J’s Story

During my time in Shincheonji, I actually felt super religious. After all, I was going to a religious thing 5 times a day, learning the Bible. Back then I could recite verses from memory. It makes you feel hyper-religious. When I did everything, I felt very connected to God. But ultimately, it was a completely works-based group.

– J, Shincheonji Auckland member

A friend brought me in under the guise of a simple “Bible study”. He invited me to meet with Scott who was leading a Bible study. We’d go to a restaurant or cafe for a drink or a meal, and then start talking about the Bible. Often he’d pull out the Bible and say: “Did you know this?” My friend would then say: “What? I didn’t know that!” And I would react the same way, because I genuinely didn’t know what was being taught. After a few more sessions like this, Scott said: “I’m actually starting this class, and I want to include others who have been asking the same questions.

He said we’d go to his flat. But then it turned out to be a classroom with tables.* Scott and two other helpers were there: three instructors in a class of 10 people. I later found out that 5 of these “students” were pretending, while 5 of us were new students who knew nothing. We just wanted to join a Bible study. At someone’s flat! Which is bizarre now that I think about it. But we just went along with it.

* Note: Since the pandemic, Shincheonji’s “center classes” are usually run over Zoom. Earlier “basic” studies still happen in various settings (in-person and online).

The classes started with one session a week, and eventually the classes increased to 2, then 3 times a week. Halfway through my classes, Scott left to start the Wellington branch. My new teacher was a guy called Mark. After a while, they began to say: “We’re part of something more, but we’ll reveal the truth when you’re ready.” They also told us to leave our churches, as they were false seeds, and not the true river.

Then one day, they told us to come to a special session, where we had to dress up nicely in a white shirt and a suit. They would reveal something there. When we came to that class, it turned out to be a big worship service where we “passed over”. There were a lot of people cheering. We bowed down to a screen of Lee Man-Hee. In my head, I thought: “Why am I doing this?” But it happened. And after this, they then told us, “Now you know that we’re part of this group called Shincheonji.”

Trying harder

After this ceremony, SCJ became “church” for me. The classes began to increase even more. There were sessions every day of the week. I would get told off because I had to work, and they would keep pressing me: “What are you going to focus on? Life or death? Or money?” They wanted me to abandon my family, abandon everything, and spend all my time with them. I started to miss shifts at work to be there five times a week. My studies took a dip as well. Most people would say: “Oh, he’s just really busy” or “Oh, he’s hanging out with his friend again.”

At this point too, they started to say I needed to “evangelise”. So then I’d start to give the names of my close friends. They ask you to give them as much detail as possible: physical descriptions, their relationships, what their weaknesses are, how well they knew their Bibles. They’d do this so we would know what to target.

By now, they pushed the idea that anything less than your best for working for Shincheonji was showing you were not a real believer. They prized works over faith. They would start giving tests to make sure you understood everything they taught. The tests would focus on making sure you understood the parables and their secret meanings. If you failed, they asked you to try harder.

It sounds crazy, and some of my friends still mock me for this! I don’t think I believed that Lee Man-Hee was the Word of God reincarnate (like they taught us by that time). But I did remember thinking that I could outlive this guy, and thinking: “I’d love to see where this goes.” I couldn’t see any harm in being there. But one day when asked to watch a catch-up session on video, I discovered their secret chat group on Telegram. On it was all this information on me, my friends and hundreds of other people.

Another time I saw in a room reserved for the top leaders, there’s a whiteboard with instructions such as: “We need to hit 10 members a year” (they divide countries into one of 12 “tribes”). I realised that it felt more like a pyramid scheme after awhile. They certainly don’t welcome everyone, as warm and fuzzy as they seem. If not, why do your doors have not one, but two locks in it to get in? Why is your location still a secret?

[If I could speak with my former instructors], I’d ask: “Do you still think it’s OK to lie?” They teach you it’s OK to lie, to lead a double life. One friend struggled to admit he was in SCJ. He would pretend he was applying for jobs while all the while still being in SCJ.

Even in a human sense, if you and I want to connect, if you want to share what you’re passionate about, why are you being so deceitful about it? We shouldn’t use secret and underhanded ways, we shouldn’t use deception to distort the Word of God.

Going home

One question that I never could get a proper answer to was about their view of the Trinity (they believe that Jesus is not God). It bothered me, but each time I asked them about it, they wouldn’t have an answer to why, for example, the Bible teaches that Jesus is God. It was so hard for the teachers that they sent me to a lady who was sent from Korea to talk to me. What she said was: “Even if what we are teaching is not true, it is better to stay and believe just in case you don’t get into Heaven.” I was shocked and decided to leave then. I passed my last “test”, and decided to go home.

That same night, another good friend had messaged me: “Hey, I haven’t seen you in awhile. Do you want to have dinner?”. Initially, I actually wanted to try and “reap” him. But that night, I told him everything. He was great – he asked me to take him to my house, and to show all my notes. So I did, and he helped me point by point show from the Bible how each teaching was actually not true.

On the night I left, SCJ members immediately tried to bring me back. “Leah” watched my house until midnight. She’d visit my workplace and plead with me to stay in SCJ. But I didn’t go back.

Advice for pastors

Pastors, could you please teach more from the Bible? Help us read it and understand it for ourselves. Help us to discuss it with others, give us a space to ask questions. Help us too to engage with God’s Word more meaningfully, more than just listening to a sermon. That’s what SCJ provided: a dedicated space to talk about God’s Word. And if you’ve not previously been knowledgeable about the Bible, being in such an intense learning environment, you do start to feel: “Oh, maybe I am intelligent after all” – even though it’s not being intellectual in any substantive way.

A big reason why people join groups like SCJ is because they’re searching for meaning, relationships and community. And these were the things that SCJ seemed so good at providing. When you first “passed over” (became a member), people would be hugging you, they cheered you on as you joined. It’s such a warm fuzzy feeling. When I chatted with other members, they often shared how much they appreciate the community aspect [of SCJ]. I think of my friend who’s still in. I never thought he’d get involved in something like SCJ – he was quite an introvert. But it turns out he really cared about having a community.

Life after Shincheonji

Keeping my faith in Jesus after leaving has been so hard. During my time in Shincheonji, I actually felt super religious. After all, I was going to a religious thing 5 times a day, learning the Bible. Back then I could recite verses from memory. It makes you feel hyper-religious. When I did everything, I felt very connected to God. But ultimately, it was a completely works-based group. Anything less than your best for working for SCJ was showing you were not a genuine believer.

I think looking back at this and other past struggles in my family and relationships, I’ve come to treasure the truth that God keeps each of his children (“the perseverance of the saints”). God will never let me be, despite how sinful I get. Why do I still believe in Jesus? Ultimately, because God wouldn’t let me leave Him.

Please be kind when you talk to people like us. A lot of former members will feel stupid, ashamed and so on. My pastor always speaks to me kindly about my experience. I hope people can see SCJ for what it is. But I hope people can also see the gospel for what it is too. It’s not all this fluff of working, donating, slaving. It’s God’s grace through Jesus for eternal hope and security. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. All the Scriptures point to Him.

Closing thoughts

I’m surprised who has left Shincheonji [since I did]. Some were often the most well-versed people. But I’ve also realised that those staying in SCJ are more afraid of what will happen if they leave, than truly believing in what they say and teach. The group preys on your feelings of fear.

If you’ve left and struggle to trust God or His Word, I’d ask this: isn’t it great that you were able to leave? But you didn’t leave SCJ because of yourself. There’s no way most of us are smart enough to break out of a group like this. I’m not an amazing person because I was so skeptical about SCJ, or that I was able to resist. I couldn’t have done it on my own. God had to intervene.

If you’re still skeptical, there’s a reason why you’re skeptical. It’s because God designed your mind this way. It’s because He surrounded you with friends who’ve told you the truth. All of this is the grace of God. I couldn’t have gotten out without it. I know that atheism might be the easier path to take after an experience like SCJ. But I hope you’ll see that’s not what God wants for you.

J’s story

We're grateful to J* for sharing his story. If you have any questions about his experience or would like to share your story, please contact us.
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