Inheritance full of remorse
Many years ago when I graduated from my high school, I was cajoled by one of my friends into attending a church.
It was Christmas Day when I first went to Chunghyun Church, one of the major Presbyterian churches in the city and located at that time in Euljiro, Jung-gu, Seoul. I was fascinated by the beautiful gospel songs sung by the choir, which was accompanied by live organ playing. The music sounded celestial and touched me.
I came to regularly attend the church, largely attracted by the music that gracefully echoed throughout the church hall. It was like I could feel the presence of God in the songs even though I was not a Christian with a firm belief in God.
I was a skeptical believer with many doubts about the contents of the Bible. I couldn’t believe many parts of the sermons given by pastors either.
The founder of the church was Pastor Kim Chang-in who was respected by church followers. Still, his preaching was not persuasive enough for me to become an ardent Christian. Of course, I didn’t study the Bible much. I just liked listening to gospel songs sung by choirs.
And I eventually became a member of a choir which toured hospital beds to sing and pray for patients at the National Medical Center which was nearby the church. It was a rewarding experience to visit patients and offer them a bit of solace.
However, I was very disinterested in what the pastor preached on Sundays although he was a respectable pastor. And at some point, I began to dislike his sermons. That was because he started to encourage his followers to make greater donations for the construction of a new church in southern Seoul.
To me, his preaching did not convey God’s words but instead put pressure on followers to give more “heongeum” or donations. He never ended his preaching without asking followers to take part in the holy campaign of building a mega-church in an affluent neighborhood in southern Seoul.
Although I was not a devout Christian in the first place, the pastor’s call for greater donations was the key reason why I stopped attending the church after going there for about two years.
Despite my point of view, his call for more money for the construction of what he called a holy house appealed to the worshipers and he later succeeded in building the nation’s first mega-church in the rich Gangnam district.
Since Chunghyun Church moved to Gangnam, it has seen the number of followers skyrocket, becoming the nation’s largest church that, at one point, had tens of thousands of registered followers.
Kim was the pioneer for building mega-churches in southern Seoul, and other pastors copied his actions later. His pursuit of quantitative growth worked for some period. But this didn’t last long.
Kim bequeathed his kingdom to his son through irregular methods. He is the nation’s first pastor who gave managerial control of a mega-church to his son, establishing a precedent for other pastors to transfer control of their churches to their offspring.
In Korea, mega-churches are now run like conglomerates controlled by founding family members. Little different from family-controlled chaebol or conglomerates, the founding pastors of mega-churches are bent on handing over managerial control to their offspring.
What top Chaebol, religious leaders and North Korea’s Kim family have in common are legacies of wealth, power and influence.
With most mega-churches built with donations from followers, the true owners are the congregations, not the pastors. Pastors always preach that a church is a house of God, which cannot or must not be transacted or left as inheritance for mundane purposes.
Last week, Pastor Kim, 95, wept and repented for his sin. In a video clip made public, he confessed that handing over the control of Chunghyun Church to his son was the “biggest misconduct” he has ever committed. Kim condemned his son Kim Sung-kwan, 70, and demanded he step down from the top pastor post in the church.
Kim and his son have been embroiled in embarrassing feuds over control of the church for years, forcing tens of thousands of followers who were tired of the family infighting to stop attending the church.
All these troubles facing the church stemmed from Kim’s greed. Korean pastors’ drive for quantitative expansion and their attempts to bequeath their kingdoms to their offspring ― prevalent among many other senior pastors of big churches ― should be stopped.
Kim’s repentance came too late. It’s so sad to see a once respected pastor fall from grace. Many Korean pastors are engaged in the race for quantitative growth. But just as the 95-year-old pastor wept and regretted his actions, they will also end up wiping away tears of shame.