David (Paul) Yonggi Cho (1936-2021) was a Korean Assemblies of God (AG) pastor, evangelist, author, church planter, and international church growth pioneer. Starting from a small tent in an impoverished neighborhood outside Seoul, his congregation grew exponentially until it became the largest church in the world, with three quarters of a million members.
Cho was born into a Buddhist family in Pusan but found that the religion of his ancestors did not meet the need for peace, joy, and love within him. When war came to Korea during his teenage years, money and food were so scarce that only one small meal a day was common. In 1953, the malnutrition and unsanitary conditions led to an enlarged heart, and tuberculosis invaded his lungs. Sent home to die at the age of 17, Cho’s father prayed to Buddha, but the young man had little confidence in his father’s prayers, having never seen them answered.
A young woman came to visit the Cho home one day and asked to tell the dying teen about Jesus. Cho ordered her out of the house, but she returned for several days each day praying for him, despite his cursing and intimidation. On the fifth day, Cho began to cry and said that he wanted to know this Jesus that brought her to his home. She left her Bible with him and instructed him to read the story of Jesus in the New Testament gospels. In his weakened state, he walked to an American mission and responded to the call to accept Christ.
His family renounced him as an “unholy Christian dog,” but an American missionary, Louis Richards, took him into his home and began to disciple the dying man and encouraged him to look to Jesus for healing. One night in prayer, Cho had a vision of Christ that overwhelmed him with love for the God of his new faith, and this love bubbled up through his mouth and he began to speak in another language. This frightened him until the missionary explained that this phenomenon was biblical and many others had also experienced “speaking in tongues.” While there were still effects in his body from weakness, the doctor soon noted that his lungs no longer showed signs of tuberculosis and his heart was returned to its normal size.
Cho enrolled in the Full Gospel Bible School in 1954, and in 1958 he and his future mother-in-law, Jashil Choi, put up a tent in a war-torn, poverty-stricken area outside of Seoul. There were no seats, only straw mats strewn on the ground, but Choi began to pray and Cho began to preach. On Sunday morning, he would go to the top of the hill and cry out over the rooftops, “It’s time for church, Come to church!”
The people responded. In three years, the church needed to move to a 1,500-seat auditorium in the Sodaemun area. The growth happened so quickly and the work of the ministry so exhausting, that the young pastor experienced a breakdown in 1964 while trying to juggle the demands of multiple services a day. Realizing he could not manage the ministry alone, he adopted Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18 and divided the membership into geographical districts and assigned workers as pastors over these flocks. By 1982, there were 12 districts, each divided into 10 to 17 sections, with 157 full-time ministers over these “cell groups.”
In 1968, the church purchased property in Osanri, 45 minutes north of Seoul, for a church cemetery. However, it quickly became a place of life rather than death. Sister Choi, the associate pastor, began making nightly trips to Osanri to pray. From that time, more and more joined her until “Prayer Mountain” became a place of prayer for thousands, eventually containing hundreds of “prayer caves” to provide for secluded times of intense praying.
In the Sept. 7, 1969, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel, Cordas C. Burnett, president of Bethany Bible College (Santa Cruz, California), reported on his trip to Seoul to participate in the groundbreaking of a new 10,000-seat church building in the Yoido area. Burnett spoke for the church during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter of 1969. He reported preaching for 27 services in that week to approximately 65,000 people. “Although we soon lost count, we know of at least 500 who were converted and 600 who were filled with the Holy Spirit, not to mention the hundreds who testified of being healed.”
Fluent in English, Japanese, and Korean, Cho broadcast sermons on radio and television and soon became internationally known. The church’s welfare programs, senior living centers, vocational training, and financial help for medically needy people brought political influence and great respect throughout South Korea. Reports from 1981 showed the church growing at a rate of 10,000 people per month. Of that number seven out of 10 were accompanied to church by their neighborhood cell group leader.
Cho had significant influence worldwide. He taught that prayer, lay-led small groups, biblical teaching, and evangelism are essential for spiritual and numerical growth. As chairman of the World AG Fellowship from 1992 to 2000, Cho encouraged AG national superintendents to believe God for vision that would see millions converted, Spirit-filled, and living a life of overcoming victory.
Upon Cho’s retirement in 2008, Yoido Full Gospel Church’s membership approached 1,000,000 members with almost 700 pastors. The sickly young man who cursed at the visiting female evangelist had written more than 100 books on the Christian faith and left an indelible mark upon the entire Korean nation and on the broader Pentecostal movement.
Read Cordas Burnett’s report, “We Saw Revival in Seoul, Korea” on page 8 of the Sept. 7, 1969, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Homes for Men in the Stars” by Raymond Cox
• “One Half Inch from Death” by David Atherto