Recently, SoonBokUm (True Evangelical) church in Korea, also known as Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has the world’s largest congregational membership of 750,000, is facing the most serious challenge since its founding in 1958.
Twenty-six elders of the megachurch filed a complaint against its founder, Cho Yong Gi (known as Paul Yongi Cho in the West), and his eldest son for an illegal use of church funds in 2009. This complaint has been followed by numerous allegations of corruption by the family members of Cho Yong Gi, resulting in the formation of the Special Committee for Church Corruption Investigation of SoonBokUm Church (SCCC) to look into further wrongdoings committed by the Cho family.
Thus far, the SCCC investigation reports that approximately 33 billion won (about $23 million) worth of financial damage was done by the Cho family. It is alleged that the main source of financial damage stems from a power struggle between two sons of Cho Yong Gi and his wife in the management of the church-supported newspaper company Kukmin Daily. The daily newspaper of Korea, HanKyoRae (June 14) reported that further investigation by the SCCC was abruptly ended by the incumbent pastor of SoonBokUm Church, Lee Young Hun, under pressure from the Cho Yong Gi clan, either directly or indirectly.These allegations affecting the biggest Protestant church in the world are not unforeseen in the light of similar troubles facing megachurches in Korea nowadays.
For example, Kim Chang In, a retired pastor of the 50,000-member Choong Hyun Church located in Seoul made an official apology for his decision to pass on his post to his own son, which resulted in the departure of many church members from his church (HanKyoRae, July 10). However, it seems clear that Cho, who still exerts tremendous influence in the biggest Protestant church in the world, is not going to follow suit. Today, Korean society is striving to bridge the widening gap between the rich and the poor after its successful economic growth of the 1960s and ‘70s.
In a similar way, Korean churches, after their unprecedented rate of growth of the last three decades, are hard pressed to find a sense of direction in relation to their present and future. Thus, currently, numerous conferences are being organized by theologians, lay members and church ministers to deal with problems facing megachurches in Korea, which have not been discussed openly before (HanKyoRae, July 14).
—By K. T. Chun, a New Jersey-based writer and sociologist who specializes in Korean Christianity