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Gordon-Conwell's World Christian Database Featured in Economist Magazine: Escalators to Heaven

January 9, 2018

The following appeared in The Economist. This article does not necessarily represent the views of Gordon-Conwell, but was cited as part of the conversation and subject matter.

Escalators to Heaven

Evangelicalism is spreading among the Chinese of South-East Asia

Devotees are “too blessed to be stressed”

When Pastor Jimmy Parade took over at the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church in Bandung, on the island of Java, five years ago, around 180 people came to services each week. Now the church—in a nondescript building in an outdoor shopping complex—is packed with around 450 each Sunday. “People keep coming,” Mr Parade shrugs.

Some 1,000 miles away, up several sets of escalators at a shopping mall in Singapore, thousands of people take part in a two-hour service on a Saturday evening at the City Harvest Church, which has a weekly attendance of just under 16,000. The service involves a rock group leading the congregation in devotional songs, several instances of speaking in tongues, and testimony from Emily, a young Singaporean who converted her father to Christianity. “My Dad has become a much happier man,” she declares, to huge applause.

Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity is growing more quickly in Asia than most parts of the world, with over 200m adherents in 2015, up from 17m in 1970. The largest congregations are in South Korea and the Philippines, where dazzlingly large mega-churches hold tens of thousands of people. But Christian zeal is also increasing in other parts of the continent, including Indonesia and Malaysia, where proselytising among the Muslim majority is well nigh impossible, but where Buddhists, Confucians and Christians of other denominations, almost all of them ethnically Chinese, are proving receptive.

In Singapore, which is sandwiched between Indonesia and Malaysia but is mainly Chinese, evangelicalism first took off in the 1980s, recalls Terence Chong of the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, a think-tank. Mega-churches began springing up in the early 1990s. These grew quickly, despite the fact that the Singaporean government is wary of proselytisers potentially stirring up religious tensions. Evangelicals, including many Pentecostals, made up 8% of the population in 2015, up from 2% in 1970.

Evangelical churches are flourishing in Malaysia and Indonesia in even less promising circumstances. Roughly a tenth of the population of both countries is Christian, but bureaucrats make life difficult for churches, largely for fear that they will attempt to convert members of the Muslim majority. Over 1,000 churches were closed in Indonesia between 2006 and 2014, says Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group.

Mr Parade’s church is in an outdoor shopping complex because it doesn’t need a licence to operate there, and getting one elsewhere is difficult. In Malaysia, meanwhile, it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, even though the constitution theoretically enshrines freedom of religion. Malaysia also has Islamic police to make sure Muslims do not marry adherents of other religions or deviate in other ways. Yet even in this forbidding setting, the proportion of the population that is evangelical has grown rapidly (see chart).

The growth of evangelical churches in the three countries also shows how they are “increasingly connected”, says Max Jeganathan of the Zacharias Trust, a Christian organisation based in Britain. Christians across the region support each other financially, he says; several churches in Singapore have helped “plant” others in Malaysia or elsewhere. City Harvest declares that it provides training and “spiritual oversight” to locals keen to start their own churches. It now has over three dozen affiliated churches abroad.

Most evangelicals see the growth of their churches as God’s work. But it also seems to have an aspirational element to it. “It is the de facto middle-class religion right now,” says Mr Chong. According to a study he conducted in 2013, over 50% of mega-church-goers had a university degree, a higher proportion than Christians of other sorts. That was in spite of the fact that mega-church Christians were more likely to have lived in public housing and to come from working-class backgrounds. They were also more likely to speak Chinese and to come from families which were not previously Christian.

Many of South-East Asia’s megachurches preach an American-style “prosperity gospel”: although there is lots of talk of charity and good works, wealth is celebrated as a gift from God. At City Harvest one preacher tells the story of a businessman who attended the church—and donated generously to it—whose sales went up by 40% in a year and whose profits doubled. Presentation is often slick: at the New Creation Church, another mega-church in a mall in Singapore, first-time visitors are given a pop-up book telling the story of the venue. The 30,000 worshippers there have to book online on a Wednesday to reserve a seat for the Sunday service.

Friendly ushers and peppy slogans (“too blessed to be stressed”) make the churches appealingly accessible. They are also good spots for making business connections. Churches in Singapore are places where people network with those they trust, says Thomas Harvey of the Oxford Centre of Mission Studies, a British charity. The feeling is that “these are people we know, these are people of integrity, character, education,” he says.

Integrity, alas, is sometimes lacking. In 2015 Kong Hee, the founder of City Harvest Church, and five other church leaders were found guilty of misappropriating S$50m ($37m) in church funds, partly to fund the music career of Mr Kong’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun. (The devotional element of the song “China Wine”, in the video for which a scantily clad Ms Ho “grinds it up” with assorted rappers, is hard to fathom.) In 2009 a well-publicised spat broke out at the Calvary Church in Kuala Lumpur, with congregants demanding more transparency over church funds. At other churches pastors have been accused of accumulating unseemly riches.

This has hurt some churches. At City Harvest the congregation is around a third smaller than it used to be, estimates Sam, a 36-year-old interior designer who has been going to the church for 15 years. But on the whole churches have been able to “isolate incidents”, says Mr Chong, putting the blame on the individual rather than the whole church or community. “With enough prayer,” the argument goes, he says, “the Church will be able to right itself.” And if not, there are plenty of competitors to take in disenchanted members of another flock.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "Escalators to heaven"