Why the World’s Largest Church Still Worships Its Embezzling Former Leader
Inside Yoido Full Gospel, the Korean Pentecostal mega-church that promises wealth, healing and shamanistic miracles.
On Yoido Island, in central Seoul, every Sunday is a colossal production in Jesus worship.
Shuttle buses all over the city ferry tens of thousands of worshippers into the holy arms of Yoido Full Gospel Church. Service begins at 11:00, but by 10:20 the only available pews are far out in the bleachers.
Seven singers warm the congregants up with hymns and songs of Armageddon and God's love. At 11:00 it becomes hushed, and the first of a series of pastors stands and begs the blessings of the Lord—for the nation, for the government, for protection from North Korean nuclear weapons, for the young and the old, the sick and the weak, and for Pastors Lee Younghoon and Cho Yonggi.
The orchestra plays, the choir sings. And then Pastor Lee comes to the lectern. For those in the bleachers he is a speck in the distance, but for everyone there he is a giant of modern preaching, the anointed successor at this, the largest church in the world, where one in 10 Korean Christians is baptized.
Lee is a magnificent presence in his satin robes, his jet black hair combed back, his black square glasses, his only-slightly jowly face. He sings and he prays, and the crowd loses their shit. They break out in tongues, they sing Hallelujah, they raise their arms, they cry, they collapse.
And then Lee delivers his gentle sermon, of wayward homosexuals returning to God's fold, of the Lord curing cancer, of the importance of thanksgiving and salvation, in this world and the next. He literally thumps the Bible.
At the end of service, red velvet bags are passed around to collect the tithes. A tenor blazes out a magnificent Korean version of Amazing Grace, and the congregants file out by the thousands, bumping shoulders with the thousands filing in, lined up for the next service's money seats.
Preacher, healer, felon
For years, Yoido Full Gospel Church was inseparable from the name Cho Yonggi, also known as Paul or David Cho. The 79-year old Pentecostal preacher was raised a Buddhist in the 1940s and 1950s, one of the darkest periods in Korean history—Japanese occupation, the division of the peninsula by the Great Powers, the Korean War, and then years of desperate poverty.
At 17 he was cured of tuberculosis—he says by God. He converted to Christianity, and in 1958 he set up the Yoido Full Gospel Church, in a tent, with only five people present. Today it has 830,000 registered members, making it the largest single church congregation in the world. Every Sunday, between 150,000 and 200,000 congregants visit the church, for one of its seven Sunday services.
And there is more than just the church. There is Onsanri Choi Jashil Memorial Fasting Prayer Mountain, a retreat; the Kukmin Ilbo, a daily newspaper; a host of seminaries, theological institutes, and biblical universities, both in Korea and abroad; and numerous social welfare organizations and international ministries, including a hospital in North Korea.
Cho Yonggi is many different things to different people: a grandfatherly figure; a savior to hundreds of thousands of souls; a miracle-worker who has made the lame walk and the sick well; an ambassador to the world who speaks excellent English for one who has never lived outside Korea; and a convicted fraudster, who in 2014 was handed a three-year suspended sentence for embezzling $12 million in church funds.
Cho is extremely charismatic—whenever I see him preach, I want to give him a hug and cry at his knee. He smiles, he is kindly, he is the Korean grandfather I never knew I needed. In interviews he speaks sweetly and candidly about how he believes the gospel is meant to make you rich—not just in the next life, but right here, right now.
"Cho Yonggi has expanded [the] reward of becoming a Christian to include health and prosperity. And he did it very openly," professor Andrew Eungi Kim of Korea University told VICE. "You accept Jesus Christ as your saviour, you are not only promised eternal life, but also you live long, healthily, and you will prosper. You will make a lot of money."
Cho refused to grant VICE an interview for this story, but in 2012 he told PBS, "Many people are accusing me that I'm preaching the gospel of prosperity, but I'm not afraid of being accused, because if gospel could not bring prosperity to other people, suffering people, what can you do for them?"
He further insisted that it was only through the grace of Jesus Christ that South Korea has become prosperous, thanks to the millions of conversions since the war. "You come and try to study the reason of prosperity," Cho said. "You can't find out any reason, because we don't have a good politician so far. We don't have great business people."
A spokesperson for the church, who refused to provide a name and would only answer questions in Korean by email, said, "If the prosperity gospel poses only that of prosperity without Jesus's holy cross, we don't trust that kind of theology." However, he or she added that "premised on the cross-gospel, we believe God shall make us thrive and wealthy." Essentially, riches without God is bad, but riches with God is awesome.
The spokesperson admitted that the church is structured like a corporation, hierarchically with separate departments led by managers, and over 400 employees. It's like this "to preach and save people more efficiently. As a general firm's goal should be making of profits, our church's goal is saving souls and redemption."
Shamans in mega-churches
Cho is often referred to by his detractors as "Shaman Cho," because his focus on individual prosperity is similar to the shamans of old that Koreans have believed in for millennia. Shamans heal the sick by driving out evil spirits, and pray for material reward and prosperity.
Korea University's Kim says this is an essential part of Cho's appeal. "Before anyone in Korea is Buddhist or Christian, he or she is basically very shamanistic," he said.
Cho often preaches that if you want something in life, it will come, and if you don't have it yet, you just need to pray more. He sometimes sounds like a self-help speaker on Oprah.
Cho's sermons are also replete with stories of faith healings, which are always followed by wild applause from the congregation. He tells about how he drives the Devil from the possessed, how he caused a wheelchair-bound woman to walk, how he can cure cancer and mental illness. Everyone I spoke to at the church believed absolutely that Cho performed miracles, with a single exception, a university student who refused to give his name. He was on the fence about it.
The church's spokesperson denied that Cho himself cures anything. It's all the Holy Spirit's work. "What people are experiencing is the ill becoming healed not based of the pastor's ability, but because of the Holy Spirit. It wasn't the senior pastor himself, it was an appearance of the Holy Spirit through the senior pastor." The spokesperson said miracle healing "can be proven through the bible."
Regardless of who is doing the healing, this is not strange to Koreans. "What Cho Yonggi did, and many of his imitators do, was to do something that was so familiar to Koreans, because that's what they grew up seeing, these shamans performing these rituals to heal the sick," Kim said.
And Cho has many imitators. Though Christians represent roughly 30 percent of the population, they are highly represented among upper-class, urban, well-educated Koreans. The Korean skyline is dotted with red neon crosses. Proselytizers are everywhere, handing out flyers and packs of tissue paper with bible passages on them. Last year's LGBT Pride parade had to be walled off from the hordes of Christian protesters. And South Korea sends more missionaries abroad than any other country, except the United States.
Mega-churches are popular with Koreans, who live in a very group-centred, organization-heavy culture. You are defined by what you are a part of, and it's good to be part of something big. Of the 20 biggest churches in the world, Korea has five of them.
Rick Alan Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute in New Jersey, told VICE that he has had several complaints about Yoido Full Gospel, but he doesn't label it a cult. Rather, it's "a very controversial church that has a history of complaints and controversy surrounding it." The main complaint, is that "Yonggi Cho occupies a position of singular authority, and to some extent has become an object of worship."
In 2008, Cho retired as senior pastor and handed those duties off to Lee Younghoon. And though Lee's services seem more popular, Cho still preaches every Sunday, and he appears undiminished in his influence, at least on the congregants.
Cho Youngsoon (no relation to Rev. Cho) stands on a corner every Sunday by the church, preaching and raising money to buy bibles for prisoners. He says he attends the church because of Pastor Cho. "He suffered from a lung disease, and God cured it," Cho told me. "Rev. Cho has helped people all over the world. He has helped people cure themselves, he has witnessed many miracles. People who couldn't walk were able to walk again [after] Rev. Cho laid hands on the person."
Yoo Jae-hong, one of the church's hundreds of volunteers, says it is because of Rev. Cho that he attends Yoido Full Gospel. "I come here because I believe Reverend Cho can perform miracles. It's something I believe inside."
Faith over fraud
Even the courts can't convince the faithful that Cho is a con-man. Ex-members, including senior leaders, have accused the church of massive fraud, totalling up to $500 million. Those allegations remain unproven.
What was proven, however, was that in 2002, Pastor Cho instructed the church to buy $12 million in stocks privately owned by his eldest son, Cho Hee-jun, at prices four times higher than their market value. He also dodged $2.9 million in taxes in the same deal. The Reverend received a three-year sentence, suspended five years, and was fined $4,200,000. His son was jailed three years.
Cho has said very little about his conviction to the media. But in his last sermon of 2015, he complained that he had been "stripped with lies" all year. When I asked the spokesperson what that meant, they wouldn't comment, except to note that Lee Younghoon was now senior pastor.
When I asked if the church had made Reverends Cho and Lee wealthy, the spokesperson replied, "It's God who makes us wealthy."
Normally, Cho is controlled, calm, and kindly, but occasionally he lets his tongue slip. When a massive earthquake and typhoon hit Japan in 2011, he accused the Japanese of bringing it on themselves with idol worship. That same year, he campaigned against the legalization of Islamic "sukuk" bonds, saying they would aid terrorists.
Meanwhile, the church roars on. Besides seven services every Sunday, they host three early morning services every day; three Wednesday services; a Saturday morning service; and a Friday evening service that stretches through the night. Then there are hundreds of smaller services and bible studies throughout the block of buildings owned by the church.
Shin Myong-ja used to go to a smaller church, but switched to Yoido Full Gospel because "there is grace here." She doesn't know much about the fraud allegations, but they don't concern her too much.
"We must forgive his mistakes," she told me. "I don't want the church to decline because it's doing great things now."
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