October 4, 2010
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
The largest church congregation in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea. The congregation has 830,000 members (2007 figure) and worship space that seats 26,000.
To ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to attend, the church holds seven services every Sunday and handles the overflow in several nearby auditoriums with a television feed. Each service has its own large choir and orchestra and the church has more than 500 full and part-time pastors.
As well, Yoido Church features Prayer Mountain, which the church's website bills as "a secluded place of prayer for those who desire to be alone with God." Prayer Mountain accommodates 10,000 people, each with their own private area for prayer.
Yoido Full Gospel Church traces its roots to 1958 when it was founded by Yonggi Cho and his future mother-in-law, Jashil Choi, in a tent located in a Seoul slum. Cho, then 22, had converted to Christianity after a miraculous healing from a life-threatening case of tuberculosis. In a later vision of Jesus, he received a call to give his life over to ministry in the Church.
How did Yoido Church get to be so large? Was it the work of the Holy Spirit? Was it excellent organizing? Or, were there other factors?
Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea seats 26,000.
It would seem churlish to deny God's involvement in such an incredible rate of growth in one congregation. But God surely did use ordinary human means. Cho and other church members spent their early years in an intensive campaign of door knocking. In less than three years, the congregation had grown to 1,000 members.
The congregation became so large that Cho's health broke down in 1968 and he realized responsibility had to be decentralized. So he launched an innovative system of cell churches in which small groups of people meet midweek for worship and Bible study. Each cell leader trains an assistant who will eventually lead his or her own cell when the cell grows too large and has to be divided.
Cho was criticized because he chose, in a patriarchal society, women for most of his cell leaders. He maintained that women have the time and inclination to make the home visits essential to the life of the cell.
Another key to the success of the Yoido Church is Cho's message. Along with other Pentecostal teachings such as divine healing, baptism in the Holy Spirit and the impending return of Christ, he teaches what he calls the gospel of blessing.
Faith in Jesus, he maintains, brings with it a threefold blessing – spiritual well-being, material prosperity and bodily health. Christ's sacrifice on the cross ended the effects of Adam's sin and we now simply need to claim our right to health and prosperity.
Yoido Church worshippers number in the hundreds of thousands, drawn by Yonggi Cho's message of spiritual well-being, material prosperity and bodily health.
Cho's scriptural basis for this teaching is rather thin. He sees the threefold blessing as taught by the apostle John's greeting in his brief third letter: "Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul" (3 John 2).
WEALTH GOD'S BLESSING
Cho maintains that poverty is a sign of being cursed by Satan while wealth is a sign of God's blessing. To say the least, this falls outside the teaching of most Christian churches. Nevertheless, Yoido does significant relief work and runs a vocational training school for unemployed youth.
It was perhaps fortuitous for the Yoido Church that its popularity exploded just at the time the Korean economy began its greatest-ever period of expansion. Prosperous people abounded who would be pleased to learn that their new-found wealth was a sure sign of God's blessing.
Indeed, Yoido's supporters might tend to see the situation in reverse – that the growth of faith and the expansion of Pentecostalism was itself a cause of the country's economic boom. Economists would likely scratch their heads over that explanation.
A cynical view would be that Yoido Church has been so successful because it tells people what they want to hear. But there is little question that its development of cell groups has nurtured people in their faith and has been influential in the development of other evangelical and Pentecostal churches around the world.
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