'Quo Vadis' challenges the mission of S. Korean churches

The South Korean director of the documentary 'Quo Vadis' questions the direction of his country's churches

As night falls in many South Korean cities, the sky glows a reddish orange from crosses sitting atop churches large and small. This country of 50 million has more than 58,000 churches — one for about every 860 people — and nearly a third of the population identifies as Christian.

On Dec. 10, the documentary "Quo Vadis" will begin casting a critical eye on some of the largest of these congregations — "mega-churches" with thousands of members, multimillion-dollar budgets and senior pastors who are feted like rock stars. The film, directed by Kim Jae-hwan, paints a picture of financial malfeasance and sexual abuse by those in control.

Given the film's portrait of powerful institutions with little outside oversight, Kim said, none of the major multiplex chains here have agreed to screen it, possibly fearful of church protests, and instead producers have been working with independent theaters. The film, in Korean with subtitles, will open in Los Angeles and New York in January.

Kim, a Christian, said South Korea's media have gone soft on the churches because of their significant political influence and financial clout. His goal: to spark what he calls an overdue debate on whether churches have lost their moral authority in a quest to accumulate more congregants and money.

"We need to seriously ask where our society is going and what these churches are really doing," said Kim, a well-known former television journalist who is best known for his 2011 documentary, "The True Taste Show," an expose of how major South Korean broadcast outlets took money from restaurateurs in exchange for flattering coverage.

One of the scenes in "Quo Vadis" includes a 2013 news conference in which elders from the Seoul-based Yoido Full Gospel Church, purported to be the largest Pentecostal church in the world, asked embattled senior pastor David Yonggi Cho to step down.

The elders accused Cho of using millions of dollars of church funds to buy stock in a company owned by his son. Despite the evidence against Cho, other Yoido elders argued that the allegations were baseless. Cho supporters who barged into the church gathering included one who reached for the throat of a speaker. A brawl ensued. As groups of suited men shoved one another and threw punches, journalists' cameras rolled.

A few months later, Cho was found guilty of tax evasion and professional negligence. He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined more than $4 million.

Kim's film isn't the first to shine a spotlight on allegations against South Korean congregations, but "Quo Vadis" (Latin for "Where are you going?") takes a weightier, more sweeping look.

"The other films about churches have focused on specific pastors or parishes and treated them as isolated cases," Kim said.

The film also includes the former leader of Samil Presbyterian Church, Chun Byoung-wook, who was accused of sexual abuse by at least eight female congregants. Chun was forced out of the church in 2010 after making a public apology, but he didn't face legal charges because the alleged victims didn't want to identify themselves publicly.

In another case documented in the film, SaRang Community Church spent nearly $200 million, much of it donated by congregants, to construct a building in one of Seoul's most expensive areas. The church was criticized in the media and by disillusioned churchgoers for spending such a large sum on an opulent building instead of assistance for the poor or another activity in line with its Christian teachings.

Some of Kim's friends worry that he's picked a fight that could endanger his safety; big churches have allegedly roughed up critics, as was the case at the Cho news conference.

"Everyone is telling me that I should be scared, that I should flee to another country," said Kim, who shot "Quo Vadis" with $270,000 of his own money.

In South Korea, documentaries generally don't draw big crowds. So despite the volatile subject, "Quo Vadis" uses humor to lighten the storytelling a bit to create a more entertaining — and marketable — product.

The film uses actors to re-create or stage some scenes, and one of the main characters is a pudgy, scruffy, ball cap-wearing Korean journalist named Michael More (played by Lee Jong-yoon), who, among other things, chases down pastors facing allegations of misusing church funds and sexually abusing young congregants. This Korean version of Michael Moore asks the ministers to comment on the allegations against them.

The encounters often end with More asking the pastor: "Aren't you ashamed?" or "Do you really believe in Jesus?"

The decision to employ the device of More was born out of necessity, Kim said: His requests for interviews with church leaders were denied. His best chance to talk with them was to wait outside the courthouses when hearings were scheduled.

The subject matter in "Quo Vadis" is fleshed out by talking heads, mostly professors, pastors and scholars of religion who describe South Korean churches as focused more on attracting congregants and donations than on any religious duty.

Kim stresses that there are South Korean churches that still do good work but that too many have lost their way and are in urgent need of reform.

A column in the Korea Times described the film as "a forceful reminder of the need for Korea's Christian leaders to worship God, not mammon."

Some critics featured in "Quo Vadis" argue that mega-churches' practice of hereditary succession — of church leaders passing control to their sons — should be banned. Others have called for ending churches' tax-exempt status and enacting measures to increase their financial transparency.

"The only way toward reform," Kim said, "is to express anger, to start a conversation."

Borowiec is a Times special correspondent.

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