Nestled in the Han River in the middle of South Korea’s bustling capital of Seoul, Yeoui Island is hardly where one would expect to find the largest mega-church in the world. Home to the city’s business and financial district, its skyline dotted with skyscrapers, the island boasts some of the country’s most powerful institutions, such as the Korean stock exchange and the headquarters of LG, the international conglomerate.
Yet amid all the dynamic economic activity sits a large complex of buildings comprising the Yoido Full Gospel Church which is adjacent to the National Assembly and draws upwards of 200,000 worshipers to services each Sunday. Affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Yoido is a Pentecostalist and Evangelical congregation that was founded in 1958 by Pastor David Yonggi Cho in his mother-in-law’s apartment. It grew swiftly, and its main sanctuary can now seat 12,000 people, with overflow crowds directed to neighboring buildings where they can watch a live-feed of the service on giant video screens. All told, its membership throughout Korea numbers over half a million people.
For the past decade, Pastor Young Hoon Lee has presided over Yoido, serving as its senior pastor. Aged 63, Lee is a charismatic figure with firm convictions and impressive educational credentials. In addition to two master’s degrees in theology from Korean and US seminaries, he holds a PhD in religion and philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia. In an exclusive interview with the Magazine in a conference room at his office, Lee explained whyIsrael has a special place in the hearts of his congregants.
Pastor Young Hoon Lee, we are sitting here in Seoul, more than 8,000 kilometers away from Jerusalem. Why is Israel important to Korean Christians?
Although it is located on the other side of the globe from Korea, Israel is important for Korean Christians. It is where God’s revelation took place. It is the land of the Bible. Most of all, Israel is where Jesus was born and lived. This is why Korean Christians, just like any other Christians in the world, are very much interested in Israel. Psalm 122:6 says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure.” In keeping with this command, Korean Christians pray for the peace of Israel and Jerusalem.
When and how did you personally develop a “heart for Israel”?
My “heart for Israel” has always been a result of my love of the Bible, which I started to develop from the very early years of my life. To me, Israel has never been “another” foreign country in the world, because it is the land of the Bible. I think all Bible-believing Christians have a special place in their hearts for Israel. My theological studies and pastoral experiences have also deepened and broadened my interest in Israel.
How do other Korean Christians who don’t necessarily support Israel view those who do?
That is rarely discussed in Korean churches. Many Korean Christians pray for the peace of Israel. But you do not have to have a certain political standpoint to pray. We are biblically and spiritually motivated to pray for your country and partisanship or international politics has little to do with our prayer life. Korean Christians have never turned prayer for Israel into a reason for political conflicts. We will continue to hope and pray for the peace of Israel without worrying about diverse political perspectives among us.
Does the fact that many Korean Christians love Israel and pray for her well-being affect the South Korean government’s policies toward the Jewish state?
The Korean government understands that Korean Christians have contributed much to the development of this country in many different ways including foreign relationships. So, there is this Christian factor, although I think it is tricky to quantify this kind of impact. But I know that Korean Christians will continue to pray for Israel and the Korean government will carry forward many policies beneficial for both countries.
Israel and South Korea share some interesting historical circumstances. Both our nations regained sovereignty in 1948, have hostile neighbors and few natural resources, yet have emerged as technological powerhouses despite the adversity they faced. Do you think Koreans have greater sympathy for Israel because of these similarities?
Yes. That is another connection between our countries in addition to the Christian factor. It is very interesting when you compare those historical circumstances we have in common! We survived and we prospered against all odds. I believe God’s special favor is on both countries along with our God-given mission for the whole world. Israel was chosen for the glory of God. And I believe God chose Korea as a missional country.
You recently visited Israel for the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast in June to mark the Jewish state’s 70th anniversary. As a religious Christian, how do you feel when you visit the Land of the Bible?
It has been on my prayer list over the years to visit Israel. So I felt greatly blessed to finally have an opportunity to visit the Holy Land. I also was very grateful that God had me preach in the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast. I thank God, and I want to thank all the people who worked hard to make that trip possible. Every moment I spent in Israel was precious and unforgettable.
What theological and historical significance do you attribute to the rebirth of the Jewish state and the return of the Jewish people to their Land?
70 years has a special meaning in the Bible. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE; 70 years later, captives returned safely to Jerusalem from their Babylonian captivity.
It was done by the grace of God.
Theologian Karl Barth considered the foundation of modern Israel to be one of the visible traces of God’s providence in history. I agree with Barth. The rebirth of the Jewish state in 1948 was a miracle of God. There is no question about that. And return of a people to their original land after 2,000 years of Diaspora history? I believe it testifies that God is the sovereign Lord over history who keeps His promises. So the country of Israel has not only historical significance. It has revelatory and theological value.
Over the past year, North and South Korea have gone from the brink of conflict to a new round of diplomacy. Many in the West are skeptical about Pyongyang’s intentions, given the brutal nature of its regime. What do you think the future holds for relations with North Korea?
At this time last year, the North Korean crisis was at its highest point. The North Korean leader has appalled the whole world with his nuclear program and brutal oppression against his own people. The South Korean government closed off the Kaesong Industrial Complex and had Korean business people pull back from the northern city. The US-North Korean tension was riddled with verbal threats exchanged between the two leaders.
After many talks between the relevant parties, however, the imminent prospect for war, at least, has gone. Now, how do I see this situation? I myself am from a family that gave up all its wealth to escape the tyranny of the Communist North Korea and found freedom of faith in the South. So I fully understand the skepticism and worries about Pyongyang. But human despair is the starting point of God’s hope. I just rely on the hope God gives us.
Among its many human rights violations, the North Korean government has prohibited its citizens from owning Bibles and has arrested and imprisoned foreign pastors for promoting religion. Do you think the international community is doing enough to pressure the regime of Kim Jong-un on matters of personal freedom?
I regret that all the international efforts have not yet stopped North Korea from violating the human rights of its own people and their foreign visitors. We are especially appalled by the horrible persecutions against Christians there. Apparently, neither stick nor carrot has changed the brutal nature of the regime. However, I firmly believe that one day God will open the door to North Korea. So we do not despair by the current difficulties. Neither are we deceived by false hope. We pray hard and we work hard to bring peace and freedom to North Korea.
Do you believe that the reunification of the Korean Peninsula is something that will happen in your lifetime?
The Bible says in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that there is a time of God for everything (Eccl. 3:1). I believe there is God’s time for unification of South and North Korea, although we do not know when it will be. I feel it is not far from now. But there is no point in guessing further than that. I just pray that God’s time will come and God’s will be done in Korean peninsula. I just know that when the time comes, God will heal the wounds and bring peace to this country.
Your church is reportedly the largest one in the world. How many members do you have?
Yoido Full Gospel Church began with five members in 1958 and became the world’s largest church. At the highest point, we had about 780,000 members. In 2010, when we decided to have our 20 regional chapels with 330,000 members operate independently, our membership decreased to 450,000. Since then, there has been another wave of revival and as of 2018, we have about 560,000 members.
In many Western countries, the younger generation seems less attached to traditional values and beliefs, and many religious institutions – Jewish and Christian alike – are finding it difficult to attract young people. Is the same true in Korea?
According to the 2015 Population and Housing Census issued by the Korean National Statistical Office, the total number of Korean Christians is 13,570,000, which accounts for about 28% of the whole Korean population. When we focus on the younger generation, however, there is much less of a Christian population. So the answer is yes. Korea is not an exception in this global secularism. We, as the messenger of the gospel of God’s love, are doing our utmost to invite younger generations to the love of God.
South Korea has undergone rapid industrialization and modernization over the past few decades and is now the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 11th largest in the world. What challenges does prosperity pose to a society?
The Korean economy is an exceptionally great success story. However, it also has left many problems we are struggling to solve. For instance, rapid economic growth has created materialism and broadened the social chasm. Korean churches have been fighting this spiritual barrenness and the decay of community spirit. The solution Yoido Full Gospel Church presents is the model of the early churches recorded in the Book of Acts. The fullness of the Holy Spirit and the act of love overcame selfishness and class conflict. Evangelism and charity are the only solution to Korea’s social problems.
Israel and the Jewish people are preparing to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new Jewish year. Is there any message that you would like to send them on this occasion?
On behalf of Korean Christians and the members of Yoido Full Gospel Church, I wish God’s grace and peace be upon Israel and all the Jewish people around the world in this new year. Shalom and Happy Rosh Hashanah!
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post