Reverend Cho Yong-gi, who founded the biggest South Korean church and a string of popular megachurches, died on Tuesday at the age of 85 in Seoul.
The pastor, better known as David Yonggi Cho or Paul Yonggi Cho abroad, died at a Seoul hospital where had been admitted in July 2020 after he collapsed due to cerebral hemorrhage, the church said in a statement.
Cho is survived by three sons. The church will start receiving mourners from Wednesday ahead of the funeral scheduled for Saturday, it said in the statement.
Lauding Cho’s contribution, the church said: “He conveyed the gospel of hope to the Korean people who fell into despair after the Korean War.
“He was instrumental in growing the Korean church, particularly developing Yoido Full Gospel Church as the world’s largest church,” the statement added.
Known for his significant contributions to the Korean church community, Cho’s achievement of founding Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church was marred by corruption and scandals in the last seven years.
Born in 1936, Cho started his church with five worshipers in 1958 in the South Korean capital Seoul, which was grappling from the fallout of the 1950-53 Korean war.
Cho championed the growth of the church community in a largely Confucian country and building his following, as a result of which his church community expanded exponentially.
Cho founded the Yoido Full Gospel Church in 1958, which grew to be among the world’s largest churches with more than 480,000 attendees per week, according to Leadership Network, an international organization of church leaders.
Yoido has more than 500 church locations across South Korea, and has sent thousands of missionaries to different countries over the years, according to the church’s news release. Cho himself has participated in religious rallies and movements in 71 countries, said the release.
Born in 1936, Cho lived through the Korean War, during which he served as an interpreter between his school principal and the US military commander, the church said in its release.
In his second year of high school, he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and told he would not live much longer. During this time he turned to Christianity, a decision he would later credit with his “miraculous” recovery, according to the church.
Cho’s recovery prompted him to enroll in the Full Gospel Theological Seminary, and he established the Yoido church after graduating. The church began as just five members gathered under a tent in Seoul, according to the church’s website.
South Korea has one of the world’s most vibrant Christian — especially Protestant — cultures, with conversion gaining momentum in the mid- to late 20th century.
Minority Christian sects, as well as megachurches, boomed in the years following the end of the Korean War — and Yoido became perhaps Korea’s best-known representative, boasting more than 700,000 members by 1993, according to the news release.
Those numbers continued skyrocketing as the church went international, expanding to include a giant mountainside retreat in South Korea’s Gyeonggi Province and a Christian university Cho founded in California. The church also established an international arm, headed by Cho, to connect with pastors and church leaders from 25 other countries, according to its website.
Within South Korea, Cho became a hugely influential figure; he founded a Christian daily newspaper, established a humanitarian NGO, and wrote several books, said the church release.
He went on to build the world’s largest church congregation, which is now recognised as the largest Protestant church in South Korea.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the church recorded more than 700,000 members in 1993, a historic achievement attributed to the pastor. Church officials, however, said membership has gone down to 600,000 since then and cannot confirm if it is still the largest church globally.
The church has 400 pastors in South Korea and 500 missionaries abroad.
Cho’s family was hit by multiple scandals in the last decade, resulting in his conviction in 2017 for breach of trust and causing financial losses. The pastor avoided jail, but received a suspended prison term.
Cho and his family also faced accusations of dominating key roles and posts at the church and related organisations. In 2013, one of Cho’s sons was accused in a paternity suit by a female politician.
But he was also frequently the subject of controversy and scandal. In 2014, he was found guilty of embezzling $14 million in church donations to buy stocks owned by his son, at four times their market value, according to Reuters.
Cho’s wife died in February this year. The couple leave behind three sons.
CNN, Independent UK