Los Angeles Times

Founder of influentia­l postwar church

- By Hyung-jin Kim

The Rev. Cho Yong-gi, whose megachurch in South Korea was a symbol of the postwar growth of Christiani­ty in the country before that achievemen­t was tainted by corruption and other scandals, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Cho, an emeritus pastor at Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church — South Korea’s largest — died at a Seoul hospital, where he had been treated since he collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage in July 2020, the church said.

“He conveyed the gospel of hope to the Korean people who fell into despair after the Korean War,” the church said in a statement. “He was instrument­al in growing the Korean church, particular­ly developing Yoido Full Gospel Church as the world’s largest church.”

Better known as David Yonggi Cho or Paul Yonggi Cho abroad, Cho started his church in Seoul with five worshipers in 1958, when South Korea was still struggling to rebuild from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War. Under his leadership, the church achieved explosive growth and became a symbol of the rapid growth of Christiani­ty in what was then a deeply Confucian country.

In 1993, the church had more than 700,000 members, making it the world’s biggest church congregati­on, according to Guinness World Records, the church said. Church officials said that its membership has since declined to about 600,000 and that they cannot confirm whether their church remains the world’s largest.

It’s still the largest Protestant church in South Korea. Church officials said it has 400 pastors and evangelist­s in South Korea and 500 missionari­es abroad.

Despite his achievemen­ts, Cho and his family have been embroiled in scandals in recent years.

In 2017, he was convicted of breach of trust and causing financial losses to the church but avoided jail as he received a suspended prison term. In 2013, a female politician filed a paternity suit against one of his sons. His family has also faced longrunnin­g criticism that it dominated key posts at the church and other churchrela­ted organizati­ons.

In 2008, Cho stepped down as the church’s top pastor, and a nonfamily member succeeded him in what the church called “an unpreceden­ted, democratic” power transition. In South Korea, many church founders hand over leadership to their children.

Lee Hunjoo, secretary general of the Christian Alliance for Church Reform, a Seoul-based NGO, said the fast rise of Cho’s church led other churches in South Korea to push excessivel­y to expand their own congregati­ons.

“It’s true that the Rev. Cho did meaningful work for Korean churches,” Lee said. “But in some sense, megachurch­es in South Korea began with Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church.”

 ?? Hong Chan-sun Newsis ?? RECORD At one time, Cho Yonggi’s church had more than 700,000 members.
Hong Chan-sun Newsis RECORD At one time, Cho Yonggi’s church had more than 700,000 members.

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