Cho Yong-gi, South Korean Megachurch Leader, Dies at 85

SEOUL — The Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the charismatic founding father of one of many world’s largest megachurches whose preaching of “can-do positive thinking” helped gasoline the explosive progress of Christianity in war-ravaged South Korea, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Seoul. He was 85.

Mr. Cho, an emeritus pastor at the Yoido Full Gospel Church, had been hospitalized for greater than a 12 months after struggling a cerebral hemorrhage, the church mentioned in a press release.

The church, which as soon as claimed a congregation of greater than 800,000 worshipers, has shrunk since Mr. Cho retired a decade in the past, and he and different leaders had been later mired in allegations of scandal.

But it’s nonetheless the most important church in South Korea, with greater than 570,000 individuals attending companies, at the primary constructing on Yoido Island on the Han River, which bisects Seoul, in addition to at 5 sanctuaries scattered across the capital metropolis. Separately, a whole lot of smaller church buildings affiliated with Yoido Full Gospel function in South Korea and all over the world.

In the backdrop of Mr. Cho’s life, South Korea noticed a speedy transformation from a war-torn agrarian nation into one of many world’s wealthiest economies. The industrialization was accompanied by a progress of Christianity, which turned the most important faith in South Korea, supplanting Buddhism, Confucianism and shamanism.

Yoido Full Gospel and a handful of different church buildings accommodated hundreds of thousands of people that migrated from rural South Korea to huge cities, particularly Seoul, searching for jobs and a way of belonging.

“The Rev. Cho was a symbol of the megachurch boom in South Korea,” mentioned Hwang Gui-hag, an writer of a number of books on Christianity in South Korea and the editor in chief of the Seoul-based Law Times, which focuses on church information. “He has helped globalize the South Korean church, too.”

The South Korean megachurches had a penchant for increasing overseas. South Korea, which is about 28 p.c Christian, has lengthy been one of many world’s greatest sources of missionaries.

But like among the different megachurch founders of South Korea, Mr. Cho’s legacy turned tainted by corruption scandals and inside squabbles inside his household and his group. In 2017, he was discovered responsible by the South Korean courtroom of breach of belief and embezzlement, although he acquired a suspended sentence and prevented jail.

A service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in 2021. The church as soon as claimed a congregation of greater than 800,000 that has since shrunk.Credit…Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Mr. Cho was born in 1936 in Ulju, in southeastern South Korea, when the Korean Peninsula was nonetheless a colony of Japan. He was a pupil of a vocational highschool in Busan, a southern port metropolis crowded with refugees of the Korean War, when he turned unwell with tuberculosis. He has mentioned that his miraculous restoration got here with a non secular awakening. He was additionally influenced by Kenneth Tice, a Pentecostal Assemblies of God missionary from the United States.

Mr. Cho and Choi Ja-shil, a Pentecostal pastor who would later change into his mother-in-law, began a church in a Seoul slum below a tent that had been discarded by the U.S. navy in 1958. There had been solely 5 members on the church’s first day, three of whom had been Ms. Choi’s relations. Another was an previous girl who got here into the tent to keep away from the rain.

But quickly, Mr. Cho and Ms. Choi drew worshipers as phrase unfold that they might heal the sick at a time when hundreds of thousands lived with out entry to medical companies. Mr. Cho additionally preached “hope” and “positive thinking,” convincing individuals struggling below postwar penury that non secular religion would convey three rewards: wealth, well being and non secular consolation.

In 1973, to accommodate his rising congregation, Mr. Cho opened the church constructing in Yoido, which was then an undeveloped island. (The island is now dwelling to the nation’s National Assembly and high monetary establishments.) By 1993 the church had 700,000 worshipers and was acknowledged by Guinness World Records as the most important congregation. The church continued rising as Mr. Cho divided Seoul into a number of proselytizing sectors, assigning deputies to every one.

Mr. Hwang mentioned that when he was learning in Canada within the 1990s, he was stunned to study that extra Canadians had heard of Mr. Cho than the South Korean president.

Mr. Cho additionally began charity packages for the needy, together with elevating cash for kids with coronary heart ailments. His $17 million plan to construct a hospital for sufferers with coronary heart illnesses in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is on maintain as relations between the 2 Koreas stay tense over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Cho is survived by three sons. His spouse, Kim Sung-hae, who as soon as led Hansei University, a church-affiliated faculty, died in February.

By the time he retired at age 75, Mr. Cho noticed his church empire plunging right into a collection of scandals, as once-loyal elders from his church accused him and his household of embezzling church funds and demanded reform. His household was additionally accused of dominating key posts at the church and at church-affiliated organizations, together with Kukmin Ilbo, a every day newspaper.

“There is an end to our life,” Mr. Cho mentioned in a frail voice throughout his closing sermon in July 2020, shortly earlier than he was hospitalized. “When our life ends in this world, everyone must stand before God for judgment. So the most important thing you can do in this world is to believe in Jesus Christ and win your salvation.”