The Yoido Full Gospel Church


Dr. H. Vinson Synan

Until the last half of the Twentieth Century, Korea was one of the most resistant nations in the world to the message of the gospel. A deeply Buddhist and shamanistic culture, Korea was known to the world as the "Hermit Kingdom." The first Christian mission to Korea came when Catholic missionaries arrived in 1784, but these Catholic missionaries met mostly resistance in the form of indifference, persecution and even martyrdom. Anti-Catholic persecution climaxed in the infamous 1866 massacre when 10,000 bishops, priests and Korean converts were martyred for their faith. (1)

A century after the Catholics arrived the first Protestant missionaries landed at Inchon near the city of Seoul. Before their arrival the way had been prepared during the 1870's when John Ross, succeeded in translating the New Testament into the Korean language. Coming from America in 1884 were Horace Underwood, a Presbyterian, and Henry Appenzeller, a Methodist. Both men were from the Student volunteer movement and came together on the same ship. A decade earlier, in 1865, an abortive landing had been made by the Welsh missionary Robert Thomas who was beaten to death by anti-foreign Koreans but not before he had thrown a bundle of Bibles to the watching crowds. Although most of the Bibles were burned, a few were saved and were used to convert to Christ the very man who had murdered Thomas. (2)

Since the Presbyterians sent more missionaries to Korea than the Methodists, Presbyterianism soon became the largest Christian movement in the country, with the Methodists and Catholics growing more slowly. Progress was difficult for all Christian churches for the first century. By 1900, Korean Christians numbered only .4% of the population. In many ways, Korea was like Japan which still has a similar tiny proportion of Christians. (3)

The first spiritual revival among the small company of Korean Protestant Christians came in 1903 in the city of Wonsan where a mighty wave of confession and repentance occurred under the leadership of R. A. Hardie, a Methodist missionary from Canada. The result of this meeting was a renewal of personal holiness which has characterized the Korean church ever since. Other revivals in Pyongyang from 1904 to 1907 intensified the holiness crusade and resulted in marked church growth. In 1906, a Korean student by the name of Sun Joo Kil also organized the first early morning prayer meeting which met at 4:30 A.M. This custom, as well as the all night prayer vigil, also became vital to the spiritual life of the Korean churches In these meetings, the missionary H. A. Johnson linked the Korean experience to the Welsh revival which was sweeping the world at the time.

Another revival broke out in Pyongyang in 1907 which was marked by intense Bible study and massive, fervent, audible concert prayer. In these meetings Sun Joo Kil led a men's conference in confession, and repentance for sin. During these prayers a mighty wave of weeping and prayer swept over the Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries and the Korean men who were present. Observers such as the Presbyterian missionary William Blair described the meetings as "indescribable... not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and Spirit, a mingling together of an ocean of prayer beating against God's throne." This fervent thunderous style of prayer has remained a characteristic of the Korean church throughout the century. Although these meetings did not feature such charismatic phenomena as tongues and healing, there were many prophecies of a new pentecost for Korea and the world.(4)

The development of Korean pentecostalism was interrupted by World War II when in 1940 the Japanese forced all foreign missionaries out of the country including Mary Rumsey. All churches were then forced to go underground and to endure severe persecution. It was not until after the defeat of Japan in 1945 that churches were again free to worship and evangelize. But this period was soon interrupted by the Korean War that erupted in 1950 causing extreme hardship for all of Korean society, including the churches. With the end of the Korean war came freedom for the churches in South Korea to develop freely and to again receive help from abroad. It was in this period that the first American pentecostal denominations established Korean mission fields. (5)

The first of these was the American Assemblies of God Church which sent Abner Chesnut as their first missionary to Korea in 1952. Chesnut's first contacts were with the Chosun Pentecostal church which was still led by Sung San Park. The official name of the work was the "Korea Mission of the Pentecostal Church." As early as 1939, Mary Rumsey had applied to the American Assemblies of God to serve as a missionary to Korea. During world War Two she was looked on as an "unofficial representative" of the Assemblies of God. In 1953 the Korean Assemblies of God were organized with the Subinggo church and its branches as the nucleus of the new denomination. The next year, the Korean Assemblies of God opened their first Korean Bible School which attracted young Korean preachers for Bible studies. One of the first of these young students was Paul Yonggi Cho, a capable and young aspiring pastor whose family had suffered severe privations in the Korean War. (6)

Cho, who was born a Buddhist, rejected his religion during the time he was dying from tuberculosis. Hoping to become a medical doctor if he ever recovered, he was suddenly converted when Jesus Christ appeared to him in the middle of the night, healed him, called him to preach and filled him with the Holy Ghost. After graduating from the Bible School, he planted the church for which he would later gain worldwide fame. What became the Yoido Full Gospel Church began in 1958 in a tent located in a poverty stricken slum area in the city of Seoul. In 1961 Cho gained valuable experience when he served as interpreter for Sam Todd, an American Pentecostal healing evangelist. The Todd meetings helped the new church to grow and introduced Cho to the prosperity teachings of such evangelists as Oral Roberts. (7)

Despite many difficulties the church grew until in 1962 Cho built a "revival center" seating 1500 persons. He later changed the name to the "Yoido Full Gospel Central Church." Sensational cases of divine healing caused the church to reach 2000 members by 1964. The work load of building such a church put Cho under such stress that he began to organize "cells" where responsibility could be delegated to many co-workers. Most of the cell group leaders were women, a major breakthrough in Korean culture. The cell group movement developed in such huge proportions that by 1985 there were no less than 50,000 cells in the church. In addition to his duties as pastor of the exploding Yoido congregation, in 1966 Cho also became the General Superintendent of the Korean Assemblies of God Church. (8)

During this period the church continued a steady pattern of growth, so much so that in 1973 a new auditorium seating 10,000 persons was completed with Billy Graham serving as the main dedication speaker. In that same year the church hosted the triennial conference of the Pentecostal World Conference, making the church even better known around the world. By 1974 the church reached 23,000 members and in1979 passed the 100,000 mark, a congregational size unknown in the world at the time. During the next fifteen years even more explosive growth occurred with new members added by the thousands. At one point as many as 10,000 new members were added to the church each month. By 1994 the number of members reached the 700,000 mark with visions and plans for the Yoido congregation to be the first church in history to reach the 1,000,000 mark. (9)

In addition to pastoring his huge flock, Cho found time to write several books including The Fourth Dimension which appeared in 1979 followed by Successful Home Church Cell Groups, (1981), Prayer, Key to Revival (1984), and Prosperity: Our Three-Fold Blessings in Christ (1987). In these books Cho expounded on his theology of prosperity through the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the methods of church growth that had astonished the church world. Also in 1976, he founded "Church Growth International" an ecumenical group of pastors dedicated to spreading his theology and church growth methods around the world. To further his influence in Korea, Cho began a daily newspaper in 1989 called the "Kook Min Daily News." By 1994, this paper, with over 700,000 in circulation, had become a powerful voice for Christianity in Korea. Also, the Yoido congregation published a local church paper called the "Full Gospel News" which enjoyed a weekly printing of some 1,000,000 copies. (10)

The doctrines of taught by Cho and the Yoido Full Gospel Church are generally those taught by Pentecostals throughout the world. The "doctrine and creed" as published in the literature of the church including the "Fivefold Message of the Gospel" include the following: 1. Salvation 2. Holy Spirit, 3. Divine Healing, 4. Blessings, and 5. Second Coming of Jesus. The only difference between these statements and the American Assemblies of God is the article on "Blessings" which is further amplified in a subsidiary statement titled "the Threefold Blessings of Salvation." These blessings include salvation for the soul, material prosperity and physical health.(11)

In October of 1994 Dr. Cho hosted the "largest prayer meeting in history" when the International Assemblies of God convened in the Yoido church for a world evangelization program of prayer and planning to win the world for Christ. At the climax of the rally, over 1,000,000 persons massed in Yoido Plaza for the climactic prayer session. In a move that recognized the importance of the Korean church in the world pentecostal and charismatic movements, Dr. Cho was named Chairman of the International Assemblies of God.(12)

Many researchers have studied the phenomenal growth of the Korean pentecostal churches and especially that of Cho's Yoido congregation. The best answers have been offered by Young Hoon Lee, one of Cho's associate pastors. Lee singles out the following five causes of the "wonderful growth" of the church:

1. a strong positive message
2. a powerful healing ministry
3. the Prayer Mountain movement
4. the baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues
5. home cell group meetings
6. the use of mass media (13)

By the 1980's the charismatic movement had begun to permeate the traditional Protestant and Catholic churches of Korea, bringing pentecostalism into the mainstream of the churches. Church growth specialists noted the incredible growth of all the Korean churches and the central role of the Holy Spirit renewal in their growth. By 1990 such researchers as David Vaughn were listing the largest churches in the world, five of which were in Seoul and all of which were classified as "charismatic" to some degree. They included the following:

Yoido Full Gospel Church 200,000 in Sunday worship services
Kum Ran Methodist Church 50,000 in Sunday worship services
Nambu Full Gospel Church 47,000 in Sunday worship services
Soong Eui Methodist Church 40,000 in Sunday worship services (14)

In addition to these "superchurches" thousands of congregations exploded throughout Korea in one of the most remarkable revivals in the history of the Church. Among these were the Korean Catholics who also experienced a powerful charismatic renewal during the last two decades of the century. By 1990 it was estimated that over 350,000 Korean Roman Catholics had been baptized in the Holy Spirit and were active in the Charismatic Renewal. (15)

By the end of the century, it was clear that South Korea was well on its way towards becoming a Christian nation. By 1992 the percentage of Christians in the population of the nation stood at 40.7%. From small beginnings in the early years of the century, the Korean pentecostals added their spiritual fervor and organizational skills to the massive growth of the church in the nation. By 1995, the Pentecostals had grown to be the third largest church in South Korea with almost 2,000,000 members. The record of Korean church growth was unparalleled in any other part of the globe. The growth from a tiny persecuted minority to an almost certain majority of the population is a quantum leap that can only be explained in spiritual and supernatural terms. The pentecostals and charismatics, with their gifts and zeal have led the way in Korea as they have in many other parts of the world.

1. The story of the 1866 massacre is told in Ch'and-Mun's Catholic Korea: Yesterday and Today (Seoul: Catholic Korea Publishing Company, 1964), pp. 231-296.

2. Sources on Protestant missions include: Donald Clark Christianity in Modern Korea (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986); Bong-Rin Ro and Marlin L. Nelson, eds. Korean Church Growth Explosion (Seoul: Word of Life Press, 1983. Major research sources on Korean Pentecostalism include: Boo-Wong Yoo, Korean Pentecostalism: Its History and Theology (New York: Verlag Peter Lang, 1987; Young-Hoon Lee, "The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea," Journal of Soon Shin University, (Dec. 1993, Vol. 4) pp. 151-173; and Jae-Bum Lee, "Pentecostal Type Distinctives and Korean Protestant Church Growth," (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1986).

3. See David Barratt, World Christian Encyclopedia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 439-445.

4. A first-hand report of this "Korean Pentecost" is given in William Blair's The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), pp. 71-79. Also see: Jae-Bum Lee, "Pentecostal Type Distinctives," pp. 166-175; and Young-Hoon Lee, "The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea," pp. 155-158.

5. Boo-Woong Yoo, Korean Pentecostalism, pp. 106-109.

6. Jung-Yul Moon, Korean Assemblies of God , pp. 49-65. Paul Yonggi Cho, The Fourth Dimension (Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, Inc., 1979), pp. 1-35.

7. D. J. Wilson, "Paul Yonggi Cho," in Stanley Burgess, David McGee and Patrick Alexander, Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), pp. 161-162.

8. Young -Hoon Lee, "The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea," p. 165. See Paul Yonggi Cho, Successful Cell Groups (Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing Inc., 1981).

9. John Vaughn, The Large Church: A Twentieth-Century Expression of the First Century Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 18, 61, 102-106.

10  Young-Hoon Lee, "The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea," p. 166.

11. These statements can be seen in the Korean Full Gospel churches founded by Cho and his church. See the English booklet published by Pastor Sung-Kyu Choi and the Inchon Full Gospel Church in 1992, p. 2.

12. See "More than a million people gathered " National & International Religion Report, November 28, 1994, p. 7.

13. Young-Hoon Lee, "Holy Spirit Movement in Korea," pp. 163-167.

14. John Vaughn, in Edythe Draper, ed. The Almanac of the Christian World (Tyndale House publishers Inc., 1990), PP. 367-368.

15. Interview with Bill Beatty of the U.S. Catholic Charismatic National Service Committee, Indianapolis, Ind. 1990.