| Prayer: the Key to Revival
Presented at the World Prayer Assembly on May 17 by Dr. Younghoon Lee, Pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, Seoul, South Korea
Protestant Christianity in Korea has rapidly developed in a short time—about one hundred thirty years—to claim 25% of Protestant population, which amounts to twelve million people. Korea has the largest percentage of a Protestant Christian population among all the nations of the Asian mainland. It thus deserves to be called one of the most successful Protestant mission fields in the world.
Furthermore, many churches in Korea are currently the largest in their individual denominations in the world. For instance, Myungsung Presbyterian Church has approximately ninety thousand members. Kwanglim Church, a Korean Methodist church, accommodates around seventy thousand believers. Suwon Central Baptist Church holds forty thousand Christians.
And Yoido Full Gospel Church—referred to as YFGC hereafter—which belongs to the Pentecostal denomination, is the world’s largest church with seven hundred eighty thousand members as of May, 2008, when the transition in the church’s leadership occurred. From that time on, [Pastor Cho’s] “disciple churches”—or 19 satellite churches—had become independent from our church with 360,000 church members, and their full independence was granted to them in January 2011. During the past three and a half years the church has welcome approximately 50,000 new comers, so the current membership of our church reaches 470,000. In sum, our church and the “disciple churches” altogether have more than 830,000 members now. For this reason, a numerous number of pastors and scholars in church growth and missiology are analyzing and studying the various aspects of the Korean church, particularly YFGC’s rapid growth.
Though there are a variety of spiritual, historical, cultural, social and economic factors for such a tremendous revival, one of the most prominent elements is the spirituality of prayer. Prayer has always preceded any true revivals in church history. A revival is unceasing as long as prayer remains constant.
One of the most suitable examples for rising of revival through prayer and spreading of the prayer movement through revival is the Korean church and YFGC. Through my presentation, I would like to state that the revival of the Korean church had been originated from the prayer movement first, and then introduce YFGC’s prayer movement in more detail.
2. The Prayer Movement of Korea’s Early Evangelization Period (1885-1909)
From its beginning period of evangelization, the Korean church had experienced the strong power of prayer on the basis of the word of God. Even before the first Western Protestant missionaries came to Korea in 1885, many parts of the Scripture had been translated into Korean by some Koreans and missionaries who had lived in China and Japan.1 When the missionaries came to Korea, they thus brought the Korean Bible. As the word of God was deeply rooted from the beginning, fervent prayer movements took place in the Korean church. The embers of the fire caused at Wonsan, a northern Korean city, in 1903 and the great revival movement, which started in earnest at Pyungyang in 1907, were not only the Pentecostal Holy Spirit movement but also a strong prayer movement.2
Missionary Robert A. Hardie who ministered in Kangwon province did not bear fruit in terms of the number of converts even though he put in a lot of work and dedication. He attended a prayer meeting mainly with Methodist missionaries at Wonsan in 1903 because of the visit of a missionary to China whose name was Ms. M.C. White. He prepared a sermon about prayer for this meeting. In reading and preaching Luke 11:13—“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”—he was inspired powerfully by the Holy Spirit. When he testified of his own experience, the missionaries who had gathered there started praying and afterwards they also experienced the work of the Holy Spirit. This Wonsan revival movement was the spark of the great 1907 Pyongyang revival.
At the beginning of 1907, the prayer movement was accompanied by much repentance, which centrally arose from the Jangdaehyun church in Pyongyang. Revival meetings were supposed to be held as Bible exposition sessions for 10 days. However, there was a powerful evangelical meeting every evening. According to the missionaries’ reports, powerful works of the Holy Spirit occurred in these evening meetings. While leading an evening prayer meeting on January 14th, Graham Lee asked those 1,500 who attended this meeting to pray loudly together, and they started praying loudly. Then people shed tears, and prayers of repentance arose here and there. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and divine healing, then took place powerfully within that place.
The revival movement accompanied by the prayer of repentance expanded across the entire region of Korea. It followed with the movements against alcohol and smoking. Believers prayed with tears and were deeply moved all night long and the works of repentance with contrition occurred ceaselessly among them. No one could prevent the fire of the Holy Spirit and it spread beyond the boundary of the church and over into schools, finally many cities, and further into other countries including China and Japan.
1 Kyungbae Min, Korean Church History, New edition (Seoule: Yonsei University Press, 1993), 149.
2 On the great revivals in Wonsan and Pyungyang see Young-hoon Lee, The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea: Its Historical and Theological Development (Oxford: Regnum, 2009), 24-34.
3 On the great revivals in Wonsan and Pyungyang see Young-hoon Lee, The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea: Its Historical and Theological Development (Oxford: Regnum, 2009), 24-34.
3. The Prayer Movement During the Nation’s Period of Suffering (1910-1953)
Korea had suffered from the brutal Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. During this period the Korean church was also severely oppressed. The secret to overcoming these dark and painful times for Koreans and the Korean church could be found only in the prayers of Korean Christians. Pastor Sunju Gil, who played a pivotal role in the 1907 Pyongyang great revival, and many other spiritual leaders provided hope through powerful prayer movements for the nation and people who fell in times of extreme distress. Early prayer meetings and targeted prayer movements were stressed by him and contributed greatly to the revival of the Korean Church.4 They also become the original source of the Korean church’s spirituality that the world church longs to learn from the Korean church.
Even after her liberation from the severe Japanese Imperial occupation, Korea had to undergo an enormous tragedy: that is, the Korean War, which broke out in 1950. Even in this time the Korean church participated in the nation’s suffering and comforted the people through prayer and perseverance. By prayer, the church provided a source of renewal and comfort.
4 Younghoon Lee, The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea, 36.
4. The Prayer Movement During the Period of Revival of Yoido Full Gospel Church and the Korean Church (1954-2000)
4.1. Re-igniting the Fire of Prayer
On the close of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula had emerged as a heap of ashes. From that time, YFGC and Rev. Yonggi Cho played the primary role to lead the prayer movement and the Holy Spirit movement. 5
Rev. Sunjoo Gil had led the overnight prayer gatherings in the period of the Japanese colonial rule. However, around the time when Rev. Yonggi Cho built up a tent church with his five family members at Daejo-dong, an outskirt area of Seoul in 1958, most of the Korean churches did not practice the overnight prayer sessions.
As Rev. Cho relocated the church to Seodaemoon region, a downtown area of Seoul, in 1963, and held the Friday overnight prayer services, many sick people were healed by the Holy Spirit, and the great revival occurred in the church. Church members prayed all night long for the fullness of the Holy Spirit, divine healing, resolution of personal problems, and church growth.
Accordingly, YFGC’s overnight prayer worship services became a location in which a lot of Korean believers beyond their denominations gathered together, prayed fervently, and experienced God’s grace. Due to the church’s Friday overnight prayer meetings, many Korean churches came to recognize the importance of fervent prayer once again. As a result, many churches began to recover the tradition of the Friday overnight prayer sessions from late 1970s.
In addition, Rev. Jasil Choi, a coworker of Rev. Yonggi Cho, restarted the fast prayer movement that had begun as the fruit of the great revival of Pyungyang but had been forgotten for a significant period among the Korean churches. She also established the “Osan-ri Fast-Prayer Mountain,” and made a great contribution to reigniting the fast prayer movement in both Korean and world churches. Even after moving to current Yoido area in 1973, YFGC continued to carry out the Holy Spirit movement and prayer ministry so that the explosive growth of the church went on. In addition, even since the transition in the church’s leadership in 2008, YFGC has placed priority to the prayer movement and continued to be revived by prayer sessions.
5 Younghoon Lee, The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea, 92-117; Younghoon Lee, “The Life and Ministry of David Yonggi Cho and the Yoido Full Gospel Church,” in Wonsuk Ma et al. ed., David Yonggi Cho: A Close Look at His Theology and Ministry (Baguio City and Goonpo: APTS Press and Hansei University Press, 2004), 3-24.
4.2. Earnest and Fervent Prayer with Loud Voices
Many people who attend the worship services and prayer sessions are surprised at the loud sounds of prayer. Because all church members cry out their requests in unison to the Lord, the church is filled with the loud sounds of prayer. People start their prayer by shouting, “Lord! Lord! Lord!” Such a prayer custom spreads through the prayer movement of YFGC all around the country.
The reason for which people pray aloud is that they pray with earnest hearts. Sometimes, church members pray so loudly that it may be difficult to go to the next step of the service. In that case, the presider of the worship requests that the congregation to stop praying by ringing a bell. Praying aloud in unison, which has been widespread through YFGC, has become a characteristic feature that shows the spirituality of prayer of the Korean church.
4.3. Prayer of Faith with Absolute Positivity
In YFGC, prayer is neither a form nor a ceremony. It is not a vague or implicit religious ritual. Rev. Yonggi Cho and YFGC have taught practical and clear thoughts about prayer since the church’s beginning fifty-four years ago. In other words, prayer is a decisive element to receive the salvation and blessing that our good God gives through the cross of Jesus Christ. Therefore, members of YFGC pray with obvious prayer requests and not with indefinite prayer requests. They also pray with the faith of absolute positivity that if they believe and pray, they will be answered.
YFGC often practices the “targeted prayer sessions” which can be held personally, or in groups such as cells or mission groups. A “targeted prayer session” is to set a designated period of time for prayer—for instance, for one week, for twenty-one days (we call this “Daniel Prayer”), for one month, for one hundred days or so)—and pray for a clear pray request like healing or solving any problems. It is difficult to do such a targeted prayer without concreteness and conviction. That YFGC’s members execute many kinds of “targeted prayer” shows that they pray with the strong belief in God’s answer and with the faith of absolute positivity.
Church revival cannot be attained by forceful coercion or by cultivating a sense of obligation. When more members in a church meet the living God who answers their prayer of faith, it will enter into revival. Therefore, I would like to reemphasize that prayer is the key to revival.
4.4. Cell Group, the Community of Prayer
A numerous number of people want to learn about the well-organized cell system of YFGC. They seemingly assume that the secret to the church growth lies in the cell system. However, just as Rev. Yonggi Cho has made every effort to emphasize whenever possible including church growth seminars, those who want to learn the cell system of YFGC for church growth should learn the power of prayer first.
It is true that the cell system of YFGC played a great role for church revival. However, the reason for which it has performed such a role is that the cell structure is the community of prayer. Many cell leaders and section leaders have prayed together for their members’ problems and experienced the answer of prayer. Cells and the church have kept growing because all the cell members in a cell gathered together every day at the home of a member in need, prayed together for three days or for a week and experienced the answer from God. Furthermore, some cells or sections have bought or rented a space for their own “prayer place” in their local area, and gathered everyday for prayer or worship service. Once in a month, our church members go to Osanri Prayer Mountain by the districts that they belong to. They have revival prayer meetings there so that they may keep the fire of prayer on. Our church has grown so swiftly through cells because they are not the communities of social gatherings, but those of spiritual prayer.
4.5. Church Devoted to Prayer
All worship services in YFGC have a set time for the whole congregation to pray with a loud voice. After the sermon, the whole congregation always prays earnestly with a loud voice for a minimum of 15 minutes and a maximum of 30 minutes. Specifically, the service on Wednesday and the night service on Friday are conducted with the main emphasis on prayer. In those services, all pastors of YFGC sincerely pray for the worshippers by laying their hands on the heads of the congregants.
The church also has three early-morning prayer meetings every day at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. all year round, and overnight services every night. In these services, the time of praying with crying out becomes longer. The first session of an overnight prayer meeting service begins at 11 p.m. on the weekdays, and the assigned time of praying aloud is almost one hour. Soon after closing the first session at 1 a.m., the second session of the service as a prayer meeting starts with the listed prayer requests for three hours until 4 a.m.
When a new year begins, all congregants come together for a special early morning prayer meeting for twelve days: we call this special designated prayer period “twelve-basket special prayer session.” In summer time, various departments of the church hold retreats for three nights and four days at the prayer mountain. All these events are designed to urge the church members to focus on the prayer activity which is an essential part of the church ministry.
4.6. A Leader who Becomes an Example of Prayer
The capability of a spiritual leader is in proportion to his/her devotion to prayer. If the leaders of YFGC continue to emphasize the life of prayer to the laity but are behind the laity in the spirituality of the prayer, it will be difficult to maintain the spiritual order of the church, let alone the revival of the church. Rev. Yonggi Cho before his retirement strongly encouraged the congregants to pray for more than an hour a day, while urging the pastors to pray for more than two hours. In particular, he prayed for about three hours before any revival meetings abroad.
I myself believe that it is one of the most important goals of my ministry to inherit this spirituality of prayer. Although I carry out various kinds of schedules from early morning till late night, I usually get up at around 3 a.m., and come to my office before 4:30 a.m. The reason for this is that I am able to have more time to pray without any disturbances during such an early time period. Coming to the office at dawn every day can sometimes make me tired. However, the more I pray, the more invigorated I am. Martin Luther said, “I cannot help praying because I am too busy.” The busier a pastor is, the more he/she must pray.
What I emphasize most to the pastors of YFGC is prayer. If you do not pray, you cannot do the work of God. Especially, the pastors in the position of important leadership in the church and I go to the prayer mountain every Saturday, and pray individually for two hours in an individual prayer compartment. Only after finishing the prayer, we have a discussion session on the important matters of the church. If you want to plan a revival, you should make a prayer plan first. Without praying earnestly for a long time, neither the revival of the church, nor the change of the individual can happen. In particular, spiritual leaders should be an example of prayer.
5. Praying and Serving—Expecting a New Revival
The 21st century is the “century of change.” The changing world demands the church to take care of many people who are alienated in this world. The church in the 21st century should thus be the community which is sharing and serving with a humble attitude. YFGC is actively practicing such works as relieving the homeless, supporting people in lower socio-economic status, helping people in North Korea through the establishment of “Cho Yonggi Heart Hospital,” and worldwide relief works through the “Good People,” an NGO. Making all the efforts for those relief works with a humble and serving spirit is the vision that I received from God, while praying for the direction of the YFGC’s future ministry. The church in the Acts of Apostles was the church practicing the relief for the world with the devotion of praying and proclaiming the word of God. Above all, all pastoral visions should be received through prayer, and be conducted through the power of prayer.
No matter how much the pastoral environment changes, the truth that never changes is that a church should receive the empowerment through praying and relying on the Lord. Even if the world may change swiftly, the key to revival is always in praying. Therefore, YFGC in the 21st century endeavors to be the church praying more.
The revival of the Korean church and YFGC is the revival accomplished by praying. However, this cannot be a characteristic of the Korean church and YFGC alone. Prayer is the characteristic of all the authentic revivals. All revivals are prepared and maintained by earnest prayer. It is not because YFGC has employed a special method or skill, but only because it has devoted itself in praying that the church has experienced a remarkable revival. For a church to pray is just to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus, who himself set an example of praying from early dawn, or through a whole night. Moreover, for a church to make efforts for praying is to succeed to the spirituality of the one hundred twenty disciples who received the Holy Spirit by praying with their whole heart on the Pentecost day.
In my opinion, the most serious problem of today’s Christians is that they do not pray. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, devoted himself in praying throughout his life. If the Son of God prayed so earnestly to carry out his ministry on the earth, we should strive to pray much more with our might. Praying is the indispensable factor for the revival of the church. If anyone—or any church—devotes oneself to praying, he/she will come to experience the same revival with that of the early church, and that of YFGC.
“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30).
6 According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus always prayed before the important things: for example, at the time of baptizing (Luke 4:21), at the time of choosing the twelve disciples (Luke 6;12-13), at the time before Peter’s confession of faith (9:18), at the time before climbing up the transfiguration mountain (9:28-29), at the time just before teaching Lord’s prayer (11:1), at the time of facing with Peter’s disownment(22:31-32), on the Mount of Gethsemane (22:40), and on the cross (22:34, 46).
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