is a pre-existent autonomous person. It is clear, however, that that construct of an autonomous individual is neither ancient nor widespread in the world and certainly does not apply to Korea.5 Most people in the world, contra Decartes’s Cogito ergo sum, would claim, Vivimus simul ergo sumus (We live together therefore we are).6

We do not wish to rehearse the argument here but rather assume that individual selves are a modern construction,7 while the operation of face/honor/shame dynamics is ancient. That means that the dynamic has not involved only the effect of individual behavior on the group but also the effect of group behavior on the individual as well as on other groups around it. In other words, the group can be the agent.

Can a group feel or experience guilt or shame? Can a group do face work? There are some hints in this direction. Both Jesus (Matt 5:16) and Paul (1 Cor 14:23; Col 4:5; 1 Tim 3:7) were concerned about the effect of reputation on the spread of the gospel. An alternate translation of doxa or “honor” is “reputation.”8 However, even when this term is used, the discussion often remains at the level of an individual’s reputation. The only time the concept includes others is when an individual is confronted with the possibility of being tried in more than one “court of reputation.”9 Here the individual’s reputation is in view, not the group’s reputation.

Perhaps we have to go to an ancillary area to get a different perspective. In the discipline of business management, newly emerged reputation theory is not concerned about individuals, but begins with the concept of the group. Groups, that is, corporations, businesses, NGOs, and, we propose, churches or denominations, also have reputations that transcend the individual, and these reputations make a difference. An individual may act with honor in a business context, but the business itself might already suffer dishonor from a bad reputation. Examples: The effect on people’s decisions about making donations when the Wounded Warrior foundation was found to have misused money, the drop in reputation and income when Toyota had to make multiple recalls, and the loss of reputation when Volkswagen was found to have fudged diesel mileage ratings, a story which became a case study at the Reputation Institute.10 In the business world, reputation risk management is an emerging science.

Reputation, similar to “prestige,” is a type of externally conferred honor. It is social-esteem, not self-esteem. This paper will present the problem, present some original research about “church reputation” using a theoretical framework adapted from reputation theory, and suggest how church reputation might affect church growth.

The Korean Protestant Church

First, let’s consider the numbers. Table 1 shows figures from the national office of statistics for the last four decades:


Population (N)

The Component Ratio (%)









Total Population






















































One Buddhism


















The others









Table 1: South Korean Population Statistics11

As with all numbers, these require some interpretation. First, the numbers do not indicate an increase in secularism. Though there are some ups and downs, there is actually a decline in the category “nonbeliever” between 1985 and 2015. Thus, there has not been a decline in overall religiosity from 1985 to 2015. Second, the figures show that the percentage of the population who are members of the Protestant church in South Korea has, at best, been stagnant since 1995. We say “at best” because the percentage of members declined from 1995 to 2005 and then recovered in 2015, but only to the previous level.

Moreover, the figures for 2005 are suspect. A change in the form of the question about religion caused some confusion and likely exaggerated the decline in the Protestant church and rise in the Catholic Church figures. In the 1995 survey, the categories for (1) Buddhism, (2) Protestantism (Christianity), (3) Roman Catholicism, and (4) Confucianism are aligned vertically.

Image 1: A copy of the census survey showing the vertical alignment of the choices: 1, 2, 3, and 4, then in the next column 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9

In the 2005 survey, the categories were presented differently. The categories were (1) Buddhism, (2) Christianity (Protestantism), (3) Christianity (Roman Catholic), and (4) Confucianism. In addition, instead of being clearly vertical, the order is staggered.

Image 2: A copy of the census survey showing the staggered alignment of the choices

This staggered order presents the respondent with a vertical column of 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and a second column of 2, 4, 6, and 8. There is already confusion in Korean society about the relationship between Protestant and Catholic, and this order only made things worse. It is possible that some Protestants mistakenly identified themselves as Catholics.

In the 2015 census, the old order was restored.

Image 3: A copy of the 2015 census survey showing the vertical alignment restored

The 2015 numbers are not as radical as the 2005 numbers. For example, the Catholic Church’s own statistics did not support the apparent rapid growth of Catholicism by 2005. Still, the point is made that the South Korean Protestant church has stopped growing in terms of the percentage of society that belongs to the church.

In sum, the problem remains. Secularism is not growing, Buddhism is holding its own, Catholicism is growing, and Protestantism has been stagnant over the last two decades in South Korea. While theology or ecclesiology may contribute to the plateauing, let’s take a closer look from the perspective that the Protestant church is a competitor trying to increase its share in a marketplace of religions.

Reputation Theory

As is often true of a relatively new discipline, reputation studies have endured some definitional fogginess. Brown et al. give us a cumulative definition of reputation.12 When a corporation asks the question, “Who are we?” the answer is their “corporate identity.” When they ask, “What do we want others to think about us?” the answer is the corporation’s “intended image.” When they get feedback and then ask themselves, “What do we think that others think about us?” the answer is the “construed image.” But, when they actually do the research and gather data on the question, “What do stakeholders, that is, people with a vested interest in the corporation actually think of us?” then the answer is the “corporate reputation.” There is a sense, though, that all these things taken together constitute a corporate reputation because the employees also have a stake in the company. After all, there is a feedback relationship, which Brown et al. demonstrate with a chart,13 between what employees think about their company, what the general public thinks, and what clients and partners think about the corporation. Reputation, then, is the cumulative effect of what all stakeholders think about the corporation and, by extension, how they act toward the organization.

Reputation theory as an area of study emerged in three stages, according to John Balmer.14 In the 1950s and 1960s, corporations became aware of the impact of their “corporate image” on sales. In the 1970s and 1980s, corporations began to be concerned about “corporate identity” and how brand affected communication and marketing. Finally, in the 1990s, corporations began to think about “corporate reputation,” especially in the context of a competitive marketplace and a declining economy.

In 1997, the Reputation Institute was founded, along with a journal that introduced the concept of corporate reputation management. The latter became more important as social media began to dominate the Internet. News now travels so fast, and fake news even faster, that a corporation cannot wait until they hear second-hand about some attack on their reputation. By then, it is too late; the attack on reputation has already gone viral to a million customers. Hence, if one Googles “corporate reputation management,” a large number of the six million sites are entrepreneurs who are in the business of tracking and deleting false information about a corporation or organization.

There is an assumption here that beliefs and attitudes affect choices and behavior. While there is some room for nuance, this assumption is rather fundamental to the social sciences, so we will not try to prove the connection here in this paper. In addition to social scientists down through the ages, the people working in the area of reputation theory have also addressed it, and we defer to their conclusions.15

Reputation Theory has simultaneously developed in several disciplines. Charles Fombrun and Cees Van Riel survey the various literatures to gather up different views of corporate reputation:16

  1. From the economic perspective, reputations are perceived as corporate characteristics that external actors use to make decisions about dealing with the firm.
  2. From the strategic perspective, reputations are valuable intangible assets that establish and maintain a corporation’s place in the economic structure of a society. Reputations can be a benefit or a barrier.
  3. From the marketing perspective, a reputation is like a brand image consisting of a few pieces of information that, like a metaphor, give the external agent a quick picture of the corporation.
  4. From the organizational perspective, reputations are not just the images of external stakeholders but also the product of internal stakeholders (employees). In turn, employees’ sense of corporate reputation feeds into the external perception, both by employee beliefs and employee behavior. Corporate identity creates a “culture” that affects the performance of managers and other employees, and this rubs off on clients.
  5. From the sociological perspective, reputations are social constructs that arise out of corporation-client interactions. “Thus, corporate reputations come to represent aggregated assessments of firms’ institutional prestige and describe the stratification of the social system surrounding firms and industries.”17 A corporation’s reputation depends, then, not only on its own actions but also on its position in the larger field of similar firms in a particular market. A firm may be found wanting compared to other corporations in the field. We argue that the same is true for religions.
  6. From the accounting perspective, accountants themselves are calling for increased recognition of reputation as an intangible asset. They argue that managers have yet to figure out how to assign a financial value to reputation-building activities, but they should, just as they assign value to research and development activities.

With these research questions in mind, Fombrun and Van Riel offer the following definition: “A corporate reputation is a collective representation of a corporation’s past actions and results that describes the corporation’s ability to deliver valued outcomes to multiple stakeholders. It gauges a corporation’s relative standing both internally with employees and externally with its stakeholders, in both its competitive and institutional environments.”18

William Goode argues that there are consequences for reputation when “the increase in prestige is greater than the increase in achievement.”19 We would add that there are consequences when there is a decrease in reputation and especially when the decrease is warranted. Though most of his work is about prestige for individuals,20 Goode is aware that both individuals and groups are linked in society by the flow of esteem and by the flow of people from one group to another.21 In Goode’s terms, a loss of prestige leads to a new estimation of worth. Thus, groups have a reputation, good or bad, that makes a difference in people’s preferences.22

Others have categorized reputation and honor as peripheral to economics, but Goode argues that people’s behavioral response to changes in reputation “suggests again the weight of these ‘noneconomic’ factors. This is so for organizations, groups, communities, and nations.”23 Institutions, like churches, endure “mainly because people want to carry out the specific, concrete acts or tasks that make up those larger social patterns,” and they do so because they receive “rewards” in the form of honor.24 His work focuses on “the acquisition, accumulation, expenditure, and loss of esteem or respect, and how granting or withdrawing prestige or esteem controls the actions of both individuals and groups.”25

Goode’s model frames our work here: “Whether the differences are large or small, people are concerned about their reputations outside their intimate networks. So are corporations. Top people in the corporation hierarchy are interested in studies of their rankings. . . . Corporations with high prestige can more easily recruit the abler graduates of prestigious schools, or people who have already been successful in other companies. . . . The evaluations of individuals, organizations, groups, and members of social categories affect people’s decisions to enter or leave a group or organization if they have that opportunity.”26 We will apply some of these insights to the study of the reputation of the Korean Protestant church.

Face and Reputation in Korea

But, first, let us establish that Korea has a strong “face work” dynamic. The primary term for reputation, also translated as “identity” or “image,” is chemyon. Che (體) is “body,” and myon (面) is “face.” The dynamics of chemyon are those established by a particular reading of Confucianism. Under Confucianism, both individuals and groups must conform to society’s expectations.27 The key concept is the duty of a person or a group to others. South Koreans believe that the public reputation of a person, a family, or a company is of utmost importance. People turn their backs on groups and organizations when their reputation declines.

Chemyun is as significant a topic as Jeong “affection” or Han “resentment” in understanding South Korean culture and behavior in their daily lives.28 The most distinctive attribute of chemyun is “sociality.” Chemyun is more deeply related to the social self than to an individual one.29

Chemyun has a group dynamic that is linked to the individual dynamic. Loss of individual face affects group face, and loss of group face affects individual face. For example, where high school graduates attend college affects not only their chemyun but also that of their family and their high school. When a student is accepted at a prestigious university, her high school sports a banner out front with the news for all to read. If a corporation suffers a loss of face, so do its employees.

An example of the connection between individual and group reputation as well as the effect of the loss of reputation on consumer choices is the famous “Nut Rage Incident”:

On December 4, 2014, a Korean Air jet was taxiing from the gate at JFK International Airport. In first class a flight attendant was serving macadamia nuts in their original bags, as was company policy. On board, a Vice President of Korean Air, who was also a daughter of the CEO, took offense at not being served nuts in a bowl. She made a scene and berated both the attendant and the cabin crew chief. She forced them to kneel, struck the chief, and then ordered the plane back to the gate in order to throw him off the plane.

The company attempted to justify the VP’s behavior, saying that it was part of her job. Then they tried to sweep the incident under the rug. But, when it appeared that the employees would not get a fair shake during an in-house investigation, and when other witnesses began to tell their story, the cover-up backfired. When the incident went public, Koreans were outraged at yet another example of arrogant behavior by rich business families. The attendants’ claims were upheld, and the VP had to apologize and spend 5 months in jail.

The media had a field day with the incident and that empowered a recent Korean neologism: gapjil, which refers to how the rich and powerful get away with arrogant behavior. The result was that passenger rates dropped on Korean Air because people had choices and could fly other airlines, and in Korea, sales of macadamia nuts skyrocketed.30

Gapjil is a continuing problem in hierarchical honor/shame/reputation dynamics in Korea. Last year another story was reported:

The recent case of employee abuse by Yang Jin-ho, head of online data storage platforms, shocked the nation. However, statistics and reports show workplace violence by superiors . . . is not rare in Korean companies. Between January and August this year [2019], the Ministry of Employment and Labor received 515 cases of violence by workplace superiors—usually executives or those in managerial positions. . . . CEOs committed or were involved in more than 60 percent of the cases. Reports of workplace violence by superiors are increasing in number. . . .

Even if not involving physical violence, other forms of abuse and bullying by workplace superiors have been a pervasive problem. Koreans have a special term for hierarchy-based bullying, “gapjil,” which literally translates as “actions of the powerful.” In this work culture, executives, usually company owners, often violently lash out at employees who do not cater to their slightest wishes, expecting to be treated as kings of their economic empires.

Yang’s case is only the latest in a long history of Korean executives’ gapjil scandals. Just a few months ago, Cho Hyun-min, a Korean Air heiress, was accused of throwing water at PR officials from a subcontracted firm. She was later cleared of the charges because the officials did not want her to be punished.

Her sister Cho Hyun-ah is also infamous for the “nut rage” incident, in which she delayed departure of a plane because she was dissatisfied with the way an attendant served a packet of nuts.31

Reputation in Korea becomes a public matter that affects people’s evaluation of a corporation. Studies already show that a heightened sense of chemyun influences Koreans’ patterns of consumption and association.32 Something similar has happened to the Protestant church.

Korean Protestant Church Reputation

The Korean Protestant church gained chemyun or reputation by ministering to the people’s needs and supporting them through times of oppression. The Korean Protestant church lost reputation with the megachurch movement and the gapjil behavior of prominent pastors. Here is a brief review.

Protestant Christianity began in South Korea in 1874 and was, at first, resisted by the majority of Korean society. However, the arrival of missionaries followed just three years after Taewon-gun (1820–1898), the Prince Regent, had abolished all but forty-seven Confucian academies and thus greatly reduced the influence of Confucianism in the country. Christianity played an important role in modernization during the last years of the Chosun dynasty. While the old order was disappearing, Protestants built modern hospitals and schools, helped with Hangul dissemination, and championed equality in society, particularly for women. During the Japanese occupation (1910–1945), while Japan supported the reemergence of Buddhism, the Protestant church found a niche and developed a reputation of its own in support of nationalism and independence for the Korean people.

During World War II and the Korean War, Protestants supported South Korean efforts and offered aid to displaced and wounded civilians. Finally, during the period of rapid economic growth after the Korean War, the Protestant church supported people who suffered and were marginalized and demanded democratic reforms, human rights, and distributive justice. Christianity, as a whole, received good reputational reviews from people who were marginalized and oppressed.33 The other dominant religion, Buddhism, was early on associated with the Japanese, and later did not provide social justice projects until the 1980s.

But then, something happened. Economic success was matched by church growth and particularly the emergence of megachurches. By the end of the millennium, the reputation of the Protestant church was beginning to slide.34

Some scholars argue that while pursuing quantitative and external growth, the Protestant church has fallen into materialism, exclusivism, and self-centered individualism that leads to private faith without public service. By this theory, the Protestant church is collapsing from within. In addition, though, reputation suffers when pastors commit acts unworthy of a pastor or a series of scandals occur involving lay members.

For example, several controversies have arisen related to Rev. David Yonggi Cho, who is the founding and former senior pastor at Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world. Having been found guilty of breach of trust, corruption, and tax evasion, Rev. Cho and his eldest son, Hee-Jun Cho, were sentenced to two years and six months in prison with four years of probation on August 21, 2014. Hee-Jun has been married several times and is accused of being involved in sexual scandals with several women, including persons otherwise well-known to the public.35 Whether these accusations are true or not, their spread affects reputation.

These scandals and others involving Protestant ministers and prominent members have led to a loss of social face and public reputation for the Korean Protestant church. Won-Gue Lee argues that these problems have left a bad impression of the Protestant church with South Koreans, and he has warned that the church has been losing public trust in South Korean society since the late 1990s.36 It seems that his warning is now being realized.

A Korean Christian institution, Gi Yun Sil (Gidokgyo Yunri Silcheon Uoondong) [The Christian Ethics Movement], used an instrument called the “Church Trust Index” to evaluate the Korean Protestant church. A thousand people age nineteen or older were surveyed from 2008 to 2010. The results show that, in the first decade of the 2000s, before the worst scandals, there were already more people who did not trust the Protestant church than those who did. It would appear that a high level of distrust had been reached by 2000 and that the scandals did not cause the decline but certainly accelerated it during the two decades that followed.









Do Not Trust




Table 2. Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church37

In the 2010s, a series of scandals hit the media at a time when people were able to read news quickly as well as share their feelings. Korean neologisms arose in the religious realm as they had in the corporate world. The words are frequently used in conversation and online but cannot be found in the Korean dictionary because they involve abusive language. The words are Gae Dok and Muk Sa. The first involves word play with the term for Christianity: Gi Dok (基督), which originated from the Chinese characters representing Christ. The substituted term, Gae means “dog” in Korean, and it becomes an abusive word when mixed with other words. South Koreans change Gi to Gae in order to belittle the Protestant church today. This represents the loss of honor or reputation.

Another term, Muk Sa, is a play on Mok Sa (牧師) which means “pastor.” Mok means “to care for” or “nurture”, and Sa means “teacher” or “mentor.” This term of respect is dishonored by the shift to Muk Sa. Muk means “eat” in Korean, and thereby people have created a neologism for a “fat pastor” or “glutton.” These terms have become popular among netizens whose emails, tweets, and blogs use them regularly and sarcastically.

Reputation Research in Seoul

In order to test the reputation of the Protestant church among 20-somethings, I (Shinho) prepared a survey questionnaire with two categories: the first set of questions measures the reputation score for Protestantism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. These 20 questions were adapted from the Reputation Quotient model as a tool of measuring the reputation of religion.

Figure 1: Charles Fombrun’s Reputation Quotient Model38

Fombrun’s categories and questions were adopted and modified to fit Korean language and culture. To this were added questions to address religious reputation. The answers ranged along a five-point Likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

The other category included questions about basic demographic and religious characteristics of respondents such as age, gender, belief, church membership, and recent shifts in membership.

Data were collected by two researchers, a male and a female, at three sites where men and women in their twenties gather: Shinchon, Gangnam, and Daihakro. The survey was administered in April and May of 2013. A total of 700 surveys were circulated and collected; of these, 641 were filled out appropriately for this study. Analysis of the survey followed standard anthropological practice.39

The respondents can be described statistically. The gender composition of respondents was 276 males and 365 females. Over 90% attended college or had some higher education. The distribution of respondents according to monthly family income was fairly even across income levels (below $2000/month, $2000–3999/month, $4000–6999/month, and over $7000/month).

In terms of religion, 308 or 48% of the respondents checked nonbeliever, and this is in line with national statistics. Among the believers, 137 were Protestant, 83 Catholic, and 103 Buddhist. Of these 333 believers, 100 (30%) said that they had left their previous religion and joined a new religion. Remember that in Korean terms, Protestant and Catholic are different religions. These results suggest a steady flow of persons in a religious marketplace where people have free choice.

Interestingly, 54 of those who said they had left the old and joined a new religion, had left Protestantism. This compared to 19 Catholics, 22 Buddhists, and 5 Others (minority religions) who said that they had left their religion for another. Note the ratio between those who have left Protestantism to those who still claim to be Protestant (54/137 = 2 out of 5 who left). Compare this to the ratio of Catholics (19/83 = 1 out of 5 left); and of Buddhists (22/103= 1 out of 5 left). This suggests that the flow of persons out of Protestantism is twice that of those leaving Catholicism or Buddhism. Of course, more research would be needed to confirm this conclusion.

Further questioning reveals that 49% of people left their religion because of a bad reputation. Of these, 7 left Catholicism, 8 left Buddhism, 2 left other religions, and 32 left Protestantism. When asked why they left their previous religion, 36.8% of those who left Catholicism cited a bad reputation, 36.4% of those who left Buddhism cited a bad reputation, and 59.3% of those who left Protestantism cited a bad reputation. In answer to another question, the respondents who had recently joined a religion revealed that 7 had left their religion to join Catholicism, 8 to join Buddhism, and 3 to join Protestantism. Clearly, Protestantism is losing out in the flow of consumers in the religious marketplace.


Emotional Appeal

Program & Service

Religious Leaders


Financial Transparency

Social Responsibility


































Table 3: Religious Reputation Quotient of the Three Major Religions in South Korea

Table 3 shows the answers of all respondents (641) to questions about the characteristics of the Reputation Quotient model. Note that Protestantism ranks the lowest while Catholicism ranks the highest. In fact, in every category but one, Protestantism ranks lower than Catholicism and lower than Buddhism. In the area of Social Responsibility, Buddhism ranks only slightly, 0.03 points, lower than Protestantism.

While none of these scores is high, no religion scored even a 3 out of 5 overall, and the lowest score for all three is in Financial Transparency. The implication here may be that young people are suspicious about what these religions are spending their money on. And the lowest of these scores is that of Protestantism.

The next lowest scores are in Emotional Appeal and Program and Service. This lack of interest may be a hint that South Korean 20-somethings are on the cusp of doing what others have expected, turning away from religion toward secularism or No Religion.

When divided by gender and income, some conclusions stand out. One is that, relative to female responses, the score that men give is higher for Catholics than the other two. Second, as income rises, scores for Catholics rise and scores for Protestants fall. The scores for Buddhists were more uniform across gender and income lines.

























Table 4: Reputation Score Based on Respondent’s Religion

When reputation scores are separated by the religion of the respondent, an interesting outcome emerges. In short, the lowest scores on the table above are what Catholics and Buddhists think of Protestants. It is not surprising that each person thinks most highly of their own religion. What is surprising and perhaps disheartening is that nonbelievers think less of Protestantism (2.33/5) than they do of Catholicism (2.76/5) and Buddhism (2.61/5). In addition, Catholics think less of Protestantism 2.26/5) than they do of Buddhism (2.80/5). What has driven the reputation of Protestantism so low?





















Table 5: Reputation Score Based on Respondents’ Previous Religion

When we look at the same figures divided according to the opinion of people who have left their religion, another interesting outcome emerges. According to the table above, ex-Protestants think less of their former religion (2.22/5) than ex-Catholics do of their religion (3.18/5) or ex-Buddhists of theirs (2.78/5). In fact, ex-Catholics and ex-Buddhists think better of their former religion, and of each other, than either do of Protestantism.

We can take the results of the survey a step further. How does the reputation of a religion affect people’s intentions to behave toward that religion? The question was: “If you have been proselytized by some religion, then did you reject it because of the bad reputation of that religion?” Of the 308 Nonbelievers, 287 said that someone had tried to proselytize them to join their religion. Of these 287, 151 or 52.6% agreed that “bad reputation” was the reason that they refused to join.

People were asked to respond to the statement: “If people around me, such as my family, friends, and acquaintances, are intending to believe in a religion with a bad reputation, I will dissuade them.” Of all respondents (641), 144 checked “Agree” and 132 checked “Strongly Agree.” This means that 43.1% of the respondents say that they would actively dissuade a friend from joining a religion with a bad reputation. Remember that Protestantism scores the lowest on the RQ scale: thus, Protestantism suffers the most from this behavioral intention.

The statement was also presented in another way: “If people around me such as my family, friends, and acquaintances are going to believe in a religion of good reputation, I will recommend that they do so.” Of all respondents, 183 (28.5%) checked “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” while 217 (33.9%) checked “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” The greatest number, 241 (37.6%) checked “Neutral,” implying that Korean’s tendency is to not get involved. It would seem that a good reputation does not influence beliefs and behavior as much as a bad reputation. Once again, the influence of a bad reputation is the stronger factor in religious choice.

Finally, people were asked whether they were willing to invite others to join their religion.40 People were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “The negative reputation of the religion I believe in makes me hesitate to propagate it to other people.” Less than one-third (30.1%) of the Catholics (25/83) and Buddhists (31/103) checked the “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” box, implying that they would hesitate to proselytize if their religion were suffering a bad reputation (which they were not). At the same time, a full 60.1% of the Protestants (83/137) checked these boxes, implying that they would hesitate to proselytize if their religion were suffering from a bad reputation (which it was).

On the flip side of these answers, only 13.9% of Protestants (19/137) checked the “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree” box, meaning that only 13.9% of Protestants would proselytize if their religion were suffering from a bad reputation. On the other hand, 24.3% of Buddhists and 33.7% of Catholics said that they would proselytize even if their religion were suffering from a bad reputation. People are reluctant to join a religion if it has a bad reputation, people are even willing to intervene if others intend to join a religion with a bad reputation, and finally people are less willing to proselytize if they feel that their religion has a bad reputation.

These results bring the reputation story full circle: honor and shame play a significant role in people’s choices about joining or leaving a religion. As Goode tells it, there is little prestige to be gained by joining and only shame to be lost by leaving. People even seem to be willing to intervene if others intend to join a religion with a bad reputation. Finally, people are less willing to proselytize if they feel that their religion has a bad reputation.

In all these cases, the effects of a bad reputation are more telling for Protestants than Catholics or Buddhists. Protestantism has a worse reputation than the other two. Protestants who have left Protestantism tended to do so because of a bad reputation. People are reluctant to join Protestantism because of its reputation, and Protestantism has the weakest reputation score. Finally, Protestants, twice as much as Catholics and Buddhists, are unwilling to evangelize if they perceive that their religion has a bad reputation.

Based on this limited but significant research project, our conclusions bear out for the church the insights that William Goode offered years ago: “[People] are concerned with the evaluations of other groups and organizations about themselves, either as individuals or as a group. People are only rarely content to be totally self-enclosed within the system of evaluations in their own social groups. They bring their concerns, opinions, and pressures to bear on others. They are aware of the prestige [reputation] rankings that other people, groups, and organizations make and see the effects of those evaluations upon their own fate. One of these sets of consequences is the movement of individuals from one social group or organization to another.”41 The flow of prestige, the ups and downs of reputation, is certainly related to the flow of people through and in and out of organizations.

We have asked: How might the discipline of Business Management, particularly Reputation Studies, help us understand the decline in Protestant church membership in South Korea? We have suggested that part of the answer has to do with the reputational standing of the church vis-à-vis the Catholic Church and the Buddhist movement. How might the church repair this reputation problem? At the heart of the problem is the move away from a ‘good shepherd’ type of leadership that Jesus modeled for us. The church as a whole might consider reviving the kind of service for the oppressed and marginalized that it seems to have abandoned. As the Korean Protestant church considers its plight and the future of the church, more research from this perspective might offer evidence of a need to change.

Rev. Dr. Shin-Ho Choi is the senior pastor of Kwanglim Methodist Church in Canada, principal of Kwanglim Korean School, a board of trustee member of the SEED International Mission of Canada, and a board of trustee member of the All Nations Mission Center in the USA. He served the Byucksan Corporation in South Korea as a workplace missionary from 2012 to 2019.

Michael A. Rynkiewich is retired as Professor of Anthropology in the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary. Rynkiewich earned a BA in Anthropology at Bethel College in St. Paul, MN (1966), and an MA and PhD in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota (1968, 1972). He also holds an MDiv from Asbury (1994). He has served as a pastor and a missionary in Papua New Guinea. Among his publications in Anthropology and Missiology is the textbook: Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (2011).

1 Phillip Connor, “6 Facts about South Korea’s Growing Christian Population,” Pew Research Center, Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, August 12, 2014,

2 Joon-Sik Park, “Korean Protestant Christianity: A Missiological Reflection,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 36, no. 2 (2012): 59–64.

3 The idea of secularization overcoming religion was developed in Harvey G. Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1965), and expanded in Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967). With the rise of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam, both have rethought their thesis. Cox reconsiders in “The Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rise and Fall of ‘Secularization’” in The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview, ed. Gregory Baum (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 135–43. Berger, in “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” The Desecularization of the World, ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 1–18, admits the resurgence of religion. His closing thought is the famous quote: “Those who neglect religion in their analyses of contemporary affairs do so at great peril” (18).

4 Ontology refers to “the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being” (“Ontology” in Oxford English and Spanish Dictionary, By ontological priority we mean the existence of something before something else, in this case the individual before society. I (Michael) have been contributing to exposing this bias for years: “A deeply embedded part of that ideology is the foundational assumption that individuals are ontologically prior to society” (Michael A. Rynkiewich, “Person in Mission Social Theory and Sociality in Melanesia,” Missiology 31, no. 2 [2003] 156); “An implicit premise of Western ideology is that persons are ontologically prior to relationships (or, to put it another way, individuals are prior to society).” (Michael A. Rynkiewich, “What about the Dust?,” in What about the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, ed. Joel B. Green [Nashville: Abingdon, 2004], 140).

5 See Christopher L. Flanders, About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 46–56, for a discussion of the Western notion of independent face, then pages 90–91 for contrast with the Asian interdependent face.

6 This phrase, of course, plays off the South African theological movement that took up the Bantu (Nguni and Zulu) term ubuntu, which means “humanity” but can be translated as “I am because we are.” Desmond Tutu, Bishop in the Anglican Church, popularized the term, but it has a genealogy back to the nineteenth century. The Latin phrase is my (Michael’s) contribution to the discussion.

7 See Alasdair C. MacIntrye, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985) 31, 205; and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) 113, 131.

8 David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 40–43; and H. Jerome Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 15.

9 deSilva, 55–61.

10 See Hope Hodge Seck, “After Public Crisis and Fall from Grace, Wounded Warrior Project Quietly Regains Ground,” Aug. 9, 2019,; Mark Trumbull, “Toyota Recall Having Big Impact On Company’s Reputation,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 2010,; Boyang Zhang, Jari Veijalainen, and Denis Kotkov, “Volkswagen Emission Crisis – Managing Stakeholder Relations on the Web,” in Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies, vol. 1, INSTICC Conference Proceedings (Setúbal, Portugal: SciTePress, 2016), 176–87.

11 South Korean National Statistical Office ( Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 1985); Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 1995); Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 2005); and Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 2015).

12 Tom J. Brown, Peter A. Dacin, Michael Gerard Pratt, and David A. Whetten, “Identity, Intended Image, Construed Image, and Reputation: An Interdisciplinary Framework and Suggested Terminology,” Academy of Marketing Science Journal 34, no. 2 (2006): 99–106. See also, Michael L. Barnett, John M. Jermier, and Barbara A. Lafferty, “Corporate Reputation: The Definitional Landscape,” Corporate Reputation Review 9, no. 1 (2006): 26–38.

13 Brown et al., 100.

14 John M. T. Balmer, “Corporate Identity and the Advent of Corporate Marketing,” Journal of Marketing Management 14, no. 8 (1998): 963–96.

15 See especially Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein, Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980), idem, Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research, Addison-Wesley Series in Social Psychology (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975); and Kevin Money and Carolyn Hillenbrand, “Using Reputation Measurement to Create Value: An Analysis and Integration of Existing Measures,” Journal of General Management 32, no. 1 (2006): 1–12.

16 Charles Fombrun and Cees B. M. Van Riel, “The Reputational Landscape,” Corporate Reputation Review 1, no. 1 (1997): 5–13.

17 Ibid., 9.

18 Ibid., 10.

19 William J. Goode, The Celebration of Heroes: Prestige as a Control System (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), vii.

20 Goode defines prestige as “the esteem, respect, or approval that is granted by an individual or a collectivity for performances or qualities they consider above average” (7). He uses prestige, esteem, honor, and reputation interchangeably.

21 Ibid., ix. The flow of honor “help[s] shape individual movement from one group to another.

22 Ibid., xii.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 14.

25 Ibid., 15; emphasis original.

26 Ibid., 103.

27 The norm of reciprocal relationship is well known as the “Five Relationships (五倫)” in the Mencius, the most famous Confucian classic. There should be affection between father and son, righteousness between ruler and minister, proper distinction between husband and wife, proper order between elder and younger, and faithfulness between friends. See The Editorial Department of Confucian Studies and Eastern Philosophy, N Sedaileur Wehan Yougyochulhak Essay [Essay of Confucian Philosophy for N Generation] (Seoul: Sungkyunkwan University, 2001), 86–90.

28 Geun-Young Lee, South Korean Economy Growth, Development, and Reformation (Seoul: Dasan Books, 2000), 48.

29 Tae-Seop Lim, “The Structure of Che-myon and the Determinants of Che-myon Needs,” Korean Journal of Journalism and Communication Studies 32, no. 3 (1994): 205–47.

30 Anna Fifield, “Korean Air ‘Nut Rage’ Heiress Resurfaces as Olympics VIP While Her Former Target Scrubs Toilets,” The Washington Post, February 7, 2018,

31 Lee Suh-yoon, “Workplace Violence by Superiors a Serious Problem,” The Korea Times, January 28, 2020,

32 E.g., Jae-Hui Kim, Tai-Hoon Kim, and Jin-An Chun, “The Influence of Chemyun (Social Face) on Unplanned Upward Consumption,” South Korean Journal of Psychology 9, no. 2 (2008): 149–68; Eun-Hee Park, “The Influence of Social Face Sensitivity on Vanity and Consumption Behavior,” Family and Environment Research 51, no. 4 (2013): 413–24.

33 Joon-Sik Park, 60.

34 This was noted by Joon-Sik Park, 61–64. It was verified by Connor, “6 Facts.”

35 Shin-Young Lee, “Baeimhyumui Choyongki Moksa Hangsosimsu Gamhyung” [“Rev. Yonggi Cho, Who Is Charged with Breach, Is Reduced”], Chosun Ilbo, February 20, 2014,

36 Won-Gue Lee, “Hangukgyohwoi, Sai Heimangeul Malhalsu Yitneunga?” [Can the South Korean Protestant Church Say New Hope?], Shinhakgwa Sege [Theology and the World] 68 (2010): 176–78; 185–87.

37 Giyunsil, Survey of Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church (Seoul: Christian Ethics Movement, 2008); Survey of Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church (Seoul: Christian Ethics Movement, 2009); Survey of Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church, (Seoul: Christian Ethics Movement, 2010). Based on these sources, I (Shinho) reconstituted it.

38 Charles J. Fombrun and Cees B. M. Van Riel, Fame and Fortune: How Successful Companies Build Winning Reputations (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall Books, 2004), 86.

39 Validity and reliability of the survey data was verified. The reputation average score for the three major religions was compared and analyzed for each religious group as a dependent variable for each independent variable. Next, a frequency analysis was conducted to find out how religion’s reputation affects intention and behavior. In this process of analysis, SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Science) version 14.0 for Windows was used for descriptive statistics, exploratory factor analysis, comparison of average, and frequency analysis.

40 There were other questions and points that could be made, but these will suffice for this article. See Shin-Ho Choi’s doctoral dissertation, “A Study on the Reputation of Religion and Its Influence on South Korean Christianity” (DMiss dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2018),

41 Goode, 113; emphasis original.

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