SHIN-CHEON-JI ONLY came under extensive scrutiny when it abetted the spread of COVID-19, but the religious group was already familiar to many Koreans. Its proselytizers have penetrated society and even our own school. Many have been baffled or enraged at the sect’s popularity and refusal to comply with local governments and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Unbeknownst to most, Shin-cheon-ji has been applying creative tactics of proselytization to maintain its numbers, burgeoning into a social problem.
Lee Man-hee, the Last Messiah
Shin-cheon-ji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, usually shortened to just Shin-cheon-ji, was founded by Lee Man-hee. Lee himself had previously been involved in two radical Christian groups, where both their leaders prophesied the Final Judgment—and obviously failed in their predictions*. Jilted and disillusioned, Lee set out to create a sect of his own and founded Shin-cheon-ji on March 14, 1984.
“Shin-cheon-ji” in a literal sense means “new heaven and earth,” or a “new church and holy land” according to a biblical interpretation**. Like many other cults worldwide, it focuses on the Book of Revelations, claiming that the present is synonymous with the Second Coming. “God will end the religious world as it has been,” said Lee in an interview with The Dong-A Ilbo on Shin-cheon-ji’s 35th anniversary last September. “He promised to end the corrupt religious world and create a new nation and people to herald a new era. It means through [the new nation and people] he will unite all nations and be with us forever.”
Although Shin-cheon-ji has many unconventional interpretations of the Bible, the sect is known for two major doctrines. First, the church purports that each era has its designated savior; for instance, to be saved in the era of Moses, one must be a follower of Moses. In the current era, the savior is Lee himself. Mainstream Korean Christians consider Shin-cheon-ji heretical since despite its claims to worship Jesus Christ, fundamentally it worships the messiah of the era, Lee Man-hee. The second doctrine—a concept researchers suspect Lee borrowed from Jehovah’s Witness—is that if 144,000 names are written on the Book of Life (the church register), each person on the list will become one with a holy martyr, achieving a unification between god and human while reincarnating the body. Then those devout 144,000 will obtain physical immortality, and as per Revelations 20:4, “[reign] with Christ a thousand years.” Belief in this physical immortality is powerful among Shin-cheon-ji members. If one of the 144,000 dies, the church justifies it as a flaw in its adherents’ faith and not in its beliefs***.
The obvious flaw in this system is Lee’s own mortality, as he is now 88 years old. Former Shin-cheon-ji members recall that although the church has hinted that Lee might die, adherents have largely been dismissing the notion as ridiculous. Cult and heretics reporters have predicted that Shin-cheon-ji might break into smaller factions, while Shin-cheon-ji-focused counseling centers expressed fears in Sai-pan that mass suicides might follow the purported messiah’s death. However, in an interview with the Annals, former Shin-cheon-ji member Kim Choong-il thought differently. “There has been no case in which a cult dissipates due to the death of its leader,” Kim argued. “Although Shin-cheon-ji might split into smaller factions, its adherents are more likely to accept some justification the church provides and keep practicing their faith.” He now works as a counselor at the Gojan Heretics Counseling Center as a counselor who works to persuade Shin-cheon-ji adherents out of the sect by discussing the Bible and refuting Shin-cheon-ji tenets.
An Evolving Seduction
Shin-cheon-ji started as a small group of ten people including Lee but has grown to become the most significant fringe religious sect in Korea, both in terms of size and wealth. As of March 2020, Shin-cheon-ji proclaimed on its YouTube channel that it has 245,605 followers. This figure has not included about 60,000 potential members in training*****. According to Christian Broadcasting System (CBS) statistics, it had an estimated ₩25 billion in real estate and ₩50 billion in other forms of wealth.
The sect has also seeped into Yonsei: in 2013 when the president of the Yonsei Christian Student Union (Wonju campus) was decried and dismissed for being a Shin-cheon-ji member, and in 2017 when Yonsei’s Office of the Chaplain released a list of clubs suspected for being involved in Shin-cheon-ji activities******. Its members can also be seen on campus today, attempting to talk to passerbys about Bible studies and surveys.
Shin-cheon-ji’s success largely comes from its continuously evolving proselytizing methods. In the 1980s, Shin-cheon-ji mostly advertised itself through pamphlets and lectures emphasizing the need to learn the Revelations, which boosted its members to about 1000. Then it started offering “Free Bible Theological Seminaries” that claimed to teach the Bible for all those of the Judeo-Christian faith, a popular conversion method among contemporary small sects. By the 2000s, mainstream Korean churches had spread warnings to its members that all such seminaries were run by heretics. Shin-cheon-ji—which now had approximately 10,000 members—thus began operating its seminaries underground in facilities without signs or under false names. Yet, the most successful method of proselytization was adopted in 2004, when the church invited a missionary from The Tribe of Peter to adopt his highly successful method of “sower proselytizing.” Sower proselytization had Shin-cheon-ji members infiltrate traditional churches, create bonds with members of that church, and suggest the possibility of their attending a “different church” instead. This method was so successful that by the end of the 2000s, Shin-cheon-ji boasted up to 60,000 members.
Shin-cheon-ji is also infamous for conducting fake surveys and providing counseling for potential converts*******. Using this information, proselytizers will provide their targets activities that cater to the latter’s specific interests even if they are not necessarily religious. Many of these are group activities such as volunteering, hiking, soccer, and crafts. Lee Geum-jae, head of the Korean Catholic Organization Against Pseudo-Religions and a priest who has studied Shin-cheon-ji for the past decade, claims he has even observed Shin-cheon-ji members making lunch for a busy shop owner for six months, babysitting an elderly woman’s grandson for a whole year, or even providing youth counseling services. It is only after such painstaking plans and developing seemingly humanitarian bonds that proselytizers suggest that the answer to their targets’ problems can be found in the Bible. He also claims that as counseling centers help rehabilitate former Shin-cheon-ji adherents by refuting the flawed teachings of the church, Shin-cheon-ji has been perfecting its teachings in direct response to those criticisms*****.
A constant feature of their proselytization is that the “sowers” and surveyors almost never mention Shin-cheon-ji to their targets until several months into the process of conversion. Elaborate plans of proselytization are reliant on the targets not knowing they are joining a questionable organization. Kim, however, did not think that Shin-cheon-ji would change their methods of proselytization. “Certainly their success rates will decrease,” he said, “but no cult is open about its identity—the alternative to secrecy—in converting new members. When Shin-cheon-ji members appear to be openly advertising their tenets, chances are that the event is intended to strengthen the beliefs of its internal members.”
Kim also told the Annals that seasonal sporting or peace events strengthen Shin-cheon-ji members’ beliefs as well. “This is a method adopted from the Unification Church. There are about six or so major events to which 50 to a 100,000 people come. The scale of those events make you think, ‘It’s impossible for all these people to be wrong.’ Being part of a large event like that where everyone is doing and shouting as one gives you a sense of catharsis.”
Shin-cheon-ji’s proselytization methods now cater to the wants of individuals. Whether one desires a community or is dissatisfied with their current religion, Shin-cheon-ji is eager to provide. Byun Sang-wook, a seasoned Shin-cheon-ji reporter, suspects that this personalized approach has been successful in converting younger populations as it provides them a sense of self-worth; about 1/3 of Shin-cheon-ji members are people in their 20s. Kim noted in his interview that other cults such as the Christian Gospel Mission—popularly known by its founder’s initials JMS—also have a large number of people in their 20s and 30s is not unusual. “The largest demographic in Shin-cheon-ji are middle-aged women,” he said. “The sect is exceptionally successful at converting those who are open to new friendly relationships or looking for a purpose in life. When you talk to Shin-cheon-ji members, they often say ‘I have found my purpose in life.’ So, there’s no more need for them to be pressured about their careers or future.”
Race to Physical Immortality
Even after all this, membership doesn’t come easily. New converts undergo a rigorous program of learning the Bible in small groups or one-to-one with a mentor; this process requires one to attend study sessions three hours a day and four days a week for six to eight months. After this, converts must score over 90% on an exam in order to become an official member. As Shin-cheon-ji has exceeded 144,000 in members, the converted become part of the “white masses” who then compete to become one of the future immortals.
Once a full member, the church requires extreme dedication to Shin-cheon-ji’s faith. Former members say they were given ID cards that they would use to check in for service; if they failed to show on Sunday, they were expected to make up for their absence over the week even if they are seriously ill. Shin-cheon-ji has a unique method of prayer, in which everyone kneels on the floor close to each other and shouts “Amen!” after each sentence the preacher utters. Wearing anything on one’s face during service, including masks and glasses, is considered heretical********. Such an environment makes people vulnerable to others’ saliva and sweat—an ideal environment for viruses to spread.
Shin-cheon-ji has been known to closely monitor converts and—with much success—make them devote themselves completely to the church. Their close monitoring is demonstrated in how Shin-cheon-ji limits dating among its members. According to a former Shin-cheon-ji member, it is unacceptable to keep any romantic relationship under wraps; after letting the church know, it was a rule that the couple must get married after six months of dating. Furthermore, members of different sexes must refer to their district head before having meals together and were not allowed to be together after 10 p.m. A former member said that when people crossed these rules, they were chastised for not devoting their energies towards the church and god and were sometimes threatened with expulsion from the church*********.
Once a member of the church, proselytization becomes the most important feature for Shin-cheon-ji adherents. CBS reports that the church ranks people according to how many they were able to successfully convert; the higher your rank, the better chance you had of being in the 144,000. Some Shin-cheon-ji districts demanded payment from those who were unsuccessful at proselytization, usually amounting to ₩1 million. “Even with the coronavirus, Shin-cheon-ji members consider it an obstacle by Satan to impede their proselytization,” said Kim. “That has always been their most common justification.”
Interviews with former Shin-cheon-ji members reveal that they have left families, schools, and jobs to work for the church. Shin-cheon-ji sometimes offered dormitories to such members working for them around the clock or to members who were threatened by severe discrimination from their families. Interviewees had also been pressured to make purchases that would benefit the church coffers or its members, everything from CDs about Shin-cheon-ji events and clothes to life and car insurance. Kim shared an incident in which his father threatened to stab him with a knife if he continued to be part of the cult. When Shin-cheon-ji members heard about it, they told him to be stabbed next time, as the injury could be used as a case of abuse through which Kim could become independent of his father and devote himself entirely to proselytization. Such practices had fueled the general negative opinion about Shin-cheon-ji even before COVID-19, prompting its adherents to lie about their involvement in the sect*********.
Reporter Byun claims that a significant number of adherents eventually become disillusioned with Shin-cheon-ji and leave once in their 30s. However, Shin-cheon-ji has still had a steady increase of at least 10,000 new adherents a year.
* * *
There are only a few preventative measures that can be taken to protect unsuspecting people from Shin-cheon-ji’s proselytization. One method that has been effective is staging one-person protests in front of Shin-cheon-ji facilities, informing potential converts about the true nature of their organization; most of these protesters are part of the Shin-cheon-ji-Harmed Families’ Union*******. Counseling centers and mainstream churches have hosted seminars to warn against those who support questionable interpretations of the Bible.
As a counselor, Kim advised people not to openly challenge acquaintances who they suspect of being Shin-cheon-ji. “Chances are Shin-cheon-ji has already educated them on how they will be challenged by others. The cult also has a manual and organization to prevent its adherents from attending counseling. It’s best to visit a counseling center yourself before trying to help, just to be aware of how Shin-cheon-ji might retaliate. Once adherents successfully attend counseling, almost everyone recognize the lies they’ve been told and leave the sect—that’s how clearly fraudulent Shin-cheon-ji’s teachings are.”
*Sai-pan: A YouTube channel begun by CBS reporters who specialize in studying and reporting on Korean cult related issues.
**The Dong-A Ilbo
***Shin-cheon-ji Church of Jesus Guri Counseling Center
******The Yonsei Chunchu
*********People who Have Fallen into Shin-cheon-ji, Baek Sang-hyun TV