You will not believe quite how big the world’s largest church is

As part of our look at Pentecostalism, we examine how South Korean Pentecostals took the Yoido Full Gospel Church from a shed to the centre of life in their country. And along the way built up a congregation of almost a million.

Yesterday on Matter of Facts, we looked at the extraordinary rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Today we look at one of the most striking features of their rise: the tendency to create individual churches that are absolutely massive.

As the Economist reported back in 2007:

MENTION a “megachurch” and most people think of a gleaming building in the American suburbs. In fact, many of the biggest churches are outside the United States. In Guatemala, Pentecostals have built what may be the largest building in Central America: Mega Frater (Big Brother) packs a 12,000-seater church, a vast baptism pool and a heliport. One church in Lagos can supposedly bring 2m people out onto the streets. But five of the world’s ten biggest megachurches are in just one country: South Korea.

The largest of them all, Yoido Full Gospel Church, sits opposite the national assembly in Seoul, an astute piece of political positioning. It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

Not that you will lack entertainment whilst you wait. The massed choir (one of 12) is already belting out hymns, backed by a large orchestra (one of three). The audience sings along, with huge television screens supplying the words, karaoke style. Pictures of the service are beamed to hundreds of satellite churches around the world and to Prayer Mountain, a gruelling religious camp close to the border with the North. Translation is offered in English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Malay and Arabic.

By the standards of American preachers, Mr Cho is a relatively unflashy figure. With his glasses, tie and tidy red cassock, he looks like one of the more bureaucratic kinds of Asian politician. His tone is logical and unrelenting. His theme today is “Deliver us from the Evil One”.

Sin and Satan are omnipresent, he argues, but if you ignore their enticements, “your grave is already empty.” As he cites scripture, the passages appear on the big television screens. Mr Cho urges the liberation of North Korea and quotes Edward Gibbon. He then invites people to touch the part of their body that most needs healing. There are shouts of success. After he sits down, a young opera singer performs while the money is collected—by the sackful in gold and scarlet bags—and piled up in front of the pulpit.

The megachurches of Korea are not an exclusively Pentecostal phenomenon. Nonetheless, Prof. Kim Sung-Gun of Seowon University points out that nine out of fifteen of the largest mega-churches in the country – including Yoido Full Gospel Church – are charismatic or Pentecostal. Prof. Kim suggests that Pentecostalism is a creed well suited to South Korea. Its emphasis on the reality of spirits in the world taps into a tradition of shamanism that persists in Korean society. And teaching the prosperity gospel makes it well suited to a country that experienced some of the fastest economic modernisation the world has ever seen.

Unsurprisingly, the accumulation of so much power and wealth in a single church has not been without problems. Mr Chohas been hit by corruption scandals and thrown his weight around politically:

Yoido Church’s founder is rarely out of the news in South Korea. In March he sparked a storm of criticism by claiming the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was “God’s warning” to a country that follows “idol worship, atheism, and materialism”.

He is also too political for some. When President Lee’s government drew up plans to legislate for Islamic sukuk bonds in South Korea, Mr Cho argued that this would aid “terrorists”, and that the president was forgetting the vital role the Protestant lobby had in electing him. Following concerted efforts by Mr Cho and other South Korean church leaders, the government blinked first, and the plan was dropped.

The Yoido church highlights the paradox of contemporary Pentecostalism. It is a movement that arose among the disposed and whose rise was powered by tiny congregations meeting in houses or shop front churches. Now across much of the world it has become a force to be reckoned with. How the religion of the spirit copes with such material success will shape not only its own future but also that of Christianity as a whole.


P.S. You can read the Church’s English language website here